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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 140 and Letter 141 were written together, in 402; they are offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 140: On Being a Man

To Herculian

Of loves there are some which have earthly and human origins. These are detestable and ephemeral, measured by the presence of the object alone, and even then with difficulty. But there are others over which a Divinity presides, and, according to the divine utterance of Plato, he fuses those who love one another by his art, so that from being two they become one.
[1]

They triumph both over time and place. Nothing can prevent souls who seek each other from drawing near to each other by secret paths and becoming locked together. Now our friendship ought to be of this character, if we are not going to shame our training in philosophy. Do not let us be such men as simply rejoice in the senses, and never allow the soul to enter unless the body knocks at the door.

Why do you lament and drench your letters with your tears? If it is from pity for me, because I have not yet become a philosopher, even although I have taken the outward appearances and the name of one, then I recognize that your lament is well founded; but if you are only complaining of the unfeeling fate which has separated us - for it is that which I think your letters attempt to express - it is womanish or childish to love those things through which the demon is able to rob us of the fruits of our plans.

For my part, I should have imagined that Herculian, that lofty spirit, with his eyes fixed upon Heaven, and given over completely to the contemplation of real being and of the origin of mortal things, would have long ago passed beyond the virtues which are deflected, and whose function is to regulate this world below. Again, according to this conception of you, I put at the end of my letter, "Be Wise" instead of "Goodbye" or "Farewell", for such a formula is too common. For the mind that presides over actions is one of an inferior order, and it is not that which I supposed was buried in you.

I have treated this whole question at considerable length in two of my previous letters, but those to whom I have entrusted them have never given them to you. I am, therefore, writing you today a fifth letter, and I hope this time not in vain. In the first place it will not be in vain, if this letter shall reach you; in the next place, and this is still more important, if it shall counsel, teach, and persuade you to exchange strength of body for manliness of soul.

I am speaking, not of that manliness which springs from the first and earthly quaternion of the virtues, but of the proportionate manliness amongst the virtues of the third and fourth degree.[2] You will enter into full possession of this force, when you learn to wonder at nothing here below. If you do not yet understand the difference which I am trying to establish between the primal and the least virtues, still, if you come to the point of no longer lamenting about anything, and of feeling only a just contempt for everything here below, let this be a standard for you, and a means of testing your attainment of the first things, that I also may again write in my letters to you - "be wise in many things".

May you continue in good health - may philosophy keep you in calm cheerfulness, O admirable master! If philosophy knows how to give the first place to absence of emotion itself, and if the intermediary states consist in the moderate experience of passion, where on earth shall we place the extreme of passion and the extreme of humiliation? Shall we not place them outside of philosophy, of which we prayed earnestly that you might be the priest? Not that, at all events, most dear to me of all men! Show yourself a more manly friend to us.

My whole household has charged me to salute you in their behalf. Accept then the salutations of all: each one of them all but pours out his heart in the final greetings. And do you yourself on our behalf salute the light cavalry, I beg you.


Note 1:
Plato, Symposium, 192D.

Note 2:
An unclear sentence.
Online 2007
Revision: 14 August 2007
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