« Prev Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemaïis Next »


(Born circ. A.D. 375, Died 430).

Synesius was a man of mark in his day, and would have been a man of mark in any day.

To begin with the advantages which belonged to him by birth, he could boast a pedigree such as, says Gibbon, "could not be equalled in the history of mankind," of seventeen centuries from earliest heroic times, down through the kings of Sparta, and the founders of Cyrene: "all the names recorded in the public registers of Cyrene;" and he was well worthy of his "pure and illustrious pedigree."33See The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Oxford edition, 1827, vol. ii. p. 446, and the foot notes. Also vol. iv. pp. 38, 39.

As a philosopher, his merits, measured by the standard of the age in which he lived, are of high 2 order. Otherwise, it is easy, in our age, to condemn the whole Neoplatonic philosophy as "tumid, inflated, and false."

As a statesman and patriot, he deserves the highest praise. For three years (A.D. 397-400) he toiled, as he himself tells us in his third Ode, and strove and wept at the court of Arcadius, endeavouring to stimulate his degraded and degenerate countrymen to worthy efforts against the Goths, who were threatening not only his own beloved Libya, but the whole empire. His noble appeal, and his continued exertions, called forth abundant commendation and praise, but no permanent results. "The court of Arcadius indulged the zeal, applauded the eloquence, and neglected the advice of Synesius."

But there must have been some lull in the rising storm, or some partial success; for Synesius expresses, in the ode referred to, his heartfelt thankfulness for the same. Certainly within the three following years considerable victories were gained by Stilicho in Italy. Hence may have arisen relief to Libya. And Synesius may have composed the Ode, or added the part referred to, after those events.

With regard to his Christianity and theological 3 views, it seems to me Synesius has had scant justice done to him. The learned editors of the Anthologia (see Prolegomena, p. x, lib. i., where sex must be a misprint for quinque) think that he had not yet even professed Christianity when he wrote five (viz. I. Il. III. IV. VI.) out of the ten hymns or odes; that in the third, the very long one, he speaks of going round to pagan temples in supplication to the gods. But I would ask, had not pagan temples been put down finally, at least some years before Synesius visited Thrace? Whatever new life paganism may have received during the short reign of Julian (A.D. 360-363), it was crushed out during the reign of Theodosius the Great (A.D. 382-395). His sons divided the empire, Honorius reigning in the West, Arcadius in the East. It was to the court of Arcadius that Synesius went as a deputy from Cyrene. Again, may not Synesius be understood as speaking of Christian churches or temples, Christian ministers or guardian saints (in the growing notion of the day), and Christain rites and ceremonies, though employing in his poetry terms that in pagan times might have been applied to pagan worship? I am persuaded that it is so; and that, if not always orthodox, he yet shows 4 himself in all these poems to be a reverent and sincere Christian.

I cannot enter at length into the famous dispute as to what Synesius held, or did not hold, on the doctrine of the Resurrection. It has been commonly said that he did not accept it at all. Gibbon reiterates the same; and in reply to Bishop Jeremy Taylor and others, who, I believe rightly, qualify this, thinking that Synesius dissembled, or represented his difficulties too strongly, in order that he might not be forced into the holy office, Bingham44Christian Antiquities, vol. i. pp. 464-5, London edition, 1843. quotes and interprets, but I think not fully nor fairly, the words of Synesius himself: την καθωμιλημενην αναστασιν ιερον τι και απορρητον ηγημαι, και πολλου δεω ταις του πληθους υποληψεσιν ομολογησαι . . . . Surely there is much qualification here. "The every-day-talked-of resurrection I have regarded as a sacred thing, and that cannot be spoken of." He does not say that he does not believe it at all, but that, whereas it is in every one's mouth, stated and defined, he has been in the habit of regarding it as a sacred and ineffable mystery; and that he is far from acceding to the notions of the multitude (on it or other points).


That he held the doctrine itself is to me clear, from what he himself says, both elsewhere, and particularly in his beautiful tenth Ode. He believes in, and adores, the risen Saviour, and looks forward with longing desire in the future state to be with Him, and to "sing His praise who is the Healer of souls and the Healer of limbs, with the Great Father and the Holy Spirit." I know not how Mosheim can call such a man a semi-Christian.55See Ecclesiastical History. London edition, 1845, vol. i. pp. 310, 439. Mosheim's translator and annotator66See the Notes, ibid. does something in the way of correcting or qualifying such judgment.

It is certain that, when later in life (viz. A.D. 410) he was made Bishop of Ptolemaïs, Synesius acquitted himself nobly and faithfully in the sacred office to which, entirely against his will, he had been appointed. "The philosophic bishop supported with dignity the character which he had assumed with reluctance."77Gibbon, Decline and Fall, vol. ii. p. 446.

All admit that he was a man of learning and wisdom, of excellent character, and blameless life. His refinement of mind, his delicacy of feeling, and his loving disposition, as well as his zeal and energy, must strike 6 every attentive reader. I would specially refer to his eighth Ode, in which is presented to us a picture of conjugal, parental, and domestic tenderness, that nowhere can be surpassed.

His poetry in the original Greek will be allowed by all scholars to be pure, varied, sweet, and beautiful.

Much must be lost in any translation whatever. If I may have had only slight success in attempting to reproduce to the English reader the mind of this good and great man, I shall indeed be thankful.

Odes: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

« Prev Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemaïis Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection