Synesius, Letter 154

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.

In Letter 154, Synesius discusses (among other things) his role vis-à-vis sophists and philosophers. It is addressed to his former teacher Hypatia of Alexandria,note to whom he also sent letters 33, 124, 15, 81, 10, 16. The two works he refers to are his Dio and his On dreams.

The letter is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 154: On his own writings

[1] To the Philosophernote

I have brought out two books this year. One of them as I was moved thereto by God Himself, the other because of the slander of men.

[2] Some of those who wear the white or dark mantlenote have maintained that I am faithless to philosophy, apparently because I profess grace and harmony of style, and because I venture to say something concerning Homer and concerning the figures of the rhetoricians. In the eyes of such persons one must hate literature in order to be a philosopher, and must occupy himself with divine matters only. No doubt these men alone have become spectators of the knowable. This privilege is unlawful for me, for I spend some of my leisure in purifying my tongue and sweetening my wit.

[3] The thing which urged them to condemn me, on the charge that I am fit only for trifling, is the fact that my Cynegeticsnote disappeared from my house, how I know not, and has been received with great enthusiasm by certain young men who make a cult of atticisms and graceful periods. Moreover, some poetical attempts of mine seemed to them the work of an artist who reproduces the antique, as we are wont to say in speaking of statues.

[4] There are certain men among my critics whose effrontery is only surpassed by their ignorance, and these are the readiest of all to spin out discussions concerning God. Whenever you meet them, you have to listen to their babble about inconclusive syllogisms. They pour a torrent of phrases over those who stand in no need of them, in which I suppose they find their own profit. The public teachers that one sees in our cities, come from this class. It is a very Horn of Amaltheanote which they think themselves entitled to use. You will, I think, recognize this easy-going tribe, which miscalls nobility of purpose. They wish me to become their pupil; they say that in a short time they will make me all-daring in questions of divinity, and that I shall be able to declaim day and night without stopping.

[5] The rest, who have more taste, are sophists, much more unfortunate than these. They would like to be famous in the same way, but unfortunately for them they are incapable even of this. You know some who, despoiled by the office of the tax-collector, or urged thereto by some one calamity, have become philosophers in the middle of their lives. Their philosophy consists in a very simple formula, that of calling God to witness, as Plato did, whenever they deny anything or whenever they assert anything. A shadow would surpass these men in uttering anything to the point; but their pretensions are extraordinary. Oh, what proudly arched brows! They support their beards with the hand. They assume a more solemn countenance than the statues of Xenocrates. They are even resolved to shackle us with a law which is altogether to their advantage; to wit, that no one shall be in open possession of any knowledge of the good. They esteem it an exposure of themselves if any one, deemed a philosopher, knows ho to speak, for as they think to hide behind a veil of simulation and to appear to be quite full of wisdom within.

[6] These are the two types of men who have falsely accused me with occupying myself in trivial pursuits, one of them because I do not talk the same sort of nonsense as they do, the other because I do not keep my mouth shut, and do not keep the 'bull on my tongue', as they do. Against these was my treatise composed, and it deals with the loquacity of the one school and the silence of the other. Although it is the latter in particular that it is addressed, namely to the speechless and envious men in question (do you not think with some comeliness of from?), none the less it has found means of dragging in those other men also, and it aims at being not less an exhibition than an encomium of great learning. Nor did I abjure their charges, but for their still great discomfiture I have often courted them.

[7] Next, passing as to the choice of a life, the work of praises that of philosophy as being the most philosophic of choices; and what sort of choice it must be regarded, learn from the book itself. Finally, it defends my library, also, which the same men accused, on the ground that it conceals unrevised copies. These spiteful fellows have not kept their hands even off things like these. If each thing is in its proper place; and all things have been handled in season; if the motives behind each part of the undertaking are just; if it has been divided into a number of chapters in the manner of the divine work the Phaedrus, in which Plato discusses the various types of the beautiful; if all the arguments have been devised to converge on the one end proposed; if, moreover, conviction has anywhere quietly come to the support of the flatness of the narrative, and if out of conviction demonstration has resulted, as happens in such cases, and if one thing follows another logically, these results must be gifts of nature and art.

[8] He who is not undisciplined to discover even a certain divine countenance hidden under a coarser model, like that Aphrodite, those Graces, and such charming divinities as the Athenian artists concealed within the sculpted figures of a Silenus or a Satyr, that man, at all events, will apprehend all that my book has unveiled of the mystic dogmas. But the meanings of those will easily escape others because of their semblance to redundancy, and their appearance as being thrown into the narrative too much by chance, and as it might seem roughly. Epileptics are the only people who feel the cold influences of the moon. On the other hand only those receive the flashes of the emanations of the intellect, for whom in the full health of the mind's eye God kindles a light akin to his own, that light which is the cause of knowledge to the intellectual, and to knowable things the cause of their being known. In the same way, ordinary light connects sight with color. But remove this light, and its power to discern is ineffective.

[9] Concerning all of this I shall await your decision. If you decree that I ought to publish my book, I will dedicate it to orators and philosophers together. The first it will please, and to the others it will be useful, provided of course that it is not rejected by you, who are really able to pass judgment. If it does not seem to you worthy of Greek ears, if, like Aristotle, you prize truth more than friendship, a close and profound darkness will overshadow it, and mankind will never hear it mentioned.

So much for this matter.

[10] The other work [On dreams] God ordained and He gave His sanction to it, and it has been set up as a thank-offering to the imaginative faculties. It contains an inquiry into the whole imaginative soul, and into some other points which have not yet been handled by any Greek philosopher. But why should one dilate on this? This work was completed, the whole of it, in a single night, or rather, at the end of a night, one which also brought the vision enjoining me to write it. There are two or three passages in the book in which it seemed to me that I was some other person, and that I was one listening to myself amongst others who were present.

[11] Even now this work, as often as I go over it, produces a marvelous effect upon me, and a certain divine voice envelops me as in poetry. Whether this my experience is not unique, or may happen to another, on all this you will enlighten me, for after myself you will be the first of the Greeks to have access to the work.

[12] The books that I sending to you have not yet been published, and in order that the number may be complete, I am sending you also my essay concerning the Gift. This was produced long ago in my ambassadorial period. It was addressed to a man who had been great influence with the emperor and Pentapolis profited somewhat from the essay, and also from the gift.