Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.10
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
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, about the
of the Roman world, and the military crisis at the beginning of the
Although The Egyptian Tale looks like a retelling of a part of the myth of Isis and Osiris, it is obvious that the two brothers Osiris and Typho represent good and bad government. The story, however, is not just a myth, because the man called Osiris can be identified as Aurelian, praetorian prefect of the Eastern Empire during the reign of Arcadius, and one of Synesius' benefactors. His counterpart in this ancient roman à clef, however, is less easy to identify. For some speculations, go here.
The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.
It is not possible that anyone should exist on this earth without having also a certain irrational part of his soul. This part the majority of men bring openly to the front, but the sage carries it at his side. Albeit we all must needs possess it. Through this then, as through a kindred force, demons come to the living being by the path of betrayal. What takes place really resembles a siege;  it is what happens to coals from firebrands, for they more quickly catch the flame owing to their fitness for fire. So the nature of a demon (one of passions, or rather passion itself living and moving), when it approaches the soul, excites the passion in it, and brings this latent power into action, for it accomplishes each act by its propinquity; and every agitated state comes quite to resemble that which agitates it. In this way demons kindle lust, in this way outbursts of passions and all evil akin to these, associating with the soul through those elements therein which belong to them, and which naturally perceive their presence and are thereby stirred, and grow in power to resist the mind because of them, until they overpower the whole soul, or abandon the capture of it. This is the greatest of struggles: for there is no opportunity, no way of attack, no place that they will relinquish, in their onslaught, and from quarters where one would not deem it possible, even from these they will make the attempt. Their snares are everywhere, and everywhere their contrivances. All things stir up their intestine warfare until either they take the position or give up the attempt.
And from above the gods are spectators of these noble contests; in them you will bear away the crown of victory, and may you win it in the second contests also! But there is ground for fear that you may win in the one and be defeated in the other. For whenever the divine part of the soul does not accompany the inferior element, but is ever and anon beating it back, and turning towards itself, it is in the course of nature for that element also to become last hardened so as to resist attacks, and once so armored, no longer to admit the influxes from the demons.
The living being, then, in this way really becomes divine, and a single whole. And this is a heavenly plant growing upon the earth, one that has not received any foreign graft, that it may put forth fruit from such, but one that even changes a foreign element to its own nature. So then the demons, giving it up in despair, then and not till then enter whole-heartedly upon the second struggle, and this is to cut the tree down, and to tear it root and branch from the soil, as if it stood in no relation to them. For they are also ashamed of their defeat, if someone of foreign race struts about in their precincts as a conqueror, a trophy of victory real and visible. Such an one brings punishment upon them, not merely in his own person, but also shares in turning away others from their dominion. Once virtue is zealously pursued, the evil elements must perforce go to wrack and ruin. For these reasons they plan the destruction of the private citizen and of the ruler alike, in a word of everyone who is rebellious to the laws of matter.
But you, for in that you are a king, may guard yourself against this more easily then any private individual. They attack by outside means when means within fail them, to wit by war and by rebellion, and by whatever maltreats the body, forces these by which a king will be less easily overcome, one at least who has forethought for himself, since it is impossible to fight an adversary in whom force and wisdom are combined, whereas, separated from each other, untutored, strength and infirm purpose are easily overcome.
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Revision: 23 June 2007