1/31/07                                                                                       View Comments

Hypatia's Lover

Sent in by Philosopher D. R. Khashaba

I was born to devout Coptic (Egyptian Orthodox Christian) parents and was brought up as a good Christian boy. I was deeply impressed by the Sermon on the Mount, loved the beautiful imaginative scenario Luke weaved around the birth of Jesus, and reveled in the Gospel parables.

At about the age of fourteen I was repulsed by Abraham's willingness to slaughter his son. How could a father acquiesce in such a cruel command even if coming from God? Surely the revolt of Prometheus against Zeus was nobler and morally superior to the slavish submission of Abraham.

Soon after that I was rewarded at school (a school run by Catholic Franciscans) by a book of Apologetics. The book had on me an effect diametrically opposed to that intended by the priests who gave it to me. It revealed to me the inanity of all theistic arguments and the absurdity of all of the basic Church doctrines. I filled all the margins and all blank spaces in the book with criticisms.

It was around that time too that I found my way to the unbounded expanses of philosophic thinking and especially to the dialogues of Plato. From that time on I firmly embraced the Socratic position, that we are properly human only when we live by reason and that the whole of human worth and human dignity reside in an unfettered mind.

In my late teens I formed for myself a rounded philosophy and yearned to work out its details, put it down systematically, and publish it. But the circumstances of my life were severely unfavourable (I will not go into details here) and the dream of putting down my philosophy in writing remained for decades a hopeless dream.

It was only in my early sixties that my circumstances improved sufficiently to allow me to work through my scrambled and scattered notes and try to work them into some form of book. In 1998, when I was 71, my first book, Let Us Philosophize, was published, followed by "Plato: An Interpretation" in 2005, and in 2006 by "Socrates' Prison Journal", and recently by "Hypatia's Lover," a fictionalized account of the last days of the Alexandrian philosopher who was brutally murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD.

Permit me to end this note by reproducing an excerpt from this book, where Isis, a student of Hypatia's, argues with Hotep, her colleague and estranged boyfriend who converted to Christianity.

"Before leaving the lecture-hall, Isis was exuberant, as she always was after hearing Hypatia speak. But when she stepped out, a heaviness crept on her heart. Reluctantly, she headed for ‘their’ habitual seat under the haughty cypress tree. Hotep saw her ahead of him, and more by force of habit than by inclination he quickened his steps to catch up with her. He reached her and walked silently by her. He was evidently gloomy and she felt the heaviness weighing on her heart press harder. They reached ‘their’ seat and sat down. For a couple of minutes they stared blankly ahead. Then Isis, without any preliminaries, spoke as if resuming a discussion that had just been interrupted.

Isis: ‘Does the postulation of a pre-existent creator do away with the riddle of being? Does it not simply shift the problem one stage further. My five-year old sister when told that God made the world immediately asks, Who made God? She is a better philosopher than all your theologians put together. The mystery of being is an ultimate mystery that will never go away. It stares us in the face as soon as we are aware of our own being — in other words, as soon as we emerge as intelligent beings. The birth of the human being is the birth of the philosopher that is struck with wonder.’

Hotep: ‘I appreciate that. I very much like the way you expound the ultimate mystery of being. No wonder Hypatia takes special pride in you. But still I think that the order of the cosmos points to an intelligent designer.’

Isis: ‘Why can’t that intelligence be intelligence inherent in primal reality? After all, the best intelligence we know is not the craftsman’s that works on things outside the craftsman and produces things separate from the producer. The purest intelligence we know is that of the poet, the philosopher, the mathematician, in which the mind by itself, in itself, of itself, issues forth creatively, living its own reality in its own creative activity.’

Hotep: ‘My dear Isis, I don’t know whether I love you more, admire you more, or fear you more when you go into these Platonic flights of thought. To be honest, my uppermost feeling is one of dread. You make me dizzy and you make me fearful of losing the assurance I have lately found in my new faith.’

Isis: ‘Hotep, dare to think, dare to be your own creature, your own creator. That is the only way to preserve your human dignity, to have your true worth as a human being.’

Hotep: ‘No, Isis, no. This is to fall into the sin of pride, to refuse the guidance of Heaven, putting reliance on our weak, sinful human nature.’

Isis knew she had lost him. This was not the Hotep she once loved. Was that other Hotep a creature of her own imagination, her own desire? Her burgeoning femininity craved love and her imagination endowed him with the qualities she would love. When she spoke next she was not addressing the same person as before. She half-hated herself because she felt she was not speaking with warmth. She was not trying to communicate with his soul. She was simply concerned to rebut a theoretical position she found faulty. Even her tone was different.

Isis: ‘Let us assume that the existence of the world, that the order in the existing world, proves the existence of a creator.’

Hotep: ‘That’s how I see it.’

Isis: ‘Well, what does that prove? That the creator is powerful and ingenious.’

Hotep: ‘We also know that he is good.’

Isis: ‘How do we know that?’

Hotep: ‘By all the good things he has provided for us.’

Isis: ‘What about all the evil? All the calamities, disasters, and catastrophes? All the disease and misery and pain?’

Hotep: ‘We cannot compass the wisdom of God. He must have a purpose in permitting these things to happen. And most of the misery of human beings is brought about by our own evil deeds.’

Isis: ‘I could easily turn all of that against the position you’re defending. But I will not dispute that now. I will allow you your personal creator, separate from the world, all-wise, all-powerful, all-good — we’ll forgive him all the evil and the misery in the world.’

Isis saw that Hotep was pained at the sardonic impiety of these words and felt sorry. She had no desire to hurt his feelings. Before he could object she said: ‘I’m sorry. Forget that I said that.’

Hotep did not respond. Isis continued, ‘All right, given the existence of God, why could he not be our benign Ra, or even the whimsical Zeus? Or Ormazd who has the advantage of being free of blame for evil, all evil being the work of Ahriman?’

Hotep: ‘I am convinced that the scriptures sanctioned by the Church reveal to us the true God.’

Isis: ‘On what ground, Hotep?’

Hotep hesitated. He knew that the answer which to him was satisfactory, to her was absurd. But he had no other answer. So, hesitantly the words came out of his lips: ‘It is the word of God.’

Isis: ‘Dear Hotep, surely you know how ridiculous this answer is. The holy book must be believed because it is the word of God. Who says it is the word of God? The holy book says it is the word of God.’

‘The Church says it is the word of God.’ Hotep said emphatically.

‘And who’, retorted Isis, ‘invested the Church with the authority to say that? Don’t you see we’re going round and round in circles?’

Again Hotep hesitated. He said slowly, ‘One must have faith.’

Isis: ‘All right, you believe your scriptures reveal God to you. What kind of god? A god that wilfully creates the evil Satan? A god that is wrathful and vengeful? A god that favours one particular nation for whose sake he inflicts unspeakable torments on the innocent people of Egypt when, with his boundless power, he could have taken his favourites away without hurting anyone? Even if you could give me indubitable proof of the existence and power of such a god, I would freely choose to fry for ever in his everlasting hell rather than show him any regard.’

Isis spoke vehemently and Hotep was shocked. Surely it was not her mind but her heathen spirit – the devil working on her unholy heathen spirit – that drove her to such heated opposition to the call of faith.

Again Isis sensed his disconcertment and again regretted her uncontrolled outburst.

Isis: ‘Look, Hotep, I apologize. I do not want to offend you. It seems we have reached irreconcilable positions and such arguments will not take us anywhere. But I cannot give up the hope that you may reconsider your position calmly. You know that Mariam is arranging a forum on Christianity. Maybe that will afford an opportunity for quiet reflection.’

Hotep: ‘Mariam has spoken to me about her idea. I don’t think any good can come out of it. Mariam is only Christian in name. She is opposed to the authority of the Church. Even Sophia is unreliable; she is too tepid. All the others are heathen — begging your pardon.’

Isis: ‘Don’t you think that rather makes for a reasoned objective discussion?’

Hotep: ‘No. Faith must come first.’

Isis could not suppress her sarcastic note. ‘That is, you must make up your mind to believe before you consider your grounds for believing.’

In the old days their long-drawn conversations, part philosophic, part personal, part idle prattle, would end with, ‘Well, it’s time to go,’ and that would mean that he would walk her to her residence, say goodbye, and then retrace his steps to his own residence which they would have bypassed on the way to hers. But not this afternoon. No. It was all over. ‘Excuse me,’ he said; ‘I have somewhere to go.’ He got up and walked away. Isis tarried. She knew they would both be going the same way and she waited to allow time to make sure they would go the same way separately."

(From Hypatia's Lover by D. R. Khashaba, ch.13.)


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