Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xv

Nephelococcugia

Hypatia had always avoided carefully discussing with Philammon any of those points on which she differed from his former faith. She was content to let the divine light of philosophy penetrate by its own power, and educe its own conclusions. But one day, at the very time at which this history reopens, she was tempted to speak more openly to her pupil than she yet had done. Her father had introduced him, a few days before, to a new work of hers on Mathematics; and the delighted and adoring look with which the boy welcomed her, as he met her in the Museum Gardens, pardonably tempted her curiosity to inquire what miracles her own wisdom might have already worked. She stopped in her walk, and motioned her father to begin a conversation with Philammon.

‘Well!’ asked the old man, with an encouraging smile, ‘and how does our pupil like his new —’

‘You mean my conic sections, father? It is hardly fair to expect an unbiased answer in my presence.’

‘Why so?’ said Philammon. ‘Why should I not tell you, as well as all the world, the fresh and wonderful field of thought which they have opened to me in a few short hours?’

‘What then?’ asked Hypatia, smiling, as if she knew what the answer would be. ‘In what does my commentary differ from the original text of Apollonius, on which I have so faithfully based it?’

‘Oh, as much as a living body differs from a dead one. Instead of mere dry disquisitions on the properties of lines and curves, I found a mine of poetry and theology. Every dull mathematical formula seemed transfigured, as if by a miracle, into the symbol of some deep and noble principle of the unseen world.’

‘And do you think that he of Perga did not see as much? or that we can pretend to surpass, in depth of insight, the sages of the elder world? Be sure that they, like the poets, meant only spiritual things, even when they seem to talk only of physical ones, and concealed heaven under an earthly garb, only to hide it from the eyes of the profane; while we, in these degenerate days, must interpret and display each detail to the dull ears of men.’

‘Do you think, my young friend,’ asked Theon, ‘that mathematics can be valuable to the philosopher otherwise than as vehicles of spiritual truth? Are we to study numbers merely that we may be able to keep accounts; or as Pythagoras did, in order to deduce from their laws the ideas by which the universe, man, Divinity itself, consists?’

‘That seems to me certainly to be the nobler purpose.’

‘Or conic sections, that we may know better how to construct machinery; or rather to devise from them symbols of the relations of Deity to its various emanations?’

‘You use your dialectic like Socrates himself, my father,’ said Hypatia.

‘If I do, it is only for a temporary purpose. I should be sorry to accustom Philammon to suppose that the essence of philosophy was to be found in those minute investigations of words and analyses of notions, which seem to constitute Plato’s chief power in the eyes of those who, like the Christian sophist Augustine, worship his letter while they neglect his spirit; not seeing that those dialogues, which they fancy the shrine itself, are but vestibules —’

‘Say rather, veils, father.’

‘Veils, indeed, which were intended to baffle the rude gaze of the carnal-minded; but still vestibules, through which the enlightened soul might be led up to the inner sanctuary, to the Hesperid gardens and golden fruit of the Timaeus and the oracles. . . . And for myself, were but those two books left, I care not whether every other writing in the world perished to-morrow.’[Footnote: This astounding speech is usually attributed to Proclus, Hypatia’s ‘great’ successor.]

‘You must except Homer, father.’

‘Yes, for the herd. . . . But of what use would he be to them without some spiritual commentary?’

‘He would tell them as little, perhaps, as the circle tells to the carpenter who draws one with his compasses.’

‘And what is the meaning of the circle?’ asked Philammon.

‘It may have infinite meanings, like every other natural phenomenon; and deeper meanings in proportion to the exaltation of the soul which beholds it. But, consider, is it not, as the one perfect figure, the very symbol of the totality of the spiritual world; which, like it, is invisible, except at its circumference, where it is limited by the dead gross phenomena of sensuous matter! and even as the circle takes its origin from one centre, itself unseen — a point, as Euclid defines it, whereof neither parts nor magnitude can be predicated — does not the world of spirits revolve round one abysmal being, unseen and undefinable — in itself, as I have so often preached, nothing, for it is conceivable only by the negation of all properties, even of those of reason, virtue, force; and yet, like the centre of the circle, the cause of all other existences?’

‘I see,’ said Philammon; for the moment, certainly, the said abysmal Deity struck him as a somewhat chill and barren notion. . . . but that might be caused only by the dulness of his own spiritual perceptions. At all events, if it was a logical conclusion, it must be right.

‘Let that be enough for the present. Hereafter you may be — I fancy that I know you well enough to prophesy that you will be — able to recognise in the equilateral triangle inscribed within the circle, and touching it only with its angles, the three supra-sensual principles of existence, which are contained in Deity as it manifests itself in the physical universe, coinciding with its utmost limits, and yet, like it, dependent on that unseen central One which none dare name.’

‘Ah!’ said poor Philammon, blushing scarlet at the sense of his own dulness, ‘I am, indeed, not worthy to have such wisdom wasted upon my imperfect apprehension. . . . But, if I may dare to ask. . . . does not Apollonius regard the circle, like all other curves, as not depending primarily on its own centre for its existence, but as generated by the section of any cone by a plane at right angles to its axis?’

‘But must we not draw, or at least conceive a circle, in order to produce that cone? And is not the axis of that cone determined by the centre of that circle?’

Philammon stood rebuked.

‘Do not be ashamed; you have only, unwittingly, laid open another, and perhaps, as deep a symbol. Can you guess what it is?’

Philammon puzzled in vain.

‘Does it not show you this? That, as every conceivable right section of the cone discloses the circle, so in all which is fair and symmetric you will discover Deity, if you but analyse it in a right and symmetric direction?’

‘Beautiful!’ said Philammon, while the old man added —

‘And does it not show us, too, how the one perfect and original philosophy may be discovered in all great writers, if we have but that scientific knowledge which will enable us to extract it?’

‘True, my father: but just now, I wish Philammon, by such thoughts as I have suggested, to rise to that higher and more spiritual insight into nature, which reveals her to us as instinct throughout — all fair and noble forms of her at least — with Deity itself; to make him feel that it is not enough to say, with the Christians, that God has made the world, if we make that very assertion an excuse for believing that His presence has been ever since withdrawn from it.’

‘Christians, I think, would hardly say that,’ said Philammon.

‘Not in words. But, in fact, they regard Deity as the maker of a dead machine, which, once made, will move of itself thenceforth, and repudiate as heretics every philosophic thinker, whether Gnostic or Platonist, who, unsatisfied with so dead, barren, and sordid a conception of the glorious all, wishes to honour the Deity by acknowledging His universal presence, and to believe, honestly, the assertion of their own Scriptures, that He lives and moves, and has His being in the universe.’

Philammon gently suggested that the passage in question was worded somewhat differently in the Scripture.

‘True. But if the one be true, its converse will be true also. If the universe lives and moves, and has its being in Him, must He not necessarily pervade all things?’

‘Why? — Forgive my dulness, and explain.’

‘Because, if He did not pervade all things, those things which He did not pervade would be as it were interstices in His being, and in so far, without Him.’

‘True, but still they would be within His circumference.’

‘Well argued. But yet they would not live in Him, but in themselves. To live in Him they must be pervaded by His life. Do you think it possible — do you think it even reverent to affirm that there can be anything within the infinite glory of Deity which has the power of excluding from the space which it occupies that very being from which it draws its worth, and which must have originally pervaded that thing, in order to bestow on it its organisation and its life? Does He retire after creating, from the spaces which He occupied during creation, reduced to the base necessity of making room for His own universe, and endure the suffering — for the analogy of all material nature tells us that it is suffering — of a foreign body, like a thorn within the flesh, subsisting within His own substance? Rather believe that His wisdom and splendour, like a subtle and piercing fire, insinuates itself eternally with resistless force through every organised atom, and that were it withdrawn but for an instant from the petal of the meanest flower, gross matter, and the dead chaos from which it was formed, would be all which would remain of its loveliness. . . .

‘Yes’— she went on, after the method of her school, who preferred, like most decaying ones, harangues to dialectic, and synthesis to induction. . . . ‘Look at yon lotus-flower, rising like Aphrodite from the wave in which it has slept throughout the night, and saluting, with bending swan-neck, that sun which it will follow lovingly around the sky. Is there no more there than brute matter, pipes and fibres, colour and shape, and the meaningless life-in-death which men call vegetation? Those old Egyptian priests knew better, who could see in the number and the form of those ivory petals and golden stamina, in that mysterious daily birth out of the wave, in that nightly baptism, from which it rises each morning re-born to a new life, the signs of some divine idea, some mysterious law, common to the flower itself, to the white-robed priestess who held it in the temple rites, and to the goddess to whom they both were consecrated. . . . The flower of Isis!. . . . Ah! — well. Nature has her sad symbols, as well as her fair ones. And in proportion as a misguided nation has forgotten the worship of her to whom they owed their greatness, for novel and barbaric superstitions, so has her sacred flower grown rarer and more rare, till now — fit emblem of the worship over which it used to shed its perfume — it is only to be found in gardens such as these — a curiosity to the vulgar, and, to such as me, a lingering monument of wisdom and of glory past away.’

Philammon, it may be seen, was far advanced by this time; for he bore the allusions to Isis without the slightest shudder. Nay — he dared even to offer consolation to the beautiful mourner.

‘The philosopher,’ he said, ‘will hardly lament the loss of a mere outward idolatry. For if, as you seem to think, there were a root of spiritual truth in the symbolism of nature, that cannot die. And thus the lotus-flower must still retain its meaning, as long as its species exists on earth.’

‘Idolatry!’ answered she, with a smile. ‘My pupil must not repeat to me that worn-out Christian calumny. Into whatsoever low superstitions the pious vulgar may have fallen, it is the Christians now, and not the heathens, who are idolaters. They who ascribe miraculous power to dead men’s bones, who make temples of charnel-houses, and bow before the images of the meanest of mankind, have surely no right to accuse of idolatry the Greek or the Egyptian, who embodies in a form of symbolic beauty ideas beyond the reach of words!

‘Idolatry? Do I worship the Pharos when I gaze at it, as I do for hours, with loving awe, as the token to me of the all-conquering might of Hellas? Do I worship the roll on which Homer’s words are written, when I welcome with delight the celestial truths which it unfolds to me, and even prize and love the material book for the sake of the message which it brings? Do you fancy that any but the vulgar worship the image itself, or dream that it can help or hear them? Does the lover mistake his mistress’s picture for the living, speaking reality? We worship the idea of which the image is a symbol. Will you blame us because we use that symbol to represent the idea to our own affections and emotions instead of leaving it a barren notion, a vague imagination of our own intellect?’

‘Then,’ asked Philammon, with a faltering voice, yet unable to restrain his curiosity, ‘then you do reverence the heathen gods?’

Why Hypatia should have felt this question a sore one, puzzled Philammon; but she evidently did feel it as such, for she answered haughtily enough —

‘If Cyril had asked me that question, I should have disdained to answer. To you I will tell, that before I can answer your question you must learn what those whom you call heathen gods are. The vulgar, or rather those who find it their interest to calumniate the vulgar for the sake of confounding philosophers with them, may fancy them mere human beings, subject like man to the sufferings of pain and love, to the limitations of personality. We, on the other hand, have been taught by the primeval philosophers of Greece, by the priests of ancient Egypt, and the sages of Babylon, to recognise in them the universal powers of nature, those children of the all-quickening spirit, which are but various emanations of the one primeval unity — say rather, various phases of that unity, as it has been variously conceived, according to the differences of climate and race, by the wise of different nations. And thus, in our eyes, he who reverences the many, worships by that very act, with the highest and fullest adoration, the one of whose perfection they are the partial antitypes; perfect each in themselves, but each the image of only one of its perfections.’

‘Why, then,’ said Philammon, much relieved by this explanation, ‘do you so dislike Christianity? may it not be one of the many methods —’

‘Because,’ she answered, interrupting him impatiently, ‘because it denies itself to be one of those many methods, and stakes its existence on the denial; because it arrogates to itself the exclusive revelation of the Divine, and cannot see, in its self-conceit, that its own doctrines disprove that assumption by their similarity to those of all creeds. There is not a dogma of the Galileans which may not be found, under some form or other, in some of those very religions from which it pretends to disdain borrowing.’

‘Except,’ said Theon, ‘its exaltation of all which is human and low-born, illiterate, and levelling.’

‘Except that —. But look! here comes some one whom I cannot — do not choose to meet. Turn this way — quick!’

And Hypatia, turning pale as death, drew her father with unphilosophic haste down a side-walk.

‘Yes,’ she went on to herself, as soon as she had recovered her equanimity. ‘Were this Galilean superstition content to take its place humbly among the other “religiones licitas” of the empire, one might tolerate it well enough, as an anthropomorphic adumbration of divine things fitted for the base and toiling herd; perhaps peculiarly fitted, because peculiarly flattering to them. But now —’

‘There is Miriam again,’ said Philammon, ‘right before us!’

‘Miriam?’ asked Hypatia severely. ‘You know her then? How is that?’

‘She lodges at Eudaimon’s house, as I do,’ answered Philammon frankly. ‘Not that I ever interchanged, or wish to interchange, a word with so base a creature.’

‘Do not! I charge you!’ said Hypatia, almost imploringly. But there was now no way of avoiding her, and perforce Hypatia and her tormentress met face to face.

‘One word! one moment, beautiful lady,’ began the old woman, with a slavish obeisance. ‘Nay, do not push by so cruelly. I have — see what I have for you!’ and she held out with a mysterious air, ‘The Rainbow of Solomon.’

‘Ah! I knew you would stop a moment — not for the ring’s sake, of course, nor even for the sake of one who once offered it to you. — Ah! and where is he now? Dead of love, perhaps! at least, here is his last token to the fairest one, the cruel one. . . . Well, perhaps she is right. . . . To be an empress — an empress!. . . . Far finer than anything the poor Jew could have offered. . . . But still. . . . An empress need not be above hearing her subject’s petition. . . . ’

All this was uttered rapidly, and in a wheedling undertone, with a continual snaky writhing of her whole body, except her eye, which seemed, in the intense fixity of its glare, to act as a fulcrum for all her limbs; and from that eye, as long as it kept its mysterious hold, there was no escaping.

‘What do you mean? What have I to do with this ring?’ asked Hypatia, half frightened.

‘He who owned it once, offers it to you now. You recollect a little black agate — a paltry thing. . . . . If you have not thrown it away, as you most likely have, he wishes to redeem it with this opal. . . . a gem surely more fit for such a hand as that.’

‘He gave me the agate, and I shall keep it.’

‘But this opal — worth, oh, worth ten thousand gold pieces — in exchange for that paltry broken thing not worth one?’

‘I am not a dealer, like you, and have not yet learnt to value things by their money price. It that agate had been worth money, I would never have accepted it.’

‘Take the ring, take it, my darling,’ whispered Theon impatiently; ‘it will pay all our debts.’

‘Ah, that it will — pay them all,’ answered the old woman, who seemed to have mysteriously overheard him.

‘What! — my father! Would you, too, counsel me to be so mercenary? My good woman,’ she went on, turning to Miriam, ‘I cannot expect you to understand the reason of my refusal. You and I have a different standard of worth. But for the sake of the talisman engraven on that agate, if for no other reason, I cannot give it up.’

‘Ah! for the sake of the talisman! That is wise, now! That is noble! Like a philosopher! Oh, I will not say a word more. Let the beautiful prophetess keep the agate, and take the opal too; for see, there is a charm on it also! The name by which Solomon compelled the demons to do his bidding. Look! What might you not do now, if you knew how to use that! To have great glorious angels, with six wings each, bowing at your feet whensoever you called them, and saying, “Here am I, mistress; send me.” Only look at it!’

Hypatia took the tempting bait, and examined it with more curiosity than she would have wished to confess; while the old woman went on —

‘But the wise lady knows how to use the black agate, of course? Aben–Ezra told her that, did he not?’

Hypatia blushed somewhat; she was ashamed to confess that Aben–Ezra had not revealed the secret to her, probably not believing that there was any, and that the talisman had been to her only a curious plaything, of which she liked to believe one day that it might possibly have some occult virtue, and the next day to laugh at the notion as unphilosophical and barbaric; so she answered, rather severely, that her secrets were her own property.

‘Ah, then! she knows it all — the fortunate lady! And the talisman has told her whether Heraclian has lost or won Rome by this time, and whether she is to be the mother of a new dynasty of Ptolemies, or to die a virgin, which the Four Angels avert! And surely she has had the great demon come to her already, when she rubbed the flat side, has she not?’

‘Go, foolish woman! I am not like you, the dupe of childish superstitions.’

‘Childish superstitions! Ha! ha! ha!‘said the old woman, as she turned to go, with obeisances more lowly than ever. ‘And she has not seen the Angels yet!. . . . Ah well! perhaps some day, when she wants to know how to use the talisman, the beautiful lady will condescend to let the poor old Jewess show her the way.’

And Miriam disappeared down an alley, and plunged into the thickest shrubberies, while the three dreamers went on their way.

Little thought Hypatia that the moment the old woman had found herself alone, she had dashed herself down on the turf, rolling and biting at the leaves like an infuriated wild beast. . . . . ‘I will have it yet! I will have it, if I tear out her heart with it!’

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48