Synesius of Cyrene

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Fourth-century philosopher and bishop of Ptolemais;b. Cyrene in Libya, Egypt, c. 370 or 375; d. Ptolemais, c. 414.

Life. Synesius studied at Alexandria under the philosopher Hypatia, visited Athens and Antioch, and settled in Cyrenaica as a well-to-do colonist, devoting time to hunting and literature. As an emissary to Constantinople (399402), he obtained fiscal alleviations for the Pentapolis and exemption from curial duties for himself. He settled in Alexandria (403404), where the Patriarch Theophilus blessed his marriage (Epist. 105). Upon the birth of a son, he returned to Cyrene to protect his family properties; but his villa was destroyed in 408 and he took refuge in Ptolemais, where in the summer of 410 the people chose him as bishop. Objecting that his love for his wife and his dedication to a more spacious life rendered him unfit, Synesius refused consecration; as a final argument he cited his Origenistic belief in the preexistence of souls, the eternity of the world, and his allegorical ideas concerning the Resurrection (Epist. 105 and 145). Theophilus of Alexandria, though opposed to Origenism (see origen and origenism), consecrated him bishop (411) after Synesius had stipulated that he could not separate from his wife, and would accept only out of obedience to God, in the hope of finding "not a disavowal but a new advance in philosophy" (Epist. 11 and 96).

Synesius proved to be a conscientious bishop, zealous to maintain orthodoxy, which was menaced by the Eunomians, and courageous in excommunicating an unjust governor (Epist. 90), as well as in defending a friend of john chrysostom before Theophilus (Epist. 66). He found his pastoral duties to be oppressive, particularly when his three children died. He died before the massacre of Hypatia (415), to whom he had confided his tribulations in the last of his correspondence. It is probable that his brother Evoptius succeeded him as bishop for a prelate of that name represented the Pentapolis at the Council of ephesus in 431.

Synesius was a catechumen between 399 and 401, but his date of Baptism is unknown. In 404 he still indicated a greater interest in Greek wisdom than in Christian asceticism (Dion Chrysos. 9.13). Of an intelligence more subtle than vigorous, but honest and naturally religious, Synesius describes the effort required on the part of an intellectual living in the Hellenistic milieu of Alexandria upon becoming a Christian convert. This experience is revealed in the tracts he composed before becoming a bishop.

Writings. Writing in Greek, Synesius was admired by the Byzantines as a good example of an Atticist formed on classic culture. He is credited with ten hymns written before 408, though the last of them may not be authentic. While Hymns 1 and 3 reflect Jamblichus, the others celebrate the Trinity and the "Son of the Virgin." Synesius wrote in Dorian in classic meters and boasts that he is the first to sing of Christ to the accompaniment of the zither. In the courageous discourse On Royalty, delivered before the Emperor Arcadius at Constantinople in 400, he traced the ideal portrait of a prince, and denounced the morals of the court, and decried the invasion of administrative offices and the army by barbarian officials.

His Egyptian Recital or On Divine Providence was written c. 402 and is a tract on the nature of reality under the cover of the myth of Osiris and Typho (symbolizing virtue and vice). It is neoplatonic in its notion concerning the final return of all things to their beginnings, but of definite Christian moral inspiration.

His Dion Chrysostom or On the Way of Life, written c. 404, is a self-justifying piece answering the philosophers who accused him of abandoning their literary interests. While he judges the Cynics with severity, he supplies one of the most pertinent criticisms of the Christian monks who despised culture and misconceived the idea of virtue, while granting that some of them achieved spiritual success. His tract On Dreams was also dedicated to Hypatia (Epist. 154) and maintains that dreams are divine revelations meant as inspirations. He wrote the essay On Baldness in answer to that of Dion Chrysostom On Hair (397), and a small piece On the Gift, which accompanied an astrolabe that he sent to Constantinople.

With two discourses or Catastases describing the barbarian invasion of the Pentapolis, there remain but two fragments of his homilies. His 156 letters written between 399 and 413 are addressed to some 40 correspondents. They are written with art and furnish precious descriptions of the period while revealing the author as an amiable character who, though dedicated to a gentle way of life, did not lack heroism when challenged by circumstances.

Bibliography: Works. Patrologia Graeca, ed. j. p. migne, 161 v. (Paris 185766) 66:10211756. Hymni et opuscula, ed., n. terzaghi, 2 v. (Rome 193944); Orationes, ed., j. g. krabinger (Opera omnia, v.1, Landshut 1850); Letters, ed. and tr. a. fitzger ald (London 1926); Essays and Hymns, ed. and tr. a. fitzgerald, 2 v. (London 1930); Oeuvres, ed. and tr. h. druon (Paris 1878). r. hercher, ed., Epistolographi Graeci (Paris 1873) 638739. Literature. j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950) 3:106114. c. lacombrade, Synésius de Cyrène, hellène et chrétien (Paris 1951). j. c. pando, The Life and Times of Synesius of Cyrene (Catholic University of America, Patristic Studies 63; 1940). h. i. marrou, Revue des études grecques 65 (1952): 474484, conversion. h. von campenhausen, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenwschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 4.2A (1932): 13621365.

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