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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 13

I even think that myths take their authority from dreams, as those in which peacock, fox, and sea hold converse. But these are small things compared with the independence of dreams. And although myths are a very small part of dreams, nevertheless they were approved by the sophists as a preparation for the work of eloquence. And for these men to whom myth is the beginning of their art, the dream ought to be its appropriate end. And there is this in addition, that one has not worked the tongue in vain, as in the case of myths, but that he has become wiser in judgement.

Let every many, then, with leisure and ease proceed to write a narrative of whatsoever happens in his waking and sleeping states. Let him spend some of his time on this.

Of the time so spent the greatest help will be found in his knowledge of letters. Let him put together the art of divination which we have extolled, than which nothing could be of more varied service to him. Above all we must not discard even the style, which follows in the wake of subject-matter, for the philosopher this would be mere child's-play, in which the tension of the string would be relaxed, even as the Scythians deal with their bows. And let us recommend it to the orator as the summit of his eloquence. Of a truth they do not seem to me to employ their powers opportunely upon Miltiades and Cimon, and also on certain nameless persons; again, on rich and poor opposed to one another in politics, [1320] on which matters I have seen even old men disputing with their colleagues in the lecture-room. True, the two sat there with all the high seriousness of philosophy, and each tugged at his beard, that as far as one could guess weighed a talent. All this dignity did not prevent them from indulging in abuse and anger, or from tossing their hands about wildly, the while they delivered interminable speeches on behalf of men, their intimate friends, they had not even any existence in nature. What state could anywhere exists of such a sort as to accord to a chief the privilege of killing a political enemy, and if at ninety years of age one is engaged in fighting a phantom, to what season does one postpone truth of speech? In fact these men do not seem to me to understand even the word 'practice' because it professes to work with another end in view, but consider the training to be an end in itself, and they are delighted with the road, as if it were the goal to which they were proceeding, for they have made the training a contest. It is just as if any one who had sparred in the palaestra could demand that [his practice] be heralded abroad as the pancration at Olympia.

So complete a drought of thought and such a deluge of words have possessed these men that some of them who are able to speak, have nothing worth saying; they must needs take delight in themselves, like Archilochus and Alcaeus, each whom spent his eloquence on his own private life. Yet the course of time preserves the memory of both of their sorrows and their joys, for they have not produced words hanging in the void on artificial themes, like this young and wise generation. Nor have they accord their own proper virtue to others, as did Homer and Stesichorus, who made the heroic race more glorious by their poems (and we have profited by their zeal for virtue), but have been some completely neglected in themselves that we are unable to say anything about them except that they were great poets.

Whosoever therefore aspires to be spoken of man in the future, and is conscious of the power to create immortal works on the tablets, let him courageously follow our lawless style of composition. Then let him commend himself to time: it is a noble guardian whenever anything divine is entrusted to it.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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