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Synesius of Cyrene


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, and about the christianization of the Roman world. Homily 1, on the occasion of Easter, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Homily 1: Against being drunk

I shall not make this festal assembly a silent one, nor again one of many speeches. For, although it is God whom I honor in my speech, by bringing it to a speedy close I shall do what is pleasing to the assembled company.

But in order that you may be a participant worthy of God in the festival, do not set your hearts on the pleasures of the table, passing from fasting to drunkenness. Offer to God a garlanded goblet of sober mixture.

Our God is wisdom and reason. A bearer that confuses reflection, that disturbs the reasoning faculty, is quite alien to true reason.

There is a recreation that is befitting to God, and there is one that befits evil spirits. Exult ye in the Lord in fear. When you feast, he says, be mindful of God, for it is then that most men slip into sin. When the body is well nourished and grows fleshy, it deflects the soul's judgment. In the hand of the Lord there is a cup of unmixed wine filled with a mixture, and he pours from this vessel into that, but the dregs of it have not been drained. Drink thou of that cup, and thou hast become worthy of the banquet of the bridegroom. The cup is beneficial, full of wine, and once sought, is worthy to raise us to Mind.

And indeed the passage is quite clear, though many things fall a little short of comprehension. A drinking cup is full of a mixture in unmixed wine. And he poured from this vessel into that. If it was of unmixed wine, how is it full of a mixture, and if it is one, how did he pour it from this to that?

The words seem to be altogether nonsensical; not so, however, if really understood. God has no interest in divinely inspired diction. The divine spirit disdains literary pettiness. Dost thou desire to behold the harmony of this discord? Concerning what sort of cup is he speaking? It is the word which we have from God, freely offered by God to men in the Old Testament and the New, for by this drink is our soul watered. Inasmuch as it is a word, each of the two is unmixed, for even although a double word it is mixed together, for what has been compounded out of the two is one, a perfection of Gnosis. The Old Testament contained the promise, and the New revealed the apostle, and the phrase, 'he poured from this into that' shadows the succession of the teachers of the law, that of Moses and that of the Lord, and the cup is one, for one Spirit has breathed both on the prophet and the apostle, and like good painters, He sketched out, in days of old, and thereafter exactly portrayed, the parts of the Gnosis, 'but the dregs of it have not been drained'.

Note 1:
The quotations are from Psalm 2.11 and 75.9.
Online 2006
Revision: 6 November 2006
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