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Synesius, Dio, 11


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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[11] [1145] This battle has been fought by me, on behalf of the Muses, against those who partake not of the Muses, namely those who maliciously shun the exposure of their ignorance by taking refuge in abusing the very things of which they are ignorant; and even if I have spoken more seriously on the subject than my first promise would warrant, something quite serious may come from those who jest. It is impossible to do anything not affected by one's entire state of mind, but even if we play with the greater part of our nature, we are not deprived of the whole. For we give ourselves up to a playful mood which, on the one hand, is allowable, since Dio must find some testimony at my hands, to the end that my destined son may become the heir of his teaching also, [1148] but a mood which, on the other hand, has run far afield and over courses of all kind; for the sallies of triflers know no bounds; they are like the open country, like liberty itself, like writing of words not to be declaimed with an eye on the water-clock.[1].

I once saw a judge of the ephetes measuring out the time for the pleaders. He himself, during a portion of the allotted period, was dozing, at another time wide awake to no purpose, and he was as far away from the subject as possible. None the less, the orator continued, as one soon of necessity to be reduced to silence. But I am free of such time-limit, nor does it cramp me, inasmuch as I have neither to prepare to address such a ridiculous judge, nor yet need I enter a more senseless court of justice, having battered at the audience in my audience hall, and having promised to all the youngsters in the town a recitation deftly turned.

How dreadful is the role of those who show off their eloquence before audiences! Surely the man who has to please so many people of ill-assorted temperaments is striving after the unattainable. Such is the people's orator, absolutely the slave of the mob, at the mercy of all, and to do him an ill turn is open to all men. The sophist, if laughed at, is a dead man, and he suspects the sullen hearer as well. For he is always the sophist whatever subject he treats of, borrowing appearance rather than truth. A man who is all attention troubles him, as one seeking a handle against him, and none the less he who wags his head about in all directions, as though he did not think the rhetorical display worth listening to.

And yet for no fault of his own does he encounter tyrants so bitter, if he has endured many nights without sleep, and has been on the strain many days, and has come near to distilling away his soul by hunger and anxieties, that he may compile something good. He has come bringing a delightful and sweet recitation to his haughty favorites, on account of whom he is in bad case, though he pretends to be in good health. He also has bathed himself before the appointment and has gone to meet it with brilliant dress and appearance in order that he too may be a noble spectacle. He salutes the oratorium with a smile, and rejoices, but his soul is on the rack; and further, he has been biting gum in order to speak clearly and tunefully. Not even the most worthy of these men would pretend that this is a matter of complete indifference to him, and that he has taken no trouble about his voice, since right in the midst of the declamation he turns and asks for his flask, which the attendant, who has long had it ready, hands over to him. Then he swallows and gargles some of it, that he may put a youthful note to his melodies. [1149] Not even after all his troubles does the unlucky fellow happen upon sympathetic auditors; rather would they like him to sing himself out, for then they would have their laugh. Again, they would like him merely to open his mouth and gape with uplifted hand like a statue, and then become more voiceless than a statue, for thus they could leave, as they have long desired.

But [my case is different], for I sing myself; I sing to these cypresses, and this rivulet of water before me rushes along its course, not measured, nor husbanded according to the water-clock or such a supply as some usher may dole out. If I am not yet coming to an end of my song, I shall certainly do so presently, and if not then, why after a good while, for surely I will not sing into the night. The stream runs even after I have ceased, and will run during the night, during the day, until the next year, and for ever. Why then should I be the slave of a fixed period of time, when I have the power to be independent and to conduct my words where it seems to me that they should be led, not at the mercy of supercilious hearers' judgment, but using myself as measure?

For indeed God has accorded me this lot, to be without a master and free to range; since I never acquired for myself even two pupils, not to speak of three, for whose sake I should have had to visit an appointed place wherein to lecture before them on subjects already agreed upon. I knew that I should cut off a great part of my freedom [1152] if I had to make a minute study of a book beforehand, a practice by which it comes to pass that the faculty of memory is energetic, but the critical faculty untrained and sterile, that faculty which must needs be the judge of books. It is through this above all that the philosopher exists; let the other be presented to the grammarians.

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Note 1:
Plato, Theaetetus, 172d.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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