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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 9

Yet I have narrowly missed incurring a charge of ingratitude; for while I explained just now that it [i.e., divination by dreams] is a good thing wherewith to journey or stay at home, to trade or command troops, and that it helps all men and all things, yet I have never made public what it has done for me personally.

Certainly no other thing is so well calculated to join in man's pursuit of wisdom; and many of the things which present difficulties to us awake, some of these it makes completely clear while we are asleep, and others it helps us to explain. And something of this sort happens. At one moment one seems like a man asking questions, at another the same man discovering in process of thought. It has frequently helped me to write books, for it has prepared the mind and made the diction appropriate to the thought. Here it cuts out something, there it brings in new matter instead. It has befallen me already to be admonished by it also in respect of the whole style of my language, when it runs riot and flames up with novel forms of diction, in emulation of the archaic Attic, which is foreign to us, and this by agency of a god who, at one moment tells me something, and again what something means, and at another show me how to smooth down the excrescences growing out of my language. Thus it has restored my diction to a state of sobriety, and has castigated my inflated style. Moreover when I am engaged in the chase, it has suggested to me stratagems of the hunter's art against those wild beasts who show skill alike in running and hiding; and when in weariness I have been on the point of abandoning the quest, the dream has enjoined upon me a blockade of the quarry, and has promised me fortune on an appointed day, so that we have slept in the open more happily with confidence. And when the day appointed has come and fortune is with us at last, it has shown us swarms of netted game of wild beasts that have fallen to our spears.

My life has been one of books and of the chase, except what time I spent as an ambassador. Would that I had not been compelled to see three unspeakable years lost to my life! [1] But even in them [1309] I derived the greatest profit from divination, and that on many occasions. For plots directed against me it made ineffective, plots of ghost-raising sorcerers. It exposed these to me, saved me from them all, and helped me in the management of public office in the best interest of the cities, and it finally placed me, more undaunted than was ever any Greek, on terms of intimacy with the emperor.

One man may prefer one, another man another [system of divination], but dream divination is present to all, the good genius to every man, and one that contrives something for the minds of the awakened also. In this way is a soul a wise possession, that it is free from a whole flood of vulgar sensations which attract to it extraneous matter of every sort. Whatever ideas it has, and however many things it receives from the mind, all these, when left to itself, it makes over to those who are inclined towards that which is within, and it ferries across to them whatsoever comes from the godhead. For as it is itself of such a character, a cosmic god is also associated with it, from the fact that its nature comes from the same source.

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Note 1:
The years he had to stay in Constantinople to meet the emperor Arcadius., c.400.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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