The Movie “Agora”

Agora makes some fairly easy observations about the nature of faith and how it necessarily leads to force, and usually outright violence, but that is not what I want to focus on here. I think that an even greater truth is revealed by this great movie. It is an exploration of the nature of evil men, and how they survive and thrive with the assistance of good people. Just so that the reader is clear, when I say “good”, I mean that the ultimate standard of the good is man’s life. That which promotes his life is good. Furthermore, all things created by men should be judged by this standard, if living is one’s goal. An automobile is good if it serves the purpose of transportation of human beings in the most efficient manner possible. A house is good if it serves the purpose of habitation. A philosophy is good if it serves the purpose of guiding human beings in living their lives. Similarly, all men should be judged by this standard. A man is good if he strives to produce the values necessary for living. (For more detail about life as the ultimate standard of value, consult the works of Ayn Rand.)

The movie is set near the end of the Roman Empire. Christianity is on the cusp of becoming the dominant philosophy of the time, and society and government is disintegrating. In Alexandria, the pagans and a few Christians still continue to study the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists. Hypatia is a female natural philosopher teaching the ideas of Ptolemy: that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the Sun and the Planets revolve around the Earth in complicated epicycles. (This notion was later enshrined by the Catholic Church and it wasn’t seriously challenged until the 1500’s.) At the beginning of the movie, Hypatia is a believer in the Ptolemeic system, but, throughout the movie, she begins to doubt this system of planetary motion, and even conducts scientific experiments to test some of the objections that are raised against the modern, heliocentric view of the solar system.

There are two major plot threads running through the movie, and Hypatia’s struggles to understand the nature of our solar system is one of them. In and of itself, this plot thread would have made an excellent movie. The author of the script goes even deeper than this, however, by skillfully interweaving another thread into the plot. This second thread involves the struggle between the remaining secular elements in Ancient Alexandrian society, and an increasingly dominant, and emboldened religious group. The secularists are represented by Hypatia, the natural philosopher, and her student and suitor, Orestes. At the beginning of the movie, Orestes is still her student, and he rather casually notes that the planetary system proposed by Ptolomy seems rather silly. It is this initial criticism of Ptolomy by Orestes that plants the seed of doubt in Hypatia’s mind, and leads her to begin rethinking the entire system of planetary motion.

The men of pure faith are represented in the movie by two characters: Ammonius, who is a classic “rabble rouser” and street thug, prone to acts of violence, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, who is motivated by power-lust. However, the movie makes it clear that by themselves, Ammonius and Cyril would not have been able to unleash the death and destruction that they bring. Better men like Orestes choose to compromise with them out of political and social expediency over the years, and thereby lend them an aura of social and political respectability, which eventually results in the best person being held in subjugation by the worst people, with the worst possible result.

Since it is historical fiction set prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, and the advent of one of the darkest periods in human history, one should not expect a happy ending in Agora. But, bad things happen to good people in (good) fiction for a reason, and it is very important that the reasons in Agora be understood by all of us.