Synesius of Cyrene and the American “Synesii”

In: Numen

This article explores the Hellenic/Christian synthesis of bishop Synesius and its later influence, especially on nineteenth-century America. Synesius accepted a bishopric despite Neoplatonic reservations concerning Christian doctrine: the uncreated soul pre-exists; the uncreated cosmos is eternal; and the “resurrection” an ineffable mystery, beyond the vulgar. Whether or not born a Christian, his study under Hypatia brought about a conversion to “pagan” Neoplatonism. His attempted synthesis of Hellenism and Christianity was unique, unlike that of any other late antique Christian Platonist.

Later, Renaissance thinkers scanned a new religious horizon reviving Hellenic Neoplatonism, Hermetic thought, Pythagoreanism, etc., included in a “primordial revelation,” contemporaneous with the Mosaic revelation and thereby in harmony with Christianity.

In Romantic-era England, Thomas Taylor revived Hellenic Neoplatonism as the “true” religion, in the spirit of the anti-Christian theurgic Neoplatonist Roman emperor, Julian. Taylor had a significant influence on the American “Synesii,” Transcendentalists and Neoplatonists, e.g., on Bronson Alcott’s Platonic/Pythagorean lifestyle. Reading Taylor’s translations, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the “Trismegisti” whose Neoplatonic religion predated and superseded “parvenu” Christianity. Later Transcendentalists continued the work of Taylor, sympathizing with late antique “pagan” Neoplatonism, but, in the spirit of Synesius, synthesizing it with Christianity and with other religions. They sought a non-sectarian, universal “cosmic theism,” notably through Thomas M. Johnson’s journal, The Platonist, which included translations of Synesius and other Neoplatonists. One of its contributors, Alexander Wilder, also influenced Theosophy on its Neoplatonic side.

More recent Anglophone “Synesii” include Hilary Armstrong, who was a major presence in Neoplatonic scholarship, both in the uk and North America. He argued for a return to Hellenic inclusive monotheism, in which a Christian Platonist, like himself, could also venerate Hindu or Isis’ holy images as being true reflections of the divine.

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  • 4

    Marrou 1963: 146. Augustine called it dificillima quaestio. Nemesius of Emesa openly proposed the pre-existence of the soul. He was refuting Methodius of Olympus’ naïve idea that the soul was created after the body implying ontological inferiority; the latter was trying to refute Origen’s pre-existence doctrine but Origen also posited a prior spiritual creation. See also Bregman 2010: 32–33.

  • 12

    Robert L. Wilken (1983) argues for the attitudes of a nervous recently triumphant Orthodoxy on many fronts versus Jews heretics and Hellenes during the still raging religious conflicts in the fourth-century Greek East.

  • 24

    See Versluis 1993: 131where he presents Brownson as an apologist against a “new paganism.”

  • 25

    Johnson 1881: 3–6. It is possible here that Wilder was influenced by Emerson’s Poem “The Sphinx” perhaps following a clue in Taylor’s footnote on the Sphinx. See note 22 above.

  • 30

    The Emerson passage is quoted in Bregman 1991: 96–97 n. 24. Harper emphasizes Emerson’s “revivalists” enthusiasm for Iamblichus (1969: 56).

  • 38

    Versluis 1993: 238. Thus Neoplatonism is the intellectual “key” to all Traditions which are grasped as the Self Joins the Over-Soul.

  • 4

    0 1987: 304–305 n. 7. The translator expands on the syncretism of Synesius: 304 n. 3: “Synesius sets the Harrowing of Hell in the classical Tartarus”; and 305 n. 7: “The passage through the sphere of the Fixed Stars brings the voyager to the end of the sensible realm and into the intelligible sometimes envisaged as a further series of concentric but immaterial spheres.” See also 1987: 304–305 nn. 1 2 4 5 8.

  • 41

    Godwin 1995: 180–181. On 1995: 178–180 Godwin presents Albert von Thimus’ complex discussion with detailed diagrams of the Lambdoma and the Pythagorean Table. The overtone/undertone series which Hans Kayser and von Thimus working from a discovered manuscript of Iamblichus’ Commentary on NichomachusArithmetic concluded provided a hint that Greeks had discovered those series and could diagrammatically express them in the shape of the Greek letter lambda.

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