Synesius, Letter 103

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.

This letter, written in 402, was sent to a close friend of Synesius, living in Constantinople. Pylaemenes also was the recipient of letters 61, 88, 152, 74, 100, 101, 102, 129, 131, 134, 71, 150, 151, 48, and 153.

Letter 103 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 103: The Benefits of Philosophy

[1] To Pylaemenes

No, my dear Pylaemenes, I call to witness the God who presides over our friendship, I never dreamt of ridiculing your love of your country. Have I not also a city and a home? You did not understand the meaning of my letter, and you impute to me a fault of which I am innocent. You love Heraclea. You are eager to be of some use to your native town, and I approve of this. What I meant to say to you was that you ought to put philosophy before your avocations at the bar.

[2] You seem to me to think that you can serve your native city more eminently as a pleader of cases than as a philosopher. This being the case, in order to explain your persistence in this idea, you alleged your love of country. I took the liberty of scoffing not at this patriotism of yours, but as the reason that you gave for your preference. You are very much mistaken if you think that in attaching yourself to the bar, you are going to do any good at all to this city you love.

[3] If I were to say that philosophy is a sufficient force in itself to lift up cities, Cyrene would refute me, for she has fallen lower than any of the cities of Pontus. But what I do not fear to assert is that philosophy more than rhetoric, more in fact than any art of science you like to name, for she is the very queen of all, philosophy, I say, makes the man who possesses her of the highest usefulness to individuals, families, and states. No doubt she cannot by herself make men prosperous, for the fact is, my dear Pylaemenes, of our pursuits those which are beautiful have a certain power in perfecting of the soul's preparation, and by those alone is it possible for the soul to profit; but it is on fortune and on outside circumstances that the rise and decline of cities ultimately depend. Today they are prosperous, tomorrow they will be miserable, because the mortal lot in which they participate has so willed it.

[4] We grant you that you love your city. So do I. You cultivate rhetoric. All I wish is that you attach yourself not to the rhetoric of the bar, but to the right and noble rhetoric that even Plato himself, in my opinion, does not try to prohibit. For my own part I honor philosophy, and I honor it more than any other human possession. But what good can you or I do cities by our work, unless lives adequate to our aims could be dedicated to it?

[5] For every work we must have suitable material; we must have tools for the man who can use them, and it is only fortune which will ever give us all this. But if you really think that fortune will favor you through the art of rhetoric alone, and will suffice to bring you to a position of authority or the highest public office, that of prefect, why, in case of failure, should you blame philosophy for your ill fortune?

[6] And again, if the chances of success and failure are the same in philosophy and in rhetoric (I mean neither greater nor less), why not choose meantime that one which is better in itself? You yourself admit that philosophy is in itself worth more than rhetoric, but you say that since you desire to be useful to your city, it is the less worthy of the two sciences that has become the more necessary to you.

[7] As things now are, one may hope for the best, but the philosopher will have all the gods for his enemies, and they will draw fortune away from him, so that he will not be left even in the enjoyment of his hopes. For my part I never before now heard it said that misfortune is the divine lot of revered philosophy. No doubt it is very rare for power and wisdom to be found in the same man, but sometimes God unites them both. It follows then perforce from the argument that the same man is philosopher and patriot, nor does he despair of fortune, but rather looks forward to the best, by reason of his own intrinsic merit.

[8] For in this one point especially, as the old saying has it, do the virtuous surpass the evil, I mean in their fair hopes. How then shall we admit that they will have the lesser reward? But so we must, if we adopt the argument which has brought you such a degree of error, that you say you must needs remain in your profession for the sake of the city.

[9] Suffer me now to turn this defense of my mocking humor into an accusation, for although you used to be convinced of the truth of that which as a matter of fact was not true, I am persuaded that you think so no longer.

[10] You see that I am in danger of becoming embroiled with the sacred Cyrene, and all by your fault, through you, though you are the dearest of my friends. For if you persuade the cities that rhetoric alone can rid them of their present misfortunes, and that they will get real help only from those who come to the aid of people engaged in lawsuits over their contracts, in that case they will hate those of us who are busied with anything else rather than lawsuits.

[11] Now there is but one statement I have to make to you and to all the cities, in the name of philosophy. That is, if circumstances with the aid of fortune call philosophy to take part in the administration, then no other science, not even all the sciences together, will be able to govern public affairs so well as this very philosophy. None will be so able to harmonize jarring elements, to make improvements, and to benefit the interests of the citizens. But as long as fate does not tend in this direction, it is wiser to mind one's own business, and not to govern badly nor behave oneself unseemly in the attempt to jostle for the magistracy of such and such a town, unless it is absolutely necessary. "The Gods themselves," it is said, "do not fight with necessity."

[12] For our part, we are following a much higher aim, for when the intellect is not occupied with things here below, it is occupied with God. There are two parts in philosophy, contemplation and action. Wisdom presides over the one, and prudence over the other. But prudence needs to be seconded by fortune, whereas wisdom is an end in itself, and nothing can prevent its being freely exercised.