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Synesius, Dio, 9


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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[9] [1140] We therefore, while honoring the virtues, know what rank they hold, to wit, the place that the letters of the alphabet hold towards the knowledge of a book, for the virtues are the earliest [steps] of those ascending to mind. But we do not possess all in possessing the virtues; we have only removed the obstacle, and we have prepared the while those things apart from which it is not even holy to hope to attain the end. In this way far from despairing of this end, we are already in pursuit of it through mind with the help of a procedure discovered by the happy men of old. Now, in seeking, I do not know whether we shall ever find, but scarcely would such fortune come to him who is not enamored [with the end] or knows not whether it is worthy to be sought. And yet those escape from these difficulties in the best way who are steadfast to this and give themselves no further trouble, for once they have purified themselves, they could not be evil.

But there are those who attempt to excel the multitude, learning perchance that reason is the glory of man, and yet have dishonored all instruction by which the mind is strengthened. These men are self-moved in strange ways and out on solemn airs towards philosophy. [1141] Whatever false notion came into their mind, this they made wicked and malicious by their own additions to it, bringing forth blind offspring, not worthy to be called the offspring of thought, still less that of mind, but the products of absurd assumption and erring imagination.

You would observe that they are in a laughable situation, or rather in a very pitiable one; for inasmuch as we are human, it is the better part not to laugh at human misfortunes but rather to pity them. Alas for their arguments, alas for their doctrines: if it occurred to rams to philosophize, I do not know what they would hold in honor rather than this. Let us say to them, for it would be well worth it: O boldest of all men, if we had known that you had been so fortunate as to hold the estimate of the soul which was that of Amus,[1] or Zoroaster, or Hermes [Trismegistus, or Antonius [2], we should not have presumed to teach you or to conduct you through a course of study, endowed as you would be with a greatness of mind to which even conclusions are but premises. If it should happen to us to meet such an one as this at any time, we should be awe-struck before him and treat him with veneration. But you we regard as less than our common human nature and no readier of whit than dullards. We therefore think it right even to admonish you, making common property of what we may find best for us.

Keep then the first principles, for men near unto the god have handed them down, and by so doing you will be, according to Plato, holding the middle course; no longer without knowledge, but not yet wise; honoring right opinion, apart from argument and demonstrations; for it is unholy to regard truth as ignorant, nor will any reasoning admit that the unreasoned thing is wise. Once satisfied with these ordering, you would have been treated with moderation, and would be guiltless before God and guiltless also before men. You will even have just praise as your portion, for to a man of the common herd the fact is sufficient.

However, if you do not remain in your place, and if you still seek for what is beyond and busy yourselves with the question 'Wherefore', you would do well to love wisdom, that sacred possession. But do not conduct the quest by yourselves, for you are untrained, and there is danger of your falling into some abyss of folly and so perishing utterly; the catastrophe that even Socrates feared that he might suffer, and which he did not conceal from Parmenides and Zeno, those men so dear to him. And yet that man was Socrates, and you - precisely what you are.

It is nevertheless dreadful rashness on your part to deem yourself worthy to make an incursion into the sanctities of thought, an that too with your vulgar form of diction. They say of a truth that the sowing of Cadmus produced on one and the same day a crop of heavy armed men; but a crop of theologians - no legend ever recounted such an awful portent as this! For truth is not a commodity lying on the ground, or deposited by the wayside, or a quarry to be captured in a hunt.

What then? Let philosophy be summoned here as an ally, and let those who are to endure all that outward journey, prodigious in length, [1144] be prepared for it by education both early and late. You must get rid of your boorishness, and watch small mysteries before undertaking great ones; you must learn to step in the chorus before carrying a torch; and you must carry a torch before becoming an initiating priest. Shall you be willing to endure toils upon toils? But again great things are not achieved without the dust of conflict, and yet if you had taken the affair in hand in time, something even of pleasure would have been added to the work, such as they who have pressed forward grasp for themselves. But you are ashamed to learn so late in the day. Nay, this is no disgrace at all; as to ignorance, - it is a disgrace greater even than that, and when you are in a state of ignorance you cannot put up with it in its undiluted form; otherwise, you might, this long while, have been living temperately, neither knowing nor pretending to know, and this is half-knowledge. You would have known at least this much, that you have knowledge of nothing, instead of dragging after you a double ignorance with great display, filled with pride instead of wisdom and undertaking to teach before you have learnt.

I will say again of you: 'Alas for your words, alas for your opinions!' What monsters are born of you absolutely incoherent and many-headed, such as they say once rose up against the gods! And what would anyone say about this except that the whole divine element is torn to pieces by your outrageous suppositions? This would not have happened if you had properly studied the average man; but success lay there all the while in the golden mean. Icarus, when he scorned to use his feet, very quickly missed both air and earth, for he despised the latter and the former he could not attain.

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

Note 2:
Marcus Antonius: grandfather of the triumvir, a well-known Roman orator.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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