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Synesius, Dio, 3


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
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, about the christianization of the Roman world, and the military crisis at the beginning of the fifth century.

In his speech Dio, named after Dio of Prusa, Synesius presents his cultural ideal. The speech is summarized here.

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

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

[3] [1120] Now set aside the figures of Diogenes and Socrates, who occur in so many works, and who seem exceptional in natural genius. These two it is not in the power of every man to emulate, but only such an one as has made promise from the first of a certain preference for what pertains to philosophy. If, however, you are only seeking a man, after our common humanity, one who can turn his hand to everything, one just, pious, independent, and benevolent according to his means; in that case no other examples of such a happy life could be offered you in exchange for those of the 'Euboean'. Moreover, somewhere in this book he praises the Essenes, a whole happy township in the midst of Palestine, beside the Dead Sea, lying at some point not far from Sodom itself.[1]

From the moment, then, that Dio began to study philosophy seriously and inclined to admonishing mankind, he actually published not one unprofitable speech, but to him who reads in no careless spirit it will be evident that the form of Dio's exposition is not one and the same, but varies according as his subjects are sophistic or social. In the former he carries his head high and gives himself airs like a peacock gazing about himself and as though rejoicing in the splendor of his speech, as one turning his eyes upon that alone, and making euphony his object. You may take his description of Tempe as an example of this, and also his 'Memnon'. In this his manner of expressing himself is somewhat arrogant; but as to the books of his second period, in these you would least detect anything frivolous or presumptuous. Nor is this a matter for wonderment, inasmuch as philosophy drives luxury even from the tongue, delighting in a beauty which is grave and orderly, as is her old tradition, one in accord with nature and in harmony with underlying principles.

Now Dio also when he threads his way through history falls in with this tradition, following the most ancient authorities whether in oration or argument. [1124] Of his sound and dominant position take either the 'Parliamentary' or the 'Senatorial' as an example. And if you like to take up any of his addresses to cities, delivered and published, you may see each of the old-fashioned styles but nothing of the more modern note, which seeks to overload the fairness of nature, such as are the essays which we called to mind a moment ago, namely the 'Memnon' and the 'Tempe'. Of this last type is the 'Attack on the philosophers', for even if he does not so pretend, it smacks of the auditorium and its grace, nor can you find a more fascinating piece of rhetoric in Dio.

Again, I am lost in amazement at the destiny of philosophy if it be true that no comedy is more famous than the Clouds. Certainly Aristophanes has recited non with equal power. Take this as a sign of terseness and fluency:

He dipt the insect's feet in melted wax
Which hardening to his sandals as it cooled
Gave him the space by rule infallible.
[Aristophanes, Clouds, 149; tr. Mitchell.]

Moreover his indictment of PlatoOn Behalf of the Four, made Aristides famous amongst the Greeks. This essay was devoid of all finished art, nor could you give it a place in the category of rhetoric at least with any justice to rhetorical laws; but it is composed with an ineffable beauty of form and with an astonishing grace, bringing as it were, a reckless delight by its use of names and words.

This Dio, moreover, was at his very pinnacle in his essay against the philosophers, above all in that quality which the younger men of the present day call culmination. In a word, he adapted himself to a style by far too pompous for a convincing speaker, and yet in such a genre he seemed quite to surpass himself. Dio has not, however, so much betrayed the old rhetoric, even in those passages where he clearly seems to recede from its narrative traditions, to such an extent that it might even escape us that it is Dio, since he was veered to the modern school.

He handless lawlessness rather cautiously, and like one diffident when he brings forward anything venturesome and insolent. [1124] He could scarcely indeed escape a condemnation if we examined him in relation to the audacity which subsequently prevailed amongst the orators. But in most of his works, in all of them indeed, we may place him with the well-balanced orators of the past, beside anyone of whom he was altogether worthy to speak either before the people or an individual; for the rhythmical element in his language is restrained just as the depth of the moral impression he makes it chastened, as befits a sort of chastiser and moral guide of a whole city affected by folly.

But inasmuch as we said that Dio's faculty of expression is neither altogether uniform nor is it even open to doubt that both styles belong to Dio, one being that of an orator and the other that of a social reformer; so also as to the thoughts, whosoever, not himself divorced from thought, will cast his eye over any of Dio's books, will recognize that they are of his authorship, written in one or the other of the two styles belonging to his subject matter; and even if he takes the most trivial of all he will see that Dio is the most resourceful of men in finding words for everything by his rhetorical power.

He stands out far beyond sophists in his enterprise and, even granting that any other sophist has been resourceful, he is far from being worthy to be compared with Dio in versatility. At the same time a certain marvelous individuality characterizes the thoughts of Dio. Let the 'Rhodian' and the 'Trojan' reveal this to you, and also, if you like, the 'Praise of the Mosquito', for even trivialities become serious subjects with Dio, who followed his natural bent everywhere, and you would not fail to recognize that these works belonged to the same make and power.

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Note 1:
Apparently, the line in italics does not belong in the text; it is out of context, and besides, there is no reference to the Essenes in Dio's Euboean speech.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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