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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 5

Nature has poured the richness of the imaginative essence into many parts of existing things; it descends even to the animals which have as yet no understanding, and is no longer the vehicle of the more divine soul, but itself rests upon the forces beneath, being itself the reason of the animal;[1] and many things this creature things and does befittingly through its agency. Thus a cleansing takes place even in creatures without reason, with the result that a better force enters in. Whole races of demons also have their existence in such a life as this. For whereas these throughout all their being are phantasmic, making their appearance as images in things that are coming into being, in the case of man most things come by imagination and that alone, though in truth a good many in company with another, for we do not form thought-concepts without imagination, unless it so be that some man in a rare moment of time grasps even an immaterial form.

 To go beyond the imaginative would be no less difficult than happy to achieve. 'For', the master says, 'happy the man to whom understanding and prudence come even in old age,'[2] speaking of prudence bereft of imagination. [1293] But the life in question [i.e. dream life] is founded on imagination or on that intellect which makes use of imagination. This envelope of soul-matter which the happy have called the enveloping soul, is in turn god, demon of every sort, and phantom, and in it the soul pays its penalties, for the oracles are agreed about this, to wit, the similarity of the soul's way of life in another world to the imaginings of the dream condition; and philosophy concludes that our first lives are but the preparation for second lives, and that the best conduct in the case of souls lightens it [ i.e. the pneuma], whereas the worst imparts a stain to them. Through the attractive forces of nature, therefore, the soul is drawn upwards by reason of its own warmth and dryness. This is the winged flight of the soul, and we shall find that the expression of Heraclitus, 'The wise soul is dry,' signifies naught else than this. On the other hand, when it becomes thick and moist, it sinks into the hollows of the earth by its downward momentum, lucks in holes, and is finally pushed into the regions below the earth; for this spot is the most suitable to the spirits clogged with moisture, and there the life is ill-starred and full of vengeance. But it is possible through labor and time and other lives that it may become purified and rise to the surface, for becoming a thing of dual nature, it runs in a double channel of life and partly consorts with the worst, partly with the better. Now descending from the spheres, the first soul takes a lease of this other one, embarking in it as in a boat, and so associates with the world of body.

It enters upon this struggle, either to conduct that soul above with it, or at least not to remain with it below. Difficult indeed is this, and possibly it may leave the other behind, as incapable of accompanying it, a thing scarcely permitted us to believe in view of the revealed mysteries, for the ascent would be shameful for souls who do not return property their own, but leave upon earth that they have borrowed from above. And this might happen to one or two people as a gift of initiation and of God's grace, but it is in the course of nature that the soul which has one become engrafted thereon, either band to the oar with the other or draws it away, or is drawn away by it, but in any case remains with it until the soul's ascent to the regions whence it came; or weighed down by reason of its evil, it drags below with it the soul which has already permitted it to grow too heavy. And it is this with which the oracles menace the seed of mind within us saying,

Bend thou not down far below to the world mid obscurity gleaming,
Alway spread out are its depths, a treacherous region where Hades
Lurks in the gloom and delighteth in phantoms, never in reason.

How can a life unstable and unintelligent be a thing of beauty to the mind? To the phantom, indeed, because of the nature of its pneuma at that moment, the region below is befitting; for like rejoices in like. But if one comes into existence from the conjunction of both, the mind also would be swamped with sensual pleasures. Yet it would be the very last of evils, not even to perceive an evil that is present; for this is the way of those who seek not to rise above evil. And just as a hardened tumor, by reason of its no more paining us, fails to remind us to cure ourselves, so repentance is an uplifting force. A man finding his situation intolerable, plans flight, [1296] and the will is the most important part of purification; for thus his words and deeds alike stretch out hands towards the goal. But when will is lacking, every purificatory initiation is lifeless, severed as it is from the greatest covenant. And for this reason here and there, the minglings (of good and evil) furnish the greatest and the best service to the order of the universe, when, for a change, they bring grief to man and so purify his soul from frivolous enjoyment. Even things unjustly called misfortunes contribute greatly in loosening the hold that we keep on the lower elements. The first providence is revealed to those who have intellect by the same principles which cause distrust in it to those who lack intellect. Nor is it possible that the soul should ever be turned away from matter, if it does not fall foul of any misfortune in this world.

Therefore we must suppose that the much talked-of-good fortunes are an invention of the lords of the underworld for the ambush of souls. Consequently, what Lethaean potion there may be to the souls that have departed this life, let another tell us, but to a soul entering life such a potion is certainly offered in that which is sweet and cloying here on earth. For, descending into the first life voluntarily as a maid of service, this soul, instead of serving, becomes enslaved. Its mission was to fulfill a service to the constitution of the universe, for the laws of Adrastea [Justice] impost this upon it; but, bewitched by the gifts of matter, it undergoes an experience very like that of free men who have entered into a contract of service for an agreed-upon period, but who, captivated by the beauty of some handmaiden, desire to remain in their employment at the price of slavery to the master of the beloved. We too, when at any time from the depths of our hearts we take delight in what is of the body and lies at its portals, deeming it good, seem to confess to the nature of the matter, that it is fair. Now matter receives our assent as a secret contract, and even if we plan to depart as free men, affirms that we are fugitive slaves. She tries to bring us back and arrests us as runaways, reading over to us the while our contract. Then, indeed, have we most of all need of strength and the help of God for our souls, for it entails no light struggle to take exception to, and perchance to violate, one's own contract. Then, indeed, are the penalties of matter stirred up even beyond that which was predestined against those who have rebelled against her laws. This is really the meaning of the so-called labors which sacred legends tell us that Heracles endured, and in general any other man who has attempted to gain his freedom by force, until the day when they have transported the spirit to the realm to which the hands of nature cannot attain.

But if the leap ends within the confines of matter, there is a fall, and more severe contests become necessary, for matter then treats souls mercilessly as aliens, and even if they renounce the upward path, she exacts punishment for the attempt itself, and keeps pouring out lives, but no longer from both those jars which Homer darkly shadows forth as being two portions of matter.[3] According to that passage of his poem, Zeus is the god ruling over matter, and the dispenser of the ambiguity of destiny, and the good that comes from his has never been unmixed, though ere now it has happened to a man to partake of the more evil portion unalloyed. No, all lives go in an erring course, one which has not risen after the first fall. But observe in how great an interval of space this pneuma dwells. The argument said that, when the soul fell below, it was weighed down and sank until it encountered the murky darkly-gleaming spot, [1297] but that when the soul rises the pneuma accompanies it as far as it is able; and it is able to follow until it has come to the farthest opposite point. Listen to the oracles as they speak of this also:

Refuse it will not consign to the chasm abysmal of matter;
Leave but a part in the clear-shining space given o'er to the image.

This place is the opposite of the one encircled in gloom. And yet one might be more sharp-sighted in this case. It does not seem to bring up to the spheres the nature that has come from thence unaccompanied, but to bring with it what it snatched from the extremes of fire and air, when it come down to its phantom condition here below, before donning its earthly shell, and this, according to the oracle, it conducts above together with the strongest part, for the divine body could not be the off-scourings of matter. It would be logical that those things which have a common nature and are contributory to one end should not be altogether ungovernable, particularly when their domains are those of neighbors, just as fire is next to the surrounding body, and is not, like earth, the farthest from it all.

But if the better elements yield place to the worse and rejoice in community with them, and if an uncontaminated body has been contributory to the slime, as if appropriated by the element to the stronger of the conjunction of the two, possibly the inferior ones also, not struggling against the soul's energy, but docile and reasonable, meeting it themselves half-way, and keeping the medial nature undistracted, would, under the leadership of the first nature, become etherearlized, and then would be borne aloft with it so as to traverse, if not the whole of the way, at least the summit of the elements, and so taste of the world of light. 'For it has a certain portion in it,' the oracles say: in a word, it takes its place in some one division of the orb of the world.

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Note 1:
Aristotle, On animals, 3.3.9.

Note 2:
Cf. Plato, Philebus, 21D-E.

Note 3:
Homer, Iliad, 24.527.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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