The story of humanity, a ceaseless cyclic tide of aspiration and achievement, disintegration and despair, focusses upon changing centres of energy and enlightenment. When their extension in time and space is great enough, they become the civilizations and cultures that give history its measure and rhythm. Within that synoptic structure countless thousands of lesser currents move back and forth, interweaving in action and reaction the complex pattern of life which is the manifest expression of the archetypal movement of the numinous Monadic Host guiding humanity. Each eddy in the great stream has its own logic of unfoldment and makes its own contribution to the panorama of human existence. Macedon brought forth Alexander, Mongolia, Genghis Khan, Britain provided Arthur, and Mecca, Muhammad. What human memory' considers important in the saga of mankind is capricious at worst, rather arbitrary at best. Cyrenaica, the region roughly corresponding to modern Libya, was never the scene of spectacular events in recorded history. It quietly cultivated a way of life that would come to be embodied in Synesius, the man who most clearly saw the significance of his time and tried to stem the violent tides of barbarism and dogmatism and transmit the efflorescence of the classical world.
Cyrene was founded about 630 B.C. as a Greek colony. Aristoteles of Thera, a Dorian and Spartan, established the city and ruled it as King Battus. The area eventually expanded into five major cities known collectively as the Pentapolis. Though descendants of Battus held positions of influence throughout the history of the Pentapolis, the area came under Persian control during the campaigns of Cambyses II. By 480 B.C. Cyrene was again free, but it became an autonomous part of Alexander's empire in 331. When Berenice, daughter of the king of Cyrene, married Ptolemy III, Cyrenaica was ruled from Alexandria. With the fall of Egypt it became a Roman province of some importance. Its large farms and groves provided Rome, and later Constantinople, with grain and oil, and Libyan horses were esteemed throughout the Mediterranean world. The Pentapolis grew moderately prosperous, sufficiently urban to share in the amenities of cultivated living yet rural enough to preserve the simple pleasures of community festivals and the joys of the hunt and the harvest. "Cyrene", Strabo wrote, "grew great by the virtue of her land, for it is the best of all lands in breeding horses and is blest in its fruits." Herodotus attributed the invention of the Greek four-horse chariot to the Libyans. Cyrene gave the world great thinkers as well, among them Callimachus, the poet, and Eratosthenes, the head of the library at Alexandria, who determined the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy and made the first attempt to establish a scientific chronology of historic events beginning with the Trojan War.
The Cyrenaics of the fourth and third centuries B.C. anticipated later Epicurean philosophy. Aristippus of Cyrene held that one can know only one's own sensations, and therefore that pleasure is the only sensible end of human endeavour. For him, given the captivity of the senses, all pleasures are to be considered equally good. Theodorus, his follower, equated happiness with cheerfulness and thus found a basis for distinguishing between greater and lesser pleasures. Anniceris emphasized the pleasures of friendship, society and patriotism, but Hegesias held all pleasure to be illusion, arguing that the most mankind can hope for is the suppression of pain. He taught that death should be welcomed as the terminus of pain. Stoic views found favour among the practical Libyans, and neo-Platonic teachings were widely respected. The Christians of the Pentapolis were proud that the scriptures taught that "a man of Cyrene" had borne the cross of Jesus for him.
Synesius was born in Cyrene around AD. 370 into a family descended from the city's founder. Together with his brother Euoptius, and sister Stratonice, he could say without fear of contradiction that "the public monuments of Cyrene show the succession from Heracles to me", and "from Eurysthenes who led the Dorians to Sparta down to my father my pedigree is carved on them". Raised in a manner consonant with his aristocratic heritage, Synesius was imbued with a profound sense of paideia, the ideals of Greek culture and education. From early youth he possessed a profound sense of the sacred and yearned for communion with Deity. At the same time he learnt to appreciate the life of a country gentleman: farming, breeding and training horses and hunting. While growing up, he was especially fond of rhetoric and learnt to express himself with great beauty and precision. In 393 Synesius accompanied Euoptius to Alexandria, perhaps to study at the Museum. There he met Hypatia. He recognized in her the exemplification of all he cherished, the highest ideals of paideia, the virtue of perfected character, political acumen and practical ability, and the philosophical wisdom that integrated them into a living vision of human excellence. His conversion to the philosophical life as represented by Hypatia was as gradual as it was intense. For the rest of his life he submitted all his philosophical and poetic writings to her for her approval before he published them, sought her advice on personal, political and scientific matters, applied the dialectical method she transmitted from Ammonius Saccas and extolled her virtues to everyone, even her enemies. In a letter to his co-disciple Herculian, he said that the special bond between them is constituted by the fact that "we both saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears the true exponent of the mysteries of philosophy".
Synesius studied under Hypatia for several years. Given his curial rank in Cyrenaica, he probably met many of the prominent citizens of Alexandria. He found the Christian disciples of Hypatia quite different from the mob that had desecrated the Serapeum, and he began to brood upon the future of the world as he knew and loved it. Cyrene had for years suffered from incursions of desert tribesmen, especially the Macetae and the Ausurians, who had discovered that the imperial and religious turmoil of Constantinople had left the province unprotected. Synesius lamented that the only sign of the emperor was the annual visit of the tax-gatherer. In 397 Synesius returned home to attend to practical affairs. Though his own position was relatively secure, disease and raiding parties had severely damaged the whole Pentapolis. He entered public life, and owing to some dispute over the future of the province, he found it prudent to travel for a period. He took the opportunity to visit Athens – a shadow of its former glory – and Antioch. Returning home, his upbringing made him identify with "the poor and downcast" and to feel responsible for assisting them. When, against his inclination, he was asked to head an embassy to the imperial court to seek a remission of taxation, he reluctantly agreed. He spent "three unspeakable years" in the capital of the empire.
No sooner had he arrived in the centre of the emerging Byzantine Empire than he began to see clearly that the whole of civilization was in the balance. He recognized that Christianity was not a mere passing fashion, for it was institutionally stronger than many aspects of the empire. The religion of his forefathers had been dealt a series of fatal blows by imperial legislation, though that only destroyed what could no longer be vivified by collective commitment. The noble attempt of the emperor Julian to revive the older religions upon a neo-Platonic philosophic basis and the theurgic mysteries as taught by Iamblichus failed because it was tied to a temple-worship which was no longer viable. If the heart of Hellenic culture, the spirit of the ancient world, was to survive, it had to do so within the context of the church. In Constantinople Synesius began to nurture the policy of pouring old wine into new bottles. Ammonius Saccas had shown the method in his universal interpretation of the spiritual truth found to some extent in every philosophy and religion. Hypatia had opened the door by freely admitting Christian students to the Alexandrian Academy, being concerned with philosophy and the growth of the soul and not with dogmatic squabbles and claims to exclusiveness. Origen had demonstrated that the deepest mysteries could be found in the message of Christ by those who were ready for the most intense spiritual striving. Synesius saw that the church must be brought to save and serve the essentials of man's spiritual awareness even while pushing aside all that was derivative and dead.
The emperor Arcadius was pious, ineffectual and, in the estimate of Synesius, 'bovine'. Aurelian was the praetorian prefect of the East, an orthodox Christian and an intelligent and capable administrator. Gainas, a Goth who had risen to command the army, was opposed to Aurelian and his followers. Under the influence of Stilicho, the Vandal military commander of the Western Empire, Gainas had murdered the minister Rufinus – a loss many thought was a blessing. Nursing designs to seize the throne, Gainas had encouraged Tribigild to revolt in Asia Minor and then persuaded Arcadius to allow him to field an army to put it down. Assigning his Gothic friends to the highest military positions, he soon controlled the entire military force of the Eastern Empire. Synesius saw the danger to Constantinople and appealed to the emperor to act. Obtaining an audience before the court, he delivered a speech, On Kingship, whose eloquence placed it among the masterpieces of the period. The true king, he boldly affirmed, lives for the welfare of the people. Thus the true king is the representative of divine providence and must base his own nature on spirituality and overthrow the wanton "democracy of the passions". He must first be king within himself. But in fact, the Roman emperor had become the centre of endless pomp and pseudo-religious ritual.
Such effete beings are surrounded by microcephalous courtiers. Barbarian mercenaries who respect nothing in the empire, least of all its citizens, take the field and threaten the throne and all it should represent. Political power and imperial justice are bought and sold in the market-place of the governors' residences. Only the emperor can alter the situation by appointing officials of integrity and by acting like a true king.
The straightforward speech was typical of the courage of Synesius. While his words were well received at court, Arcadius wavered indecisively until events forced his hand. Gainas demanded that Aurelian and Saturninus, another military commander, be handed over to him. Arcadius acquiesced and the pair were sent into exile. Even though Gainas moved his troops into Constantinople itself, Synesius remained openly loyal to his exiled friend. Caesarius, brother and enemy of Aurelian, had become praetorian prefect upon Aurelian's exile, and he welcomed Gainas into the metropolis. Discharging many of the garrison troops, Gainas weakened the defenses of the inner city and prepared to stage a coup. But just when everything appeared to be lost, Gainas prematurely precipitated a skirmish with the guards at the gates and caught his own men in the city unprepared. The public alarm was sounded and the general populace, already on the verge of panic, attacked the Goths within the city and at the walls. Finally spurred to act, Arcadius declared Gainas a public enemy and the citizenry did the rest. The Goths in the city were killed and Gainas fled towards Thrace. Though he eluded the Roman troops, he was subsequently killed by Uldes the Hun, and Aurelian returned to Constantinople in triumph.
Synesius was deeply pleased that the movement of which he was a part had won the day, but for him these events were of vast symbolic importance. First of all, they represented the victory of the forces of order over the forces of chaos. Secondly, they showed that Christianity and Mediterranean culture could be compatible, especially when the empire supported the spirit of Christian institutions and Christianity embraced Hellenic ideas of reason, education, action and governance. The emperor Julian had seen Christianity as an anti-religious threat to the spiritual sensitivity of the Graeco-Roman world, but Synesius saw the forces of nomadic barbarism as dangerously anti-religious. He was well aware of Christian excesses and the invidious penchant for dogmatism and doctrinal exclusivity, but he had been witness to the ability of Christians to rise and support a more inclusive cause. Finally, he considered these tumultuous events an indication that cycles run their course. Just as the ancient Greek world-view, founded by the gods themselves, had served its purpose, so too a nascent world-view was now emerging. The spiritual movements initiated by Orpheus, Pythagoras and Plato were now renewed by the theophanous advent of Jesus, commencing a new cycle of activity consonant with what had gone before. The intuitive philosopher who sensed the mysteries of life could recognize the invisible truth behind the veil of seeming. Synesius expressed these convictions in a treatise, On Providence, written as an allegorical tale of the struggle between the good Osiris (Aurelian) against the evil Typhos (Gainas), sons of the mythical Egyptian king Taurus (Arcadius). Given the speech On Kingship, it is not surprising that Taurus plays no substantive role in the allegory.
Shortly after Aurelian was made consul, Synesius secured the remission of taxes for Cyrenaica. His mission completed, he gladly departed Constantinople. Perhaps significantly, he left aboard ship in the middle of an earthquake that damaged the city. He visited Hypatia and his brother Euoptius in Alexandria, and there he married a Christian woman in 403. Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, was as dogmatic as his successor Cyril, but he was also an opportunist who could appreciate subtlety in a way that was lost on the instigator of Hypatia's murder. Synesius had close ties to the Alexandrian Academy and influential neo-Platonists in Constantinople, as well as warm relations with a number of influential Christians. He had already demonstrated the highest moral integrity and great political astuteness. Living in Cyrene, he could be admired from afar, and his purity of character would not embarrass Alexandrian Christendom in the way Hypatia did by her presence. After spending some time in Alexandria, Synesius was called back to Cyrene in 405 to help stem an Ausurian invasion. His military skill, apparent for the first time, earned the gratitude of the Libyans. Retiring to his estates in the interior of Cyrenaica, he became once again the gentleman farmer and joyfully reared three children.
In these brief years of relative peace and creativity Synesius wrote letters, essays and treatises. He contributed to adoxography, the humorous art in which an inglorious subject is treated with high seriousness. Dio Chrysostom, whose rhetorical skills had won him the title 'golden-mouthed', was profoundly admired by Synesius. Dio had written the adoxographical In Praise of Hair and Synesius imitated it in writing In Praise of Baldness, arguing that the bald head is more perfectly a sphere and therefore closer to the One. In jesting he used neo-Platonic ideas that he himself took seriously, refraining from joking at the expense of other schools.
He also wrote the Dion, a discussion of the interdependence of philosophy, religion and culture, which are all needed for a sure grasp of reality. He criticized the men in white mantles (philosophers) and the men in black (monks). Rejecting the Stoic notion that cultured expression is unnecessary to philosophy – the love of wisdom – or even a positive hindrance to understanding, Synesius pointed to Dio, a Stoic, as the exemplar.
Philosophy is both the sublime art and the foremost science. The philosopher must "acquire knowledge as a man of letters, but he will examine critically each and every thing as a philosopher". Such a person can communicate the mysteries of philosophical consciousness and also veil them. Without the broad but precise skills of an accomplished speaker, "one of two proclivities overtakes him: either to be silent or to speak of things unlawful to mention". Such skill in timing is characteristic of the sage. Monks, on the other hand, while withdrawing from the world, also abandon paideia. Discovering that they cannot meditate ceaselessly, they turn to basket weaving, an activity which is useful in itself but which does not aid the mind in aspiring to Deity. Rather, they become debaters about God, argumentative and narrow-minded. Strict in their rules, they do not understand the reasons for what they do. "They want me to be their disciple and promise to make me in a twinkling a ready talker on the things of God, and able to harangue days and nights together." Such attitudes are a desecration of the Divine. In On Dreams Synesius taught that the soul is enveloped with the Divine in deep sleep but it cannot transmit its pure awareness to the waking consciousness. Through the habit of moderation, the discipline of virtue and continuous aspiration, consciousness can become sufficiently pellucid to receive and retain intimations of Deity, which may take the form of guidance in the context of spiritual and earthly dangers.
When the bishop of Ptolemais died in 409, the populace called for Synesius to assume the office because of his ability, kindness and piety. Theophilus seized the opportunity and offered to appoint him. Startled and reluctant, Synesius thought himself spiritually unworthy and philosophically unsuited for the post.
After prolonged reflection Synesius expressed his willingness to accept the sacred office, providing that a number of conditions were recognized. He was married and he did not wish to put away his wife. Further, certain orthodox doctrines were repugnant to him, and he insisted upon being free to believe that each soul is not created at birth but exists from eternity; that the world was neither created nor will be destroyed in any literal sense; that the incarnation of Jesus, though divine, was not unique in history; that the resurrection of the dead is a mystery which is not revealed in the doctrine of physical restoration; and that truth is philosophically concealed in Christian doctrine, not to be revealed in homilies and sermons. For his part, as bishop he would be orthodox in his public teaching, "speaking mythically", but at liberty to philosophize in private.
After eight months of brooding Theophilus accepted this standpoint and made Synesius bishop of Ptolemais with authority over the whole of Cyrenaica. He was quickly baptized, ordained and installed. Synesius took his duties seriously, raising money for the poor, encouraging toleration and teaching an edifying, if truncated, doctrine. As always in his life, he acted with deliberation, precision and vigour. When Andronicus, "a man from the ninny-fisheries", was appointed governor of Cyrenaica, he issued an edict denying the traditional asylum of the church, boasting that he would torture even a man who clung to the feet of Christ. Synesius convened a synod and excommunicated the governor, forwarding a list of specific charges to the churches. Andronicus relented and sought pardon, which was freely given. When two bishops argued over possession of a small fort owned by one of them, the other seized it and consecrated it as a church, using the sacred ritual as a claim to rightful possession. The synod held the view that the consecration was irrevocable, but Synesius ruled that there is a great difference between sacrament and superstition. Ritual devoid of the spirit is empty of significance. The spirit of Deity is not present in anger and avarice, and the consecration was invalid. The fort was returned with apologies, only to be freely given back by its owner who had been moved by the skilful justice of Synesius.
Synesius never set down the philosophical theology he wanted the church to adopt, but he exemplified it in his life. When facing Andronicus alone he had been calm and courageous despite the pain he felt from the death of one of his children. A few years later his other children died in quick succession, and shortly thereafter he was forced to fortify Ptolemais against Ausurian invasions. He carried the signal-torches himself, for the military commander dispatched to defend the Pentapolis preferred to issue orders for war from a ship at sea. Cyrenaica, abandoned by an empire with grave difficulties close to the capital, was in rapid decline. The church, after the accession of Cyril in 412, seemed even more anxious to move in directions contrary to the Synesian spirit. Synesius disappeared from history like Cyrene, and his great vision was unnoticed in the welter of titanic forces that shattered the world he loved. This noble man, who would have been at home with Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Nicholas of Cusa, offered Christendom an alternative to the Middle Ages that would not be taken up until the Renaissance. The last light of Cyrenaica, perhaps the last true Hellene, he was far ahead of his time. He died about 415, and this was perhaps precipitated by the shock of hearing about the murder of Hypatia. Forgotten by those who could not grasp his universal standpoint, he lived on in the golden thread of memory that eventually elevated tribal Islam into the cultural force that stimulated the rebirth of Europe. In his writings as well as his life Synesius had fearlessly blended the ideals of the old world with the aspirations of a new age: