Susan Jacoby reviews “Agora”

And she likes it!

This idea of intellectual inquiry as a self-evident good died in the West for nearly 1200 years with the ascendancy of Christianity, and it is always–as we see in much of the Islamic world and in the precincts of far-right Christianity today–an object of hatred for those who would still criminalize heresy and blasphemy and, in the case of Islamists, murder those who defy their definitions.

The New Hypatia

– for Ayaan Hirsi Ali


There once was a actress named Weisz
whose bashful, compassionate eyes
inspired us to rate
her Hypatia as great
and to weep when the heroine dies.


What little we know of her life
is bound up in trouble and strife
of an era in which
they thought her a witch
because she was nobody’s wife.


Neither Christian nor pagan nor Jew
she was one of the relative few
who today we would call
a freethinker, et al.
then degrade in the New York Review.*

* of Books

Meme this: if you like these limericks, you can help create a meme. Pass them around on the internet. Hopefully they will reach Rachel Weisz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali! Remeber, this is an experiment.

How? Be imaginative. Post a comment on Pharyngula, or Dawkins coined the word “meme.” Send it to your atheist cousin, or uncle.

What’s a meme? Anything that can be passed from one brain to another. If you wish to know more about the obscure reference to the NYRB, just google “Enlightenment fundamentalist.”

If you haven’t seen Agora, check Wikipedia for the basic outline of Hypatia of Alexandria’s life. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived with bodyguards and armed escorts for years because of her freethinking views. She was born in Somalia.


It has been wryly suggested that Agora, the recent film about Hypatia of Alexandria, was a kind of religious film turned on its head. “St. Hypatia, murdered by oyster shell,” was one version I heard. Well, the film has no oyster shells, but I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it. If freethinkers have saints – which I surmise they don’t –  Hypatia would be one. But, like I said, there are no saints of freethought.

The Hypatia portrayed in the film is wise, compassionate, restless, moderate in all things save intellectual fire. She is not a “pagan” in the sense that she is not given over to worshipping statues and whatever deities the Alexandrian Christians of her day were out to topple. She was a sect of one. Like Thomas Paine, her church was her own mind.

“You cannot question what you believe; I must.” That is the motto of the freethinker. Whether or not the historical Hypatia was indeed such a person may never be known. We do know that she was a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. But what I find interesting is that a major historical epic chose to promote a freethinking “saint.” Was this a belated answer to Mel Gibson?

Agora could not, to my mind, have been made ten years ago. A secular renaissance was necessary in order for a big-budget movie to take such a rationalist stance against religious fervor and the pitfalls of pious politics. Indeed, the Christian mob charged with Hypatia’s murder overtly resembles the Taliban. That’s no accident.

Was Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia improbably chaste? She was a bit too perfect, as if the director felt the need for a freethinking Madonna. She could’ve used at least one good temper tantrum, considering that her beloved city and her entire culture was collapsing at her feet.