Synesius

, an ancient fathei: and bishop of the Christian church, flourished at the beginning of the fifth century. He was born at Cyrene in Africa, a town situated | upon the borders of Egypt, and afterwards travelled to th neighbouring country for improvement, where he happily succeeded in his studies under the celebrated female philo-r sopher Hypatia, who presided at that time over the Platonic school at Alexandria, where also the eminent mathematicians Theon, Pappus, and Hero taught. Nicephorus, patriarch of Constantinople, who wrote annotations on a piece of Synesius, called “De insomniis,” represents him as a man of prodigious parts and learning and says, that “there was nothing he did not know, no science wherein he did not excel, no mystery in which he was not initiated and deeply versed.” His works are in high esteem with the curious; and his epistles, in Suidas’s opinion, are admirable, and in that of Photius, as well as Evagrius, “elegant, agreeable, sententious, and learned.' 1 Synesius was a man of noble birth, which added no less weight to his learning, than that reflected lustre on his quality; and both together procured him great credit and authority. He went, about the year 400, upon an embassy, which lasted three years, to the emperor Arcadius at Constantinople, on the behalf of his country, which was miserably harassed by the auxiliary Goths and other barbarians; and it was then, as he himself tells \is, that” with greater boldness than any of the Greeks, he pronounced before the emperor an oration concerning government.“About the year 410, when the citizens of Ptolemais applied to Theophilus of Alexandria for a bishop, Synesius was appointed and consecrated, though he took all imaginable pains to decline the honour. He declared himself not at all convinced of the truth of some of the most important articles of Christianity. He was verily persuaded of the existence of the soul before its union with the body; he could not^ conceive the resurrection of the body; nor did he believe that the world should ever be destroyed. He also owned himself to have such an affection for his wife, that he would not consent, either to be separated from her, or to Jive in a clandestine manner with her; and told Theophilus, that, if he did insist upon making him a bishop, he must leave him in possession of his wife and all his notions. Theophilus at length submitted to these singular terms,” upon a presumption,“it is said,” that a man, whose life and manners were in every respect so exemplary, could not possibly be long a bishop without being enlightened with heavenly truth. Nor,“continues Cave,” was | Theophilus deceived; for Synesius was no sooner seated in hit bishopric, than he easily acquiesced in the doctrine of the resurrection.“Baronius says in his Annals,” that he does not believe these singularities of Synesius to have been his real sentiments; but only that he pretended them, with a view of putting a stop to the importunities of Theophilus, and of warding off this advancement to a bishopric, which was highly disagreeable to him." That the advancement was highly disagreeable to Synesius, is very certain; but it is likewise as certain, that Baronius’s supposition is without all foundation. There is extant a letter of Synesius to his brother, of which an extract may be given, as illustrative of his character and opinions.

I should be exceedingly to blame if I did not return most hearty thanks to the inhabitants of Ptolemais, for thinking me worthy of such honours, as I own I do not think myself worthy of: yet it is highly incumbent on me to consider, not only the great things they offer, but how far it may be prudent in me to accept them. Now, the more I reflect upon it, the more I am convinced of my own inability to sustain the office and dignity of a bishop; and I will frankly tell you my thoughts upon this occasion. While I had nothing to support but the character of a philosopher, I acquitted myself, I may say, with tolerable credit; and this nas made some imagine that I am fit to be a bishop. But they have riot considered, with what difficulty the mind acquires a new bent; that is, adapts itself to a province it has hitherto been a stranger to. I for my part am afraid, that by quitting the philosopher, and putting on the bishop, I should spoil both characters, that my new honours should make me arrogant and assuming, destroying at once the modesty of the philosopher; and yet that I should not be able to support them with a becoming dignity. For only consider my way of life hitherto. My time has always been divided between books and sports. In the hours of study nothing can be more retired, but in our sports every body sees us; and you know very well, that no man is fonder of all kinds of recreations than myself. You know also, that I have an aversion to civil employments, as indeed my education, and the whole bent of my studies, have been quite foreign to them. But a bishop ought to be, as it were, a man of God, averse to pleasures and amusements, severe in his manners, and for ever employed in the concerns of his flock. It requires a happy | complication of qualities to do all this as it should be done; to sustain such a weight of care and business; to be perpetually conversant with the affairs of men; and yet to keep himself unspotted from the world. It is true, I see this done- by some men, and I highly admire and revere them lor it; but I am myself incapable of doing it; and I will not burthen my conscience with undertaking what I know I cannot perform. But I have still farther reasons for declining this charge, which I will here produce; for though I am writing to you, yet I beg this letter may be made public: so that, whatever may be the result of this affair, or which way soever I may be disposed of, I may, at least, stand clear with God and man, and especially with Theophilus, when I shall have dealt thus openly and fairly. I say then, that God, the laws of the land, and the holy hands of Theophilus, have given me a wife: but I declare to all men, that I will neither suffer myself to be separated from her, nor consent to live like an adulterer in a clandestine manner: the one I think impious, the other unlawful. I declare further, that it will always be my earnest desire and prayer, to lywe as many children by her as possible. Again, let it be considered how difficult, or rather how absolutely impossible it is, to pluck up those doctrines, which by the means of knowledge are rooted in the soul to a demonstration. But you know, that philosophy is diametrically opposite to the doctrines of Christianity; nor shall I ever be able to persuade myself, for instance, that the soul had no existence before its union with the body, that the world and all its parts will perish together, and that the trite and thread-bare doctrine of the resurrection, whatever mystery be couched under it, can have any truth in it, as it is professed by the vulgar. A philosopher, indeed, who is admitted to the intuition of truth, will easily see the necessity of lying to the people; for Jight is to the eye, what truth is to the people. The eye cannot bear too much light; nay, if it is under the least indisposition, it is actually relieved by darkness: in like manner fable and falsehood may be useful to the people, while unvdling the truth may do them hurt. If, therefore, this method be consistent with the duties of the episcopal dignity; if I may freely philosophize at hyme, while I preach tales abroad; and neither teach nor unteach, but suffer people to retain the prejudices in which they were educated, I may indeed be consecrated; but if they shall | say, that a bishop ought to go farther, and not only speak, but think like the people, I must declare off, &c.

Besides rejecting the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, in his “HymnsSynesius adapts the triad, or rather quaternion of the schools, to the received Christian doc* trine of the Trinity. If the language of these mystical odes, says Brucker, be compared with that of the gnostics and cabbalists, with the theology of Proclus, and the Zo-> roastrean oracles, it will be easily seen that Synesius was a more worthy disciple of Hypatia than of Jesus Christ. His works were published, together with those of Cyril of Jerusalem, by Petavius at Paris, 1612; and afterwards, with an addition of notes, in 1633, folio. They are far from being voluminous, consisting only of about one hundred and fifty epistles, and some small pieces. He is chiefly celebrated for his eloquence, an elegant specimen of wbich remains in his “Dion,” a treatise on the manner in which he instructed himself. 1

1

Cave, vol. I.—Fabric. Bibl. Græc.—Dupin.—Brucker.—Saxii Onomast.