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Synesius, Dio, 7


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.

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[7] [1132] I have ere observed even men of foreign race, of both these noble classes, men who professed a contemplative existence, [1133] and for that reason took no part in public life, and became unsociable in their haste to release themselves from nature.[1] They had sacred songs, holy symbols, and certain ordered approaches to the Divinity. All these things cut the men off from turning to matter, and they pass their lives apart from each other, so as neither to see nor to hear anything pleasant.

For bread they eat not at all, nor drink they the wine that is ruddy.[2]

In saying so much about the men in question, one would not overshoot the mark. But not even these men who have made such a brilliant struggle against nature, and who, as we might say, are most worthy to share in the perfect life, not even do such as these rejoice in it untiringly. For our perishable nature brings even these back when they have only settled down a short time in the happy place of that real existence which is theirs. Nor can they, I suppose, for all future time keep their mind on the surface and take their fill of the beauty of the intelligible, not though this had once been their fortune.

I hear, indeed, that not to all of these does such fortune come, not even to the majority, but only to less than a few, those whose first impulse was divinely inspired; and they remain under its influence as far as the nature of man admits, nor are they to be wheedled by any resistance on nature’s part.

For there are many that carry the thyrsus, but few are the Bacchi.[3]

But even these men do not bear the Bacchic frenzy with sufficient patience, but at one moment they rest in the god, at another in the universe, and again in their bodies. They know that they are but men, small fragments of the universe at that, having lesser lives lying beneath them, and suspicious of these to the point of frustrating them, lest they should bestir themselves and rise against them. What, after all, is the meaning of their baskets and of the wickerwork objects which they handle, if not to signify first of all that they were human beings at a given moment; in other words, were paying attention to matters here below? For they are not in a state of contemplation at the moment when they are dealing craftily with the wicker objects.

They further felt disdain for that inactivity which our nature cannot support, inasmuch as nature gives us many sources of motion. Accordingly, that they may not do anything else, they have made it a law amongst them to occupy themselves therewith, and they impel their nature in this direction and, what is more, they derive pleasure from bringing their work to its perfection; a pleasure so much the greater as the works are fairer and more numerous.

A certain element in us ought indeed to be occupied with the things of this life, but the force must not be a powerful one, lest it drag us down too far and take too great possession of us. The foreign race, be it said, is more stubborn in maintaining an enterprise than the Greek, for in whatever direction it has started out it is violent and unyielding. The latter is refined and has more gentleness in his composition, [1133] and for this reason would more quickly give away.

Now I should wish it to be a property of our nature to be always lifted up toward contemplation; but as this is obviously impracticable, I should like in turn to cling to the best and again in turn to descend to nature, there to cleave to merriment and anoint life with cheerfulness. For I know that I am a man, and neither a god that I should be adamant in face of every pleasure, nor a brute that I should take delight in the pleasures of the body. There remains, however, something to seek between these, and what can surpass a life spent in literature and its concerns; what pleasure is purer, what passionate attachment is more free from passion; what has less to do with matter; what is more undefiled? Again, in this respect I put the Greek before the foreigner and consider him the wiser, because when forced to descend he has taken his first stand in the neighborhood, for he has taken his stand upon knowledge. Knowledge is an outlet for the mind and, when moved from one argument to another, it has also made an advance thereby.

Now what could be more allied to mind than argument, or what ferry is more suited to conduct us to mind? For wherever there is argument, there also, I assume, is mind, and if not, at all events some knowledge of inferior subjects which implies intellectual perception. For in this connection certain processes of 'contemplation' get their name, as well as works of the lesser mind, speculations rhetorical, poetical, and those touching on physics and mathematics. None the less all these brighten the eye within us and clear away the rheum, thoroughly arouse it and accustom it by degrees to the objects of vision, so that it may some day take courage to face a more august spectacle still, and not blink at once when gazing upon the sun.[4]

Thus the Greek trains his perceptions by his pleasures, and even out of sport derives advantage for his most important object. Further, to exercise the critical faculty, to compose a prose or poetical work, is not outside of the province of mind. Again, to purify and polish one’s style, to find the main argument, to arrange it in order, and to recognize it when arranged by another, how can all these things be matters devoid of interest, and mere toys? But as to those who tread the other path deemed to be of adamant, even though, truth to say, some of them arrive at the goal, they seem to me scarcely to have traveled a path at all. Nay, how is a path possible where there is no gradual progress apparent; where there is no first and second stage or any order of going!

But their procedure is like Bacchic frenzy - like the leap of a man mad, or possessed - the attainment of a goal without running the race, a passing beyond reason without the previous exercise of reasoning. For the sacred matter [contemplation] is not like attention belonging to knowledge, or an outlet of mind, nor is it like one thing in one place and another in another. On the contrary - to compare small and greater - it is like Aristotle's view that men being initiated have not a lesson to learn, [1136] but an experience to undergo and a condition into which they must be brought, while they are becoming fit (for revelation).

Now, the state of fitness for revelation also is irrational, and if reason play no part in preparing it, much more so. Therefore also their direct descent to some slight experience [as their ascent] is itself immediate [i.e., not an intelligible process], and extends much farther. It is like a fall, just as we liken the ascent to a leap. For reason did not speed them on their way, neither did it receive them on their return. How can these two conditions harmonize - a handling of primary reality succeeded by a plunge into brushwood and withies?

Be this as it may, man is, and is called, rational, in virtue of the intermediate and governing faculty, which these have never exercised at any time - at least to judge from appearances. The end then, the condition we wish to attain, is the same for both of us; and if we attained it, there would be no difference between us.

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Note 1:
This does not necessarily refer to Christian monks. There were other groups of recluses in Egypt, like the gymnosophists

Note 2:
Homer, Iliad, 5.341.

Note 3:
Plato, Phaedo, 69c.

Note 4:
A reference to Plato’s famous parable of the cave; Republic, 156b.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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