Thursday, November 18, 2010

The evils of religious zealotry theme of film "Agora"

I finally saw the film "Agora" a few weeks ago and, although it was very well acted, found it rather disturbing.  I was, of course, already aware of the history behind the murder of fourth century Greek philosopher/astronomer/mathematician Hypatia (although she was actually pulled from her chariot and literally ripped to pieces by the Christians rather than stoned).

Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them ." - Socrates Scholasticus

But to see how the religious fervor of the period bred such brutality was hard to watch.  The Christians were definitely shown in a terrible light but the worshipers of Serapis and the Jews were portrayed as not much better.  In fact, at one point I wasn't sure who was butchering who - I think it turned out to be the Jews ambushing and stoning the Christians in retaliation for similar Christian atrocities.  Of course the Christians' glee as they destroyed centuries of knowledge in the Great Library made me shudder too, knowing that the Church elite would soon use the people's ignorance to enslave them in a repressive feudal system developed during the coming Dark and Middle Ages.

Other scenes that bothered me included one scene where you hear the Christians raptly listening to a recitation of the sermon on the mount.."Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.."  when they have demonstrated they don't have a merciful bone in their bodies.  They are in what I think are the remains of the Great Library and the words echo hollowly in the huge cavernous chamber.  I couldn't help but think that the words echoed just as hollowly in their souls.   I also found the "feeding the poor" scene rather distasteful.  The Christian rabble rouser that took the bread from Hypatia's slave  seemed to have no concern for the family the bread was intended to feed or the consequences to the slave for returning to his master's household without it.  Furthermore, it was no act of piety to hand out bread that was not his own. Instead, he seemed to relish the political "appearance" of distributing bread to the poor as modern politicians do when they are attempting to win a voter's support.  Then when Hypatia's slave takes the remains of the bread and begins to give it out, the recipients at first take the bread tentatively then seem to wolfishly snatch it from him without gratitude or consideration for the other unfortunates around them.  Compassion is conspicuously absent.

The Christians used one of Paul's diatribes against women as the rationale for attacking Hypatia. Of course Paul, himself, may not have even realized that his writings, including his own cultural prejudices, would be presented later as the word of God.

The filmmakers didn't make Hypatia out to be some kind of saint either.  Whenever she got flustered she would bad mouth slaves - the result of her ethnocentric Greek upbringing no doubt.    I just finished reading "The Golden Mean", a novel about Aristotle and Alexander the Great (my review), and it was hard to fathom how really intelligent people like Aristotle and Hypatia could consider themselves so superior to other people simply because life's circumstances resulted in someone being born into another culture or conquered and enslaved.

Anyway, I felt the film did a good job of making the case that religious zealotry (regardless of which religion it is) is the root of all evil.

Agora   Hypatia of Alexandria (Revealing Antiquity , No 8)   Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr   Of Numbers And Stars: The Story of Hypatia   LADY PHILOSOPHER: The Story of Hypatia
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