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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 2.8


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

[2.8] [1280] Pythagoras of Samos avers that the wise man is naught but a spectator of things that are, and of things that have come into existence. For God has summoned him into the universe as to a sacred contest, to be a spectator of the proceedings therein. Let us inquire therefore what sort of spectator the appointed one should be. Or must we say something that is definite and obvious, namely that it should be he who awaits in his place the things shown him, one by one, as they stoop forward in order from out the curtain? And if anyone forces his way on to the stage, and, as the phrase goes, ‘looks at it like an impudent hound,’ usurping a right to survey the whole preparation on the other side of the proscenium, against such an one the Greek judges arm their beadles. But even if he were to evade these, he would understand nothing clearly, he would make out with difficulty blurred ad indistinguishable images.

However, it is the custom in the theater to say a foreword in advance, and it needs must be that someone come forward to discourse to the audience on what they are to see in another moment. Such a man is making no mistake, for he is in the service of the president of the games, and gets from him his knowledge, without playing the busybody to find out more, and thereby moving things that should be immovable. When he has learned his part, he must keep silent before hastening to publish it, since as a matter of fact custom enjoins that even actors do not always know at what moment of the performance they are to appear, but must await the signal for their entrance on the stage to be sent down to them.

In the same way the man to whom God communicates the preparations of those things which are stored up in life by nature, out of respect for the honor granted him, should hold his peace not less, but even more, than those who have heard nothing. It is the unknown about which guesses are made, but conjecture, it goes too far, is most unstable, and in that case words are superfluous; but there is a separation between knowledge and truth, a separation between word and truth also.

But even this will be hidden by the wise man, since God pledges his loyalty of His, as it were, and men hate facile speakers. Let not the man whom God deems unworthy of initiation, push himself forward or be an eavesdropper, for, again, men hate busybodies. In any case, there is no reason for one to be distressed who is certain soon to get his deserts. A short time apportions to man what is his due, and in the end things become common objects for sight and hearing.

                                                         The future days
Are our wisest witnesses. [1]

Note 1:
Pindar, Olympian Ode, 1.34-35,
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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