Hypatia’s Past and Jordan Peterson’s Future
What those facing down the fundamentalist mob today can learn from the traditionalists of old.
“See, that’s on the back of the American dollar bill…that’s like the Eye of Horus from the Egyptians, and so the idea here is something like, at the top of the hierarchy is something that is no longer part of the hierarchy.”
Jordan Peterson addresses a dark lecture hall, pointing to arcane symbols of divinity on a bright presentation screen. The forces these ancient symbols evoke, he explains, drive both political and personal change: The Egyptians saw that the attentive Eye is what revives a dead society, and so, if you want to find the best place to start untangling the paralyzing morass of your life, then “bloody well pay attention!”
Is there something specific about our strange era that makes Peterson’s approach to myth appealing? Consider a similar figure from a similar age, someone not usually associated with the right or traditionalists: Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 370-415). Hypatia was a pagan philosopher, most famous today for being murdered in A.D. 415 by a mob of Christian thugs who seemed to have hoped the bishop, St. Cyril of Alexandria, would be happy about it. (Whether or not he was is still debated.)
But before the Enlightenment made her a martyr for “Reason,” and before a journal of feminist philosophy was named after her (which you may recall from when it published, then retracted, an article that compared transgenderism and transracialism), Hypatia taught philosophy to conservative Christians in the early 5th century.
For most Americans over the age of 30, it is likely confusing to come to the Early Christian era and realize the pagans, and their liberal minded Christian sympathizers, were in fact the cultural conservatives of their time, while monk-frequenting Christian fundamentalists were the utopian radicals spearheading a cultural revolution.
But once we establish that, there is a lot of similarity to contemplate. In Hypatia’s Egypt, notions of the sacred were being radically altered. Many temples, after millennia standing as reference points of cosmic order, were being desecrated and returned to the bland chaos of profane space. The non-sacred is a region “without structure or consistency, amorphous,” as Eliade relates in The Sacred and the Profane.
In our times, shared consensus about what is sacred has been blown into fragments. How many people share a religion with their grandparents now? Part of Jordan Peterson’s appeal lies in the fact that, in an age of uncertainty and spiritual decentralization, he has located an edifying message in traditional stories, stories whose antiquity or stature certifies the content to be timeless and universal.
Facing rising religious fundamentalism in her late Roman world, Hypatia also promoted and inspired literary works that dug deep into tradition. These included a number of philosophical allegories, not least of which was the Osiris-Horus myth cycle itself. Her life offers a lesson for contemporary traditionalists attempting to stare down cancel mobs.
Those who have been following Peterson’s work may have noticed his take on the Osiris story (and its characteristic symbol, the Eye of Horus) come up rather frequently. But for those who have not: in short, Osiris, the tragically benign divine king of Egypt, falls victim to the tricks of his evil brother Seth.
In Peterson’s telling, Seth symbolizes the opportunistic careerist. He murders King Osiris, which signifies “the tendency of a (static) ruling idea, system of valuation, or particular story…to become increasingly irrelevant with time,” hence the king’s vulnerability such rent-seeking bureaucrat types. Osiris stands for Order, but he is foolish, an indication of the danger when one “forgets or refuses to admit to the existence of the immortal deity of evil.” (See Peterson’s Maps of Meaning.)
There is redemption though. Horus is the son of Osiris and Isis (Isis is Chaos). With his mother’s help, and his dead father’s supernatural counsel, Horus defeats Seth, loses his Eye in the process, but then gets it back later. Horus emerges as the ultimate paradigm for the ruler, and for the fully actualized individual, synthesizing the Order and Chaos antithesis, made wiser because of his suffering.
Ancient Greeks, both pagan and Christian, would call what Peterson is doing with this myth allegoria, the practice of pointing out that a story says something else besides its meaning on the surface. As ancient philosophers and writers knew, allegory works best when performed on a story that’s really, really old.
Hypatia’s take on Osiris comes to us from her student, a Libyan named Synesius. She sent him to Constantinople around A.D. 400 to try to meet the Emperor Arcadius, and to make influential friends there who could help out their cause in Alexandria. Synesius turned to the myths and allegories he learned at Hypatia’s school. He wrote an essay inspired by the story in Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris, and presented it to some new learned friends at court.
In his allegory, Synesius portrayed contemporary court intrigues as though they were happening in the days of the ancient pharaohs. Standing in for real Roman Christians on the Bosporus are mythical Egyptian pagans (and lesser gods) on the Nile. In the work, titled On Providence, Synesius uses the story of Osiris and Seth to politely warn his patron at court, an imperial bureaucrat: Osiris was like you, a good leader, a nice guy; but he refused to confront evil, and so Seth destroyed him. So, beware of intrigues!
Unfortunately, Synesius’s patron, a man named Aurelian, was toppled in a coup orchestrated by a Romano-Gothic generalissimo named Gaïnas. But Synesius still succeeded in using his wit, and Hypatia’s reputation, to win friends for philosophy.
When it came to philosophy, Hypatia had a great deal of skin in the game. Daughter of one of the last attested members of the Museum, a learned society connected to the famous Library of Alexandria, Hypatia got her start teaching mathematics. But over the years, by leveraging her father’s modest intellectual brand, she built up a renowned philosophical school that became a finishing academy for ambitious young Greek speakers in the eastern Roman Empire. Her students were a cross section of the city’s elite at that time: a nice blend of Christians, Pagans, and maybe a few Jews as well.
Hypatia watched as the intricate sacred landscape of Greco-Egyptian cult and mystery, described by Herodotus in his Histories (book two) and Plutarch in his own Isis and Osiris, was gradually profaned and desacralized. The Christian emperors, starting with Constantine (r. 306-337) cut funding for pagan temples and redirected it to Christian churches. Pagan sacrifices were eventually forbidden in the 390s, around the time Hypatia was making her start as an educator.
Like many philosophers of her era, Hypatia stayed loyal to the old gods. But a large portion of her students were Christians. They nonetheless shared with her an interest in plumbing the ancient polytheist lore for deeper meanings and universal values. This was unpopular among more fundamentalist Christians. Like Tertullian a few centuries earlier, Christians were still asking, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
Synesius, despite the polytheistic stories he dealt in, was a Christian. Other of his writings, such as On Dreams, are filled with philosophical allegories. Sometimes he even made fun of overwrought allegories, as in his satirical Praise of Baldness, which only indicates the popularity of the practice in his day. Nevertheless, Synesius and Hypatia seem to have shared a cultural mission. They aimed to produce and sponsor edifying literary works that could be enjoyed by pagans and Christians alike. In Synesius’s works, allusions to Homer, Plato, and classical culture abound, not as antiquarian relics or intellectual fetishes, but as part of an ambitious, living, creative project addressed to the present.
Any moral and theological claims he made could generally sit well with Christian and Pagan alike; “God” was usually spoken of in the singular. But to some Alexandrian Christians, radical, progressive types who thought Christians should tear down temples and do away with both literary and physical monuments of the past, this was threatening. Other more traditional Christians saw no harm in keeping old statues around, and wanted to keep reading the classics such as Homer and Aristophanes. To them, the Synesius-Hypatia agenda seemed harmless, perhaps even a healthy exercise in consensus-building. If the old religion was dying, its dwelling places filled with goats and haberdashers, at least some of the old stories could be made to seem lively, even sacred in the sense that they were still “set apart” and endowed with deeper meaning.
Judging by the huge number of medieval Byzantine manuscripts that preserve the pagan classics, forces sympathetic to Hypatia and Synesius ended up carving out a healthy future for an expansive traditionalism in the Eastern Roman Empire. In Byzantium, this traditionalism, or Christian classicism, existed more or less happily alongside the occasional fundamentalist tendency in society. The woke fundamentalists of our day, unfortunately, seem less likely to compromise.
Fundamentalism is a pattern in which human beings cling for salvation to a confined set of simple precepts or documents, ruling out all others as distraction, delusion, and vanity. It is one kind of response to chaos and confusion, an attempt to discern the signal amidst the noise. This is the religious fervor fueling both ancient and modern cancel mobs. It is the opposite of a generous traditionalism, the alternative championed by Hypatia and, many would say today, Jordan Peterson.
Hypatia’s political influence, and probably also her Christian-supported opposition to fundamentalism, eventually led to her lynching in the streets of Alexandria in 415 by an angry mob. Let’s hope there are better fates in store for the controversial traditionalists of our day.
Alex Petkas (@costofglory) is a former tenure track academic. He produces The Cost of Glory podcast, which features dramatic retellings of Plutarch’s Lives for general modern listeners. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton University.