“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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.






5 responses to “Celestial and Sexual: The Antipodes of Philosophy”

  1. Leslie Avatar

    I must see this film. Thanks once again Matt!

  2. faithljustice Avatar

    A very thoughtful review. I saw the film when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (the Library didn’t end that way and Synesius wasn’t a jerk), but that’s what artists do. I don’t go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography “Hypatia of Alexandria” by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

  3. Leland BeBee Avatar
    Leland BeBee

    How timely, Matt! Or, synchronistic?!

    Claire and I saw “Agora” last weekend and I was going to suggest you see it whenever you had the chance. Indeed, as you and others have noted, the screenplay of Agora takes considerable liberties with Hypatia’s biography and with Alexandria’s history. Will the real Hypatia please stand up? Probably not, unless someone can channel her. Will the real Alexandria of that moment please rise into view? No, not without a time-machiine, I fear. But, wait— Is there something in this movie that sounds in truth in a way more curious, more strange, more surprising than we might assume at first?

    Agora led me to a discomfiting realization few other films have —a realization well past mere skepticism about the details of a life or historical moment. I discovered a curious truth through reflecting on a lingering impression after I left the theatre. Here we are, great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment, grandchildren of the Industrial Revolution and the age of technology, children of a blossoming of liberal education, and peers one and all in the vast post-modern moment. Such wonders we are in this swirling space, this rush-about time. Here, in a twinkling, we can move from dissecting Plato’s Symposium one moment to deciding in mthe next whether to vote for a ten-year-old operatic prodigy or a glam-goth magiciian on America’s Got Talent. We can do that without thinking it odd at all, can’t we? We can, also, literally, choose to view just about anything known or capable of expression followed by just about anything else on the Internet — ANYTHING — ON THE INTERNET — in spite of the newness of this profound ability to access so very much, do we think that odd, either?

    Then a movie like Agora comes along and monkey-wrenches things up a bit. The writers and director exploited a nexus of personalities, place, and time that managed to reveal some utter strangeness in the midst of the seemingly familiar. The movie unsettled me, and at first I couldn’t really say why. That it unsettled me at all said something for this sometimes jaded post-modern whose exposure to the strange has been significant across 65 years. I’ve tried the strawmen: no, it wasn’t the neoplatonist female philosopher depicted as more fair and “Christian” than the Christians, themselves. No, it wasn’t the twisted love quadrangle of an older woman/athena and the three variously repressed/enslaved/entranced students trysting and twisting and turning. Those could be anytime/anywhere and, one readily imagines, are here/now out there/somewhere waiting in the vastness of the reachable in the digital sea.

    So, Ok. What made me discomfited by some unforeseen strangeness? — A number of moments, none the least of which was Hypatia’s “gift” to her suitor, as you describe above, Matt. That was a shocking event in this story, or any story, but the strangeness comes from Rachel Weiss’s/the director’s capturing of a tone with which we moderns, however “enlighted,” however “deconstructionistic” we are, cannot identify. She, Hypatia, Weiss produced the cloth, this bloody fabric so stained with “personal,” “private,” “intimate” matter — she brought it forth sooooo didactically — soooo temperately — soooo insouciantly. Was it out of character? No. It was so thoroughly within character that it was inconceivable for me to imagine it could otherwise have been done. More to the point, was it abnormal or alien behavior in that place/time? No, it was probably not outside the range of behaviors that occurred then, and that’s the revealing point — in that “ancient world,” that Roman Empire that we thought we knew and understood so very well, had we ever imagined anything like this? The big question is: Did we, do we, can we ever really understand that world? Although we thought we understood things like feeding the Christians to the lions, did we really? Or did we wrap the garment of our own time around even the most heinously extreme events of that time?

    Human consciousness, like human flesh, is caught in its miliieu, in the matrix of interactions of the social moment. Hypatia, like many historical figures, has been re-invented across the centuries since her death. She has been brought to life in the way of the day, for the moral of the moment, for this cause or that cause — because she is an attractive contradiction with enough known to provide a piece of ground to a writer/painter/movie-maker, but with enough unknown to be malleable for audiences of various cultural/temporal contexts. Most of Agora feels familiar in context and texture. Probably in every one of Hypatia’s prior reinventions the seeming historical fact of her gift is electrifying, offensive, disturbing, in its own right, even as it was in Agora. But the mode and manner of the delivery of the gift in Agora is the source of my discomfiture yet it is also a real “gift” of awareness — in that moment on film, and in a few others in Agora, one realizes how incredibly strange that seemingly familiar place/time really was. Do we suppose that anywhere on the Internet today we can see the video of an action like Hypatia’s done so dispassionately, but instuctionally? Perhaps some Zen master (mistress) somewhere has chosen a like theme?

    It was good that the movie created a springboard for your more elevated discussion. I apologize that I obliquely darted after another deer. I guess I am haunted by the ruins of past worlds and lives — challenged to project, or if access to the Akashic record is possible, to “remember,” or at least to catch a glimpse of what it was really like to be there — TO BE, THERE.


  4. Jessica Avatar

    How amazing human beings act when they are restrictive of mentally and spiritual growth.
    How do you think outside the box when you do not believe there is a box? Quite a lot of insight. I’m glad I saw it. Thank you for mentioning it.

  5. Robert McDermott Avatar
    Robert McDermott

    Dear Matthew,

    I have heard several references to your website but this is the first time I have reviewed it, or some of it. How fascinating and impressive. Congratulations
    on being so alive, thoughtful, insightful, accomplished, and promising.


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