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Synesius, Dio, 6


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

[6] [1128] Discourse therefore must be got ready in place of discourse, in place of the greater the less. This indeed would be a an excellent one also and, when men encounter it before the other, the one will be greatly gripped by it and will welcome it, and will even think that no other could be better, while the other would who has received a share of the divine nature will be thereby exalted and will come to understand the former also. And whom the god stirs, for him the temple also will be opened by us.

Menelaus was in no wise ignorant of the real Proteus; for he was a Greek hero and a son-in-law worthy of Zeus, to whom he was bound from the first by no trivial bands.[1] Clearly the fire and the tree and the wild beast were tales of animals and plants, [1129] but also concerned themselves with the primary elements of which are composed things coming into being. He cared not even for these but aspired to penetrate still further into nature. It is really a gift divine to suffice for all men in the degree to which each person is able to profit thereby. Let him who has attained to the summit keep in mind also that he is a human being, and let him be able to associate with every men, as much as in him lies. Why then should anyone banish the Muses, who make it possible both to please mankind and to keep the divine things unsullied, as by a veil cast o’er them?

If our human nature is a variable quality also, it will certainly weary of a life of contemplation, to the point of foregoing its greatness, and of descending; for we are not mind undefiled but mind in the soul of a living creature; and for our own sakes therefore we must seek after the more human forms of literature, providing a home for our nature when it descends. One must be content to have a neighbor somewhere towards whom to turn and make atonement to the soul’s constitution, which needs kindliness so as not to fall farther, nor yet to pass its life in all the diversity of nature. For God has made pleasure to be a fastening for the soul by which it supports the proximity of the body. Such then is the beauty of literature. It does not go down towards matter, not does it dip the mind in the lowest powers, but rather gives it force to rise up in a moment and to hasten upwards to real being, for even the low part of such a life is high.

But for the one who is incapable of tasting pleasure in its purity - and nature needs the soothing element - what shall he do or whither shall he turn? Will his course not tend towards that which is unworthy even to relate? For obviously men of this sort will not despise nature, though they will also profess an untiring zeal for contemplation, making themselves out to be passionless gods although clothed in flesh. Nay, if they were to make such profession, let them know that so far from being gods or wise and divine men, the are empty-headed, and boasters into the bargain. They would have been better if they had defined wisely what is fitting to each manner of man. A condition untouched by passion is by its very nature in God only, but men who change evil for virtue succeed in moderating their passions: the very flight from excess would be the achievement of the sage.

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Note 1:
Menelaus was married to Zeus’ daughter Helena.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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