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Synesius, Dio, 8


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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[8] [1136] But as regards the intervening process, our native philosopher has shown himself the sounder thinker, for he has prepared himself a road and ascends it as if it were a ladder, so that the ascent is in some degree his own achievement, since as he advances he will probably encounter somewhere his soul's desire. And even if he does not encounter it, at all events he has advanced on his road, and this is no small matter; even thus he would differ from the bulk of mankind as much as they do from the beasts of the field.

Those of our number who arrive in this way would be the more numerous inasmuch as their attempt is a natural one, but it might come about in another way, if there did not chance to be some nobility of soul drawing the first inspiration from above; and an exceptional type of mind, one that would be its own master and would be moved by itself. Of such caliber was Amus the Egyptian,[1] who did not discover the use of letters, but passed judgment upon the discovery, so great was his superiority of mind. Such a man is quicker to solve the problem, even without philosophical method, for the natural philosopher suffices and would, I suppose, much more than suffice if someone stimulated him or appealed to him, for he has a wonderful power of augmenting the seed within him, and of lighting a whole conflagration with the small spark of reason which he has received. The forces of Greek education will therefore effect nothing disadvantageous to these men, even if they do not effect something useful; education which leads on those who are less robust, fires them up anew and thoroughly warms what is divine in them.

[1137] In the other case, however, the consummation falls to the lot only of those who are happy in their own hearts; albeit the race of such souls must be rarer than that that of the phoenix, whose periodic appearances the Egyptians calculate. The majority of men would labor in vain and exhaust themselves hunting for the intelligible essence without intelligence, particularly those whom the first endowment of nature has not urged on to a life like this. For these would indeed benefit by such an impulse, but I regard the impulse itself as a token of a mind in motion. The most of them are neither moved by their inner natures, nor in the 'second voyage',[2] as the proverb says, are they stirred from sleep by leisure to turn towards the mind. But they have striven after the exalted choice as they would after any other thing that is highly esteemed, people of all classes, each class of necessity combining.

Concerning these men, then, I stoutly maintain that they will labor and wear themselves out in vain, inasmuch as they have neither inborn nor acquired intellect; for it seems dangerously near impiety to suggest that the Divinity will dwell in any other part of us than in the mind, since that is God's own temple.[3]. On this account wise men, Greeks and foreigners alike, have handed down the tradition of occupying themselves with the purificatory virtues, walling off all preoccupations with nature that these may not offer an impediment to their intellectual activities.

This was the thought of the first men who founded each of the two systems of philosophy. But they [the foreigners] strengthen virtues rather by habits than by reason, and they consider these virtues to be three in number, for those who admit mere self-control do not admit reasoning intelligence; that is to say, if we agree that the quality they possess is self-control. In any case it is impossible that the virtues should not enter in and be grouped through their inevitable sequence. The men in question think that they ought to be temperate without knowing why they ought to be temperate; they only accept a rule of conduct as they would any unjustifiable law, of which the lawgiver knows that is for another reason, namely for the process of thinking, and that it is serviceable for an ascent, in other words, for the avoidance of passion for anything material. Again such men abstain from sexual commerce, paying reference to abstinence for its own sake, [1140] thus making the smallest thing of the greatest importance, for they imagine that the preparation is the goal. But we, on the contrary, admire the virtues as elements only of the whole philosophy.

We have learned from Plato that it is perhaps not lawful that the impure should have contact with the pure. Now virtues purify by cleansing what is alien to them.[4] If the soul had been the good, it would have sufficed for its own purification, and it would have been already an excellent thing that it came into being by itself; but while it is clearly not a good thing (for if it were so it would never have come into the sphere of evil), it has nevertheless the form of good and by its nature holds a middle place.[5] When it inclined toward the evil side, virtue brought it up and washed it of its stain, and again placed it midway; but an advance must be made towards the good, and this now through reason; for mind is the name which joins the together intelligible things.

Thus, if it were our object to gaze upon the heavens, it would not suffice that we were not looking on the ground, but that after we had passed range of vision midway of the two, we should then turn our gaze on high. In very truth we should gain benefit from the virtues in becoming disentangled of a partiality for matter. But an uplifting force is needed, for it is insufficient that a man be not evil, he must even be a god. And this state most resembles the turning away from the body and as many thing as are of the body, and the turning, through the intellect, to God.

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Note 1:
Plato, Phaedrus, 274d-e.

Note 2:
Plato, Phaedo, 99d.

Note 3:
Philo, The Special Laws, 255m

Note 4:
Plotinus, Enneads, 1.2.4.

Note 5:
Plato, Republic, 509a.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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