Mentor Mondays are an opportunity to learn from a variety of people, places, and events. What do they have to say to our lives? How do they help us reach our potential?

Today’s mentor: Hypatia

Hypatia was the central figure of this post. While we’ve already talked about her, I thought we could be more explicit about why she’s important today.

So, why should we listen to her? What does her life have to say to us today and why is it valuable? I’m going to suggest two reasons that she is worth paying attention to.

Lesson 1: Logic

Often, when we think about logic, we envision something like the Star Trek character Spock – where logic is set up in opposition to emotion. (This is more true of the original Mr. Spock – who we happen to think is hot. Yes…that is the official view of the Finishing School…but I digress).

But, possessing logic and using it to determine important aspects of our society and personal lives does not negate the place of emotion. Logic doesn’t insist that emotion is the enemy. We can still be passionate and still embrace our emotions, we are simply balancing emotion out with logic.

Logic, however, has taken a major hit in the past couple of decades as emotion has become the prima facie – accepted as truth until proven otherwise. Feelings have left logic in the dust. One of the great lessons of Hypatia is that logic is essential to developing a civilized culture. It’s time for us to revisit logic and see what value it has in our lives.

As a scientist, Hypatia was committed to the idea of truth. Her method for determining truth was through reason, rationality and logic. We all have an idea of what logic is. What we might not have considered is how essential it is to our lives and to our society. Logic is a fundamental part of civilization. It is used to create coherent political systems, for the basis of the debate around important ideas, and can be used as a foundation for sound personal decision making.

Hypatia follows in the tradition of many great Greek and Roman thinkers. What’s important about this is that they thought a lot about how to think and how to come to rational conclusions. Conclusions that made sense because the entire path that led to the conclusion followed a logical sequence.

The society Hypatia grew up in was not perfect and there is often a type of romanticism when speaking about the ancient city of Alexandria. We see it portrayed as a thinker’s paradise or as a bastion of equality. I am not forgetting that they also had slaves, so clearly, the society was far from perfect. What it was good at, what Hypatia was good at, was saying that logic allows us to speak to people whose ideas and ideals differ from ours. It allows us to build a society that makes sense and it is a step up from living according only to our ‘feelings’ which can change day to day.

We may take Fancy for a companion,
but must follow Reason as our guide.
—Dr. Samuel Johnson

Call to Action: How do we embody the lesson of logic in our own lives?

Developing logic – Choose one of three options

O.k. I have to say that this is a hard one. It is difficult to come up with simple things we can do to develop what is really an entire way of thinking. We’re going to go about this gently because this topic is going to come up again.

  1. When we see a story in the news, ask ourselves: what is the basis of this story? How do I know it’s true? What information are they basing this on? Is that information from a reputable source?
  2. For inspiration on living a life with logic, watch the movie Agora if you have access to it. It’s a movie loosely based on Hypatia’s real life. If you want to know what’s the difference between the movie and what we know to be true, watch this historical analysis of the movie.
  3. If you are really ambitious, read D. Q. Mclnerny’s book Being Logical: A guide to good thinking.

Lesson 2: The benefit of a cosmopolitan outlook

Cosmopolitanism is a belief that even if we share different beliefs and different cultures, there is a commonality – a shared human morality that makes living together not only possible, but beneficial. It doesn’t mean it’s not messy, but simply that we are able to form bonds of respect with those different from ourselves.

Cosmopolitanism is complicated, and as I mentioned above, Hypatia’s world has often been seen through a very nostalgic lens – where cosmopolitanism was a paradise. That is totally not true. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be learned from it.

For several centuries, different religious groups lived together relatively peacefully in Alexandria. Hypatia herself taught both Christians and pagans in her classes. In many ways, Cosmopolitanism is the antidote to Fascism. It is a fundamental belief that we are bound to the strangers around us, and that isolating ourselves cannot be a solution in the modern world. We can still maintain our beliefs and our uniqueness, while granting respect to those who do not share them. This is not a feel good love-in, but a difficult and messy process that forces us to confront our prejudices and open our minds to new relationships and interconnectedness.

Hypatia’s death at the hands of fanatics is the stark reminder of what happens when Cosmopolitanism is rejected and set aside. It is more in her death than in her life that we see the true value of Cosmopolitanism and the nightmare when it is abandoned.

As we encounter each other, we see our diversity — of background, race, ethnicity, belief – and how we handle that diversity will have much to say about whether we will in the end be able to rise successfully to the great challenges we face today.

― Dan Smith, The State of the World Atlas


Call to Action: How can we embrace Cosmopolitanism in our own lives?

For Cosmopolitanism – Choose one of the three options:

  1. If you have an Instagram or Twitter account, follow someone from another ethnic, cultural or religious group. The intention is not to start a conversation, but just look and listen to what they post. Begin to understand a different perspective.
  2. Watch a (positive) YouTube video about another country or a person from a different ethnic, cultural or religious group. If you’re stuck, randomly choose a country off a map and then look up videos about that country. Try to find a video presented by someone from that country – not just a travel video.
  3. If you are really ambitious, read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers