Sunday, March 30, 2014

Agora

We dance round in a ring and suppose,But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
Robert Frost

This short but haunting verse kept creeping in my mind as I watched Agora. The story is set in 4th century Alexandria. That was the time when Christen hordes were sweeping into the predominantly pagan Egypt. And Christianity was trying to get a foothold.

In these discordant times there lived a mathematician and philosopher named Hypatia. Remember, those were the days when people believed that the earth is flat. Many thinkers had tried to explain the motion of the planets that they saw in the night sky (they called them - wanderers). But there were too many inconsistencies in each explanation. Some had suggested that the Earth might actually be a wanderer itself in a circular path around the Sun. But the thought that something as stable as the ground can move was widely considered hilarious. Plus there was the observation that the Sun gets smaller in winter and bigger in summer. How do you explain that with a circular orbit?


If I could just unravel this just a little bit more, and just get a little closer to the answer, then... Then I would go to my grave a happy woman.

Hypatia was not interested in religion. When ridiculed as a non-believer by a christen official, she plainly states that she believes in philosophy alone. She was not interested in men. She famously rejects one of her suitors by presenting him her menstrual rags. Indicating that not all is harmonious and beautiful about the human body. A fact often forgotten when you are sexually attracted to someone. We are not used to female characters who would rather talk philosophy than be interested in men (call me sexist). But it was played very convincingly by Rachel Weisz. And it was easy to take in once I realized that it is just a stupid stereotype like any other.

[Usual Disclaimer: Watch the movie if you can. Otherwise read on..]


Things come to a climactic finish when Hypatia realizes that the Earth is in fact moving in an elliptic orbit around the Sun (Agora). But by then, in a strategic move to grab absolute power, the Bishop of Alexandria has declared that Christianity prohibits any women for teaching or learning philosophy, of even talking in public. He declares Hypatia a witch, knowing that the prefect of Alexandria was in love with her. She is hunted and about to be tortured. But Davus (her erstwhile personal slave turned missionary) finds some kindness in him and gives her a quick death. The most he can do for her. Her greatest discovery dying a quick death along with her.

It is said that her death effectively put on end to the long tradition of logic, reason and analytic thinking in Alexandria (It took mankind 13 more centuries to rediscover the same fact when Johannes Kepler finally published the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century.) One quote from her sums it all.

Synesius, you don't question what you believe, or cannot. I must.
 [Photo courtesy: wikipedia.org, shawmovies.sg, il7ad.com]

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