The elusive patroness of philosophers

Today the church commemorates Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a patroness of philosophers.

As a philosopher, I rejoice that a woman is our patron. But there’s one problem: Saint Catherine might never have existed! Now that’s a philosopher’s dilemma.

According to the legend, Saint Catherine became a Christian after an intellectual search led her to Christ. The Emperor, fascinated by her beauty, had her brought before him. Stirred by his lechery he asked her to be his consort. (What a good virgin martyr’s story without a lecherous emperor.) When this didn’t work, he urged her to give up her faith. She was so convincing in her argument against this that the emperor brought in fifty philosophers who were so moved by her arguments that they became Christians and were martyred. Catherine was thrown into jail where she converted the emperor’s wife, her jailer, and two hundred soldiers. Frustrated by all this, he planned to kill her by a machine made of spoked wheels, but it flew apart and she was untouched. Then the emperor had her beheaded. And, not make things even more fascinating, angels took her body and buried it on Mount Sinai.

Saint Catherine was a very popular saint in the middle ages and into the modern era. But the Catholic Church first suppressed her feast but then restored it in 2002. Alas, such is the fate of women philosophers.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, ends his short entry on St. Catherine, a saint who may never have existed, thus:

[Saint Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

St. Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us.

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Mosaic of women saints in Ravenna

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