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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 146, written in 402, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 146: Friendship and Philosophy

To Herculian

The desire which I felt to fortify your hallowed soul made me write to you in blame of your excessive desire to converse with me. But long ago there was such a flood of enchantments in your letters that I, in turn, felt softened. And you see me today such a man as I at one time reproached you for being. Has the illustrious Herculian done me great benefit in thus making my soul depend on himself, and in compelling it to descend from the heights of philosophy?

I believe that the Sirens are censured by the poets purely because by the melody of their voice they lured to destruction one who had put his trust in them. I heard some man of learning too give an allegorical explanation of this tale. He said that the Sirens signified for the wise an allegory of the voluptuous pleasures, which destroy, little by little, those yielding to them and bewitched by their enticements.

Well now, how do the pleasures of your letters differ from the Sirens, they which make me dismiss from my mind all that is serious, and cause me to become the entire possession of Herculian? May God be my witness that I have not written these words, as the habit of writers is, for want of something else to say, or in search of a subject for my pen!

Among the three letters which Ursicinus gave me, the one which is midway between the others in length bore some vital affection of the soul which it has instilled into me, and I am so influenced by the flattery that I am ashamed.

You ought to have given your brother Cyrus a letter on the subject you have mentioned to me; because of the count of Pentapolis. I am much indebted to you for your desire to recommend me to him; but you have forgotten that I do not wish to be anything but a philosopher. I am, God be praised, in want of nothing. We do no harm to anyone; no one does harm to us; it is not fitting for us to solicit it. If there had been any question of seeking letters of introduction, the request ought to have been made to address them to me, for that would be doing me honor. I should not ask anybody to send any addressed to another on our behalf.

Take continual care of your health and happiness, be the loyal servant of philosophy. The whole household, God be my witness, salutes you, the young and old alike, and the women; but perhaps you detest women, even when they are well-disposed to you.

See what you have done to me. I was always on the road, but you hold me fast and do not let me go. The Egyptians were sorcerers, and Homer does not falsify everything, I see, since you yourself also send me from Egypt letters full of incantations. The drug which brings forgetfulness of grief was handed to Helen by Polydamna, the wife of Thon.[1] But who gave you the painful philter with which you have infected the letter you sent me?

Note 1:
Homer, Odyssey, 4.227.
Online 2007
Revision: 15 August 2007
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