Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 25, Vol. 3. Autumnal Equinox 2013

The Wisdom of Hypatia. Bruce J. MacLenna, Ph.D. Llewellyn Worldwide, 2013. 336+ pages. $21.99 USD.
review by J.S. Kupperman

This review is based on an uncorrected proof supplied to me by Llewellyn Worldwide upon my request to review MacLenna’s Wisdom of Hypatia. As such, it is possible some changes will be made in pagination and layout before the book is released, and so I will not comment on my usual bugaboos such as poor copy editing, amateurishly rendered  diagrams or the like. The book is scheduled for publication in December of this year.

Wisdom of Hypatia is sort of two different books in one. It is, of course, a book ostensibly about the Neoplatonism of Hypatia, as well as the teachings of the Epicureans and Stoics. It is also a book about the theory as to why one would write a book about all three of these in the way MacLenna does. The theory section takes up the first 40 or so pages, with the remainder divided between three degrees of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism.

The sections, two through four, is made up of nine chapters, with a single chapter for Epicureanism, three for Stoicism, and five for Neoplatonism. As Neoplatonism is the ultimate topic of the book, this arrangement makes sense. Generally, the information provided about each of these three disparate philosophical ways of living is accurate. At times it is somewhat generic, and certainly does not delve into many of the specific differences between the various forms and proponents of these schools. This certainly makes sense in the case of the Neoplatonism section; the book is not titled The Wisdom of Neoplatonism after all. Given the overall ideology presented, and implied, in the section on theory.

That said, there is much more to the teachings of these first two schools than what is presented. MacLenna’s aim, however, is not to present any of these schools as existing as complete philosophical systems in their own right, even though they are. Instead, the point of The Wisdom of Hypatia is to use Epicureanism as a stepping stone to Stoicism, and Stoicism as a stepping stone to late Platonism. In this book, they are seen as three degrees, each one building upon the previous degree, rather like the three degrees of Masonry or traditional Wicca. While this is a common motif in modern esotericism, it is not seen in any of these philosophical schools.

This, ultimately, is where the difficulty lies; not in the general facts presented about each of these schools, but the theories underlying the book. There are at least two main theoretical objects. First, MacLenna presents these three philosophies as relying upon one another. This is not the case. Epicureanism developed purposefully as an opposition to Platonism. Stoicism, while sometimes sharing views with Platonism, also dramatically opposes some elements. In all cases, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Platonism each exist as independent philosophical systems.

Importantly, not only is each of these independent, they are also complete. This means they do not rely upon one another to discuss everything they think is important to living a philosophical life. In classical Greece, through late Antiquity, a school of philosophy was a complete school. Each school taught how to live life correctly and fully, as well as how to die. The Stoics did not need to stand upon the shoulders of the Epicureans, nor does Stoic philosophy require one to have a background in Epicureanism in order to proceed to deeper Stoic insights. It is not necessary, and given the differences between these two schools, it is not even particularly helpful.

Why MacLeanna decided to present these three particular schools in this particular manner is a mystery. One might suspect it has to do with the popularity of the three degree system. MacLenna, who is well published academically in the field of late Platonism, should know enough about Neoplatonism to develop his own three degree system. This would be just as anti-historical as what is presented in Wisdom, and would do less damage to any of the philosophies involved.

The inclusion of all three philosophies may also be related to the title of the book, the Wisdom of Hypatia. The difficulty is not in wisdom, but in Hypatia. Simply put, there are no surviving records of what, in specific, Hypatia taught. Yes, we do know, through a number of biographies, generally about Hypatia, her life, death, and some of her philosophical focus, such as mathematics. But nothing of her actual teachings survive, not even as fragments in someone else’s works, which is how we know about the writings of the 3rd century Neoplatonist Iamblichus.

MacLenna arrives as his presentation of what Hypatia taught in a curious, and flawed, way; he assumes we can adduce her thought through the writings of contemporary Neoplatonists, including the works of her student Synesius, Bishop of Cyrene. While this is an interesting proposition, it ultimately fails. For instance, if we took the same approach with Iamblichus in relation to his teacher Porphyry, we’d be in a certain amount of trouble. Iamblichus profoundly disagreed with most of what Porphyry taught. We are lucky enough to both have some of Porphyry’s writings left to us, and that when Iamblichus disagreed with Porphyry, he was often explicit in doing so. We cannot know if that is true for Hypatia’s students, and it is even sometimes difficult when dealing with those Neoplatonists whom Iamblichus influenced, some of whom are hesitant to outright disagree with him and will sometimes only modify his views and sometimes simply relate them as though being in agreement with their own, even when Iamblichus is clear he is not.

Even though Hypatia was active in Athens, the home of the prominent Athenian Platonic academy, there is no evidence she was involved with it outside of its mathematical teachings. It is possible her thought was in line with the general teachings of the Academy at this time, but we do not know. Also, even if it is in line with the Academy, what we may get from this is not the wisdom of Hypatia, but the Wisdom of the mid-4th century Academy. There is nothing particularly Hypatian in what is presented in The Wisdom of Hypatia. At best we may describe it as a generic form of Neoplatonism that somewhat glosses over the areas covered by the Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Ultimately, we do not know exactly, or even generally, what Hypatia taught about the subjects covered in sections two and three. But given the above, there is still a question as to why introduce them at all. What we know of later Neoplatonism, from Iamblichus in the 3rd century to Simplicus in the 6th century, can more than fill in what is here supplied by other philosophical schools. As MacLenna shows no qualms with relying on the authority of other Neoplatonists, especially the extraordinarily important Proclus, much of whose teaching still survive in written form, we must ask why not simply draw from other area of Platonic philosophy and show Platonism as the complete way of life it is?

All that said, at this time there are very, very few popular books on the subject of Neoplatonism. To the student who is simply interested in a general idea of what Neoplatonis is about, The Wisdom of Hypatia is adequate, if flawed. For the more serious student, however, I recommend turning to the primary sources and the excellent scholarly work that has been done on them. This includes the writings of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, Porphyry, one of his students, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, Simplicus and others. But not Hypatia. There are also the Christian Neoplatonists such as pseudo-Dionysius, Psellus, and Marsilio Ficino. There are others, such as Cambridge Platonists, but these should more than suffice for a start.