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Synesius of Cyrene


Ptolemais: the palace of the governor. Photo Marco Prins.
Ptolemais: the palace of the
governor. Here, Andronicus
must have dwelt.
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.

His speech Against Andronicus (included in the collection of letters as #57) illustrates the conflict that resulted in the excommunication of the military leader Andronicus, who had violated a church's asylum in 412 or 413. The speech, which was probably directed to Anysius, is not complete: after an introduction, a personal account, and preparing a position from which to demand excommunication, the speech breaks off before Synesius can sum up the exact complaints and demand excommunication. The text of the excommunication itself, however, survives as Letter 58.

The speech is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Against Andronicus (Letter 57)

Introduction
The malevolent forces in the universe fulfill the designs of Providence, inasmuch as they punish those deserving of punishment, but nevertheless they are abhorred by God and are to be shunned.

For I will raise against you, saith the Lord, a race at whose hands you shall suffer even great woes.[1] And yet those very ones through whom He makes war, He declares that He will in turn assail, for when once they had you in their power, they showed you no pity, nor did they treat you with humanity. I cannot recall the exact words of Holy Writ, but I am sure that somewhere in the sacred books God is represented as speaking in this wise.[2]

Nor did He merely speak in this wise without giving effect to His words, but in very truth the Babylonian king razed the city of Jerusalem to the ground, and delivered its people into bondage; furthermore, to this very king himself was soon afflicted with madness.[3] And thus it happened that, by the justice of God, that city was made desolate, so that no man would believe that a city has ever stood on the spot.

How, then? Shall any one dare ask God: "Wherefore dost Thou raise men against the erring, as Thine avengers, and when they have done service to the Divine Will, and have become the executioners of those against whom they are sent, hast Thou visited them with punishment, at the very time when it was meet that they should receive full payment for their service?" Has He then awakened us to receive an answer to those questions we put to Him?

Inasmuch as the Divine law has been violated here, evils have come upon men; and the forces that make for evil are those which are especially evil, since by the very abundance of their nature they are also potent in action. Since, then, evils have come once for all, the work of Divine wisdom and virtue and power is not only to do good - this is the nature of God, one might say, as it is that of fire to warm, or light to illuminate- but most of all to accomplish some good and useful end out of the very evils that have been devised by certain persons, and to
turn to good uses those which seem to be evil. For this reason it is the part of an adroit wisdom to make use of an occasion even of evil. And thus, whenever God is in need of avengers, he employs, at one moment, demons who lead hordes of locusts, at another those whose work are pestilences, or perchance a barbarous nation, or again a wicked ruler, and, in a word, the natures fitted to commit public harm. Nevertheless, He hates those very natures, because they are suitable for this purpose. For God did not make instruments of calamity, but He readily made use of those appointed by themselves to that end.

The very fact that you [Andronicus] have become useful in such a direction, is precisely that which cuts you off from God. In the same way is one vessel unworthy and another worthy, and is so esteemed to be, for each one is judged according to the use for which it is provided. A table is a sacred thing, for therein is honored the God of friendship and hospitality. Love of the stranger made Abraham God's host. But a whip is an abominable thing, for it is the servant of anger, and one who has once used it is seized with regret. But those who are chastised are cared for by God; nor is this a small matter, to be found worthy of God's oversight and to be purified of our sins through retribution.

Vengeful natures, however, are altogether turned away from God. For that which is destructive is of course inimical to that which is creative. Nor is this the avenger's state of mind, whether demon or man, that he is in this contributing service to God, but rather, gratifying the evil of his nature, he seeks to bring disasters on all and sundry.

Not, therefore, because the city must needs be ill fated, and because you accomplished this disaster, is it ordained that you should escape retribution. For a defense of this sort Judas himself might have brought forward, on the ground that Christ must needs be crucified to redeem the sins of all. Now it was indeed ordained, "But," He says, "woe to him through whom it cometh. It were good for that man that he had never been born".[4] So then, as far as one can see, the noose was the sequel of his treachery. But the unseen side no man understands, for it is not in the understanding of man to compass what might be a punishment for the betrayer of Christ.

Truly it is not a clever line of defense to plead that one has already served a destiny in the way in which it was bound to be accomplished. It is accordingly of the first necessity that the Ausurians [5] and Andronicus should suffer a well-merited punishment for the evils which they have done us.

For behold the locust which has destroyed our fruits, which has eaten the crops to the stalk, and stripped the trees to the bark; against him has risen a wind sweeping headlong to the sea, and has scattered him in the midst of the waves. And as against this pestilence God has arrayed the south wind, so now has a leader been chosen by Him against the Ausurians. Oh, may it prove that he is the holiest and most just of all His generals!

May it be granted to me to acclaim him in the glory of a triumph over these! "Happy," it is said, "he that shall requite him for their ill deeds. Happy he that shall dash their infants against the rock"[6] What destruction, then, shall await Andronicus, the pest of the district? What retribution could be worthy of a soul that works evil only? In my own case, Andronicus is a far heavier ill than all the blows wherewith God has visited us for my sins, for in addition to our common sufferings, this man is my own personal evil. Through him the tempter is at work to get me to desert the service of the altar. But I must take up my discourse a little further back, so as to add to what you already know what is not known to all of you, and thus give you an orderly account of my affairs; for in view of what is to follow, it is well for me that you should have heard this from me.

Account
From childhood, leisure and comfort in life have ever appeared to me a divine blessing which someone has said befits divine natures; and this is naught else but the culture of the intellect, and its reconciliation with God on the part of the man who possesses that leisure and profits by it. For the things that concern children or come into their lives in childhood, I felt but the smallest interest, as also for the affairs of youth and early manhood. And when I came to a man's estate, I had changed in nothing from my boyhood's love of a quiet life, but, passing my days as if in a sacred festival, I strove throughout all my life to preserve a state of spirit gentle and untroubled by storms.

But, nevertheless, God has not made me useless to men, inasmuch as oftentimes both cities and private individuals made use of my services in times of need. For God gave me the power to do the utmost and to will the fairest. None of these services drew me apart from philosophy, nor cut short my happy letters. For to accomplish with struggle and pain, and even then scarcely to accomplish at all, all this wastes time and imbues the spirit with material cares. But he whom speech alone becomes, and persuasion attends upon his utterance, and his speech prevails with his audience, why should such an one be sparing in his words, when thereby another might be freed from his evil plight? "Man is an animal to be prized; to be prized indeed, since for his sake Christ was stretched on the Cross."[7]

Until the present year, it was my divine lot to carry persuasion to men; and, however lightly affairs, perchance to gain success in them. But now the whole matter seems to have turned to nothing, with many things which clearly came from God. My success, too, I always ascribed to Him, and I lived with good hopes in a sacred enclosure, the universe, an animal ranging at will in freedom, apportioning my life between prayer, books, and the chase. For that the soul and body may be in health, it is necessary to do some work on the one hand, and on the other to make supplication to God. With such peace in life, I spent the years up to the taking over the priesthood, for which office I had very little courage in comparison with those that have lived before me. I call to witness the God who rules over all, and whose hidden mysteries I have espoused for your sakes, that away from human preoccupations and ambitions I have come alone to Him in many places and at many times. Prostate and upon my knees, I have in suppliant guise prayed for death rather than the priesthood. For a certain reverence and love for the leisure I had found in philosophy held me to her, in whose behalf I thought I ought to do and say all things.

But although I overbore men I was myself overcome by God. And as it is common tradition that he who is judged worthy of this office becomes the intimates of God himself, I took it over, but bore with great unwillingness the change in my life. Fain as I was to take refuge in flight, the hope of good things to come, and the fear of worse, checked me. Then, again, I listened to certain aged saints who averred that God was acting as my shepherd, and one of these said in conversation that the Holy Spirit is joyful, and fills with joy those who receive Him; adding that demons disputed the possession of me with God, and that I am wounding them by espousing the better side. "But even if they cause you some trouble," he said, "none the less the philosopher priest is not neglected by God."

I, then, for I am not easily puffed up with pride, or prone to pleading my own cause brilliantly, blamed only my own ill fortune, nor ascribed aught to an envious demon. I do not think I have sufficient virtue in me to stir up the evil powers. Rather did I fear that being myself a sinner, I should unworthily handle the mysteries of God. My soul was prophetic of the misfortune into which I speedily slipped. Nay, no sooner was I here than all horrors were here, and the chorus leader of them all was Andronicus, a demon of war, gorged with disasters, gloating over the ruins of the city. Alas, everywhere in the market-place the groaning of men, the wailing of women, the lamentations of children! He invested the city with semblance of one taken by storm. He cut off the fairest part of it, and was responsible for its new name, the Place of Vengeance, making the royal colonnade, of old the court of justice, into a place of execution.

He offered all this as an altar and a communion table for the demons of vengeance in whose number he had enrolled himself. Alas, with how many tears of the citizens has he feasted them!

What Taurosythians, what Lacedaemonians ever honored their own Artemis on such a scale with the blood that ran from their scourgings?[8] At once every one rushed to me; from all sides I was pressed to hear and to see atrocities. When I admonished Andronicus, I failed to convince him, when I upbraided him, I only irritated him. The crisis which had now arisen exposed our weakness, which until this moment God had concealed from men, for as I had always enjoyed the credit for all that had prospered, my fellow citizens got the idea that I was a man of power.

And this is the most bitter of misfortunes that have befallen me; I am condemned in the light of the hope of me felt by those to whom I have been a stranger. For I do not succeed in persuading them that I have not the power they ascribe to me; rather do they insist on my potency to gain all just ends. All that remains to me, therefore, is grief and shame. Then, suddenly I suffer in my soul, and my cares are complex. There are images of material things before me, and God is far distant.

If all that happened through Andronicus may be taken as signifying the attacks of demons, in that case they did all they desired. No longer did I enjoy the erstwhile sweetness of spirit in my prayers. Only the forms of prayer were there, while I was swept about on all sides of these affairs of mine, distracted by anger, grief, and all kinds of suffering.

Yet it is through the intellect that we have communion with God, whereas the tongue purveys to men the things which concern man. Accordingly, if I have had the misfortune to be inattentive in my prayers, the result makes that obvious. For when my life was changed, not only in this way did I have the benefit of the change and encounter evil, to wit by turning to practical matters through neglect of prayer, but behold, I, who still the other day had lived untouched by grief, saw lying dead one who, I had prayed, might outlive me. So bitter is the reception with which the city has welcomed me. In this way do the affairs of men move, at one moment upward, at another downward; and the tide sets in, carrying many things heaped together, at one moment the lucky, at another the unlucky. But in my own case, when it befell me to lose the dearest of sons, I was sore tempted to inflict an awful blow upon myself. To such an extent I was overcome by grief. Face to face with other things, I am a man, I say this before those who well know it, and for the most part I obey the dictates of reason, but I am so overcome by affection the unreason gets the upper hand over reason. Therefore not by the tenets of philosophy have I overcome my present trouble; it is Andronicus who has been the driving force. It is he who has made me keep my mind upon the misfortunes I share with others. Troubles have come to me which are the antidotes of my own troubles, drawing me to themselves, and driving out suffering with suffering.

Along with the bitter consciousness of present misfortunes there comes to me the memory of the great blessings of the past, out of what experiences I have come into my present circumstances, and in a word, how I live unhappily deprived of everything at once. The greatest of the evils afflicting me, and one which makes my life a difficult one to find hope in, is that whereas aforetime I was accustomed to be never without a response in my prayers to God, now for the first time I know that I have prayed in vain.

Then, too, I see that my house is faring evilly, and I am forced to dwell in my ill-fated native town [Cyrene]. Exposed at all, one to whom they come for sympathy, and to lament, each one over his own sorrows, I can now only offer these a useless pity. Furthermore, I am ashamed of the case of a citizen who is in misfortune, and has had public money stolen from him, and -lo!- comes Andronicus, reclaiming more than ten thousand staters, even deciding to kill him, without granting a respite, on account of the one thousand still due, or rather on my account.

Yes, on my account, he keeps him guarded in an impregnable fortress in the like of which the children of the poets represent the Titans are enchained. In order that he may not be taken away by me, so he says, he has given orders that the man shall not have food brought to him for five days, all entrance of bread having been forbidden to the jailers. But only the other day every one heard him loudly declare that the citizen's death would be worth more to him than the thousand staters. Again, when men come about him to purchase the estates, he proceeds to terrorize them, to throw them into confusion, and he drives them away by any means whatsoever. For of the money, as I think, he has no need; rather stands he in need of this man's death. Now I am not strong enough to attack walls so solid, nor sufficiently adroit to enter into his cell by stealth, and rescue him from his plight.

Nor, some say, do they permit any one to enter there. For his servants are by nature such as they are, but now they are living after the pattern of Andronicus, who governs to the dishonor of the Church.

I do not trouble about the extent of the forces he has combined against me; nay, I should even be grateful to him if I were to receive a dishonor at his hands, for so long as it were in the service of God, I should regard it as of the nature of martyrdom. For remember who he was, as compared with me. Indeed, if nothing else, I am descended from those men whose lineage, beginning with Eurysthenes who settled the Dorians in Sparta, and going down to my own father, has been engraved on the public monuments, whereas this fellow cannot tell the name of his own grandfather, nor even of his father, except by guess, and from a tunny fisher's perch on a crag he has come at a bound into the governor's chariot.

Let him stand back in awe, therefore, of the light which shines in the city, and be ashamed of his defects. As for myself, up to the time when I took priest's orders, I was loaded with honor, and dishonor I never tasted. But now I cannot rejoice in honor, nor do I grieve if slighted, for neither of these things appears any longer to have been brought upon me by their author, but both must be referred to God himself. Wherefore this all-daring fellow, when he can disturb me to butt against God himself, and to this end raises his voice publicly before people herded and assembled together. You shall hear his words presently, when the letter is read to all the churches throughout the world.

Preparing the accusation
Such is the nature that has remained without education, once it has acquired power. It strives to shatter heaven with its head. So be it, then, let him rule; let him give rein to his nature; to his opportunity; let him kill and bind whomsoever of the citizens he pleases. But for us it is enough to remain in the rank wherein God has placed us, to be separated from the fellowship of evil, to keep our ears pure from grievous evil-speaking, and despair of the cause of the unjustly treated. And our defense before you and the people will be that we have tried in vain. No doubt it became one who had any greatness in him, to act thus even before this experience had come to him. But I have waited to make you convinced with me, by the logic of facts, that to join together political ability with the priesthood is to combine the incompatible.

The past ages made the same men priests and judges. The Egyptians and the Hebrew nation were for long ruled over by their priests. Then, later, it seems to be, when the Divine work was executed in a humane spirit, God separated the two ways of life. One of these was appointed to the priestly, and the other to the governing order. Some He turned over to matter, and others He associated with Himself. And so some have been marshaled for practical affairs, but we to remain in our life of prayer. For each class God asks that which is fair, and just. Why then do you move backwards, why do you seek to fit together those things which have been separated by God, you who demand not that we should govern, but that we should govern badly? Nothing could be more unfortunate as this. Do you need a protector? Walk to the administrator of the laws of the state. Do you want anything of God? Go to the priest of the city - not that you shall always find there what you seek, though for my part I shall do my utmost. And if anyone is disposed to leave me tranquility, perchance I shall have the powers, some day; for at the same moment does not turn away from matter and towards God.

Contemplation is the end and aim of the priesthood, if it does not belie its name. But contemplation and action do not deign to mingle. For impulse is the beginning of all action, and no impulses is free from passion. For it is not lawful, He says, that the man who is not pure should handle that which is pure. "Be still and learn that I am God".[9] He has need of leisure, who is a bishop and a philosopher. I do not condemn bishops who are occupied with practical matters, for knowing of myself that I am hardly equal to the one of two things, I admire all the more those who are competent in both fields.

Power to serve two masters is not in me. Nevertheless, if there are some who are not injured even by a condescension, they would be able both to be bishops, and to conduct the affairs of cities. A sunbeam, even if it consorts with mud, remains pure and undefiled. But I, in like case, should need springs and the sea itself to cleanse me. If it was possible for an angel to live more than thirty years among men, and to absorb no evil from matter for enjoyment, of what use was it that the son of God should come down to us? It is the acme of power to mix with the inferior, and at the same time to remain steadfast in our true nature, and in no way to represent passion. This is worthy of praise in God, but it is a course to be shunned by men, who must be on his guard against the weakness of his nature.

According to those principles shall I pass my life with you. Nevertheless, I reserve to myself the right of judging when times and seasons are opportune, so that when it is possible I may come down, that I may do some great good when the chance arises. Thus does God Himself govern His own kingdom.

But absorption is the terrible thing; for this evil the Divine Nature does not admit of, nor does any man who regulates his life according to the Divine Example. If I become absorbed in my money and my possessions, if you become aware that I am for ever receiving same time that I am grudging in the measure of time I give to your affairs - in that case I am an impostor and deserve no forgiveness. But if, on the other hand, I have neglected my domestic affairs, the better to cultivate the activities of the intellect, is it so surprising if I ask you to do the same? But since we do not please you with these opinions, inasmuch as there are others who are able to serve equally well in both fields, it is always in your power to decide the best course for the city, for the churches, and for me. The priesthood I shall not decline. May the power of Andronicus never go as far as that!

But just as when a philosopher I sought not the public, nor courted the applause of the theater, nor even opened a lecture room -and yet I was in very truth, and may I ever be, a philosopher- so now I have no desire to be a popular bishop.

All men cannot do all things. Living by myself and communing with God through my reason, when I descend from the realms of contemplation, I can hold useful converse with one or two at a time, and these must not belong to the crowd, but be as such as, either by the character they have been allotted, or the education they have been blessed with, admire the soul rather than the body. By so handling affairs at long intervals and at my own leisure, I might be useful at an opportune moment. On the other hand, when I am overwhelmed by these things, I am forgetful of myself, and only injure the success of the business I am engaged in. For it is not possible to do anything well if one hates it. The man who is carrying out what is not the resolution of his best judgment, goes disheartened to that which needs his personal supervision. But the man who is unsuited for leisure, and who when leisure comes cannot in any way profit by it, who is the very last word in the way of a public servant, a spacious spirit adequate to the cares of all, and who, since it is his nature, willing to act, that man will assuredly be grateful to the circumstances which draw him near to them, for they furnish material for his very nature. The greatest aid to success is the love for the thing itself. Therefore you must all choose the most useful man in the place of us, who can with difficulty save ourselves.

Why do you protest? Is it because this has never yet taken place that it should be thought that it cannot even now take place? Many necessary things has time found and righted, nor do all things happen according to a pattern, and of those which have happened, each one had a beginning, and, before it came into existence, was not yet. Usefulness is more deserving of preference than custom. Let us start the best custom on its way. Let the man be chosen to succeed us, or chosen to act with us, but by all means let him be chosen. Whoever he be, he will appear far wiser than I, so far as politics are concerned, and he will be able to conciliate and manage those miserable wretches for your sake.

Now if this does not yet seem good to you, let us postpone the matter to a later date. For one may take up this matter both individually and in common. Now in what terms the council has attacked Andronicus' madness, listen.

Note 1:
A reference to the prophecies in Jeremiah 27.

Note 2:
Synesius might have quoted Isaiah 10.

Note 3:
A reference to the capture of Jerusalem by king Nebuchadnezzar in 586, and his insanity, mentioned in Daniel 4.

Note 4:
Matthew 26.24; 18.7.

Note 5:
A military unit.

Note 6:
Psalm 137.8-9.

Note 7:
Unknown quote.

Note 8:
The Scythians of the Taurus were believed to sacrifice people to Artemis; in Sparta, boys were whipped until they bled for the same goddess.

Note 9:
Reference to Psalm 46.11.
Online 2006
Revision: 25 Nov. 2006
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