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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.10


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, about the christianization of the Roman world, and the military crisis at the beginning of the fifth century.

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.

Pr. 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9
1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18
2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8

[1.10] [1229] Understand them, from this, what I mean. Do not ask the gods to be seated by you, for they have for their principal work contemplation and the first parts of the universe, they who are in heaven and are separated very far from us. Do not imagine that their descent to us costs them no trouble or that it is perpetual. Appointed intervals of time bring them down after the manner of engineers, to give an impulse to a salutary movement in a state. And this is the case when they bring harmony into a kingdom, by bringing down here souls akin to their own. This is providence divine and manifold indeed, caring as it does for myriads of human being through the agency of each single man. Needs must therefore that the gods henceforth devote themselves to their own affairs, while you who are set apart among strangers must remember your origin, and that this is a public duty that you are fulfilling for the universe. You should endeavor to ascend yourself, rather than make the gods descend to you, and you should exercise every foresight for yourself, as if you dwelt in an enemy country, a divine soul amongst demons, who will, it is natural to suppose, being earth-born, attack you, in their anger that anyone should maintain foreign institutions within their borders. You must be content therefore to keep awake both by night and by day, having this care alone in your mind, not to be taken by force, one by many, a foreigner by natives of the country. It is true that there is a sacred race of heroes also in this country who care for the welfare of men, and are able to render both minor services and the highest, a sort of heroic settlement this, whose end it is that the world about us may not be bereft of the higher nature; and they stretch out a helping hand where they have the power; but whenever matter stirs its own offshoots to warfare with the soul, the resistance from the other side is feeble as long as the gods are absent. Each thing is strong in its own domain. Now the demons will desire, first of all, to make the soul their own, and this is the way in which the make the attempt.

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; [1232] 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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Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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