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Synesius, Dio, 4

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.

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

[4] [1124] It occurred to me to say this about Dio to my latest son who is yet to be;[1] for while I was going through Dio's writings of every description, in the midst of all this the oracle [2] came to me. Of a truth I have come to feel the instincts of a father. Already I long to be with my son, and teach him what I think about every prose writer and every writing, introducing to him men who are dear to me with the criticism that befits each. May Dio of Prusa be amongst these also, a man exceptional in speech and in knowledge. And after praising him thus, I hand over Dio to him that he may commence to read his political works after the masters of the noble philosophy, and may regard them as a borderland between my own preparatory teaching and instruction in the ultimate truths.

It would be well for you, my son, when you have continued the pursuit of intellectual demonstrations and when your mind is congested or your understanding is overburdened with weighty doctrines, it will be well for you, I say, not at once to rush to comedy or any mere form of rhetoric when in need of a change of occupation; for this would be to idle in a disorderly way, and perchance far beyond what is reasonable. Rather should the strained cord be relaxed by degrees until, if it seems good to you (and may it so seem!) you have arrived even at the opposite extreme, having gone through all things that have been dallied over and played with by men who were comrades of the Muses, [1125] until, I say, with increased zeal you again use these and certain kindred writings as a means of moral ascent. This would be the best conduct to pursue as you run the length of this noble double course, at one moment playing with your books, at another working with them. For I think the philosopher must not be rude or evil in any other way, but should be initiated in all gracious conduct and should also be an unmistakable Greek; that is to say, should be able to keep in touch with mankind by taking care not to neglect any written work.

It seems that the prelude to philosophy is nothing else than a curiosity about knowledge,[3] and in children the disposition to love a story is the promise of a philosophical goal. And yet of what art or knowledge could she [Philosophy] be an art and a knowledge? It lies in her very essence that she is understood to be borne on her way by all of these [the Muses], if so be she has no predilection among them, so as to regard one from her point of vantage, and to busy herself with another who is moving forward, while she has them all for a bodyguard as befits a queen. Are not the Muses all together, as their names indicate, whether it be that the gods so named them, or that men employ a term divine?[4] At all events they make up a company by reason I presume, of this very union. No one of them is ever separated from another, nor in a banquet of the gods does she display her own work, neither does she get an altar or a shrine amongst men.

And yet there are some who from want of nature's endowment are ever seeking to divide into small portions that which is in them indivisible, and so one man has attained proficiency in the art of one Muse, and another in that of another. But philosophy dominates them all. And this is what is doubtless set forth by the immediate presence of Apollo in the harmony of the Muses.

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Note 1:
Synesius had three sons. None survived him.

Note 2:
An expression, common in Alexandrine literature, to describe a dream.

Note 3:
Aristotle, Metaphysics, 980a, 982b; Synesius, Egyptian Tale, 1.2.

Note 4:
Synesius mentions the second option because he lived in a Christian society.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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