« Symphorianus, martyr Synesius, bp. of Ptolemais Tarachus, also called Victor »

Synesius, bp. of Ptolemais

Synesius (2), bp. of Ptolemais in the Libyan Pentapolis, early in 5th cent. A treatise by H. Druon, Etudes sur la vie et les œuvres de Synesius (Paris, 1859), gives valuable information respecting the chronological arrangement of Synesius's writings, especially the letters; another by Dr. Volkmann, Synesius von Cyrene (Berlin, 1869), is a well-written treatise, but not so elaborate.

Synesius of Cyrene witnessed the accomplishment of two great events on which the whole course of history for many centuries depended—the ruin of the Roman empire and the complete triumph of Christianity. He was born when the pagan world was mourning the untimely death of the last of the pagan emperors. He died amidst the horrors of the barbarian invasions, when the recent fall of Rome seemed to every portion of the Roman empire a sign of impending ruin.

He was born c. 365 at Cyrene, "a Greek city of ancient fame," but then already in decay, and superseded by Ptolemais as the capital of Pentapolis. He was of good family, inheriting an ample fortune, with considerable estates in the interior of the country. In his early years he served in the army and was passionately fond of field sports. Leaving the army, he commenced his studies at Alexandria, where Hypatia then lectured in philosophy. Through her he became attached to neo-Platonism.

But the great school of Alexandria was not then considered sufficient for any one who aimed at the reputation of a philosopher. To Athens, therefore, Synesius was driven by the remonstrances of his friends. But both with the city and its teachers he was profoundly disappointed. He returned to Pentapolis, determined to divide his time between country pursuits and literature, planting trees, breeding horses, training dogs for hunting, writing poetry, and studying philosophy. From this pleasant life he was called to plead the cause of his native city before the court of Constantinople, arriving there a.d. 397, and remaining 3 years. Through the friendship and influence of Aurelian, a distinguished statesman, the leader at that time of what may be called the patriotic party, Synesius was allowed to pronounce before the emperor Arcadius and his court an oration on the nature and duties of kingship. This oration is still extant, but the language is in parts so bold, the invective so personal, as to suggest a doubt whether it was actually delivered, at least in its present form.

Some of the evils which Synesius anticipated were soon realized. The Gothic leader Gainas revolted, and triumphed without difficulty over the effeminate court of Arcadius. Aurelian was sent into banishment, and his supporters in Constantinople exposed to considerable danger. Synesius declared afterwards that he had only escaped the devices of his enemies through warnings sent him in dreams by God. In a few weeks the power of Gainas sank as rapidly as it had risen. Part of his army perished in a popular rising in Constantinople. The rest were destroyed by an army of Huns in the pay of the emperor. Aurelian returned to Constantinople, and for the remainder of Arcadius's reign had great influence at court. Through him Synesius obtained the boon he asked for Cyrene, and was able at length to quit the hateful city.

From his country retreat, and from the city of Cyrene, Synesius kept up a brisk correspondence with his friends in different parts of the world, especially at Alexandria and Constantinople. Some of his letters were to influential friends in behalf of persons in distress. Of the 156 letters still extant, 49 are to his brother Evoptius. They form a pleasant series, full of interesting details.

With the death of Theodosius the last hope of maintaining the grandeur of the Roman empire seemed suddenly to pass. Rome and Milan, Lyons and Arles, fell by turn before Goths and Vandals, leaving many records of suffering, but not one of a heroic struggle for life and liberty. The characteristics of the time are well illustrated by the letters of Synesius. The miseries of the empire did not spare the distant province of Pentapolis. The nomadic tribes of Libya took advantage of the weakness of the Roman government to sweep down upon the fertile land. Their inroads were at first merely predatory incursions. They seem to have begun not long after Synesius's return from Constantinople. At Cyrene, as elsewhere, there were no troops to oppose them. Synesius's spirits rose with the danger. "I at all events," he writes, "will see what manner of men these are who think they have a right to despise Romans. I will fight as one who is ready to die, and I know I shall survive. I am Laconian by descent, and I remember the letter of the rulers to Leonidas—'Let them fight as men who are ready to die, and they will not die.'" Here and there a few displayed the same courage. Things grew worse, till he wrote almost in despair this touching letter to Hypatia: "I am surrounded by the misfortunes of my country, and mourn for her as each day I see the enemy in arms, and men slaughtered like sheep. The air I breathe is tainted by putrefying corpses, and I expect as bad a fate myself, for who can be hopeful when the very sky is darkened by clouds of carnivorous birds? Still, I cling to my country. How can I do otherwise, I who am a Libyan, born in the country, and who have before my eyes the honoured tombs of my ancestors?" Shortly afterwards, owing to the arrival probably of a new general, the Ausurians were repulsed, and Synesius in 403 left for Alexandria, where he married and remained two years. Returning, he found Cerealis governor, under whose rule the predatory incursions of the barbarians became a regular invasion. "He is a man," wrote Synesius to an influential friend at Constantinople, "who sells himself cheaply, who is useless in war, and oppressive in peace." Obviously Synesius thought that, at least in Pentapolis, the country might have been easily protected against the barbarians if there had been any ability in the government or vigour in the people. He was probably right. 921The Roman empire fell because so few of its citizens cared to do anything to preserve it.

It was but natural that men, even of strong patriotic feeling, like Synesius, should turn from the degradation of official life to live in thought among the glories of the heroic age of action in the pages of Homer, and the heroic age of thought in those of Plato. His philosophical studies did not meet with much encouragement among the people of Pentapolis. "I never hear in Libya the sound of philosophy, except the echo of my own voice. Yet if no one else is my witness, assuredly God is, for the mind of man is the seed of God, and I think the stars look down with favour on me as the only scientific observer of their movements visible to them in this vast continent." He pursued the study of astronomy, not only from his love for the beauties of nature, but as a valuable introduction to the highest branches of philosophy. To him, as to Plato, astronomy is "not only a very noble science, but a means of rising to something nobler still, a ready passage to the mysteries of theology." He had received instruction in it from Hypatia, his "most venerated teacher," at Alexandria. While at Constantinople he sent his friend Paeonius a planisphere, constructed in silver according to his own directions, with a letter giving a curious description of it. He mentions that Ptolemy, and the sacred college of his successors, had been contented with the planisphere on which Hipparchus had marked only the 16 largest stars by which the hours of the night were known, but he himself had marked on his all the stars down to the 6th degree of magnitude.

In philosophy Synesius is not entitled to rank as an independent thinker. He is simply an eclectic blending together the elements of his belief from widely different sources, without troubling to reduce them to a strictly harmonious system. He had neither depth nor precision of thought sufficient to win a high place in the history of philosophy. But he constantly speaks of his delight in philosophical studies, and always claims as his especial title of honour the name of a philosopher. If he had been asked which he considered the most philosophical of his writings, he would probably have answered his poems. For, from his point of view, poetry was inseparably connected with philosophy; for both are occupied with the highest problems of life; both look at the ideal side of things, and in the union of the two religion itself consists. The Homeric poems were valuable to him, not only for literary excellency, but as furnishing a rule of conduct. He quotes Homer as a Christian then quoted his Bible. He evidently regarded Homer as an authority in political, social, moral, and even religious questions. He was certainly well versed in the whole range of Greek literature. There is hardly a poet, historian, or philosopher of eminence not quoted or alluded to by him. In this, as in other respects, he faithfully represents one of the latest phases of thought in the Alexandrine school. The ascetic system of Plotinus and Porphyry had failed as an opposing force to the rising tide of Christianity. The theurgical rites and mysterious forms of magical incantation with which Iamblichus and others sought to prop up the falling creed had had but a limited success. Repeated laws of increasing severity had been passed to repress the magical arts, and many accused of practising them imprisoned and even executed. Besides, the very persons over whose credulity such pretensions could exercise any influence would in the 4th cent. naturally be much more attracted by the far more wonderful pretensions of the Christian hermits, and the countless tales of visions seen and miracles wrought by monks of Nitria and Scetis, which continually excited the wonder and stimulated the religion of the people of Alexandria. In supposed miracles, as in real austerities, no pagan philosopher was likely to rival Anthony or Ammon. Among the higher classes the great majority of thinking men, who were still unwilling to embrace Christianity, were chiefly influenced in the Eastern empire by their attachment to Greek literature, in the Western empire by their reverence, partly political, partly religious, for Rome itself, whose greatness seemed to them to depend on the maintenance of that system, partly political, partly religious, under which it had been acquired. The Greek mythology had lost its hold on their belief, but the poetry that mythology had inspired still retained its power over the imagination of educated men among the cities of the Eastern empire, which, however slightly Greek in origin, had become thoroughly Greek in language and in culture. Besides, the ideal of life presented in Greek literature was far more attractive to many minds than that presented by the popular teaching of Christianity, especially to those minds in which the intellectual were stronger than the moral impulses. Those who "still cared for grace and Hellenism," to use Synesius's expression, turned with increasing fondness from the intellectual degeneracy of their day to the masterpieces of former times, seeking to satisfy the universally felt craving for a definite religious creed, by taking from all the writers they admired the elements of a vague system, which they called a philosophy, but which depended far more upon poetical feelings than philosophical arguments.

Synesius's own poems are his most original works. Their literary merit is not of the highest order. His power lay not so much in the strength of imagination as in warmth of poetical feeling. The metres are unfortunately chosen and not sufficiently varied to escape monotony. The fatal facility of the short lines constantly led to a jingling repetition of the same cadences and turns of construction. Still, the ten hymns extant would be interesting, if only as specimens of a style of lyrical poetry, the meditative poetry partly philosophical and partly religious, which was hardly ever attempted in ancient Greece, though common enough in modern times. Their chief value, however, consists in the light thrown on the religious feelings and experiences of a man of deeply interesting character. Any one who wishes to know the religious aspect of neo-Platonism and the different phases of thought through which an able man of strong religious feelings could in 922the 5th cent. pass to Christianity, can hardly do better than study these hymns.

The God to Whom he thus offers the "unbloody sacrifice" of his prayers is at once One and Three—"one root, one source, a triple form." To attempt to explain the mystery of this Trinity would be the atheistic boldness of blinded men. The three persons of the Trinity, to use the Christian form of expression never employed by Synesius himself, are not as with Plotinus—Unity, Intelligence, Soul. Most frequently the Christian terms are used—Father, Spirit, Son—for the resemblance between the attributes assigned in neo-Platonic philosophy to the soul, the third God, the ruler of the world, and the attributes assigned by Christianity to the Son apparently led Synesius to place the Son third in his system of the Trinity. The Father is also called the Unity. The Spirit is nowhere called the Intelligence, but is often called the Will. The Son, Who emanates from the Father through the Spirit, is also called, with a curious combination of expressions, the Word, the Wisdom, and the Demiurgus. The stream of life and intelligence descends from the Father through the Son to the intellectual worlds, and from them to the visible world which is the image of the intellectual. To all in heaven and in the sky, and on the earth and beneath the earth, the Son imparts life and assigns duties. Nor is the Father, however mysterious in His nature, so "hidden in His glory" as to be inaccessible to sympathy for His children. In the efficacy of prayer and in the reality of spiritual communion with God Synesius firmly believed. "Give, O Lord, to be with me as my companion the holy angel of holy strength, the angel of divinely inspired prayer. May he be with me as my friend, the giver of good gifts, the keeper of my life, the keeper of my soul, the guardian of my prayers, the guardian of my actions. May he preserve my body pure from disease, may he preserve my spirit pure from pollution, may he bring to my soul oblivion of all passions." And again in the beautiful prayer of the soul for reunion with God: "Have pity, Lord, upon Thy daughter. I left Thee to become a servant upon earth, but instead of a servant I have become a slave. Matter has bound me in its magic spells. Yet still the clouded eye retains some little strength, its power is not altogether quenched. But the deep flood has poured over me and dimmed the God-discerning vision. Have pity, Father, on Thy suppliant child, who, often striving to ascend the upward paths of thought, falls back choked with desires, the offspring of seductive matter. Kindle for me, O Lord, the lights which lead the soul on high."

Synesius has nowhere expressly stated that he regarded matter not as created by God but as existing independently and necessarily evil, but this idea is most consistent with the language he generally employs. God is nowhere said to have created the world, but the Son is said to have framed the visible world as the form and image of the invisible. At all events the corruption of the soul in each individual is attributed to the seductive influence of matter, a view expressed at some length in his very curious treatise on Dreams. The soul, he says, descends from heaven in obedience to a law of Providence to perform its appointed service in the world. It then receives, as a loan, the imagination, figuratively called the boat or chariot by which the soul travels on its earthward voyage. In other words, it is the connecting link between mind and matter. It is something intermediate between the corporeal and incorporeal, and philosophy therefore has great difficulty in determining its real nature. It is the duty of the soul to purify and elevate the imagination. It is the constant aim of the daemon of matter to corrupt and degrade it.

The action of Providence in the government of the world is described by Synesius in his treatise written at Constantinople. All existence, he says, proceeds from God and has been assigned by Him to an infinite variety of beings, descending in regular gradations from God Himself, Who is pure existence, to matter, which, being in a state of constant flux, does not, properly speaking, admit of existence at all. The beings of the highest order are called gods, and they are divided into two classes, the first controlling the upper parts of the universe, the other ruling this earth: These gods find their chief happiness in contemplating the God Who is above them, but to preserve the earth from the evils which would soon result from the destructive activity of the earth-daemons they must interpose from time to time. This they do gladly, because thus they render their appointed service to the supreme Deity.

As regards a future state, Synesius says that philosophy teaches us that it is the result of the present life. With death the husk of matter, which we call the body, perishes, but the soul and the imagination remain.

He repeatedly protests against giving publicity to doctrines which are above the comprehension of men not thoroughly trained in philosophical studies. "Philosophy is one of the most ineffable of all ineffable subjects." He reproves his friend Herculian for talking of such with unphilosophical persons, and will not even discuss them in letters lest they fall into the hands of others. Proteus is the problem of the true philosopher eluding vulgar curiosity by concealing the divine under earthly forms, and only revealing it to the persistent efforts of heroic men. This desire for secrecy arose from a fear lest the highest truths should be corrupted and degraded by those unfit to receive them, a feeling by no means unknown in the Christian church at that time.110110So Theodoret (quoted by Bingham, vol. i. p. 35) says: "We speak of the divine mysteries in obscure language because of the uninitiated (the unbaptized), but when they are gone we instruct the initiated (baptized) plainly." Lysis, the Pythagorean, quoted by Synesius with great approbation, says that "the publicity given to philosophy has caused many men to look with contempt upon the Gods." Doubtless enough is plainly stated for us to form a sufficiently accurate idea of Synesius's philosophical and religious views, but there are subjects—e.g. the nature of the Trinity, the connexion between the old mythology and philosophy, the reabsorption of the soul and of all intelligence and existence into 923the Divinity, the nature and origin of matter, the nature and work of the imagination, the scientific arrangement and nomenclature of the virtues—on which we have not the last word of Hypatia's teaching.

We cannot say what means Synesius had of becoming acquainted with Christianity in his early years. No one living in any part of the Eastern empire at the close of the 4th cent. could fail to be brought into frequent contact with Christians. But throughout his works, written before he became a Christian himself, the same phenomenon appears which is so striking in Claudian's poems—the existence of Christianity is entirely ignored. In his speech addressed to Arcadius, though the greatest prominence is given to the religious idea of duty, there is no allusion to the principles of Christianity, even where such a reference would have given force to his arguments. The orator appears unconscious that he is addressing a Christian emperor. The deity to whom he appeals is the god of the Theist, "whose nature no man has ever yet found a name to represent." Still more striking is a passage in one of the hymns written immediately after his return from Constantinople: "To all Thy temples, Lord, built for Thy holy rites I went, and falling headlong as a suppliant bathed with my tears the pavement. That my journey might not be in vain, I prayed to all the gods Thy ministers, who rule the fertile plain of Thrace, and those who on the opposite continent protect the lands of Chalcedon, whom Thou hast crowned with angelic rays, Thy holy servants. They, the blessed ones, helped me in my prayers; they helped me to bear the burden of many troubles." Of course the temples of which he speaks were Christian churches. No pagan temples had been erected in Constantinople, and even in the other cities they had been closed some years by an edict of Theodosius. Yet it is perfectly certain that Synesius was not then a Christian. This picture of a pagan philosopher praying in Christian church to the saints and angels of Christianity, while investing them with the attributes of the daemons of neo-Platonism is no bad illustration of the almost unconscious manner in which the pagan world in becoming Christian was then paganizing Christianity. As eclectic in religion as in philosophy, Synesius took from Christianity whatever harmonized with the rest of his creed, often adapting the tenets he borrowed to make them accord with his philosophical ideas.

How his opinions were so far altered in the next four years that he became a Christian we have, unhappily, but scanty means of knowing. In none of his letters is there the slightest trace of any mental struggle. The change was effected gradually, probably almost imperceptibly even to himself. He had never been really hostile to Christianity, and as the world gradually became more Christian he became more Christian too. Almost without a struggle the old pagan society had yielded, and was still yielding, to the tide which each year set more strongly in the direction of Christianity. With all the vigour he displayed, in great emergencies Synesius was not a man to stand long alone or to fight to the end a battle already lost. Some personal influences had also been brought to bear on him. He had known and highly respected Chrysostom at Constantinople, and afterwards come into contact with Theophilus the patriarch of Alexandria. His wife, to whom he was warmly attached and whom he married at Alexandria in 403, was a Christian, and in her he may have had an opportunity of remarking one of the noblest features of Christianity, the elevation it imparted to the female character by the prominence given to the feminine virtues in the character of Christ and therefore in the teaching of the church. But above all, when he returned to Pentapolis, in 404, to find his country desolated by barbarian invasion, he must have felt how little the highest form of neo-Platonism could meet the wants of such a troubled age. The philosophical and poetical creed was the religion of a prosperous man in peaceful times. When suffering and danger came, its support failed precisely where most needed. To enjoy that intellectual communion with God for which he craved with his whole heart, and on the possibility of which his whole system of belief depended, he needed above all things an untroubled mind. It was one of the points which had marked most strongly his separation from Christianity, that in his hymns he had always prayed at least as earnestly for freedom from anxieties as for freedom from sin. He had formed an ideal of life which could not be maintained in troubled times, and with it necessarily fell the beliefs with which it was intimately connected. The old creed told him that "the woe of earth weighs down the wings of the soul so that it cannot rise to heaven." The new religion taught him that cares and sorrows rightly borne, so far from hiding the divine light, reveal it in increased brightness. In former days, when he shrank into private life from "the polluting influence of business and, the vicissitudes of fortune," he had probably considered the doctrine of the Incarnation as the greatest obstacle to his becoming a Christian, because it seemed to degrade the Deity by connecting it with the contamination of matter. Now, when he had left his seclusion to battle and suffer with his fellow-citizens, no doctrine of Christianity had such attraction for him as that which told of a God Who had resigned His glory to share the sufferings of His creatures and to be the Saviour of mankind. Formerly he had sought to purify his mind that it might ascend in thought to God; now he caught at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit descending into men's hearts to make them the temples of God. So the first hymn which marks the transition to Christianity begins with an invocation to Christ as the Son of the Holy Virgin, and ends with a prayer to Christ and to the Father to send down upon him the Holy Spirit " to refresh the wings of the soul, and to perfect the divine gifts." But though his prayers were now addressed to Christ, it is obvious that he had rather added certain Christian tenets to his old creed than adopted a new religion. The attributes of Christ are described in almost exactly the same terms as the attributes of the Son had been described 924in former hymns. The prayers for himself are almost identical. It is also curious to find that he still considered the Spirit the second person of the Trinity; to use his own illustration, "the Father is the root, the Son the branch, the Spirit intermediate between root and branch." Still, the decisive step had been taken by acknowledging Christ as the Saviour of mankind; after that the subsequent steps were natural and almost inevitable. He was baptized, probably about five years after his marriage. How far he then felt it necessary to give up the language and ideas of his old creed may be imagined from the following hymn, addressed to Christ:

"Thou camest down to earth and didst sojourn among men and drive the deceiver, the serpent-fiend, from Thy Father's garden. Thou wentest down to Tartarus, where death held the countless races of mankind. The old man Hades feared Thee, the devouring dog (Cerberus) fled from the portal; but, having released the soul of the righteous from suffering, Thou didst offer, with a holy worship, hymns of thanksgiving to the Father. As Thou wentest up on high the daemons, powers of the air, were affrighted. But Aether, wise parent of harmony, sang with joy to his seven-toned lyre a hymn of triumph. The morning star, day's harbinger, and the golden star of evening, the planet Venus, smiled on Thee. Before Thee went the horned moon, decked with fresh light, leading the gods of night. Beneath Thy feet Titan spread his flowing locks of light. He recognized the Son of God, the creative intelligence, the source of his own flames. But Thou didst fly on outstretched wings beyond the vaulted sky, alighting on the spheres of pure intelligence, where is the fountain of goodness, the heaven enveloped in silence. There time, deep-flowing and unwearied time, is not; there disease, the reckless and prolific offspring of matter, is not. But eternity, ever young and ever old, rules the abiding habitation of the gods."

While the old and new were thus strangely blended in his creed, an unexpected event changed the whole current of his life. In defiance of the law, which enacted that no one should hold the governorship of the province of which he was a native, Andronicus had been appointed governor of Pentapolis. A native of Berenice, of low origin, he had gained the office, Synesius says, by bribery. Against his appointment Synesius vigorously protested, in a letter to an influential friend at Constantinople: "Send us legitimate governors; men whom we do not know, and who do not know us; men who will not be biassed in their judgments by their private feelings. A governor is on his way to us who lately took a hostile part in politics here, and who will pursue his political differences on the judgment seat." When the ancient Romans were threatened with oppressive rulers, they chose the bravest of their fellow-citizens as tribunes to protect them. In the 5th cent. of the Christian era, under similar circumstances, the people of Ptolemais elected Synesius a bishop. They knew him as a man of high character and great abilities, universally liked and respected, but probably still more recommended to them by the vigour he had displayed in the recent siege. No one who has attentively studied his life and writings can doubt that he was sincere in his wish to decline the proffered honour. A frank statement of his feelings was made in a letter written to his brother Evoptius, then resident at Alexandria, and intended to be shewn to Theophilus: "I should be devoid of feeling if I were not deeply grateful to the people of Ptolemais who have thought me worthy of higher honours than I do myself. But what I must consider is not the greatness of the favour conferred, but the possibility of my accepting it. That a mere man should receive almost divine honours is indeed most pleasing, if he is worthy of them, but if he is far from being so, his acceptance of them gives but a poor hope for the future. This is no new fear, but one I have long felt, the fear lest I should gain honour among men by sinning against God. From my knowledge of myself I feel I am in every respect unworthy of the solemnity of the episcopal office.111111ἱερεύς and the kindred terms are applied by Synesius after he became a Christian only to bishops; the term presbyter is always used of the second order of the Christian ministry. Before his conversion he uses ἱερεύς apparently of heathen priests, and on one occasion certainly of Christian presbyters. In one or two instances, however, ἱερεύς may be intended to include presbyters as well as bishops. . . . I now divide my time between amusements and study. When I am engaged in study, especially religious studies, I keep entirely to myself, in my amusements I am thoroughly sociable. But the bishop must be godly, and therefore like God have nothing to do with amusements, and a thousand eyes watch to see that he observes this duty. In religious matters, on the other hand, he cannot seclude himself, but must be thoroughly sociable, as he is both a teacher and preacher of the law. Single-handed, he has to do the work of everybody, or bear the blame of everybody. Surely then it needs a man of the strongest character to support such a burden of cares without allowing the mind to be overwhelmed, or the divine particle in the soul to be quenched, when he is distracted by such an infinite variety of employments." Again, there was the difficulty of his marriage. "God and the law, and the sacred hand of Theophilus, gave me my wife. I therefore declare openly to all and testify that I will not separate entirely from her, or visit her secretly like an adulterer. The one course would be contrary to piety, the other to law. I shall wish and pray to have a large number of virtuous children." Still more important in his opinion was the question of religious belief. "You know that philosophy is opposed to the opinions of the vulgar. I certainly shall not admit that the soul is posterior in existence to the body. I cannot assert that the world and all its parts will perish together. The resurrection which is so much talked about I consider something sacred and ineffable, and I am far from sharing the ideas of the multitude on the subject." He would indeed be content to keep silence in public on these abstruser points of theology, neither pretending to believe as the multitude, nor seeking to convince them of their errors, "for what has the multitude to do with philosophy? the truth of divine mysteries is 925not a thing to be talked about. But if I am called to the episcopacy I do not think it right to pretend to hold opinions which I do not hold. I call God and man as witnesses to this. Truth is the property of God, before Whom I wish to be entirely blameless. Though fond of amusements—for from my childhood I have been accused of being mad after arms and horses—still I will consent to give them up—though I shall regret to see my darling dogs no longer allowed to hunt, and my bows moth-eaten! Still I will submit to this if it is God's will. And though I hate all cares and troubles I will endure these petty matters of business, as rendering my appointed service to God, grievous as it will be. But I will have no deceit about dogmas, nor shall there be variance between my thoughts and my tongue. . . . It shall never be said of me that I got myself consecrated without my opinions being known. But let Father Theophilus, dearly beloved by God, decide for me with full knowledge of the circumstances of the case, and let him tell me his opinions clearly."

For seven months at least the matter remained undecided. Synesius went to Alexandria to consult Theophilus, and popular feeling ran so high throughout the country that he felt if he declined the bishopric he could never return to his native land. The people also sent two envoys to Theophilus urging him to use all his influence to overcome Synesius's scruples. This Theophilus was sure to do, for, apart from the regard he may well have had for Synesius, it must have been a welcome triumph for him over his opponents at Alexandria that the most distinguished pupil of the Alexandrine school should be consecrated by him a Christian bishop, a visible sign to the people that even the noblest form of paganism was found insufficient by its noblest disciples. The religious difficulties were just those which might be expected in a pupil of the Alexandrine school, whether he derived his inspiration from Origen or from Hypatia. How far, and in what way, Theophilus, already so well known as a vigorous opponent of such views, succeeded in inducing Synesius to change them we have unfortunately no means of knowing. After all, these views were rather in opposition to the commonly received opinions among Christians than to any dogmatical teaching of the church. Even as regards the doctrine of the resurrection, Synesius would probably have had no difficulty in accepting the Greek form of the creed, the resurrection of the dead, though he could hardly have accepted the Latin form, the resurrection of the body, or the resurrection of the flesh. His amusements and his hunting seem to have been given up entirely. It has been assumed that he retained his wife, but there is no evidence whatever to shew that he did so. His own letter is a sufficient proof that a bishop was generally expected to separate from his wife, or, in the language of the day, to live with her as a sister, though it may be true, as Socrates asserts, that exceptions might easily have been found in the Eastern empire. The bishop, especially if occupying an important post, felt that by retaining his wife he lost caste among his people, and Synesius, in giving up so much in the hope of benefiting the people of Ptolemais, was hardly likely to pursue a course which must fatally damage his influence, even if his wife would have consented to a mode of life which must inevitably lower both herself and her husband in public estimation. Besides, Synesius never mentions his wife in any subsequent letter, and in one written only one year afterwards he speaks of his desolation m terms which make it almost incredible that his wife was living with him then. No child was born to him after he was elected bishop.

Yielding at last to the importunities and arguments of his friends, Synesius, in 410, wrote to the presbyters of the diocese of Ptolemais: "Since God has laid upon me not what I sought but what He willed, I pray that He Who has assigned me this life will guide me through the life He has assigned me."

He soon found that his fears had been more prophetic than his friends' hopes. When he returned, Ptolemais presented the appearance of a city taken by storm. Nothing was to be heard in the public places but the groans of men, the screams of women, and the cries of boys. New instruments of punishment had been introduced by Andronicus, racks and thumbscrews and machines for torturing the feet, the ears, the lips, the nose.

At first Synesius remonstrated; his remonstrances were treated with contempt. He reproved; his reproofs made the governor more furious. His house was beset with crowds demanding sympathy and protection. He could not move without seeing and hearing the sufferings of his people. To add to his grief "the dearest of his children died." With a heart wrung with anguish he turned for consolation to God. "But what was the greatest of my calamities, and what made life itself hopeless to me, I who had hitherto always been successful in prayer, now for the first time found that I prayed in vain." He had accepted the office of a bishop in times of difficulty without being sufficiently in sympathy with the prevailing spirit of the Christian church, and the consciousness of this increased his natural self-distrust. The calm serenity of thought, with which in happier years he had held communion with God, was gone. As he prayed, the calamities of his house and country rose up before him as a sign that he had, by his unworthiness, profaned the mysteries of God. The soul, distracted by conflicting feelings, grief and anger, shame and fear, could not rise above the earth. He prayed, and God was afar off. At first it seemed that he would sink in despair under these accumulated sorrows; there were even thoughts of suicide. He was roused by fresh tidings of Andronicus's excesses. Ever ready to assist others in their misfortunes, however great his own might be, he heard the people murmuring that they were forsaken by their bishop. Self-distrust gave way to indignation. Once roused he acted with vigour and judgment. He wrote to influential friends at Constantinople, detailing the cruelties of Andronicus, and earnestly pleading for his recall. Then, without waiting the result of his appeal to the authorities of the state, he proceeded to pronounce against 926the offender the judgment of the church by a formal act of excommunication.

Before this letter of excommunication was sent, Andronicus professed his penitence for his crimes, and entreated that the sentence against him might not be published—a strong proof of the power which the sentence of excommunication then exercised on men's minds. Synesius unwillingly yielded to his entreaties and to the representations of the other bishops of the province. Relieved from this momentary fear, Andronicus soon returned to his old cruelties, and the sentence of excommunication was definitely pronounced. A short time passed and Synesius wrote in triumph to Constantinople thanking his friends for procuring the dismissal of Andronicus. Another short interval, and Synesius was writing to the patriarch of Alexandria to implore his good offices for the fallen governor. "Justice has perished among men; formerly Andronicus acted unjustly, now he suffers unjustly." Freed for a time from these secular cares, Synesius could attend to other episcopal duties. In a long letter addressed to Theophilus he has given a very interesting account of a visitation tour, undertaken at Theophilus's request in the course of the same year, through a part of the country still exposed to the incursions of the barbarians, to the villages of Palaebisca and Hydrax on the confines of the Libyan desert. Near the village of Hydrax, on the summit of a precipitous hill, stood the ruins of an old castle, much desired by the people as a place of retreat in invasion. Their bishop Paul had obtained it for them by a surreptitious consecration, turning it into a church; but Synesius refused to sanction that, and insisted on a regular purchase.

The next subject which occupied his attention was one of the worst evils resulting from the misgovernment of the country. He found that even bishops were often accused by other bishops, not that justice should be done but to give the commanders of the armies opportunities for extorting money.

Then Synesius asked the patriarch's advice as to certain bishops who did not choose to have a fixed diocese, wandering to wherever they thought they would be best off.

The time during which he held his bishopric was so short, apparently only three years, and marked by so many public and private calamities, that we possess but few letters which throw much light upon his life. His principal correspondent at this period was Theophilus, whom he always addresses with a reverence and affection which may surprise those who have only known that prelate as the persecutor of Chrysostom, and which are the more important because Synesius, even in writing to Theophilus, professed his admiration for Chrysostom. Equally noticeable is the unqualified obedience which Synesius, though himself metropolitan of Pentapolis, cheerfully yielded to the "apostolic throne" of Alexandria. "It is at once my wish and my duty to consider whatever decree comes from that throne binding upon me," he writes to Theophilus. The unquestionable superiority of Alexandria to all the cities of E. Africa had given to the patriarch of Alexandria an authority over their bishops unsurpassed, even if it was rivalled, by the supremacy of Rome in that day over the bishoprics of Italy.

Of the bp. of Rome, and of the affairs of Rome, there is no mention in any of his letters—one of the many proofs his works afford of the greatness of the separation, in government and in feeling, between the Eastern and Western empires. Though thoroughly well versed in all the branches of Greek literature, he never alludes to any Latin author. It is almost impossible to resist the belief that he was ignorant of the Latin language. Still some notice of the crowning calamity, when Rome yielded to Alaric without a struggle, could hardly have failed to appear in his writings, had not the misfortunes of Pentapolis been so great as to absorb all his thoughts.

In the winter Synesius lost "the last comfort of his life, his little son." The blow was too much for the father already crushed by the cares of his office and the misery of his country. As death drew near his thoughts were curiously divided between the two objects to which in life he had given his faith. His last letter was addressed to Hypatia. His last poem was a prayer to Christ. The pagan philosopher retained to the end the reverence and affection of the Christian bishop. "You have been to me a mother, a sister, a teacher, and in all these relationships have done me good. Every title and sign of honour is your due. As for me, my bodily sickness comes from sickness of the mind. The recollection of the children who are gone is slowly killing me. Would to God I could either cease to live, or cease to think of my children's graves." In the hymn to Christ Synesius added an epilogue to the poems in which he had already recounted the drama of his soul. The actor who began so confident of success ended with a humble prayer for pardon. "O Christ, Son of God most high, have mercy on Thy servant, a miserable sinner, who wrote these hymns. Release me from the sins which have grown up in my heart, which are implanted in my polluted soul. O Saviour Jesus, grant that hereafter I may behold Thy divine glory." So in gloom and sadness, cheered by the Christian hope of the resurrection, closed the career of one who in his time had played many parts, who had been soldier, statesman, orator, poet, sophist, philosopher, bishop, and in all these characters had deserved admiration and love. A cheap popular Life of Synesius of Cyrene, by A. Gardner, is pub. by S.P.C.K. in their Fathers for Eng. Readers.

[T.R.H.]

« Symphorianus, martyr Synesius, bp. of Ptolemais Tarachus, also called Victor »





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