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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 4

Let this be taken as presenting the worthiness of the imaginative life, even in small matters, as against those who despair of it. It is not to be wondered at that they understand it in this way, owing to the exceptional nature of their knowledge, since they adhere to what has been abjured by the oracles, for the oracle says,

I reck not of sacrifices or of entails: these be all baubles,[1]

and exhorts us to flee from them. But these men, as though they were above the common herd, attempt to practice arts whose province relates to the future, some taking up one, some another; they despise dreams as being too obvious, and as matters in which it honors come equally to the ignorant and to the wise.

But is not a man wise, precisely because he gains a greater share out of a possession common to all? Surely the other good things, nay, even the greatest are set before us as the most open to all. Amongst things visible there is nothing more august in splendor than the sun, and at the same time nothing more universal. And if to look upon a god with one's own eye is a happy thing, the approach to Him by the imagination comes of a gaze more magnificent still. For this is the perception of perceptions, inasmuch as the imaginative pneuma is the most widely shared organ of sensation, and the first body of the soul. There it lurks in its fastness, and directs the government of the living being as from a citadel, for about it nature has constructed all the functions of the brain. Hearing and sight are not senses, but only subservient organs of the common sense-perception, like doorkeepers of the living being who announce to their mistress the things perceived outside, and from which things these external organs of sense receive knocks at the door. And this is the perfect sense-perception in all its parts, for it hears and sees with its whole pneuma and has power over all the remaining senses. It divides its powers, assigning one to one place and another to another. These powers stretch out from the living being, each one separately, and, like straight lines radiating from a center, return to meet in the center again, all of them one in their common root though many in their outgoings. Most animals in character, therefore, is perception through the organs projected without, nor is it sense-perception at all before it comes in contact with the chief perception [i.e., imagination]. But the more divine which cleaves to the soul is the direct perception.

Now if we hold our bodily senses in esteem by reason of our understanding, and because we know best what we have actually seen, and spurn imagination as more faithless than sense-perception, we seem to resemble those who forget that even the eye does not reveal all things truthfully. One eye reveals nothing, and another falsifies, both in a way contrary to the nature of the things seen, and because of the medium through which they are seen. For according to the distance of the observer, objects seem greater or less. Those under the water appear larger, and an oar blade once immersed strikes the eye as broken. And the eye, through its own lack of power produces this effect, for when bleared it represents everything in confusion and indistinctness, nor may a man who is diseased in his imaginative pneuma expect to have clear or well-defined images. What his disease is, by what things the imagination becomes bleared and dulled, and by what things it is purged and purified, so as to return to its natural condition, all this you must learn of the cryptic philosophy, through which the imagination becomes inspired when once purified by the initiations.

The extraneous bodies which have entered in, must make their way out again before the god brings in the imagination. Whoever keeps this purified by a life in accordance with nature has an instrument ready to his hand, and one that is thus again common to all, for this pneuma comprehends our spiritual disposition and is, therefore, not without sympathy for it, like our oyster-shell which after all, is opposed to the better part of the soul's organization. But its first special vehicle [2] becomes light and ethereal when the soul is exalted, whereas when that is debased, it becomes heavy and falls to the earth. Now this is, in a word, the borderland between unreason and reason, between the bodiless and the body, and is a boundary common to both, and through this the divine elements are brought into contact with those furthest removed from them. For this reason it is difficult for philosophy to apprehend its nature, for it borrows anything that is suitable to its purpose, taking it from either of the extremes, as it were from neighbors, and so images in one nature things that dwell far apart.

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Note 1:
Unknown.

Note 2:
Plato, Phaedo, 85D.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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