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Synesius, Dio, 13


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

[13] [1153] Now this is the life of the teacher. Let us first eliminate from the discussion any one or two individuals who by their inborn nature have become superior to the difficulties inherent in the position. In every occupation this also would be apt to take place, that some individuals should show themselves too strong to be undone by the weaknesses that belong to it, and grow out of it.

Once the teacher has attached to him men to admire him, he will accept nothing that anyone else may say. Otherwise the danger is that he should be despised and should have to submit to the flight of his young pupils. If he does not make any resistance, he is losing his own vocation, and he must be maintained in the position of master. It is therefore fated that the instructor must be jealous, and this is the greatest and the grossest of the passions. Accordingly he will pray that no man in the city may become wise and, if such an one appears, he will injure that man's reputation to the end that he alone may be looked up to. He himself then will sit like a jar filled with wisdom even to the rim, and one which could maintain no more. At least there is no room for anything good, for he is a mischievous fellow and a malignant one.

How then could anyone escape in sorrier plight than a man who cannot become better? Socrates gave himself up even to Prodicus [1] on the chance that he could benefit him, and permitted Hippias to put in a word. In the same way he frequented Protagoras [2] and brought the richest young men into association with such a tribe of sophists. For Socrates did not make himself out to be wise, though wise indeed he was, and it was possible for the young men to see, if they gave their attention to the matter, what manner of master Protagoras was and what manner of pupil Socrates. Nay, even Glaucon and Critias argued with him on an equal footing. Not even Simon the cobbler [3] could bring himself to agree entirely with Socrates, but exacted an answer for every word he uttered, and Cleitophon abused him in the house of Lysias the sophist, [1156] and openly preferred the intimacy of Thrasymachus.

Socrates was not in the least nettled at this and Cleitophon is wrong in thinking so. Nay, even Phaedrus sufficed him when he encountered him by chance, and Socrates attended Phaedrus as he led the way out of the city, listened patiently to a banal discourse, and delivered another in return to please Phaedrus. So good-tempered a man was he and not one to stand upon his dignity before men. Witness Xanthippe herself. Alas for her slighting attitude! How she treated Socrates! But nothing prevented Socrates from being of good cheer, even when despised. No more shall it prevent me, or any other man who has not given himself over to the multiform wild beast,[4] notoriety, but who lives to please himself and God, who wishes to live with men like a man, and knows how to do so.

Socrates dealing with the more absurd of these discourses, that one attacking love affairs, is indeed able to adopt the truer course and will straightway adopt it; he will sing the praises of the chariot of Zeus [5] and of the sacred chariot-driving of the other eleven gods, for Hestia alone remains in the palace of the immortals. He sings also of the souls who are followers of the gods, and the struggle of they have in bending over the back of heaven. In that other world, perchance he dares, on the other side of the river, to interpret his venturous speech to the boy [6] by the same plane tree, that speech in which he took up the role of rhetorician, and exercised himself in a contest with the sophist Lysias. It is the same boy that he addresses each time: I do not of course mean Phaedrus, for he was a youth already grown to manhood, but a young boy whom he has in his mind, in the bloom of youthful beauty. It is this one whom he persuades and dissuades alternately of what concerns love; and at one time he is playful with him, while at another he speaks gravely.

Why then should not I, in the case of my son, whom God has promised me next year, but who is really present with me already, why, I say, should not I claim the right to play with him, and to speak gravely also, I who certainly desire him to be good in both directions, 'to be gifted with speech in words and with knowledge in things,'[7] and not to despise Socrates for failing to disdain his capacity to adorn in speech even those interred publicly?

Albeit he thought this too great a task for himself, and therefore attributed to Aspasia his power, Aspasia whom he used to frequent for the pleasure of her instruction on the subject of love. [1157] Now if you understand the nature of these discussions on love between Aspasia and Socrates, you will not doubt that philosophy, when she has beheld the last degree of initiation, will recognize beauty everywhere, will welcome it, will praise rhetoric, and will cling to Aspasia and the art of poetry. For this art Socrates practiced without disguise, not as a boy or a young man, but when, already past the prime of his life, he was in prison;[8] at a moment, too, least of all opportune for light diversions to a man of his age, a man who was in circumstances such as had not yet reached the terrible (for what could be terrible to Socrates?), but which were certainly not suitable for trifling. However, he tells us that he was obeying the god.

Do not let us disbelieve him, for the god was making him fit for partnership in his work. Is not he a poet who holds the oracle in Delphi, and, by Zeus, that one amongst the Branchidae? And yet he laid claim to the poetry of Homer as his own.

'I sung it, indeed, but the divine Homer copied it out.'

It has escaped these enemies of fluency of speech therefore that by reason of wisdom they are placing Apollo, Aspasia, and Socrates in a second rank to themselves. Let us on the other hand summon our son to the study of all literature, and we shall pray with him that he may not encounter a rash man who is a potential enemy to the Muses, before he has himself in some way or other become filled with rhetoric and poetry, and is able to understand them, and to come to their defense through his knowledge of them.

What use can he really make of his ancestral poetry? I have diminished the extent of my estates, and many of my slaves have become fellow-citizens of mine. I have gold neither in the form of women's trappings nor in coin; for whatever I once possessed I spent entirely, like Pericles, for necessary purposes.[9] But I have added many times over to the books that I have inherited. All these therefore you, my son, must be able to use.

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Note 1:
Plato, Protagoras, 315d.

Note 2:
Plato, Protagoras, 314e.

Note 3:
This cobbler kept notes of Socrates' talks (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 2.122).

Note 4:
Plato, Republic, 588e.

Note 5:
Plato, Phaedrus, 246e.

Note 6:
Plato, Phaedrus, 237a.

Note 7:
Homer, Iliad, 9.443.

Note 8:
Plato, Phaedo, 61a.

Note 9:
Aristophanes, Clouds, 859.
Online 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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