Synesius, Eulogy of Baldness (7)

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.

The Eulogy of Baldness shows Synesius' lighter side: he defends his baldness against the speech In Praise of Hair by the sophist-philosopher Dio Chrysostom ("tongue of gold").

The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

Hair is like lifeless shells or pods

[1] [1180] The first of existing things are simple, but as nature ascends in the scale she becomes varied, and matter is last in order of existing things and therefore the most varied. Matter itself when it receives anything divine does not at once receive it to the full extent, but only certain appearances and germs of it; with these it becomes intertwined and the greater part of it is centered in them. Perhaps therefore it keeps these by overpowering the divine element through the inevitable encounter at their first meeting, before the appearance has been perfected. Each of these two states would be possible, nor are the words at war although they might seem to be.

[2] But since our discussion is not concerning these things, and since they have been introduced only because of other considerations, let us proceed to show in regard to the facts that nature grows stronger in the immature and yields to those which are strengthened. Are not the principles of the seeds which are cast into the earth something divine, even if this is only the last stage of the divine? The fruit is the consummation of these, but behold the pride of nature, behold its beauties, before this stage has been arrived at. There are roots, stem, barks, awns, husks, and other husks covering these last, but the fruit itself is still unformed and hidden.

[3] Now when once this has appeared, all the playthings of matter are dried up and disappear, for the perfected work now needs no adornment, and that already is perfected in which there is another promise of seed. It is in memory of this that Eleusis celebrates the revelations of Demeter.note

[4] If then mind is the most divine of the seeds that have come from above, and if it is settled in the head, and if the material mind is the fruit of this principle, as is the wheat of that, then nature is pursuing her accustomed course. She works her wonders around the head, and adorns it with the beauties of hair, as if with thorns and husks, or -by Zeus!- even as if with blossom, the like of that wherewith she graces plants before the fruit appears. But there is no fruit on a plant before the blossom fades, and so mind will not take its place in the head before, brought to perfection, it has cast aside in due course the superfluous elements, as if by the winnowing fan of time, and has discarded all the folly of nature; so that we might regard all this as a sign that the head already been shown forth as a perfect fruit.

[5] If then you see one conspicuously denuded, be sure that mind has pitched its tent there, and regard that head as a temple of God. Mysteries would therefore rightly be solemnized concerning the head, to be called perhaps, for the sake of the profane, "Unveiling mysteries"; but the wise would understand that they were festivals for the advent of the mind. And that man who has just now arrived among the bald, is the one newly initiated into the mysteries of the gods' appearance among men.

[6] Again, just as wheat, pomegranates, and nuts become bad and rot in their shells and their pods, so heads may be evil, having no share in the divine element and for the most part enveloped in dead matter. I have myself observed that those who serve the divinity in Egypt do not endure even the hair of the eye-lids. They were, it is true, laughable to behold, but they had a certain wisdom in their minds as exceptional men and Egyptians; for it is not befitting to approach with dead portions [1181] natures which are eternal, and whose being is incorporated in life. If, therefore, the man shaved by his own hand is pious, the bald by nature is by that very nature more closely united to God; for perchance the divinity itself is of such a nature. May it be propitious to my discourse, for it will indeed be uttered in a pious spirit!