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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.

The text of Letter 44 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It is an "open letter" to a man who was suspected of murdering his brother. It was written in 404.

Letter 44: An Open Letter to a Murderer

To Joannes

Many a time before this have I come to your assistance. I have softened the harshness of Fate for you, as on each occasion my power enabled me, both in word and deed. Today, in regard to your present situation, I desire to give you my advice only, for I am powerless to act in the matter. It is not right the Synesius, while he lives and has the power, should fail in eagerness to benefit his friends in every possible way. Hear then what it is befitting that I should say to you.

If Rumor is a goddess, as one of our poets would have it,[1] it was you who made away with the blessed Aemilius, not by any overt act of your own, but because you desired it. You prepared everything for this terrible drama, you selected the assassin, the most bloodthirsty of your band of ruffians. This is the story which Rumor has recounted, and it is not ordained that a divinity should lie.

But if Hesiod's words are nothing, or words many but to no purpose, and if this thing concerning you is one of many (and would that it were so, for I hold loss in money of less moment than loss of a friend), if, I say, being innocent of the crime, you are yet evil spoken of, in that case you are an unfortunate man, but not a guilty one, and may you not be even so unfortunate! In the first case you would be deserving of lawful hatred as your portion, in the second case of piety.

For my own part, I who am easily won by intimacy, should in that case hate your act, but none the less feel pity for you, and it is the part of one who has pity, to bear aid to the full extent of his power to find out where he thinks he may be of assistance. In either case I am bound to tell you what seems to me to be most in your own interests. Innocent or guilty, you will profit by the same advice from me.

Go before the laws and give yourself up to the magistrate, together with all your henchmen, if you have any regard for them. If the crime was committed by you, pray, beg, supplicate, tire not of going down on your knees, even until the moment that judgment shall have been passed upon you, and you shall have been delivered up to an executioner, and shall have paid your penalty. If will be a blessing to you, my dear Joannes, that what has first been purified should so depart to the judges below.

Do not think that my warning is a speech with any other sense than this. Do not imagine for a moment I am jesting with you; so may I have profit of sacred Philosophy, and of my own children besides. I should not have given you any such advice, if you had been no friend of mine, for I pray that this lot may not fall even to my enemies. As for them, may they never take the point of view that it is a nobler thing for the culprit voluntarily to undergo his punishment! May they on the contrary never forgo being prosperous in their sins, in order that they may live in them a longer time, and have to account for them all in that place below!

For the sake of friendship I feel for you I am running the risk of revealing to you some of the mysteries. There is no resemblance between paying the penalty in this crass body and in paying it in the soul. God is a stronger force than man, and the human order of things is but a shadow of the divine organization.

Now that same office which the public executioners, the hands of the law, fulfill in states, the avenging deities fulfill in the constitution of the universe.[2] There are demons of purification who treat souls as fullers treat soiled garments. If these garments were endowed with consciousness, what would be their suffering, I ask you, while they were being trampled, washed, and combed in every way? With what pain would the old spots and clinging stains be washed away? I need scarcely say that in many cases the soiling is so deeply ingrained that it is irremovable, and the stuff will disappear before it returns to its proper form, because corruption has come into its nature, either on account of the lapse of time or the very greatness of the corruption.

For a soul in such a state, to be perishable would be happiness indeed. But although there are sins which resemble spots that cannot be washed away, the soul is not like the soiled garment whose web does not resist destruction. Eternal as it is, its lot is eternal punishment when it becomes ingrained and incurably soiled with sin; but when it has already undergone punishment in that life in which it has sinned, it has not this [eternal] calamity clinging to it ever present, but as one might say, the soul, newly dyed, is quickly washed again.

The penalty therefore ought to be paid as quickly as possible, and at the hands of the men, rather than at those of demons. A certain story is recounted, which persuades me that those who have been sinned against become the masters eventually - masters with power to lengthen or cut short the terms of punishment. Whether one has done a great injury to one, or a slight injury to many, the result will be very much the same, for each victim will put it in his own claims to vengeance, and each one must be satisfied. If a cure is possible, the punishment already undergone by the soul may mollify the Judge, and even incline the victims themselves to indulgence. When then is it likely that the blest soul of Aemilius may be inclined to grant you forgiveness?

I think, or rather I know well, that every suppliant has a claim to respect, once he has expiated his errors by punishing himself. Ere now a man has been summoned before me to defend himself for a crime, and by haste in recognizing his guilt and admitting that he deserves punishment has won his acquittal; whereas to revel in one's crime is to turn into a sullen enemy the man whose life or fortune one has attacked.

But now what will become of you, when you have left your body either by capital punishment or in some other way, when you recognize his soul with your own, and your tongue is unable to make denial, branded as you will be with the fresh-carved image of the event? Will you not be seized with dizziness? Will you not be at a loss? Silent, you will be hurried off. You will be exposed before the Judgment where we are all alike awaited, you, I, and all such as a public repentance has not first purified.

Courage, then, my noble friend, for I wish you to be noble; despise not those pleasures which we purchase by wrong-doing. You must not be ashamed before men, but must confess everything to the magistrate, and endeavor to avert the punishment below by an immediate castigation. For while the greatest good is not to err, the next best is to take punishment for an error.

The man who remains unpunished for longstanding sins should be deemed most unfortunate, as one cared for neither by God nor man.

Again, look at it from this point of view. If immunity from punishment is recognized as an evil, punishment itself becomes a benefit, for contrary forces, according to all logic, produce contrary results. If I had only been with you, you would not have made difficulties about putting aside your shame and denouncing yourself. I should have directed myself to your defense, and I should have conducted you to the laws as to physicians. Some stupid fellow might have said, "Synesius is prosecuting Joannes", but you would have known the truth that if I brought the accusation it would be only by mercy and solicitude for you, and with the object of making you far better in your evil plight.

These things I would do if you were guilty. May that not be true for your own sake and for that of the city, for there would be universal pollution therein, if fratricidal blood had been spilled; but if, on the other hand, you are pure in hand and soul -and may it be so- accursed be those who have brought false charges against you. Such men have infernal punishments waiting for them, for not other manner of evil is so abhorred by God as the slanderer who strikes in the dark. Such a low-minded man cries out much evil, and a certain fated obscenity is said to cling to that class, and to be the strongest element in the art.

In many other ways such men are sophistical and adroit. So if anyone is found fabricating false reports, ask no questions, and entertain no doubts. However strong he may appear to be, expose him fearlessly as the effeminate wretch he is, the red-handed disciple of Cotys.

It is in your power to secure a conviction for libel on account of these words, if you place yourself and your household at the disposal of the court. Go there and say, "There are certain people accusing me secretly, who, though self-condemned, attempt to remain concealed; but, nevertheless they are bringing many grave charges against me, and are likely to gain some credence, for they are intriguers, and adepts in giving plausibility to their story."

Next let us go through the charges which are the basis of your evil repute, a marriage and an unholy assassination. Since it is said, I think, that a certain debauched wretch committed the murder, some creature in your pay, bring him forward, and beg and pray the court on bended knee not to let the fellow go without submitting him to cross-examination. Let him not be condemned in default. "Most worthy judges," you might say, "because no one has brought a charge against me in open court, it is less your duty to resort to every inquisition to pursue and hunt down the truth? Here is the debauched wretch so much talked about; you have your man. Apply your tortures. This man, if any crime has been committed, ought to be shown up this day as my accuser and his own."

If, when you use such language, the judge does not yield to you, at all events it is sufficient for human beings like us. If, on the other hand, he should be benevolent and should thank you for your hearing of the case, you can then make a brilliant defense and the slanderers be put to shame and silenced. This wretch must not give himself airs; he should be bound and hung, and his ribs broken. Tortures are wonderfully efficient in exposing shams. These men possess iron nails which have the force of learned syllogisms, so that whatever is made manifest when they hold sway, this is truth itself.

If such wise you are acquitted as an innocent man, you will then come back from the tribunal victorious and exultant, a shining light, and so regarded. Now that I have told you what course I think will be most benefit you, should you refuse to follow it and decline to appear before the tribunal, none the less Justice sees and knows the truth.

The eye of the goddess, penetrating everywhere, saw Libya, saw the valley, and marked the rumor, whether it be true or false, saw Aemilius turn away in flight. What he suffered and from whom, what he said, what he heard (if indeed he said and heard aught), all this she knows. She knows also that, even admitting you to be blameless and pure before God, and that you have never committed this abominable deed nor premeditated it, she knows, I say, that even so you are not yet innocent in our eyes as men, so long as you have not made your formal defense.

As matters stand, we will not shake hands with you nor eat at the same table with you, for we are in dread of the avenging Furies of Aemilius, lest by contact you may infect us with guilt. We, too, have our own stains - we do not need to take such contributions from others besides. 

Note 1:
It was apparently the Latin poet Virgil who changed the Greek goddess Pheme, "fame", into the multi-tongued Fama, "Rumor".

Note 2:
In the next lines, Synesius adapts an argument about the dyer's art from Plato, The State, 429D.
Online 2007
Revision: 15 August 2007
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