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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.

Letter 105, although directed to his brother, is in fact an open letter to the Christian commmunity of Ptolemais, which had invited Synesius to become their bishop. It is written in 409. The letter is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 105: On becoming a bishop

To his Brother

I should be altogether lacking in sense, if I did not show myself very grateful to the inhabitants of Ptolemais, who consider me worthy of an honor to which I should never have dared to aspire. At the same time I ought to examine, not the importance of the duties with which they desire to entrust me, but merely my own capacity for fulfilling them. To see oneself called to a vocation which is almost divine, when after all one is only a man, is a great source of joy, if one really deserves it. But if, on the other hand, one is very unworthy of it, the prospects of the future are sombre. It is by no means a recent fear of mine, but a very old one, the fear of winning honor from men at the price of sinning against God.

When I examine myself, I fail to find the capacity necessary to raise me to the sanctity of such a priesthood as this. I will now speak to you of the emotions of my soul: for I cannot speak to any one in preference to you who are so dear to me, and have been brought up with me. It is quite natural that you should share my anxieties, that you should watch with me during the night, and that by day we should search together whatever may bring me joy or turn sorrow away from me. Let me tell you, then, how my circumstances are, although you know in advance most of what I am going to say to you.

I took up a light burden, and up to this moment I think I have borne it well. It is, in a word, philosophy. Inasmuch as I have never fallen too far below the level of the duties which it imposed upon me, people have praised me for my work. And I am regarded as capable of better things still, by those who do not know how to estimate in what directions my talents lie.

Now, if I frivolously accept the dignity of the position which has been offered to me I fear I may fail both causes, slighting the one, without at the same time raising myself to the high level of the other. Consider the situation. All my days are divided between study and recreation. In my hours of work, above all when I am occupied with divine matters, I withdraw into myself. In my leisure hours I give myself up to my friends. For you know that when I look up from my books, I like to enter into every sort of sport. I do not share in the political turn of mind, either by nature or in my pursuits.

But the priest should be a man above human weaknesses. He should be a stranger to every sort of diversion, even as God Himself. All eyes are keeping watch on him to see that he justifies his mission. He is of little or no use unless he has made himself austere and unyielding towards any pleasure. In carrying out his holy office he should belong no longer to himself, but to all men. He is a teacher of the law, and must utter that which is approved by law. In addition to all this, he has as many calls upon him as all the rest of the world put together, for the affairs of all he alone must attend to, or incur the reproaches of all.

Now, unless he has a great and noble soul, how can he sustain the weight of so many cares without his intellect being submerged? How can he keep the divine flame alive within him when such varied duties claim him on every side? I know well that there are such men. I have every admiration for their character, and I regard them as really divine men, whom intercourse with man's affairs does not separate from God.

But I know myself also. I go down to the town, and from the town I come up again, always enveloped in thoughts that drag me down to earth, and covered with more stains than anybody can imagine. In a word, I have so many personal defilements of old date, that the slightest addition fills up my measure. My strength fails me. I have no strength and there is no health in me. I am not equal to confronting what is without me, and I am far from being able to bear the distress of my own conscience. If anybody asks me what my idea of a bishop is, I have no hesitation in saying explicitly that he ought to be spotless, more than spotless, and in all things, he to whom is allotted the purification of others.

In writing to you, my brother, I still have another thing to say. You will not be by any means the only one to read this letter. In addressing it to you, I wish above all things to make known to every one what I feel, so that whatever happens hereafter, no one will have a right to accuse me before God or before man, nor, above all, before the venerable Theophilus [1]. In publishing my thoughts, and in giving myself up entirely to his decision, how can I be in the wrong? God himself, the law of the land, and the blessed hand of Theophilus himself have given me a wife. I, therefore, proclaim to all and call them to witness once for all that I will not be separated from her, nor shall I associate with her surreptitiously like an adulterer; for of these two acts, the one is impious, and the other is unlawful. I shall desire and pray to have many virtuous children. This is what I must inform the man upon whom depends my consecration. Let him learn from his comrades [bishop] Paul [of Erythra] and Dionysius, for I understand that they have become his deputies by the will of the people.This is one point, however, which is not new to Theophilus, but of which I must remind him. I must press my point here a little more, for beside his difficulty all the others are as nothing.

It is difficult, if not quite impossible, that convictions should be shaken, which have entered the soul through knowledge to the point of demonstration. Now you know that philosophy rejects many of those convictions which are cherished by the common people. For my own part, I can never persuade myself that the soul is of more recent origin than the body. Never would I admit that the world and the parts which make it must perish. This resurrection, which is an object of common belief, is nothing for me but a sacred and mysterious allegory, and I am far from sharing the views of the vulgar crowd thereon. The philosophic mind, albeit the discerner of truth, admits the employment of falsehood, for the light is to truth what the eye is to the mind. Just as the eye would be injured by an excess of light, and just as darkness is more helpful to those of weak eyesight, even so do I consider that the false may be beneficial to the populace, and the truth injurious to those not strong enough to gaze steadfastly on the radiance of the real being

If the laws of the priesthood that obtain with us permit these views to me, I can take over the holy office on condition that I may prosecute philosophy at home and spread legends abroad, and allow men to remain in their already acquired convictions. But if anybody says to me that he must be under this influence, that is the bishop must belong to the people in his opinions, I will betray myself very quickly. What can there be in common between the ordinary man and philosophy? Divine truth should remain hidden, but the vulgar need a different system. I shall never cease repeating that I think the wise man, to the extent that necessity allows, should not force his opinions upon others, nor allow others to force theirs upon him.

No, if I am called to the priesthood, I declare before God and man that I refuse to preach dogmas in which I do not believe. Truth is an attribute of God, and I wish in all things to be blameless before Him. This one thing I will not dissimulate. I feel that I have a good deal of inclination for amusements. Even as a child, I was charged with a mania for arms and horses. I shall be grieved, indeed greatly shall I suffer at seeing my beloved dogs deprived of their hunting, and my bow eaten up by worms. Nevertheless I shall resign myself to this, if it is the will of God. Again, I hate all care; nevertheless, whatever it costs, I will endure lawsuits and quarrels, so long as I can fulfill this mission, heavy though it be, according to God's will; but never will I consent to conceal my beliefs, nor shall my opinions be at war with my tongue.

I believe that I am pleasing God in thinking and speaking thus. I do not wish to give anyone the opportunity of saying that I, an unknown man, grasped Theophilus, knowing the situation and giving me clear evidence that he understands it, decide on this issue concerning me. He will then either leave me by myself to lead my own life, to philosophize, or he will not leave himself any ground on which hereafter to sit in judgment over me, and to turn me out of the ranks of the priesthood. In comparison with these truths, every opinion is insignificant, for I know well that Truth is dearest to God. I swear it by your sacred head, nay, better still, I swear by God the guardian of Truth, that I suffer. How can I fail to suffer, when I must, as it were, remove from one life to another?

But if after those things have been made clear which I least desire to conceal, if the man who holds this power from Heaven persists in putting me in the hierarchy of bishops, I will submit to the inevitable, and I will accept the token as divine. For I reason thus, that if the emperor or some ill-fated augustalis had given an order, I should have been punished if I disobeyed, but the one must obey God with a willing heart. But even at the expense of God's not admitting me to his service, I must nevertheless place first my love for Truth, the most divine thing of all. And I must not slip into His service through ways opposed to it-- such as falsehood. See then that the scholastics know well my sentiments, and that they inform Theophilus.

Note 1:
The bishop of Alexandria, who had blessed Synesius' marriage.
Online 2006
Revision: 5 November 2006
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