Synesius of Cyrene and Neoplatonism

Synesius of Cyrene and Neoplatonism March 2, 2019

Synesius of Cyrene (373-414), was a disciple of the celebrated philosopher Hypathia, a woman who was killed by a Christian mob, even if she was very well beloved by pagans and Christians alike. She was a Neoplatonic philosopher. So Neoplatonism will influence also our Synesius. Because we heard a lot about this name, “Neoplatonism,” let us see its fundamental ideas:  “The most fundamental of these assumptions, which the Neoplatonists shared with the majority of intellectuals of the ancient world, including most pre-Socratic thinkers as well as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their followers, is that mindful consciousness (nous, often translated as thought, intelligence, or intellect) is, in an important sense, ontologically prior to the physical realm typically taken for ultimate reality (Mind over Matter). There existed a dispute between Plato and Aristotle over whether or not the objects of mindful consciousness (abstract concepts, Platonic or otherwise, numbers, geometrical properties, and so forth) are also ontologically prior, but the Neoplatonists regarded this fact as a matter of inconsequential detail. And so, following a venerable and abiding tradition of Mind over Matter, Neoplatonism inevitably turned out to be an idealist type of philosophy.

The second assumption, which the Neoplatonists shared with the Stoics and the Hermetists (an influential group of Egyptian religious thinkers that predate the rise of Neoplatonism), was that reality, in all its cognitive and physical manifestations, depended on a highest principle which is unitary and singular. Neoplatonic philosophy is a strict form of principle-monism that strives to understand everything on the basis of a single cause that they considered divine, and indiscriminately referred to as ‘the First,’ ‘the One,’ or ‘the Good.’ Since it is reasonable to assume, as the Neoplatonists did, that any efficient cause is ontologically prior to, and hence more real, than its effect, then, in the hierarchy of being, the first principle, whatever it is, cannot be less ‘real’ than the phenomena it is supposed to explain. Given the veracity of the first assumption (the ontological priority of intelligence and consciousness), it follows at once that the first principle must be a principle of consciousness. In consequence, the fundamental challenge all Neoplatonists struggled to meet was essentially the following: How are we to understand and describe the emergence of the universe, with all its diverse phenomena, as the effect of a singular principle of consciousness? In particular—and in this regard Neoplatonism shares certain concerns with modern cosmology—how is it possible to understand the emergence of the physical, material universe from a singularity that is in every sense unlike this universe? Their answer to this question was entirely new, and went far beyond any prior cosmic aetiology, including that of Plato’s Timaeus, in elegance and sophistication” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Synesius will be Bishop of Ptolemais (ancient Libya) and will be author of several works, including many letters. Andy Fear so writes about him in the Salisbury Review: “To read Synesius of Cyrene today is to enter into a small circle even among those who study the late Roman Empire. His works are not available in print in an English translation (though there is a French edition) and there has been no major study of him since 1980s. This neglect is surprising: he has left to posterity nine surviving essays, ten hymns (both pagan and semi-Christian), and over 150 letters. It is even more regrettable as his views of the traumatic times through which he lived have important lessons for us today. Born near the ancient Greek town of Cyrene in North Africa, probably in the 360s AD, in a later era Synesius would have been seen as an educated country squire. ‘My life has been one of books and of the chase,’ he remarks in one of his essays. If asked, he would have said that he was a Hellene, and the preservation of the Hellenic World (ie Graeco-Roman civilisation) was his first care throughout his life. His father had been wealthy enough to send him to Alexandria for his education where he became a pupil and life-long friend of the female philosopher Hypatia. Indeed, he is probably best known in the English-speaking world via his depiction in Charles Kingsley’s novel of the same name. It was there that he was introduced to Neo-Platonism, which remained the dominant guide throughout his life. Unlike many of its practitioners however, who turned to inward looking contemplation, Synesius remained very much a man of the world. He later visited Athens, but was unimpressed. His reaction to the famous old town was like that of many today towards famous long-standing academic institutions. He held that it was but a shadow of a great name. ‘Just like an animal sacrifice burnt up in the temple fire,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘there is nothing left but its skin to help us to reconstruct that which was once alive’.” In 399 Synesius wrote a letter to Trolilus: “Praise and Love cannot be explained by the same motives, and they are not regulated by the same faculties of the soul. Feeling determines love and hatred, whereas it is by the use of the critical and rational faculties that we praise and blame.” An important thought we should apply also to our modern times.

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