Synesius, Dio 16

Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

In his speech Dio, named after Dio of Prusa, Synesius presents his cultural ideal. Paideia or general education (which means: study of the arts) is a preliminary or an initiation to philosophy, comparable to the development of Dio, who was (according to Synesius) a sophist first, but later converted to philosophy (which means knowledge of the Divine).

The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

Ancient text

Synesius, Dio 16

[1] [1160] The teachings of Pythagoras prescribed this to young men, [1161] at one time making trial of the natural bent of each of them, at another time esteeming this a preparatory exercise even more suitable to boyhood than the assumptions of plane geometry, for it is no great task to adapt a letter, a syllable, perchance a phrase, or if you will a whole period, and again to employ conveniently what is in the book. This is quite like what happens in the case of the fledglings of eagles. The parents take the eaglets when they are just ready to fly, and bearing them aloft let them go on high, as if permitting them to use their own wings. Then in a moment they take them up again, for they foresee the weakness of their youth, and this trial they repeat frequently until the young have learned thoroughly how to fly.

[2] Now I shall never indulge in youthful boasting before any man, but about these truths, at least, I will boast in your presence. Oft-times I do not attempt to await the conclusion of a book for any good it may do me, but rather do I lift up my eyes and proceed to exercise myself in the narrative, not hesitating in the least but yielding to the opportune moment; and pretending that I am reading straight on, I recite out of my own head whatever it seems to me should follow, and I test what has been thus said in the light of what has been written. Oft-times I find that I have happened upon the same sense and even the same form of expression [as the author]. On the other hand, I have occasionally made a happy shot at a thought, although missing the phrasing itself, and have produced what quite resembled the harmony of the work. And even if the thought was different, it was at all events such as would befit the writer of the book, and one which he would not have rejected if it had come into his mind.

[3] I know that on one occasion I was holding in my hands a volume of the noble and classical order, and when certain men who were present asked me to read something aloud that they might listen to it, I proceeded on this wise. And as opportunity arose I would invent something new and would add an explanation of it, not, but the god of eloquence, that I had rehearsed it, but that, when I came upon it in this way, I fell into harmony with the author’s thought and language. Straightway a great shout of applause arose and there burst forth clapping of hands; they were praising the man who wrote the book and not least on the ground of the additions themselves; to such an extent has the deity made my soul a soft surface to bear the impress of the stamps of diction,note and if I had directed my attention by this exercise to uncorrected copies of books, nature would have conducted my mastery to this point when I made the attempt.

[4] A certain sound continues with those whose ears are wearied by the flute, even when its note has ceased, and they remain for some time possessed by it. In this way many times have I forced the note in reading in tragedy, for its music has often added a tragic note to dramas, and I rival comedies in nonsense in response to the labor of the writer. You would say I was the friend at one time of Cratinus and of Crates and at another of Diphilus and Philemon. There is no form, in fine, of metrical conceit or poetry in presence of which I am not exalted, none whose practice I do not carry out, now making whole works to compare with whole works, [1164] and now tidbits with tidbits. And as many forms of literary style as exist, and however diverse, in everyone of my imitations of these my own personal note must needs be added. It is thus that the highest string, itself awaiting rhythm, re-echoes it to the melody that is being played.