Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Weisz Is Hypatia

The absurdly beautiful Rachel Weisz is playing the famous atheist and feminist icon, the late 4th century pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, in the epic film Agora by Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar, which is projected to release in December, just before Christmas. According to Rueters, the film sounds like an interesting pro-atheist myth, exaggerating certain realities to convey a pro-science message against maniacal religious fundamentalism. Reviewers who have seen early edits give the impression that Hypatia is depicted as an atheist, and as an active scientific investigator on the verge of proving heliocentrism. An intriguing, perhaps inspiring idea. But fiction surely.

The best scholarly account of the facts can be found in Maria Dzielska's Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University: 1995). Hypatia was by all accounts a Neoplatonic theist, although the difference would be mild to most modern imaginations. Neoplatonists did not accept the notion of sacred scripture or revealed dogmas, and were far more liberal minded (and arguably even more principled) than most Christian leaders of the day, but they were still mystics and believers. Likewise,
though the real Hypatia was indeed a brilliant mathematician, a talented astronomer, and a renowned philosophy professor (and yes, beautiful), she like many of her generation was more a compiler and commentator on past scientific glories, who attempted nothing original and certainly would not have been pursuing heliocentric theory. By all indications, that pursuit had been abandoned by then. Nor did she invent any scientific instruments as Wikipedia claims, although she was a master of many, an actual go-to girl for how to make them in her time (from astrolabes to hydrometers to monochords).

It also sounds like the film has her "trapped in the legendary Library of Alexandria" in the midst of Christian riots in the end, which suggests she is burned with the library, when in fact those riots burned the library's annex, the Serapeum. A great loss to the ancient written record to be sure (tens of thousands of books were destroyed), nevertheless the Great Library itself was far larger (hundreds of thousands of books) and probably survived this occasion (in any case, it would have been situated on the other side of the city). I worry the film might perpetuate this slight error, confusing one library for the other. I know there is a tendency to go for the better story rather than the truer one. And though many pagan intellectuals may have been killed in the Serapeum (the Christians destroyed it specifically to crush the cult--burning the books was not their object), Hypatia was not. She was killed far more hideously elsewhere in the city (and decades later). By at least one account she died as a result of a Christian mob "scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell." And not in a library, but inside a Christian Church--to which she was dragged naked through the streets. (Damn, I want to see Rachel Weisz naked as much as the next guy, but not like this!).

Historical worries aside (I haven't seen it yet, so some or all of my concerns may be unfounded), this could still be well worth seeing, as idealistic fiction if not history. I'll be eager to see it either way, and I'll report more fully when I do. In any case, since I'd like to see more films set in ancient Greece and Rome, it can't hurt to plug the ones there are. And though I can't vouch for anyone else involved, Weisz is certainly a talented actress.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Are We Doomed?

In a past thread I've been having a lengthy and interesting discussion with a neopagan about the nature of Taoism, paganism, and supernaturalism. In the course of which, the issue of humanity's future came up. Much was said, but it eventually boiled down to this: some think I and many other atheists are too optimistic about the future. I made the point that the past three hundred years have displayed a steady pace of overall progress in social, scientific, and technological progress, which shows no signs of abating.

Here I will give a reply in two parts, the second much longer than the first, so those who just want the short of it will know where to stop, while those who want to fully hear me out on this can go on to the rest.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Richard Carrier Recommends

Amazon has a new program that allows associates to build their own mini-storefronts to promote their favorite books and videos. We get a commission on everything sold there, even stuff you add to the shopping cart from your own wishlist while you're there, or the Amazon automated and listmania recommendations that pop up. I've updated my Support page to explain this and more.

To check out my storefront, and see my top recommen-dations in fiction, movies, philosophy, origins of Chris-tianity, and ancient science, visit Richard Carrier Recommends.
If you find it interesting, it's well worth a bookmark. And if you want to help, spread the news. Although it has fewer features, and the content is limited to my recommendations and what Amazon thinks is related, I find this stripped-down mini-store cleaner and less noisy than the usual Amazon interface.

I also get a commission on anything bought through a link on this blog (from now on; past links won't do this) or my website ( None of this costs you any more than it usually would at Amazon. They just give me a cut of their profits for turning business their way. Since I think Amazon is a superb service, I'm quite happy to recommend buying from them. And you'll get a glimpse of what I think are important readings, sometimes even essential readings, or just my favorite picks, in each category there.