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From Some Lies and Errors of History by the Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D.; Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893; pp. 52-63.


A FEW years ago the Rev. Charles Kingsley, an English writer of some reputation, saw fit to revive an ancient but often exploded calumny against one of God’s saints. This author was a clergyman of the English Establishment, and being presumably as well as pretendedly a man of education, one would have expected from his pen at least a moderately appreciative treatment of the grand characters whom he selected to illustrate an important, though little understood, period of history. But, according to him, the great Patriarch of Alexandria “has gone to his own place. What that place is in history, is but too well known; what it is in the sight of Him unto whom all live forever, is no concern of ours. May He whose mercy is over all His works have mercy upon all, whether orthodox or unorthodox, Papist, or Protestant, who, like Cyril, begin by lying for the cause of truth; and, setting off upon that evil road, arrive surely, with the Scribes and Pharisees of old, sooner or later, at their own place. True, 53 he and his monks had conquered; but Hypatia did not die unavenged. In the hour of that unrighteous victory the Church of Alexandria received a deadly wound. It had admitted and sanctioned those habits of doing evil that good may come, of pious intrigue, and at last of open persecution, which are certain to creep in wheresoever men attempt to set up a merely religious empire, independent of human relationships and civil laws; to establish, in short, a ‘theocracy,’ and by that very act confess a secret disbelief that God is ruling already.”

Such was not the judgment of Kingsley’s fellow-sectarian, Cave,1, nor of the Lutheran, John Albert Fabricius,2 than whom Protestants have produced no critics more erudite. But it is the opinion expressed by many Protestant polemics; for St. Cyril presided, in the name of the Roman Pontiff, at the Council of Ephesus (431), which confirmed to the Blessed Virgin the title of Mother of God.3 54 It is also the judgment of Voltaire and the entire school of incredulists; for St. Cyril triumphantly refuted the work of the Emperor Julian against Christianity.

In the early part of the fifth century the great city of Alexandria in Egypt was still nearly one half pagan, and the Jewish population also was very large. No populace in the Empire was so turbulent and seditious, and therefore the emperors had invested the patriarchs with extensive civil authority, although the force at the prelates’ disposal was not always sufficient to repress the disorders of the mob. In the year 413 St. Cyril was raised to the patriarchate, and was almost 55 immediately involved in difficulty with Orestes, the imperial prefect. Often he conjured this officer on the Gospels to put an end to this enmity for the good of the city.

At this time the chief school of pagan philosophy in Alexandria was taught by Hypatia, a beautiful woman, and of irreproachable morals. Among her hearers were many of the élite of paganism. The celebrated Synesius had been her pupil, and his letters show that, although he had become a Christian bishop in 410 he still gloried in her friendship. But her most important scholar was the prefect Orestes. It is difficult to determine what was the religion of this man. He himself, on the occasion of an attack on his life by some monks from St. Nitria, had proclaimed his Christianity, but his general conduct would inspire doubt of his sincerity; and we may safely accept as probable the conjecture of the English novelist, that he was ready to renew the attempt of Julian the Apostate. The obstinacy of Orestes in refusing a reconciliation with their patriarch was ascribed by the whole Christian community to the influence of Hypatia; and one day in the Lent of 415 a number of parabolani4 and laics, led 56 by one Peter the Reader and some Nitrian monks fell upon the unfortunate philosopher as she was proceeding to her lecture hall, dragged her from her litter, hurried her to the great church of the Cæsareum, and there literally tore her to pieces.

Such, in a few words, is the substance of the account of this horrible event as given by the historian Socrates5 a writer contemporary with the great St. Cyril, and whom Kingsley professes to have scrupulously followed. But Socrates, hostile though he ever shows himself to the holy patriarch, does not once insinuate that this prelate was the instigator of the crime; while the Anglican minister does imply that charge, and openly lays all responsibility for the foul deed on St. Cyril.

Voltaire, the prince of incredulists, naturally gloats over one of the most delicious morsels ever furnished to his school. Having 57 compared Hypatia to Madame Dacier, a learned classicist of his day, he asks us to imagine the French Carmelites contending that the poem of “Magdalen,” composed in 1668 by Peter de Saint-Louis, one of their Order, was superior to the “Iliad” of Homer, and insisting that it is impious to prefer the work of a pagan to that of a religious. Let us fancy, then, continues the Sage of Ferney, that the Archbishop of Paris takes the part of the Carmelites against the governor of the city, a partisan of Madame Dacier, who prefers Homer to F. Peter. Finally, let us suppose the Archbishop inciting the Carmelites to slaughter this talented woman in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. “Such precisely,” concludes Voltaire, “is the history of Hypatia. She taught Homer and Plato in Alexandria during the reign of Theodosius II. St. Cyril unleashed the Christian populace against her, as we are told by Damascius and Suidas, and as is satisfactorily proved by the most learned moderns, such as Brucker, La Croze, Basnage, etc.”6 And in another place7 Voltaire dares to ask: “Can anything be more horrible or more cowardly than the conduct of the priests 58 of this Bishop Cyril, whom Christians style St. Cyril? . . . His tonsured hounds, followed by a mob of fanatics, attack Hypatia in the street, drag her by the hair, stone and burn her, and Cyril the Holy utters not the slightest reprimand.” Again:8 “This Cyril was ambitious, factious, turbulent, knavish and cruel. . . . He caused his priests and diocesans to massacre the young Hypatia, so well known in the world of letters. . . . Cyril was jealous because of the prodigious attendance at the lectures of Hypatia, and he incited against her the murderers who assassinated her. . . . Such was Cyril of whom they have made a saint.” And as late as 1777, when the octogenarian cynic was already in the shadow of death, he wrote: “We know that St. Cyril caused the murder of Hypatia, the heroine of philosophy.”9

Since such is the judgment expressed by Voltaire, at once the most shallow and most influential of all modern writers on historical matters, it is not strange that the masses have accepted the romance of Hypatia as recounted by most of those fosterers of shallowness, the encyclopædias and dictionaries of the day. 60 Even in some of the least superficial of these presumed authorities, such as the “Nouvelle Biographie Générale” (Didot, 1858), and the “Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique du Dix-Neuvième Siècle” (1873), the accusation against St. Cyril is clearly put forth. In the former work we read the following the pen of a celebrated writer:10 “It is hard to believe that the hands of St. Cyril were not stained in this bloody tragedy. The historian Socrates, who gives its details, adds that the deed covered with infamy not only Cyril but the whole Church of Alexandria.” In the latter we are told: “Hypatia was massacred by the Christian populace, at the instigation of St. Cyril. . . . According to Damascius, St. Cyril, passing one day before the residence of Hypatia, noted the crowd who were waiting to hear the daughter of Theon, and he thereupon conceived such jealousy of her fame that he resolved to procure the death of the noble and learned girl.”11

Voltaire tells us that the guilt of St. Cyril has been proved by the most learned men of the eighteenth century, “such as Brucker, La Croze, Basnage, etc, etc.” Let us pass, with a doubting smile, this extravagant encomium on writers of very ordinary calibre, and see how these Protestant authorities arrive at their horrible conclusion. It is by adducing the testimony of Socrates, Suidas, Damascius, and Nicephorus Callixtus. But in vain do they call on Socrates. This historian, although very hostile to St. Cyril, as he constantly shows himself, and although his Novatianism12 would render him very willing to incriminate an 61 orthodox prelate, does not charge the holy patriarch with either the instigation or an approval of the murder. And, let it be noted, Philostorgius, also contemporary with Hypatia, and an historian of as much reliability as Socrates, narrates her death, but does not even mention the name of St. Cyril in connection with it, although, indeed, he inculpates the Catholics. The same may be said of Suidas. As for Nicephorus Callixtus, this schismatic author should not be brought forward in the matter, as he lived nine centuries after the event, and could know nothing whatever concerning it, unless from Socrates and Philostorgius. Furthermore, the best critics of every school tax this writer with a fondness for fables.

There remains, then, only Damascius, on whom Voltaire and his latest copyist, Kingsley, can rely for justification in their ghoulish task. But Damascius was a pagan, a declared enemy of Christianity, and it was the interest of his cause to besmirch the fair fame of Alexandria’s patriarch. And of what value is his assertion, made a century and a half after the death of Hypatia, when compared with the silence of her contemporaries, Socrates and Philostorgius? Again, the very passage of Damascius adduced by the foes of St. Cyril 62 betrays the shallowness of this author’s information. He represents the patriarch as surprised at the numbers awaiting the coming forth of Hypatia, and as asking who it was that could attract such a concourse. Is it possible that St. Cyril, the best informed man in Alexandria concerning even its most trivial affairs, the all-powerful patriarch whose spies were everywhere (according to Kingsley), did not know the residence of the woman who disputed with him the intellectual empire of the city? And Damascius makes still more exorbitant demands on our credulity; for he gives us to understand that until St. Cyril saw that crowd of her enthusiastic disciples, he had not even heard a name which for years had been renowned in Egypt.

We are not writing a life of St. Cyril, still less a hagiological essay; but we must remark that the general tenor of this prelate’s career, his exhibition of constant zeal and virtue of a strikingly heroic character, which caused his enrollment among the canonized saints, would prevent us from supposing that he could ever have been a murderer. Of course, absolutely speaking no metaphysical impossibility is invoked in the supposition of Voltaire, Kingsley, etc.; but if it were accepted, we should expect to discover some trace of heroic repentance in 63 the after-life of the patriarch. Now, in the remaining thirty years of his career, active and open to inspection though it as, we can find neither the slightest trace of such repentance nor even any avowal of the crime. But we need say no more. The charge is as gratuitous as it is malicious, and will thus be considered by all fair minds until at least one contemporary or quasi-contemporary authority can be adduced in its support.


1  “Lit. Hist.,” article “Cyrillus.”

2  “Bibl. Græca,” pt. iv, b. 5.

3  Writing to the clergy and people of Constantinople, Pope St. Celestine said: “We have deemed it proper that in so important a matter we ourselves should be in some sort present among you, and therefore we have appointed our brother Cyril as our representative.” And, writing to St. Cyril, the Pontiff says: “You will proclaim this sentence by our authority, acting in our place by virtue of our power; so that if Nestorius, within ten days after his admonition, does not anathematize his impious doctrine, you will declare him deprived of communion with us, and you will at once provide for the needs of the Constantinopolitan Church.” It is quite natural that Protestant polemics should be hostile to the memory of the great “Doctor of the Incarnation,” who thus apostrophized the Blessed Virgin in the Council of Ephesus: “I salute thee, Mother of God, venerable treasure of the entire universe! I salute thee, who didst enclose the Immense, the Incomprehensible, in thy virginal womb! I salute thee, by whose means heaven triumphs, angels rejoice, demons are put to flight, the tempter is vanquished, the culpable creature is raised to heaven, a knowledge of truth is based on the ruins of idolatry! I salute thee, through whom all the churches of the earth have been founded, and all nations led to penance! I salute thee, in fine, by whom the only Son of God, the Light of the world, has enlightened those who were seated in the shadow of death! Can any man worthily laud the incomparable Mary?”

4  These were an order of minor clerics, probably only tonsured, who were deputed to the service of the sick both in hospitals and at home. Their name was derived from their constant exposure to danger. The first mention of them in a public document occurs in an ordinance of Theodosius II., in 416; but they are here spoken of as having been in existence many years, and probably they were instituted in the time of Constantine. In course of time they became arrogant and seditious, and were finally abolished. At Alexandria they numbered six hundred, and were all appointed by the patriarch.

5  “Hist. Eccl.,” b. vii, § 15.

6  In his “Dictionnaire Philosophique;” article “Hypatia.”

7  “Examen Important de Milord Bolingbroke,” chap. 34, “Des Chrétiens jusqu’à Theodose.”

8  “Discours de Julien contre la Secte des Galiléens.”

9  “L’Etablissement du Christianisme,” chap. 24, “Excés de Fanatisme.”

10  M. Aubé, in vol. xxv, p. 712.

11  Vol. ix., p. 505 — Cantù does not touch the question of St. Cyril’s responsibility for this crime. This is all that the great historian says concerning Hypatia: “Theon, a professor in Alexandria, commentated on Euclid and Ptolemy, but became more famous on account of his beautiful daughter Hypatia. Taught mathematics by him, and perfected at Athens, she was invited to teach philosophy in her native city. She followed the eclectics, but based her system on the exact sciences, and introduced demonstrations into the speculative, thus reducing them to a more rigorous method than they had hitherto known. Bishop Synesius was her scholar, and always venerated her. Orestes, Prefect of Egypt, admired and loved her, and followed her counsels in his contest with the fiery Archbishop, St. Cyril. It was said that it was owing to Hypatia’s enthusiasm for paganism that Orestes became unfavorable to the Christians. Hence certain imprudent persons so excited the people against her that one day, while she was going to her school, she was dragged from her litter, stripped and killed, and her members thrown into the flames.” (Storia Universale,” b. vii, c. 23. Edit. Ital. 10; Turin, 1862.)

12  This heresy was an outgrowth of the schism of Novatian, who, instigated by Novatus, a Carthaginian priest, tried to usurp the pontifical throne of St. Cornelius in 251. Its cardinal doctrine was that there were some sins which the Church can not forgive. It subsisted in the East until the seventh century, and in the West until the eighth.

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