While visiting a friend recently, he persuaded me to watch the movie Agora with him. Accolades flowed from his mouth. “You must see it”, he said. In the end, I regretted it.
The movie is extraordinarily well done. Indeed, I would call it a masterpiece. The acting is phenomenal, though I admit that I’m no expert. It was obvious that its producers went to great pains to depict Roman Alexandria as accurately as possible. The actors looked like the actual people who lived in Alexandria at that time, with the exception of the prominent black faces their P.C. sensibilities forced them to include. The hair styles were 100% spot on. The architecture, the dress, and even Hypatia’s dog were clearly gleaned from accurate historical sources. The only thing, other than the painfully obvious inclusion of blacks, that bothered me was the way they depicted Jews. I seriously doubt that the Jews of ancient Alexandria wore earlocks and played Hassidic-style music. But I can forgive them for this, since nobody can prove otherwise.
I regret having seen it because the character of Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, was so perfect that I could not help but feel anguish over her murder. It’s a real tearjerker and I watch very few movies – so my resistance level is very low. I didn’t actually cry but it bothered me. It bothered me because my friend kept reminding me that, in real life, she died a much more horrible death than depicted in the movie.
What I loved about the Hypatia character was, aside from her stunning beauty, that she loved knowledge purely for the sake of knowledge. This is something I was brought up with. While I appreciate people who learn a profession in order to earn a living, the attainment of knowledge strictly for its own sake is on a higher plane in my eyes. Actually, it’s not so much the attainment that excites me, it’s the effort and fervor that speaks to my soul. Rachel Weisz did such a good job depicted the love of learning that it touched me deeply. The thought of her death, at the hands of ignorant monks, repels me – and this, by most accounts, is what truly happened.
After reading the Wikipedia account of Hypatia’s life, it seems Agora’s account of what transpired is as valid as anybody else’s. Not much, for certain, is known about her except that she was a brilliant thinker who was murdered in the prime of her life by monks. None of her works survive and all the theories, attributed to her in the movie, are conjecture.
In Agora, the Christians come across much as Muslims do today. Obviously, reality is much more complicated. The movie has Christians destroying the great library at Alexandria, but nobody really knows how the library was destroyed.
Why did Christianity spread so rapidly in Roman Egypt? Perhaps traditional Egyptian beliefs had been on the decline for centuries, as had the Greco-Roman pantheon. Greek philosophy, and ever-changing Roman emperors, had weakened the old gods to the point where only formalities remained and few still believed in their power. Greek philosophy was one of the first attempts at secularism and free-thinking. But the Egyptians were not ready for it. They had nostalgic memories of their own pharaonic theocracy in centuries past. As soon as Christianity gained some authority, they latched onto it as a return to the past. Religious authority was what they craved and Christianity was the only vehicle available to them that had any credibility. The Egyptians were sick and tired of Greco-Roman secularism and politics masquerading as religion. They wanted the real thing but their old gods were dead. Their anger toward Hypatia may have actually been anger toward secularism. A secularism that had been imposed upon them by force through Greeks like Hypatia.
In our own day, knowledge far greater than anything Hypatia could have imagined is at our fingertips. It’s there for the taking. But most people are more interested in celebrities or sports. Politics is a combination of the two. We’re swimming in knowledge and yet few seek it for its own sake. In its stead, faith sustains them. Whether it’s the blind faith of liberalism or an organized religion. Modern Western civilization can flourish because Christianity has lost the power to impose its will on others. It can no longer decree inquisitions, burn witches or force scientists to deny their work. It lurks in the background, mostly harmless and sometimes helpful. But what about the teeming multitudes who practice Islam? While there are some signs that it too is receding to the background, the process might take centuries. We must recognize the risks – something Hypatia failed to do.