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Synesius, On dreams


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

One of the interesting aspects of On dreams (De insomniis), which he wrote for his children, is that the wealthy philosopher is adamant that the God reveals itself to everyone, rich and poor, men and women, free and slave. The treatise, which (according to Letter 154, he sent to Hypatia of Alexandria, consists of two parts:
  • A philosophical explanation why dreams allow our soul to reach higher spheres, based on a doctrine that is derived from the philosophical school known as Stoa (sections 1-7);
  • A more down-to-earth, and very accessible, account of the way one must investigate one's dreams, which boils down to keeping a 'night book' (section 8-13).
The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Preface

[1281] It is an old tradition, I think, and quite in the manner of Plato, to conceal the profound thoughts of philosophy behind the mask of some lighter treatment, that thereby whatsoever has been acquired with difficulty shall not be again lost to men, nor shall such matters be contaminated by lying exposed to the approach of the profane. The end accordingly has been most zealously pursued in the present work, and whether it attains this end, and whether in other respects it is wrought with distinction after the manner of the ancients, let those decide who shall approach it in a spirit of loving labor.

On dreams 1

If dreams are prophets, and if the visions seen in dreams are riddles of their future fortunes to anxious men, they would in that case be full of wisdom, though certainly not clear. In sooth their lack of clearness is their wisdom,

[1284] for the gods keep man's life concealed.[1]

To obtain the greatest things without labor is a divine prerogative, whereas for men, not merely 'in front of virtue' but of all fair things,

the gods have set sweat.[2]

Now divination must be the greatest of all good things, for it is in knowledge and, in a word, in the cognitional part of his faculties that God differs from man, as does man from the brute. But whereas the nature of God is sufficient unto Himself for knowledge, man through divination attains to much more than belongs to our human nature. For the mass of mankind can know only the present. Concerning that which has never been, it can only guess; and Calchas was the only one in the whole Greek assembly who understood

The things which are, the things which shall be,
and the things which have been.[3]

And according to Homer, the affairs of the gods are dependent on the judgment of Zeus, for this reason, that

he came into being before them and has the more knowledge,[4]

by the very fact, I suppose, that he is older. For I think that the reference to age in these verses point to the conclusions that to know more comes through time, and knowledge was, it seems, the most precious thing. But if any one is persuaded on the authority of the other passages that the rule of Zeus rests in the strong hand, as in the text

he was superior in force, [5]

that man's acquaintance with poetry is that of the vulgar, and he has never heard of the philosophy therein, which affirms that the gods are nothing else but minds. It is in this sense that to the words 'he was superior in prowess', he has fastened the words 'he is more ancient in days', meaning that Zeus is an elder-born intelligence; for what else is strength of mind but intelligent thought? Whosoever, being a god, is deemed worthy to rule over the gods, rules in that he is mind by the superior force of wisdom. Therefore the phrase,

he was superior in force,

comes back to the same thing for us as

he has greater knowledge,

and means this. For this reason also is the wise man akin to God, because he strives to approach Him in knowledge, and occupies himself with thought, in the which the divine essence has its being.

>> to part two >>


Note 1:
Hesiod, Works and days, 42.

Note 2:
Hesiod, Works and days, 289.

Note 3:
Homer, Iliad, 1.70.

Note 4:
Homer, Iliad, 13.355.

Note 5:
Homer, Odyssey, 18.234.
Online 2006
Revision: 14 Nov. 2006
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