Podcast episode

Episode 174: Noble Lies and Philosophic Silence: Hypatia, Synesius, and the New Esotericism in the Fourth Century

In this episode we do a number of things. First of all, we approach the problem of what kind of philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was, surveying a number of theories put forward by scholars from ‘just a mathematician’, or ‘a Plotinian/Porphyrian Platonist’, right through to ‘practicing Iamblichean theurge’. We then give a bit more context to the new atmosphere of unease among the empire’s ‘pagans’: Theodosius I (r. 379-395) put some pretty stiff anti-traditional-religion edicts in the period, essentially making it illegal to practice traditional rituals. This prompts some reflections on the newfound need for discretion and secrecy among certain groups of thinkers in late antiquity, and we discuss the need to add ‘secrecy to save your skin from the angry mobs of monks’ as a new flavour added to the spicy mix of Roman esotericism.

Having decided that we can’t really decide whether Hypatia had an esoteric inner teaching, or was just left alone by the fanatics (until she wasn’t, that is) because her teaching was strictly innocuous scientific stuff, we then turn to the evidence of her student Synesius, the philosopher-bishop.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Damascius on the two types of Platonists: In Phd. 123, 113 ff.

Socrates of Constantinople/Scholasticus: HE 7.15.

Synesius on the ‘noble lie’ of Christianity: Ep. 105. Cf. 137 and 143 for more philosophical elitist esotericism. Hypatia as initiatrix: Ep. 137, Ep. 4. Hypatia’s interest in ‘holy geometry’: Ep. 93. The study of astronomy as a propædeutic to ‘initiatory theology’ or ‘esoteric theology’: De dono 310C–311A.

Theodosius: edict prohibiting sacrifice and closing temples (CTh. 16.10.10–11); banning traditional cult activities entirely, even within private homes (CTh. 16.10.12) [CTh. refers to the Codex Theodosianus, a first attempt at a comprehensive encoding of late antique Roman law undertaken by the emperor; it would eventually be superseded by the Codex Justinianus, but it paved the way for that truly authoritative collection. The CTh. contains some laws of Julian, by the way, including the edict on education and others which we have discussed in the podcast].


N. Aujoulat. Le néo-platonisme alexandrin, Hiéroclès d’Alexandrie. Brill, Leiden, 1986.

Alain Bernard. The Alexandrian School. Theon of Alexandria and Hypatia. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Vol. I, volume 2 vols., pages 417–36. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010; we cite p. 417.

Jay Bregman. Synesius of Cyrene: Philosopher-Bishop. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA/Los Angeles, CA/London, 1982; we cite pp. 155-6.

Alan Cameron and Jacqueline Long. Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius. Number 19 in The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford, 1993; we cite pp. 55-56, 58.

Dzielska 1995 [see below]; we cite p. 83.

John M. Rist. Hypatia. Phoenix, 19:214–25, 1965; we cite p. 219.

Edward J. Watts. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA/London, 2006; we cite p. 192.

Recommended Reading:

For a quick exploration of Synesius’ writings, check out the beautiful list of English translations culled from various sources, to be found on Livius.

Jay Bregman. Synesius of Cyrene. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, volume 2, pages 520–37. The University Press, Cambridge, 2010.

Pierre Chuvin. A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990.

Elizabeth Depalma Digeser. Philosophy in a Christian Empire: From the Great Persecution to Theodosius I. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Vol. I, pages 376–96. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.

Maria Dzielska. Hypatia of Alexandria. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995.

Ilsetraut Hadot. Le problème du néoplatonisme alexandrin: Hiéroclès et Simplicius. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.

Edward J. Watts. Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017.

Idem. The Final Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2020.


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