HYPATIA: THE LAST OF THE NEOPLATONISTS
THE fourth century was the turning point in the history of the Western world, the period in which Christianity took the form of a strong political organization. Throttling the old religions, sciences and philosophies, “the Church” arose as a temporal power upon their remains.
Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, was the son of the Roman Emperor Constantius and of Helena, the daughter of an inn-keeper. He was a pagan by birth, a devotee of the sun-god Apollo, whose altars Constantine covered with votive offerings, and whose image appeared on the coins of the emperor as his “companion and guardian.”
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, as the result of a psychic vision, is described by Eusebius, who was his close friend and companion as well as his famous biographer. On the night before his final battle with Maxentius, who had denounced him as a usurper to the throne, Constantine appealed to his own god for help. According to Eusebius,
While he was praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared in the heavens, the account of which, related by any other person, would be difficult of belief. But since the victorious Emperor himself declared it to the writer of this history, and confirmed his statement with an oath, who could hesitate to credit it? He said that when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a Cross of blazing light, with this inscription: “I. H. S. In this sign thou shalt conquer.” (Vita Constantin.)
On the following night Constantine had another psychic vision. This time the figure of Christ himself appeared, wearing the same cross that Constantine had seen the night before. Constantine declared that on this occasion Christ spoke to him, telling him to place this cross on his battle flag and to march against Maxentius with full assurance of victory. Constantine obeyed, and Maxentius was defeated. In adopting this symbol — henceforth placed upon the Imperial banner and carried at the head of the army in its conquest for Christ and the Church — Constantine added two more pagan symbols to Christianity. For the long lance crossed at right angles by a staff was the ancient sign of Osiris, and the letters I. H. S. one of the names of Bacchus.
Constantine celebrated his victory over Maxentius by the murder of the two sons of his adversary. This was followed in orderly succession by the murder of five members of Constantine’s own household and later by the murder of his own wife and son. Eventually these crimes began to weigh upon his conscience. Although he had been fighting under the banner of Christ for twenty years, he turned to the pagan religions for absolution. He was told that no pagan religion offered absolution for such crimes as his. He then turned to the Christian Church, and was informed thatChristian baptism would expiate any crime, irrespective of its magnitude. At the same time he was advised that baptism might he deferred to the day of his death without losing any of its efficacy. Thus, Eusebius relates that,
When he thought that he was near his death, he confessed his sins, desiring pardon for them from God, and was baptized. So that Constantine was the first of all the Emperors to be regenerated by the new birth of baptism, and signed with the sign of the Cross. (Vita Constantin.)
From the moment that Constantine realized that his crimes could be expiated by Christian baptism, he declared himself the protector of a religion which treats criminals with such lenience. Immediately he began to show his gratitude to the Church. He donated the Lateran Palace to the Bishops of Rome. He sent his mother Helena on a journey to Jerusalem and erected several basilicas in the Holy Land. Then he turned his attention to increasing the membership of the Church. He offered freedom to all slaves who would accept the Christian faith, and to those who were not slaves he offered a white robe and twenty pieces of gold. As a result of this propaganda, twelve thousand converts were added to Christianity in the city of Rome alone. Next, he determined to increase the wealth of the Church. He gave permission to his subjects to bequeath their fortunes to the Church. Soon the rent-roll from the houses, shops and gardens attached to three basilicas brought in an annual income of $60,000. He raised the Bishops’ salaries to $3,000 a year, and, in the Council of Nicea, assured the Bishops that if any of them were caught in the act of adultery the Imperial mantle would be thrown over them, so that the world at large might not learn of their offence. His next act was to issue an edict against all who refused to accept Christianity, commanding that their meeting places should be demolished or confiscated. According to his successor, the Emperor Julian,
Many were imprisoned and persecuted and driven into exile. Whole troops of those who were styled “heretics” were massacred. In many provinces, entire towns and villages were laid waste and utterly destroyed. (Julian: Epistol. lii.)
He then ordered the destruction of all writings adverse to the Christian faith. “For we would not suffer any of those things so much as to come to men’s ears which tend to provoke God to wrath and offend the minds of the pious.” And finally, in order to convince his subjects of his Christian piety,
Constantine caused his image to be engraven on his golden coins in the form of prayer, with his hands joined together, and looking up towards heaven. And over divers gates of his palace he was drawn praying and lifting up his hands and eyes to heaven. (Vita Constantin.)
The psychic vision of Constantine, which marked his conversion to Christianity, was the fore-runner of a great wave of psychism which engulfed the whole Christian world. The event marked the beginning of the “age of miracles,” characterized by relic-worship, which gradually gave way to necromancy and the worship of the dead. It is interesting to note that exactly fifteen hundred years later a similar psychic wave, known as Spiritualism, appeared in America.
While Constantine’s mother was in Jerusalem, the three crosses upon which Jesus and the two thieves were supposed to have been crucified “miraculously” came to light. Later the nails which were said to have attached Jesus to the cross were brought to Constantinople and formed into a crown of glory for Constantine’s statue. The skeletons of Mark and James were discovered in the same wonderful manner, and mysterious powers were attributed to them. Soon the worship of holy men’s bones was enlarged to include the worship of the lesser dead, and miracle-seeking Christians began to meet in cemeteries, where the shades of the dead were evoked and appeased with food and wine.
The culmination of the “age of miracles” was reached in the year 325 when, at the Council of Nicea, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were chosen by “miraculous intervention.” It must be remembered that as Jesus himself had left nothing in writing, there was no standard with which later records of his life and teaching might be compared. In the 300 years which had elapsed since his death, a large number of manuscripts had come to light, all claiming to be authentic. In regard to those which were extant in the third century, Faustus, the Manichean, had written:
Every one knows that the Evangeliums were written neither by Jesus Christ, nor his apostles, but long after their time by some unknown persons, who, judging well that they would hardly be believed when telling things they had not seen themselves, headed their narratives with the names of the Apostles or of disciples contemporaneous with the latter.
By the fourth century it became necessary for the Church to decide which of the many Gospels then in circulation were to be accepted as authentic. The question came up in the Council of Nicea. Fortunately the testimonies of two eye-witnesses have been preserved, so there can be little doubt as to the method used in the selection of the Gospels. There were 318 Bishops present in this Council, and one of the two eye-witnesses, Sabinus, Bishop of Heraclea, left a description of their mental capacities. “With the exception of the Emperor (Constantine)” he said, “and Eusebius Pamphilus, these Bishops were a set of illiterate, simple creatures who understood nothing.” About forty Gospels were submitted to these Bishops. As they differed widely in their contents, the decision was difficult. At last it was determined to resort to “miraculous intervention.” The method used was known as the Sortes Sanctorum, or “the holy casting of lots for purposes of divination.” Its use in the Council of Nicea was described by another eye-witness, Pappus, in his Synodicon to that Council. He says:
Having promiscuously put all the books referred to the Council for determination under a communion table in a church, they (the Bishops) besought the Lord that the inspired writings might get upon the table, while the spurious ones remained underneath. And it happened accordingly.
When the Bishops returned to the Council room on the following morning, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were resting on the communion table. Their presence in the New Testament is due to the art of divination, for practicing which the Church subsequently condemned men and women as sorcerers, enchanters and witches, and burned them by the thousands.
After the death of Constantine, his policy was continued by his two sons. Every indulgence was shown to the illegal behavior of the Christians, every doubt explained to the disadvantage of the pagans, and the further demolition of the pagan temples was celebrated as one of the auspicious events of their reign. Having perceived the efficacy of Christian baptism in the case of their own father, they determined to force baptism upon even the unwilling. As Gibbon says:
The rites of baptism were conferred on women and children, who, for that purpose, had been torn from the arms of their friends and parents. The mouths of the communicants were held open by a wooden engine, while the consecrated bread was forced down their throats. (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)
But when Constantine’s nephew, Julian, came to the throne, all of this was changed. Julian was a Neoplatonist, a pupil of Aedesius, who had in turn been taught by Iamblichus. Julian was initiated at Ephesus when he was only twenty years old, and later was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
When Julian came to power the whole Christian world was thrown into a state of perturbation. How would this Neoplatonist, this Initiate, act toward Christianity? Would he retaliate with some new and still more cruel refinement of death and torture? Julian answered these questions in a truly Christlike manner. He at once extended free and equal rights to all the inhabitants of the Empire, irrespective of their religious beliefs. He invited all those Christian Bishops who had been excommunicated and exiled on account of their unorthodox views, to return to their posts. At the same time he urged the pagan teachers who had been driven out of Alexandria by Constantine to return to their philosophical pursuits. He invited the opposing Christian factions to meet in his palace, where he advised them to give up their differences and try to live in concord. But at the same time he gave his pagan subjects permission to re-open their temples and continue their own form of worship. Because of this fair and impartial treatment of his subjects, Julian has come down in Christian history under the ignominious title of “the Apostate.”
The knowledge that Julian had gained in his initiations made him a menace to orthodox Christianity. He was urged to make his knowledge public so that the Christian Church could refute his statements. To this Julian replied:
Were I to touch upon the initiation into the Sacred Mysteries respecting the “seven-rayed God” . . . I should say things unknown to the rabble, very unknown, but well known to the Blessed Theurgists.
This reply aroused a storm of protest among his Christian subjects. Catholic history informs us that this “greatest enemy of Christianity,” after a reign of only eighteen months, came to an untimely end through the “supernatural intervention” of a spear-thrust received in battle with the soldiers of the Persian King Sapor. As he lay dying, Julian summed up in a few words the aim and purpose of his life. “I have learned from philosophy,” he said, “how much more excellent the soul is than the body, and that the separation of the nobler substance should be the subject of joy rather than of affliction.” Then, turning to the two philosophers, Priscus and Maximus, who stood near his death-bed, he entered into a metaphysical discussion as to the nature of the soul, and assured them that he had always tried to lead his own life from the soul point of view.
And I can affirm with confidence that the emanation of the Divine Power has been preserved in my hands pure and immaculate. Detesting the corrupt and destructive maxims of despotism, I have considered the happiness of the people as the end of government. (Ammianus: xxv.)
With the death of Julian the Christian Church regained its power, and the doom of the old religions, sciences and philosophies was sealed. The Church had borrowed too much from them for her own safety. Every event in the life of Jesus, from his virgin birth to his final crucifixion and resurrection, had been copied from the stories of the pagan gods. Every dogma and ritual in the Christian Church had its pagan counterpart. These facts were known to the entire pagan world and as the Church continued to borrow from the pagans in an ever-increasing measure, it became more and more difficult for her to maintain her claim of uniqueness. So long as pagan schools existed, the Church could not without contradiction represent herself as the sole repository of knowledge. So long as pagan books existed, the Bible would not be accepted as the only revelation of God. So long as pagan philosophers lived and taught, the dogmatic assertions of the Church Fathers would be questioned. There was but one course for the Church — to destroy all the evidences of her plagiarisms by wiping out the pagan schools, the pagan records, even the pagan philosophers themselves.
About fifteen years after the death of Julian, the most Christian Emperor Theodosius ascended the throne. An ardent Catholic and a man of great power, he immediately turned his attention to the destruction of everything that stood in the way of the triumph of the orthodox Church. He instituted the Inquisitors of the Faith and exiled all Christians who declined to accept the doctrine of the Trinity as it was outlined in the Council of Nicea. He issued fifteen edicts prohibiting the meeting of “heretical” or unorthodox Christians and confiscated their property. Capital punishment was inflicted upon those who adhered to the Manichean “heresy” as well as upon those Christians who continued to observe Easter upon the same day as the Jews. Finally, in his bloody massacre of Thessalonica, he caused the death of 15,000 persons whom he had treacherously invited to witness the games of the circus.
Having assumed his position of dictator among the Christians themselves, he then turned his attention to the “enemies of Christianity” outside the Church. He refused to allow his pagan subjects to worship in their own way and confiscated their temples for the use of the Christians. Among others, the Temple of the Celestial Virgin at Carthage, whose sacred precincts formed a circumference of two miles, was converted into a Christian Church. A similar “consecration” has preserved inviolate the majestic dome of the Pantheon at Rome. As Gibbon says:
In almost every province of the Roman world, an army of fanatics invaded the peaceful inhabitants; and the ruins of the fairest structures of antiquity still display the ravages of thosebarbarians who alone had time and inclination to execute such laborious destruction.
Theodosius’ next move was directed against the Mystery Schools, and he soon accomplished their destruction. But there was one great School which was still strong enough to resist his ruthless hand. That was the School of the Eleusinian Mysteries, located in the little hamlet of Eleusis, near Athens. But even it was doomed to destruction, and in the year 396 Alaric and his barbarians were led through the famous Pass of Thermopylae by the Christian monks — the “black shirts,” or the “men in black,” as they were called — and the vast Temple of Eleusis, one of the most famous buildings in the world, the outer court of which alone could hold 300,000 worshippers, was reduced to a mass of ruins. So perished the Mysteries of Greece.
Theodosius then turned his eyes toward Alexandria, which for centuries had been the cultural center of the world. The great Museum had already been put under the control of Catholic priests during the reign of Constantine, but the vast group of buildings known as the Serapeum was still in the hands of the pagans. At that time the magnificent Temple of Serapis was being used as a University where the old religions and sciences were taught. The Library of the Serapion still housed a vast collection of books which had been brought from the four corners of the earth, and which represented the intellectual labor of many centuries. Both of these repositories of pagan knowledge were serious obstacles in the path of the Church, and Theodosius determined that his reign would witness their destruction.
At that time the great philosopher, Olympius, whom Suidas describes as “a man of wonderful attainments, noble character and incredible eloquence,” was conducting classes in the Temple of Serapis. Crowds of students flocked to him, eager to be instructed in the philosophy of the ancients. The head of the Christian Church in the city was Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria. Gibbon has pictured him as “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood.” His character was so mercenary that he is said to have bribed the slaves of the Serapion to steal some of the books, which he sold to foreigners at exorbitant prices. During the process of demolition of an ancient Temple of Osiris which the Christians had confiscated to remodel into a Christian Church, certain pagan symbols were found, which Theophilus exhibited in the market-place as objects of derision.
The pagans naturally objected to this public desecration of their sacred symbols, and a riot ensued. With the assistance of the Imperial Governor and a large crowd of soldiers, Theophilus made an attack upon the pagans who, under the leadership of Olympius, had taken refuge in the Temple of Serapis. Unheard-of cruelties were perpetrated against the besieged. When the Emperor Theodosius learned of the affair he immediately sent a rescript for the total destruction of the place, and the Christians proceeded to carry out his orders. They sacked the Temple, broke the statue of Serapis in pieces, dragged it ignominiously through the streets of the city, and finally burned it. This was in the year 398. The building itself was reduced to a heap of rubbish, and later a Christian Church was erected upon its ruins in honor of the Christian “martyrs” who had suffered in the riot.
Next followed the destruction of the famous Serapion Library, every volume of which, according to popular tradition, was lost. But again, as in the burning of the Bruckion Library during the reign of Cleopatra, proper precautions had been taken to preserve these priceless manuscripts. From the moment that the Christians began to gain power in Alexandria these books were gradually withdrawn from the Serapion and hidden safe from Christian vandalism. There are Still many Copts scattered over Egypt and Asia Minor who declare that not a single volume was lost. In the neighborhood of Ishmonia, the “petrified city,” there are immense subterranean galleries in which numberless manuscripts are stored. Perhaps some future archaeologist may yet discover that Theodosius, after all, failed to accomplish his purpose.
With the destruction of the Mystery Schools and the Serapion two of the most serious obstacles in the path of the Christian Church were removed. But there still remained the third, and by far the most important obstacle — the Neoplatonic School. The “honor” of destroying this School belongs to Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, who in 412 had succeeded him in his high position of Bishop of Alexandria. Cyril is remembered in Christian history for having promoted the Virgin Mary from the Mother of Jesus to the Mother of God! He also introduced the image of Isis into the Christian Church under the name of Mary. These “Black Virgins” may still be seen in the Cathedral of Moulins, in the Chapel of the Virgin at Loretto, in the Church of St. Stephen at Genoa and in the Church of St. Francis at Pisa.
Cyril celebrated his rise to power by a series of oppressions, directed first against the Novitians and then against the Jews. Although the Jews had been welcomed in Alexandria since the very founding of the city, Cyril led a seditious multitude in an attack against their synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance. Their houses of prayer were levelled to the ground, all their goods plundered, and themselves driven from the city.
Cyril has come down in Christian history as one of the “Saints” of the Church, despite the well known fact that he was tried for stealing the gold and silver Church vessels and spending the money gained from their sale. But petty thievery has not earned for the name of Cyril of Alexandria its dark immortality in the annals of religious history. His real crime was much more serious — the crime of murder, deliberately perpetrated against one of the noblest characters in history: Hypatia, the last of the Neoplatonists.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a celebrated philosopher and mathematician, the author of a commentary on Euclid, in which his daughter is said to have assisted him. An only child, she showed deep interest in philosophy and mathematics from her early youth. Her father instructed her in these subjects with care and diligence, and she soon became one of his most brilliant pupils. Her writings, according to Suidas, included commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus of Alexandria, on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga, and on the Arithmetical Canon of Ptolemy, all of which are now lost.
While Hypatia was living in Athens she came in contact with the Neoplatonic Schools which had been founded by Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, and identified herself with the Neoplatonic Movement. Later, when she took up her residence in Alexandria, she began to hold lectures and classes in the famous Museum, where her eloquence and profound wisdom, her youth and extraordinary beauty soon attracted great crowds of students and admirers. She was admitted into the intimate circles of the great Alexandrian families, and numbered among her friends two of the most powerful men of the day: Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, and Synesius, the Bishop of Cyrene.
The Neoplatonic School reached its greatest heights in the days that immediately preceded its destruction. Hypatia brought Egypt nearer to an understanding of its ancient Mysteries than it had been for thousands of years. Her knowledge of Theurgy restored the practical value of the Mysteries and completed the work commenced by Iamblichus over a hundred years before. Following in the footsteps of Plotinus and Porphyry, she demonstrated the possibility of the union of the individual Self with the SELF of all. Continuing the work of Ammonius Saccas, she showed the similarity between all religions and the identity of their source.
The precarious foundations of Christian dogma were still more exposed when the Neoplatonic School began to adopt the inductive method of reasoning sponsored by Aristotle. Of all things on earth, logic and the reasonable explanation of things were most hateful to the new religion of mystery. When Hypatia explored the metaphysical allegories from which Christianity had borrowed its dogmas, and openly analyzed them in public meetings, she used a weapon which the Christians could meet only with violence. If her School had been allowed to continue the whole fraud perpetrated by the Church would have been laid bare. The light of Neoplatonism was shining much too brightly upon the patchwork of Christianity.
So, on an afternoon during Lent in the year 414, a crowd of Cyril’s monks led by Peter the Reader collected in front of the Museum, where Hypatia was just finishing one of her classes. Her chariot drew up to the door, and Hypatia appeared. A dark wave of monks, murder in their hearts, rushed out from their ambuscade, surged around Hypatia’s chariot and forced her to descend. They stripped her naked and dragged her into a nearby Church of God, pulling her body through the cool, dim shadows, lit by flickering candles and perfumed with incense, up the chancel steps to the very altar itself. Shaking herself free from her tormentors, she rose for one moment to her full height, snow-white against the dark horde of monks surrounding her. Her lips opened to speak, but no word came from them. For in that moment Peter the Reader struck her down, and the dark mass closed over her quivering flesh. Then they dragged her dead body into the streets, scraped the flesh from the bones with oyster shells, making a bonfire of what remained.
Thus Hypatia perished, and with her death the great Neoplatonic School came to an end. Some of the philosophers removed to Athens, but their School was closed by order of the Emperor Justinian. With the departure of the last seven philosophers of the great Neoplatonic Movement — Hermias, Priscianus, Diogenes, Eulalius, Damaskias, Simplicius and Isidorus, who fled to the Far East to escape the persecution of Justinian — the reign of wisdom closed.
The death of Hypatia occurred in the year 414. Exactly fifteen hundred years later, in 1914, the World War of the Christian nations began. Is there a connection between these two events? The death of Hypatia marked the beginning of the Dark Ages, in which the world was encompassed by the clouds of ignorance and superstition for a thousand years. We are now at a corresponding point in our cycle. Knowledge of what must be done to avoid the repetition of the horrors of the past rests with the theosophists of this era.
THE BRIGHT MILLENNIUM OF HISTORY
As real Occultism had been prevalent among the Mystics during the centuries that preceded our era, so Magic, or rather Sorcery, with its Occult Arts, followed the beginning of Christianity. However great and zealous the fanatical efforts, during those early centuries, to obliterate every trace of the mental and intellectual labour of the Pagans, it was a failure; but the same spirit of the dark demon of bigotry and intolerance has perverted systematically and ever since, every bright page written in the pre-Christian periods. Even in her uncertain records, history has preserved enough of that which has survived to throw an impartial light upon the whole. . . . Fragments have survived geological and political cataclysms to tell the story; and every survival shows evidence that the now Secret Wisdom was once the one fountain head, the ever-flowing perennial source, at which were fed all its streamlets — the later religions of all nations — from the first down to the last. This period, beginning with Buddha and Pythagoras at the one end and the Neo-Platonists and Gnostics at the other, is the only focus left in History wherein converge for the last time the bright rays of light streaming from the æons of time gone by, unobscured by the hand of bigotry and fanaticism.
–THE SECRET DOCTRINE.
THEOSOPHY, Vol. 25, No. 5, March, 1937