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Synesius [1]

bishop of Ptolemais, was first a pagan, then a Christian, and always a rhetorician. He lived at the close of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century of our era. He was a late representative of the rhetorical declaimers of the Hellenic schools, and of the Neo-Platonic philosophers. He was also a pagan and a Christian poet, an elegant gentleman of leisure, and a bishop of the African Church. Contrasts were combined and reconciled in the man and in his career. He lived in an age of transitions; and he is, in his writings and in his fortunes, typical of the age in which he lived. The biography and the literary remains of Synesius are much more interesting and instructive for the light which they sheds upon the social, intellectual, and religious condition of provincial life in the Roman empire during the first period of its manifest dissolution than for any influence exercised by him on the literature, the philosophy, the paganism, or the Christianity of his times, or on the sentiments, convictions, or chiurater of subsequent generations. He was designated by Casaubon "the sweetest of philosophers and the delight of the pious muses" ("suavissimus philosophus et piarum delicium musarum," Preef. Ep. Greg. Nyssen.); yet few authors have excited so much admiration and been so seldom read. Few have been so often quoted by the few who were acquainted with him, and been so inaccessible for many generations, even to professed scholars. The attractions of Synesius are so special in their character that they address themselves to a very limited class of students. The period which he illustrates is so obscure, so disheartening, and so little considered, that only the frequenters of the by ways of history are likely to turn their regards to it. More than two centuries intervened between two editions of his works. After this long interval, three complete editions have been published within the last twenty years. One is only a Latin version, another is a French translation, and the third is no more than a reprint of the Greek text and Latin rendering from the edition of 1640, with some slight corrections. The writings of Synesius, in prose or verse, inspired by pagan or by Christian influences, are much less notable for literary charm, for vigorous thought, or for philosophical reflection than as a presentation of the feelings; the aspirations, the struggles, the difficulties, the hazards, the gratifications, the annoyances, the occupations, and the associations of a cultivated country gentleman, de provincia, under the reign of Arcadius and Honorius, when all parts of the empire were falling to pieces. They, accordingly, interpret the times for us, and require to be interpreted by them.

I. Character And Circumstances Of The Age. The life of Synesius was cast in a stormy period; and the storms were not limited to his own province, but swept over the whole empire. It was the age of general dissolution, political, social, intellectual, and religious; an age of usurpations and civil discords; of crimes in the palace and treacheries in the State; of barbarian invasions; of permanent dismemberments; of strife between pagans and Christians; of controversies, heresies, and schisms in the Christian Church; of social depravation and decay; of universal disintegration, and of rapid material decline. The date of the birth of Synesius is undetermined. If he was born in 370, it occurred only seven years after the death of the pagan emperor and the failure of his attempt to restore paganism. When Synesius died, if he died in 431 Genseric and his Vandals had seized a large part of Africa; Britain, Gaul, and Spain had been cut off from the Roman dominion. During his lifetime usurper had sprung up after usurper; Asia Minor and Greece and Italy had been ravaged by the Goths; Constantinople had been threatened and Rome thrice captured by them, and Alaric had led his wild hosts from the Alps to Scylla and Charybdis. While Synesius was still a child in the cradle, Firmus had revolted in Egypt, and the insurrection had been revived after the lapse of a few years, to be crushed out in the Gildonic war. Strangely enough, to none of these portentous events is any distinct allusion made in the remains of this author, except to the Gothic insurrection in Phrygia. There is a possible reference to the Gildonic war (Catastasis, 2, 1).

In the early oration delivered before the emperor Arcadius there is a clear exposition of the fearful perils from the Northern hordes impending over the empire (De Regno, c. 21-24). Was his mind so engrossed by literary labors, by philosophical speculations, and by troubles nearer home that the great calamities of the time occurred without attracting his attention? Or was his pen arrested by despair, even in his candid communications to his friends? Yet the invasions and the mutilations of the empire in the gloomy chasm between the birth and the death of Synesius were not the most grievous calamities of those years. Even more grievous was the social condition, which invited the invasions, and rendered resistance impracticable. There was no cohesion or concert between the provinces; no devotion to emperor or empire; nothing but division, isolation, misery everywhere as a consequence, in part at least, of imperial rule and imperial administration. The organization of the government was impotent for defense, or for that vigorous attack which is often the best means of defense. It was ingeniously devised for inflicting needless and paralyzing restraint, and for extorting revenue from penury and wide-spread distress. Lands were left uncultivated and almost without inhabitants. Wide tracts relapsed into forest or marsh. The people were ground by taxes and the ruinous modes of collecting them. Movement and enterprise were prevented in order to facilitate fiscal arrangements. Bridges were broken down by time and neglect. Roads were left without repair, and became impassable. Communication was rendered difficult.

Commerce, manufactures, and industry of all kinds were harassed and impeded in many ways. In numerous extensive regions banditti lurked in the woods, infested the highways, and ransacked villages. So great was the wretchedness which had driven these outcasts into nefarious courses that a presbyter nearly contemporary with Synesius undertook their exculpation. One book of the Theodosian Code, whose compilation falls within this age, is occupied with defining and enforcing the liabilities to municipal and other public burdens, and with regulating and restricting the exemptions from them, which were often arbitrarily and capriciously accorded. The hard struggle for bare life engrossed nearly all thoughts; and irregular, treacherous, and violent proceedings became familiar, while unrestrained license was common whenever opportunities of indulgence presented themselves. The general demoralization and the social disintegration were aggravated by divisions in the Christian Church, which weakened the authority of the new religion, and by the great contention between Christianity, often sadly corrupted, and the expiring paganism, which was cognizant of its disease, but not of its approaching dissolution. All the bonds of government, law, morals, and religion were fearfully enfeebled. Full and indisputable information in regard to these sorrowful generations is contained in the De Civitate Dei of Augustine and the De GubernationeDei of Saivian of Marseilles. Yet, despite all interruptions and apprehensions, philosophy and literature continued to be cultivated. Philosophy lost itself in NeoPlatonic fantasies and Oriental mysticism. Literature was, in large part, made up of pedantic epistles and rhetorical affectations. It was the era of Libanius, Themistius, and Symmachus. No severer censure of it need be sought thanis contained in the productions of Synesius. It was, however, also the era of the great Christian orators and fathers, who contended earnestly against vice in high places, oppression and wrong wherever they were found, and the manifold distresses of the people; Ambrose, Basil, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and the two Gregories illustrated the Christian Church in that age, and attracted the admiration of pagans as well as of the followers of their own creed. To none of them does Synesius make any reference. These, then, were' the varied, and in many respects alarming, aspects of the years which measured the career of Synesius, and by them its anomalies are rendered intelligible.

II. Life. Synesius was probably born about the year 370. Some authorities say in 375. His birthplace was Cyrene, the capital of Cyrenaica, the tract which stretches along the African coast westward from Egypt. Cyrene was a Dorian colony of the mythical ages; and Synesius claimed for himself the most illustrious Laconian descent. In his denunciation of Andronicus, hecontrasts the splendor of his own lineage with the meanh extraction of the imperial governor. "I default of other merit," says he, "I descend from Eurysthenesfrom ancestors whose names, from Eurysthenes, who led the Dorians into Laconia, down to my father, are inscribed in the public registers" ( Epist. 57; comp. Catastasis, 2, 5). This deduces his line from the royal house of Sparta, though he has blundered in his statement of' the ancient legend. His family was opulent (Epistl. 133). He had a city house, and country estates in which he took unceasing delight. Nevertheless, he diligently sought exemption from civic and fiscal burdens. His love of letters and philosophy must have been manifested early, for his tastes were already decided and, much accomplishment attained when he proceeded to Alexandria (394) to attend the Neo-Platonic and other courses in that tumultuous city. Here he became acquainted with the beautiful, brilliant, and unfortunate Hypatia. He enrolled himself among her disciples. He secured her esteem and regard, and always retained the warmest admiration for her.

Seven of his letters are addressed to her. On returning from Egypt, he went to Athens, to complete his education at that old center of learning and refinement, whence had issued, in the preceding generation, the emperor Julian and& many of his distinguished contemporaries, pagan and; Christian. He was utterly disenchanted by his visit, and made no long stay (Epist. 54, 135). After deserting Athens, he paid a second visit to Alexandria, as is shown by a graphic and humorous letter (ibid. 4), describing the hazards of shipwreck to which he was exposed on his return. (Druon, p. 587-589, discusses the calculations of Petavius and Tillemont, and assigns this voyage to 397.) Soon after his return, he was sent by his fellow-citizens to Constantinople, to present their petitions and a golden crown to the young emperor Areadius (De Regno, c. 2). He was a youthful ambassador. He appears to have discharged his mission with ability, acceptance, and some degree of-success.

The emperor was still under tutelage. Everything was in confusion. The court was distracted by bitter rivalries. Alaric had recently ravaged Greece and threatened Athens. During his stay the insurrection of the Goths in Phrygia occurred. It was no wonder that he experienced frequent inattention and disheartening procrastinations, and that he was at times reduced almost to destitution and despair. He had the honor of delivering a public harangue before the emperor. He gained influential friends, established a reputation for literary talent, and acquired elegant correspondents, who would display and eulogize his epistles at Constantinople, while he would pay the same compliment to theirs at Cyrerie. One thing he accomplished for himself- immunity from public dues. An earthquake hastened and excused his departure from the capital of the Eastern- Empire. On reaching home he found his country desolated by barbarian war, an affliction's from which it had seldom been entirely free for five centuries. The nomads from the edges of the Libyan desert were making frightful irruptions, plundering, destroying, murdering, and meeting with little and only ineffectual resistance (Epist. 104, 113, 124).

The governor and officials were more studious of pillaging than of repelling other pillagers. Synesius, calling to mind his Laconian descent and the example of Leonidas, and having apparently had some military training himself in his youth, roused his neighbors to action, and led them against the spoilers. This war with the nomads, which was renewed from time to time, is mentioned in many of his letters, and forms the subject of a special strict. These productions exhibit the weakness and wretchedness of the province the neglect, imbecility, cowardice, and rapacity of the imperial authorities, and the disgust of Synesius at the conduct of both the people and the officials. After the war was over, or, rather, in the intervals of partial or local repose, he enjoyed an elegant and learned retreat in his country residences, finding occupation in study, literary production, and rural pursuits, and relaxation in hunting, many sports, and an active correspondence. Two years and more after the close of his embassy he revisited Alexandria. It was during this visit that he married. He received his wife from the hands of the patriarch; and to her and to his children he remained always tenderly attached. His marriage was his first visible contact with Christianity. It was, perhaps, decisive. It is no violent presumption to suppose that his wife was Christian, as he received her from the Christian bishop of Alexandria (Epist. 105). "The unbelieving husband may have been sanctified by the believing wife;" or the wife may have been chosen with a prevenient disposition to believe. There is no evidence, no intimation of this. The Dion was written about this time. It is pagan. The treatise On Dreams was composed after his marriage.

It is mystical and Neo-Platonic, and accords with Christianity as little as Cicero's dialogue De Divinatione. After an abode at Alexandria of more than two years, and the birth of a son, he came back to Cyrene, which was shortly afterwards besieged by the barbarians. During the succeeding years he must have inclined more and more to Christianity, but without renouncing his philosophical dogmas. The date of his conversion cannot be ascertained. He must have been reputed a Christian, or "almost a Christian," when elected bishop of Ptolemais (409,410). The episcopate was a very different function then from what it has been in serener and more settled periods. The bishop was the guide, the advocate, the protector, the support, and often the judge of the Christian flock. His civil attributes were of the utmost importance to the daily life of his [People. Character was of more immediate concern to them than doctrine. Synesius had gained and deserved the esteem and confidence of his countrymen. The metropolitan Church of Ptolemais demanded him for its bishop. He was unwilling to incur the solemn responsibilities of the position. He declined, he protested, he urged objections which might be deemed insuperable. He could not put away the wife to whom he was devoted; he was unwilling to forego the pleasures of the chase, the other recreations of the country, and the literary and philosophical ease, which had been the charm of his life. He had neither relish nor aptitude, he thought, for the multifarious and exacting business, which would devolve upon him. He could not surrender the NeoPlatonic convictions, which he had approved, expounded, and still believed; yet he recognized that they were at variance with Christian doctrine. In an elaborate letter to his brother he presents earnestly the grounds of his hesitation and reluctance. He begs him to lay his views before the patriarch Theophilus, whose decision he agrees to receive as the decree of God (Epist. 105).

The patriarch must have recommended his acceptance of the sacred honor, notwithstanding his Nolo episcopari. He was consecrated at Alexandria by Theophilus. Seven months afterwards, being still in that city, he declared that "he would have preferred many deaths to the episcopate" (Epist. 95). Did he separate from his wife? Druon thinks that he did. It has been more frequently supposed that the separation was not required of him. Did he yield his convictions in regard to the pre- existence of souls, the non-resurrection of the body, and the incompatibility of Christian doctrine with revealed truth? M. Druon again confidently concludes that he did. Other inquirers, ancient and modern, believe, with more probability, that he continued to entertain them, for some time at least, after his elevation. He may have acted on the convenient principle of Sesevola and Varro, which he avowed in the letter to his brother, that many things in religion are allegorical, which it is expedient to inculcate upon the vulgar, who are unable to receive truth in its purity. At any rate, he discharged with energy, resolution, integrity, and skill the administrative and other external offices of the episcopate. He boldly assailed the tyranny and rapacity of the governor of the province, and succeeded in relieving the provincials of his rule. His denunciation of Andronicus survives. Another incident of his episcopal aptitudes is preserved. He effected an amicable and satisfactory settlement between two of his suffragans for the possession of a dismantled fortress on the border of their respective dioceses. There was ample occasion for the display of his sagacity and fortitude.

The ravages of the nomads were renewed. The Ausurians besieged Ptolemais. The resistance of the inhabitants was sustained by the courage of their bishop, who continued zealous in seeking protection for the province, and has transmitted to our days the record of its woes. How much longer he guided his diocese we do not know. The date usually assigned for his death (430, 431) is founded on a dubious conjecture. In this date M. Druon does not concur. He considers a letter to Hypatia, written from a sick-bed, and ascribed to 413, to be his latest epistolary or other production (Epist. 16) (Druon, p. 551); and believes that he escaped, by an earlier death, the affliction of knowing the tragic fate of "his teacher, mother, sister, friend." It would be strange, had he known it, that no mention of her murder occurs in letter or other treatise. A fantastic legend, two centuries after his death, attributed to him a miracle for the proof of the resurrection. The greatest of all miracles, in his case, was that, being, or having been, a Neo-Platonist, he became a bishop of the Christian Church without the full renunciation of his views; that, being a provincial of an African province, he acquired eminence in diplomacy, in philosophy, and in poetry; that, living amid the turbulences, vices, and meannesses of the 5th century, he maintained the reputation of an innocent, sincere, and gallant man.

III. Works. The works of Synesius, usually brief for the Dion is one of the longest are numerous and varied. They are of great interest. We may concede to Synesius grace of expression; we may admit the exuberance of his fancy and the propriety of his reflections; we may enjoy the freshness and simplicity of many of his letters, and the unalloyed purity of his sentiments; tout these merits may easily be exaggerated, and do not constitute his chief claim to enduring consideration. It is the striking portraiture of the manifold phases of an unhappy period, when civilization was sinking under a mortal agony that gives a value to his remains far transcending their literary and philosophical excellences. These excellences were, indeed, counterbalanced by very grave defects. The style of Synesius is too often characterized by affectations, strained fancies, and a conscious craving for display. His philosophy is without, originality. Yet even his philosophy merits attention, as illustrating the fine gradations by which pagan speculation melted into the semblance of Christianity without divesting itself of its pagan phrase and spirit.

The works of Synesius which survive (for his juvenile poem, the Cynegetica, or, On Hunting, has been lost) are, an Address to Paeonius, with the Gift of an Astrolabe, invented or improved by himself, in which he encouraged his friend to prosecute the study of astronomy an Oration on Government, delivered at Constantinople before the emperor Arcadius; it is somewhat commonplace, but is remarkable for the boldness and freedom of its utterance and for its sound sense. Dion, which is so called in honor of Dion Chrysostom, his exemplar in style and habit of thought. This treats of the training of a philosopher, or, rather, of what had been the aim and the result of his own education in philosophy. It is, in some sort, a semi-pagan anticipation of the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne. The treatise is at times transcendental, but abounds in high fancies and generous aspirations. The Encomium on Baldness is a rhetorical extravaganza, a counterpart and reply to Dion Chrysostom's Eulogy of Hair. The speculation On Dreams is simply a specimen of superstition and Neo-Platonic mysticism. It was honored or loaded with a commentary by Nicephorus Gregoras. The Catastasis, or Catastases for the production consists of two distinct parts- is chiefly a mournful recitation of the miseries of Cyrenaica, induced by chronic misgovernment and oppression, and by the reiterated invasions of the nomads. It is, perhaps, the strongest testimony to the weakness, impoverishment, and disorganization of the provinces of the empire that he ascribes the calamities which he specially deplores to only one thousand Ausurians, and says that they were defeated and scattered by forty imperial troopers, Unnigardae. The second Catastasis is a eulogy of Anysius, the leader of these Unnigardae, and the military chief of the province. These Catastases resemble the overwrought declamations of the professional rhetoricians. In the same strain, also, is the declamation Against Andronicus. A fable, entitled The Egyptian, or On Providence, is a regret for the deposition and a laud for the restoration of his friend and correspondent Aurelian, the praetorian praefect. A couple of brief Homilies are entitled to no special notice.

The most important and the most interesting of the remains of Synesius are his Letters, 157 or 159 in number, according as the Denunciation of Andronicus is excluded from or is included in the series of Epistles, and ten Hymns. The letters are of diverse style, and on the most dissimilar occasions. Some are formal letters of civility; others are written to be paraded by his correspondents among their acquaintances. These are strained, rhapsodical, and ostentatious, and are more notable for literary filigree than for their contents. Other Letters are friendly communications or earnest expositions. They are simple, fresh, natural, earnest, and modern in their cast. His correspondence with his brother is direct and affectionate, and is rendered attractive by the revelation of his disposition, feelings, and circumstances. The family and serious letters make a favorable contrast to the redundant epistolography of Libanius and Symmachus, and afford in an equal degree pleasure and instruction.

There is much variance of opinion in regard to both the character and the dates of the Hymns of Synesius. Druon has endeavored to fix their chronology, but hardly secures confidence in his conclusions. The first two were, almost certainly, the earliest. They are thoroughly Neo-Platonic, and probably pagan. The rest may be Christian, with a diminishing Neo- Platonic complexion. The only one entirely free from this philosophical characteristic is the short one numbered the tenth. Druon assigns seven of the hymns to the years preceding his conversion. This conclusion is not apt to win assent. The third hymn is Neo-Platonic, but it is as Christian as the ninth. The later Neo-Platonism apes so closely and so habitually the language and sentiments of Christianity, and the Christianity of Alexandria is often so deeply imbued with Neo-Platonism, that exact discrimination between pagan and Christian utterances is not always possible. The convictions of men were then in a transition stage in everything, and paganism and Christianity frequently lapsed into each other. There is a passage in the third hymn (ver. 210-230), which may be simply Neo- Platonic, but it bears a striking resemblance, in thought and expression, to parts of the Athanasian Creed. As the conversion of Synesius cannot be fixed to any certain date, and as he avowed his inability to renounce his philosophic opinions when chosen bishop, all the hymns may have been composed under Christian influences, and all but the last may retain Neo- Platonic tendencies, without being thereby rendered pagan. But these questions cannot be discussed here. The hymns of Synesius exhibit no eminent poetic merit. Their attraction lies in their philosophy, in their ease of expression and facility of versification. It was a strange adaptation of Anacreontic meter to fit it to philosophical and theological songs. Yet it may well be asked what meaning should be attached to the claim of Synesius, in the opening of the seventh hymn, to have been the first to tune his lyre in honor of Jesus.

IV. Literature. Synesii Opern, ed. Turnebi (ed. princep., Paris, 1553, fol.); Id. ed. Morell. (ibid. 1612, fol.; corr. et aucta, 1640, 1653); Id. apud Cursum Patrologiae, etc., ed. Mignie (Latin, ibid. 1859, 8vo; Greek and Latin, ibid. 1864, 8vo); Druon, (Euvres De Synesius, Trad. En Francais (ibid. 1878, 8vo); Synesii Hymni, ed. Boissonade, apud Poet. Gr. Sylloge (ibid. 1824-32);

Synesii Hymni Metrici, ed. Flack (Tub. 1875); Synesii Epistolae, ed. Herscher, apud Epistologr. Gr. (Paris, 1873); Chladni, Theologumena Synesii (Wittenb. 1713, 4to); Boysen, Philosophunzena Synesii (Halle, 1714, 4to); Clausen, De Synesio Philosopho (Hafin. 1831); Krauss, Obss. Crit. in Synesii Cyren. Epistolas (Ratisbon, 1863); Ellies Dupin, Nouveau Bibliotheque des Auteurs Ecclesiastiques; Tillemont, Histoire Ecclesiastique, 12:499-544; Ceillier, Hist. des Auteurs Sacres, 10:14, 961- 517; Villemain, L'Eloquence Chretienne au J Ve Siecle (Paris). (G. F. H.)