Celestial and Sexual: The Antipodes of Philosophy

First, do yourself a philosophical favor and watch the film “Agora” (2009).

Now that you’ve seen it, I’m not worried about playing spoiler. Ok, even if you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, it’s historical fiction, so just pretend I’m refreshing your memory concerning the social and spiritual upheaval in the 4th century CE that led to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom. The film is set in Alexandria and portrays the life of Hypatia, a neo-Platonic philosopher most famous for her astronomical work–and for being perhaps the first witch murdered by Christian converts.

Rumor has it she was as beautiful as she was brilliant. This put her male students in a rather awkward position. One of them, Orestes (who would later become prefect of the city), pronounced his love for Hypatia publicly, climbing on stage during the intermission of a drama to play a song on his flutes, which he gifts her upon concluding. She accepts, but later on in class, she offers him a present in return: a wadded handkerchief stained with menstrual blood.

She says, in effect, “You’re not in love with me, but with the idea of beauty reflected in your soul.” She goes on to remind her students of the corruptibility of earthly life and the eternal perfection of the heavens.

This got me thinking about an often unacknowledged link within the very heart of philosophy itself between the celestial and the sexual. The infinite stillness and pure identity of spirit tend to draw the philosopher toward the sky; but the sensual seduction of sweaty merger responsible for giving him or her life in the first place keeps the philosopher on the ground, where bodily senses restrict the vision of space and mortality strains the tie to eternity.

Hypatia is forced to admit later in the film that Ptolemy’s model of the solar system may be incorrect. She realizes that the planets may actually orbit the sun, and that these orbits must be elliptical, rather than perfectly circular. Whether or not this realization on her part is fictional or historical, we will never know, because her works were destroyed after the Christians burnt the library at Alexandria. But it leads her to question whether the universe even has a center. The social and political turmoil raging around her at the time was an indication that all really was ruled by chaos and disorder. The gods of old were failing, being replaced by Christ, whose message of love and charity seemed mostly lost on the “soldiers of Christ” who brutally murdered Hypatia in 415 CE.

I suppose this is the crux of it for the lover of wisdom: if human life is ruled by passion alone, reason is lost. But if it is ruled by reason alone, there is no longer any life to live. Might there be some hidden harmony between spirit and flesh? I believe there is, but this Great Balance is the hardest thing in or beyond the world to find. You might call it the heart, but don’t mistake my meaning for the physical organ. I am speaking of the Love which beats the heart, which bleeds into earthly life from beyond because it cannot bear to let us live and die alone.

This is why philosophy cannot find its way without some reconciling agent who brings heaven down to earth. I’m not sure if any Platonist has ever truly felt at home on this wandering planet. I suspect not. And I’ve no idea who the Christians depicted in this film believed they were killing for. I suspect that Christianity swept across Europe for reasons that are just now becoming conscious to us. Initially, the human psyche was thrown into a violent battle against itself, old against new, mother against father, father against son, brother against brother. Perhaps the dust will settle soon and the trinity will become holy once more.