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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 CyrenaicaHe 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. His treatise On dreams is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.
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On dreams 3

[1288] The whole of this art has already been praised as much as is possible, but not it is time to appropriate the best part that is in it, and to linger over its speculative side. We must regard a characteristic of obscurity as common to all its forms, nor must we consider as disproof any one of them what is observed in the whole cycle of nature. Our words attempted to show that this element of obscurity is sacred, just as in the initiations the unutterable is sacred. In like manner oracles are uttered as not to be intelligible to all men, and for this was the oracle at Pytho called Loxias.[1] Thus, when the god gave out that a wooden wall would be the salvation of the Athenians,[2] the people meeting in assembly would have heard the oracle in vain, had not Themistocles read its meaning.

Not for this reason, therefore, should divination by dreams be dismissed, for it shares obscurity with oracles as with other phenomena. We ought to seek this branch of knowledge before all else; for it comes from us, is within us, and is the special possession of the soul of each one of us. 'Mind holds the shape of things that be,' says the ancient philosophy,[3] and we might add that those which come into being also have a soul, since mind is to soul as real being is to becoming. No, taking the first term with the third, and the second with the fourth, and stating them in this inverse order, we shall no less arrive at the truth, following the definitions of science.

In this way that what we postulated will be demonstrated, namely that the soul holds the forms of things that come into being. It holds, indeed, all, but it produces only what is befitting, and it reflects as in a mirror the image, by means of which the living beings grasps those things that remain there. Therefore, as we do not understand the activities of the mind before the controlling force has announced them to the multitude, and whatever has not come to that controlling force is hidden from the living being; so then we shall not have a perception even of the forms in the first soul, before the impress of them comes to the imagination. And this very imagination seems to be a sort of life in itself, a little lower down in the scale, and having its basis in a peculiar property of nature. It has even its own sense-perceptions, for we see colors and we hear sounds, and we have an overpowering sense of touch, at times when the organic parts of the body are at rest. Perhaps this form of the sense-perception is the more hallowed. In this way we constantly enter into relationship with gods who give us counsel and answer us in oracles, and take care of us in other ways.

So then, if any one, in his dreams, receives the present of a treasure, I shall not be at all surprised; or if a man quite uncultured should fall asleep and, meeting the Muses in his dream and exchanging question and answer with them, should become a cunning bard. This has happened in our own time and does not seem to me very astounding. I pass over the plots I have been revealed, and the number of people whom the dream in the guise of a physician has cured of illness. But whenever a dream open up to the soul a path conducting it to the most perfect points from which to view existing things, a soul that has never yet aspired, nor has given its mind to the assent,[4] it would be indeed the climax of the occult force in existing things that this dream should override nature and unite to the realm of the mind the man who has wandered so far from it that he knows not whence he has come.

And if any one deems the way upward a great undertaking, but disbelieves in the imagination, for that even by its means the happy union may ne'er be gained, let him listen to the sacred oracles which tell of the diverging paths, after hearing, of course, the whole list of the available resources for the ascent, in virtue of which it is possible to make the seed within us grow. It is written:

[1289]'To some he gave the revelation of the light to be a lesson,
Others even in their dreams, He made fruitful with His courage.'[3]

Do you see? He makes a distinction between the happy possession of knowledge and its acquirement. One man learns, he means, while awake, another while asleep. But in the waking state man is the teacher, whereas it is God who makes the dreamer fruitful with His own courage, so that learning and attaining are one and the same. Now to make fruitful is even more than to teach.

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Note 1:
Pytho is a poetic name for the oracle of Delphi; Loxias means "ambiguous".

Note 2:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Histories, 7.141-143.

Note 3:
Unknown.

Note 4:
Plato, Republic, 517B.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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