"On condition that I may practice philosophy at home"

The fourth and fifth centuries were fascinating times. Christianity institutionalized, its canon was established, and it would become the official religion of the Roman empire. This all but happened in one go. In the fourth century, first various edicts of toleration were issued to the benefit of Christianity; next, various laws forbade pagan practice; in the second half of the century, however, a philosophical pagan religion was reinstated by emperor Julian the Apostate, which was again annulled by his successor, who definitively established Christianity as the state religion. By the end of the same century, the official New Testament canon was agreed upon in the west. During both the fourth and fifth centuries, councils were held to negotiate and decide on official doctrines and rules, such as the date for Easter (325) and Mary's motherhood of God (431). Incidentally, also iconography of Christ suffering on the cross is only datable as late as the fourth century.

 

My reason for posting on this theme is not so much the quite interesting fact that so many dogmas were established so late into the history of Christianity, but rather that examples from the works of learned people during these centuries may convey illuminating reflections on religion and philosophy and the question of free thought. St. Augustine's (fourth c.) life and works are known especially for this reason, and the theological, dogmatic conclusions based on this church father's inner dialogue between philosophy and religion have affected the development of Christian orthodoxy enormously. But I would like to cite from a less famous and perhaps more excellent example of the tension between philosophy and religious dogmatism: a letter from bishop Synesius (fourth-fifth c.). 

 

Synesius of Cyrene was an ardent pupil of one of the earliest known female philosophers, Hypatia of Alexandria. He was a Neoplatonist, who believed in one, highest, God or first principle. He married a Christian woman, and he himself may have been born into a Christian family, but his own Christianity was never very pronounced before 409, when he was asked to become bishop of Ptolemais (a coastal city in Cyrenaica, now Libya). In answer to this request, the philosopher wrote a long letter to his brother, intended as a public statement of his conditions of acceptance of the office. In the excerpts below Synesius gives voice to doubts about his suitability for this role (1) and explains why he refuses to accept if he is to unmarry his wife (2) or to actually believe those Christian notions that he does not support but is expected to preach (the consubstantiality of body and soul; the end of the world; resurrection) (3).

 

1) I am far from being able to bear the distress of my own conscience. If anybody asks me what my idea of a bishop is, I have no hesitation in saying explicitly that he ought to be spotless, more than spotless, and in all things, he to whom is allotted the purification of others. 

 

2) God himself, the law of the land, and the blessed hand of Theophilus [bishop of Alexandria, JP] himself have given me a wife. I, therefore, proclaim to all and call them to witness once for all that I will not be separated from her, nor shall I associate with her surreptitiously like an adulterer; for of these two acts, the one is impious, and the other is unlawful. I shall desire and pray to have many virtuous children.

 

3) I can never persuade myself that the soul is of more recent origin than the body. Never would I admit that the world and the parts which make it must perish. This resurrection, which is an object of common belief, is nothing for me but a sacred and mysterious allegory, and I am far from sharing the views of the vulgar crowd thereon. ... If the laws of the priesthood that obtain with us permit these views to me, I can take over the holy office on condition that I may practice philosophy at home and spread legends abroad, and allow men to remain in their already acquired convictions.[emphasis mine, JP] But if anybody says to me that he must be under this influence, that is the bishop must belong to the people in his opinions, I will betray myself very quickly. What can there be in common between the ordinary man and philosophy? Divine truth should remain hidden, but the vulgar need a different system. I shall never cease repeating that I think the wise man, to the extent that necessity allows, should not force his opinions upon others, nor allow others to force theirs upon him. ... No, if I am called to the priesthood, I declare before God and man that I refuse to preach dogmas in which I do not believe. Truth is an attribute of God, and I wish in all things to be blameless before Him. This one thing I will not dissimulate.

 

(translation from livius.org

 

The elitism expressed in (3) is a reflection of Synesius' practice and advocacy of what Leo Strauss has called esoteric reading and writing, common in the history of philosophy upto the modern period. 

 

Synesius was also a theurgist ('theurgy' was a form of platonist ritual practice) and he wrote a famous treatise On Dreams, in which he extensively theorized about the nature of the imagination and exhorted the reader to keeping a dream diary. 

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© 2019 J. Pijnenburg