Tag Archives: homeschool

Hypatia, the lady philosopher/mathematician/astronomer

Sometimes writing about history is hard. At the beginning of this project, I’d envisioned a fun and slightly wacky tour through Western Civilization presented by a fun and slightly wacky uncle. The story of human beings is often violent and cruel, though. Human beings are flawed creatures. There are parts of civilization’s history that make me heartsick.

I want to tell you about a glorious and brilliant woman who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century ad. Her name is Hypatia. She was the daughter of a philosopher and mathematician, and she became a philosopher and mathematician herself. Hypatia was lovely to look at, but her intellect was what made her irresistible. I became interested in her when I read that if she hadn’t outright invented the astrolabe, at the least she played an big part in developing it.

Hypatia helped her dad expand Ptolemy’s work on astronomy. She eventually did her own scholarly work on the stars and the geocentric model of the universe. It might have been she who came up with the idea of ‘flattening’ the spheres to create the star-map that is central to the astrolabe’s design (this is my own conjecture).

Hypatia was also a philosopher. Her philosophy was Neo-Platonism, which adapts Plato’s ideas about what makes the world tick. Hypatia was a gifted teacher. She often gave lectures in the agora (Greek for public square) about philosophy, astronomy, and her many intellectual interests. At that time Alexandria was boiling with religious trouble. Christians and Jews battled with each other and with philosophers who rejected a belief in God. The Roman Empire was in its last days, about to split into East and West. Politics absolutely played a part in the violent clashes between religion and philosophy.

I’m sorry and ashamed to tell you that a mob of Christians ambushed Hypatia, and murdered her. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that these were followers of Jesus. But it happened. They behaved as a mob—the very opposite of civilization—and murdered a woman for promoting a philosophy that rejects Christianity.

You can read more about Hypatia here and here. There’s a movie about her, too.  Here’s a review—caution: some violence.  (I have a quibble with History Buff’s conclusion that, because of Christianity, scholarship was discouraged in the Dark Ages. Beginning with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire fostered a culture of learning that was encouraged in the monasteries. Monks copied books by hand—the books from the Greek philosophers that had been translated into Arabic, which the monks then translated into Latin. See How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.)

Title type for my groundbreaking soon-to-be bestseller

Fooling around with lettering. It needs a little tweaking. Some strokes ought to be heavier, maybe. I’m trying to hold onto the energy of my sketch. I’m not sure if I like this yet. Let it sit for a while.

And it doesn’t need batteries

If you read my last astrolabe post and swung by one of the links you can find there, you’ll have seen that these astrolabes work like a charm. As well as telling time, an astrolabe can be used for surveying and navigation. Of course, it wouldn’t work at all without Ptolemy’s accurate mapping of the sky.

The astrolabe was used for centuries before clocks came along. Even after clocks it was used for predicting when sunup or sundown would occur. This was important in the Muslim world, where the faithful need to pray at exact times, like sunup. The Koran says that it’s sunup when it’s light enough to tell the difference between a black thread and a white thread, but an astrolabe tells you when sunup will happen beforehand—by looking at the stars.

Notice that around the rim of the astrolabe the circle is divided into 24 hours of the day. Each hour takes up 15 degrees of the 360-degree circle. If you’ve been following this blog for the past year, you’ll remember the Sumerians came up with that idea—a 360-degree circle uses the Base 60 system of counting. This is an example of using distance to calculate time. In this instance, not miles traveled but degrees around a circle. The hours are distributed equally along the circle of Earth’s horizon.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

Hey, what time is it?

We’ve talked about telling time with sundials and water clocks and hourglasses. Those things are a headache to carry around. Mechanical clocks, like a pendulum clock, wouldn’t be invented until 1637. What if you’re traveling around in ad 800—how do you know what time it is?

One way to tell time was this fantastic little device called an astrolabe.

This sketch is based on a beautiful antique brass astrolabe.

Wherever you happen to be, if you can see the Sun or the stars, you can tell the time if you’re carrying an astrolabe with you. The main feature of an astrolabe is a flat map of the sky—with the stars and planets on a grid. The grid—called a climate—shows the sky as it appears in your part of the world. It’s circular and fits into a circular frame, called the mater (Latin for ‘mother’). On top of the climate is the rete (Latin for ‘net’), an openwork circular plate with pointers that you can line up to point at the Sun or a specific star on the climate. On top of that is a sighter—a straight arrow kind of piece. All these spin on the same axis. You pick a star, adjust the rete to point at your star on the climate, and hold up the astrolabe and sight the actual star along the sighter. When the sighter lines up with the star, you can read the time with remarkable accuracy. Here’s a video showing how it’s done. This guy even made his own astrolabe. And here’s more.

Here’s a website that explains how to use an astrolabe and even gives you pdfs you can download and print to make your own.

Marathon

One of the important battles in the wars between the Greeks and Persians took place on the Plains of Marathon. Herodotus tells about how in 490 bc, when the Greeks were seriously outnumbered, a messenger named Pheidippides (Fay DIP e deez) ran from Athens to Sparta to get their help. Then he ran to Marathon to join the fight, THEN ran back to Athens to tell everybody that the Greeks won.

Around the world we still celebrate Pheidippides’ heroic run in races called marathons. If you run a marathon, it’s 26 miles and 385 yards—the distance from the Plains of Marathon to Athens. The very fastest runners have done it in a little over 2 hours!

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus reading his Histories to the crowd

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”

While the Greeks did think of time as a cycle, there was still a desire to reach back in time to remember stories from the past. We saw how Homer kept alive the story of the siege of Troy through his epic poem, the Iliad.

Herodotus (Hay ROD oh toos) was a Greek who lived in the fourth century bc and is thought to be the first historian. He wrote The Histories mostly about the wars between the Greeks and Persians and how they got started. Herodotus was a great storyteller, but what made him a historian is that he investigated, he did research—he got his information from several sources; he visited the places where the history took place; he went to the library; he interviewed people—then he arranged the information he’d gathered to explain how and why something happened.

I have a paperback copy of The Histories. It’s not an easy read, but I like to ‘dip into’ my copy and read whatever I open to. The battle of Thermopylae is in there—that story has since been made into a graphic novel and movie, The 300—and the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Herodotus included lots of oddball side-stories and observations, which are also fun. The Persian emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes are in there (Xerxes is thought to be the party-boy king Ahasuerus from the biblical Book of Esther).

History is often about the big military battles and wars. I want this history, the one you’re reading right now, to be about ideas. But I’m telling you, if the Greeks hadn’t broken the will of the mighty Persian Empire and eventually beat ‘em, there would have been no flowering of art, literature, philosophy and democracy that happened after the wars—and was the Greeks’ gift to us.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

Sumerians!

Okay, now we know what Western Civ is, so let’s get started. We’re going all the way back to 4,000-2,000 bc. That’s 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Sumer is considered to be the world’s first civilization. The Sumerians lived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—today it’s the southern part of Iraq.

irrigation

‘The land between the rivers’ (Mesopotamia) was fertile—the Sumerians could grow crops there because they figured out how to divert water from the rivers into the dry desert—so there was food for everybody. Sumeria had a government, a religion, and a writing system called cuneiform.

cuneiform

Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped.’ You use a wedge-shaped tool to press wedge-shapes into soft clay. I don’t know what it says; I made it up.

There was a big city called Ur; today we still describe city things as ‘urban.’ Sunday school students will remember that Ur was the city Abram moved away from so he could become Abraham.

abram

I’m not positive luggage had been invented at this time.

The epic hero, Gilgamesh, lived in Ur. The Epic of Gilgamesh has been translated from pieced-together fragments of clay tablets, so you can still read it today. I have a paperback copy. The story has themes that can be found in the Biblical book of Genesis—a Tree of Life, a Tree of Knowledge, a great flood. Gilgamesh and his pal, Enkidu, gad about the ancient MidEast searching for the meaning of life and a way to become immortal.

gilgamesh

Time to get serious

I’ve sorta-kinda joked on this blog about saving Western Civilization. Even my motto reads: “Saving Western Civilization through kid’s book illustration.” And I’ve honestly meant to get started on that. I have, in a modest way, been promoting Western Civ by teaching Sunday School and posting some historical stuff here once in a while. I haven’t been very serious about that motto, though. But it’s a new year; a good time to get serious.

Why does Western Civ need saving, anyway? We have Shakespeare and quantum physics and cell phones. We have crop rotation and the alphabet and Broadway. That’s good, right? Why can’t I just be happy?

The problem is: I meet very few people who understand how we got Western Civ. There are too many people who think Western Civilization is not such a good thing, and is maybe an embarrassment, or should be apologized for. That way of thinking saddens me, if only because it’s so easy to point to how much human beings have benefited from Western Civilization.

I think it’s important to understand how we’ve achieved all the things that we have. It’s important to recognize our incredible inheritance—gifts we’ve been given by amazing people who are long gone. Why were moveable type or symphonies or Greenwich Mean Time invented in the West? It’s vital for young people to understand how Western Civilization works, so that they may prosper in it.

This is my mission. If I can’t save Western Civ, at least I can document her glories. I like history, so I’m going to be writing a history of Western Civ—particularly a history of ideas. I’ll post the stuff I’m writing here on this blog, as a way of test-marketing. My goal is to write and illustrate a book that presents the history of Western Civ in a fun format. You must know by now that I’m a smart-alec, so of course it will be funny. Lots of gags. Lots of pictures. I expect to learn and discover new info as I do the research.

I invite you all to come with me.

John