Synesius of Cyrene
of Cyrene (c.370-c.413):
Neo-Platonic philosopher, sophist,
and bishop of Ptolemais
in the Cyrenaica.
The pagan philosopher
Synesius was a member of a well-known and rich family of Cyrene, which claimed descent from the half-legendary founders of the city, members of the Spartan royal house. His family's wealth enabled him and his brother Euoptius to travel to Greece (before 392) and study in Alexandria (after 393), where Hypatia introduced them to Neo-Platonism. This philosophy taught that there was one, supreme God, that everything in the universe was in harmony (or "sympathy", as it was called), and that God cared for Creation (providence).
Synesius would never cease to believe this, and always remained friends with the wise woman, with whom he continued to exchange letters (e.g., Letter 15) when he retired to his estate Anchimachus, "studying philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, everything; farming, hunting, having many a brush with hordes of pilfering Libyans; and every now and then upholding the cause of someone who had undeservedly fallen into difficulties" - in short, the life of a Greek or Roman gentleman.
In these years, he composed several texts, which show that he was a talented writer. His Greek is usually an excellent Attic, but his hymns -lighthearted and majestic at the same time- are composed in good Dorian. In these hymns, he praises the beauty of the universe. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he does not treat the subject in a pedantic way. One of his works is On dreams, which are, in his view, divine revelations that a good philosopher can understand; they are a way to "become linked with the spheres, that is to say, be carried up as if to its own natural state of being", and reach the origin of our existence without having to perform rituals or visit the temples (which had been closed in 392). His treatise On dog breeding is now lost. A trip from Alexandria to Cyrene, during which he survived shipwreck, is commemorated in a boyish Letter 4.
In 397, he visited the emperor Arcadius in Constantinople, to whom he offered aurum coronarium (crown gold). He also wanted to petition for lower taxes for his native city, which had suffered from tribal invaders. It took some time before he caught the emperor's ear, but when he was allowed to speak, he spoke out clearly: his speech On Imperial Rulecontains of course all the usual topical statements about the role of a philosopher as impartial and disinterested adviser of a ruler, but also a bold statement that the ruler must act against the abuse of power and corruption, and send away the Germanic troops. This was a very relevant topic, as a Germanic leader named Gainas had almost overthrown the state in 399-400.
Having achieved his aim, Synesius went home. On the day of his departure, there was an earthquake (Letter 61). He visited the Academy of Athens, which he found, in comparison to the philosophical school of Hypatia, disappointing. In Letter 136, he says that the ancient city is "like a victim burnt in the sacrificial fire: there remains nothing but the skin to help us to reconstruct a creature that was once alive" (cf. Letter 54). Synesius' speech In Praise of Baldness, 7, suggests that he was initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries as well, which were -at that time- falling into decay. (It is possible that he visited Athens during the three years in Constantinople.)
He visited Alexandria again, where he married a Christian wife, whose name is not revealed in his letters, but for whom he wrote Hymn 8, which contains many Christian motifs. The ceremony was presided over by bishop Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria. Clearly, Synesius was not greatly perturbed by the religious differences. This attitude is illustrated in his Letter 154, to Hypatia, in which he mocks Christian philosophers and empty, pagan sophistry, and states that he wants to adhere to the real truth that reveals itself in several ways. The couple had several children, who were born in Alexandria.
After some time, they traveled to Cyrene, but did not enjoy their stay: war broke out and Synesius was to command small armies, which he had recruited and financed himself (e.g., Letter 132). At an unknown moment before 407, his estate was overran, and he had to move to the city.
In spite of this, in general, there were happy moments as well, often dedicated to literary activities, farming, and hunting. His letters show that Synesius was torn between two sentiments: on the one hand, a passion for the quiet life on his country estate (e.g., Letter 148) with his books, for which he even sold part of his land (Dio, 13), and on the other hand his responsibility for his city and his people (e.g., Letter 95).
Among the publications of this period are a treatise On an Astrolabe that he constructed for a friend in Constantinople, an amusing speech In Praise of Baldness (a reply to In praise of hair by Dio Chrysostom). He also published an essay On Dio Chrysostom, a late first-century sophist-philosopher like Synesius, who uses this essay to explain his cultural ideal. His main work in these years, however, was The Egyptian tale, or On Providence, published in 402. It is a romanticized account of his trip to Constantinople, in which two of Arcadius' ministers are likened to the Egyptian gods Osiris and Seth.
The Christian bishop
In 409, he was invited to become bishop of Ptolemais, a port west of Cyrene and the main center of Christianity in the region. Being a philosopher and a pagan, he was heavily in doubt, but it was an age of war and bishops could do many things for their people. He wrote Letter 105to his brother, but in fact to the community of Ptolemais (it was some sort of "open letter"), saying that as a philosopher, he could not adhere to certain Christian beliefs, although he was willing to teach them to the illiterate. If his future flock could understand that this was his attitude, and would accept a married bishop who would under no condition dismiss his wife, he was willing to accept the invitation.
His spiritual crisis lasted at least six months (Letter 96), but in the end he converted to Christianity and was consecrated by Theophilus of Alexandria. This man, who had already blessed Synesius' marriage, was known to be strict in doctrinal matters, and may not have appreciated the way Synesius proposed to combine Neoplatonism and Christianity. Of course, there were more bishops who described Christianity as some sort of Neoplatonism (e.g., Ambrose and Augustine), but they were all ascetic men. Synesius' attachment to his wife was unusual. We do not know whether Synesius convinced Theophilus, or the other way round: Synesius no longer refers to his wife after Letter 105.
He took his religious duties very seriously. His homilies contain no doctrinal errors or unorthodox statements. Instead he offers advice: after Lent, he warns his audience against passing from fasting to food and drunkenness (Homily 1). His arguments are interesting, because he first mentions a philosophical argument ("it would be against reason"), whereas scriptural evidence is quoted almost as an afterthought - and actually not quite convincingly.
In Letter 147, he admits that he does not appreciate the ascesis of monastic life, but also states that he envies the monks' advance on the road to God. We read about his pastoral sorrows, understand how he deals with an Arian sect, learn how he sought advice from other people, founds a monastery in an abandoned pagan shrine. When he quotes the Bible, he renders the Septuagint very accurately, which proves that he checked the text every time; this is unlike his loose quotations from the Dialogues by Plato, which betray that he thought he knew the texts by heart.
In spite of his pastoral tasks, there was time for literary activities. Among his hymns are Christian compositions. He also wrote a speech In Praise of Anysius (a Roman general who had defeated the Libyan tribesmen in 411), but it soon had to be followed by Letter 73 (asking a general to intervene), and a Catastasis, a lament on the destruction of the Cyrenaica.
During these years, he was involved in the defense of the Cyrenaica (Letter 40: congratulating a general), was sent out as a judge in ecclesiastical affairs (Letter 67), and had a quarrel with Andronicus, the military leader of the province, who was in the end excommunicated because he had violated the asylum offered by a church (Against Andronicus; Letter 58). In sum, Synesius was not a happy bishop.
Worse was to come: his three sons died, and contact with his
philosophical friend Hypatia of Alexandria was lost (Letter 10
and the desperate Letter 16). He must have felt that he was doing the things to which his sense
of duty, his philosophy, and the one God had called him, but happy he was not.
He must have died soon after 413, leaving behind a large corpus of texts. Two years later, Hypatia was lynched by a Christian mob.
Mosaic from the Eastern Basilica, Cyrene.
Jona Lendering for
Revision: 25 Feb. 2011