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A Synesius Tryptic About Dreams

Incubation sleep: Asclepius, attended by Hygiea, treats a sleeping woman.

Votive relief, 4 th century BC. Piraeus Museum.

Part 1

Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is from Jean-Michel Charrue’s impressive study, ‘La philosophie Neo-Platonicienne de l’éducation’ (the neo-platonistic philosophy of education), L’Harmattan_2019, where we find Synesius of Cyrene, Hypatia of Alexandria’s student, sharing gratefully his wisdom acquired during his studies, that he enshrined in his works, thus offering us irreplaceable insights about her. The eventual mistakes of this working translation from the original French are ours to blame.

*‘The originality and the talent of Synesius emerges in the treaty ‘About Dreams’, where this kind of divination, to the exclusion of any other method-including theurgy also challenged by Hypatia, is the only acceptable one; and this even though the ‘Chaldean Oracles’ and Iamblichus seemed to have been studied and practiced, because her neo-platonistic culture fully spreads in this treaty. It is when the soul is pure that it heralds the future, because it is in sympathy with the universe, as it descended from the celestial realms towards matter. Synesius invents then the concept of φανταστικον πνευμα (fantastic spirit), that, he says, ’is the most perceivable and forms the first body of the soul’, in which the πνευμα (spirit), corporeal element becomes a sort of organ of the senses: imagination then reacts on our soul which is its place of action turning itself towards intelligence. The soul in its ascent then finally separates from it. Hypatia remains his model, as again he uses the idea of anagogic might (rising power) when imagination sets the soul in motion. Synesius, by then, had internalized her lessons, which is apparent when he says again, ‘Philosophy is an education’. And when he declares in what he supposes is the extension of her teaching, that he considers ‘dream as truthful’, and when he said in ‘Dion’, ‘at least I will tell the truth’, as all Hypatia was in this search and tension towards truth.’ *‘In the treaty ‘About Dreams’, he alludes to this personal impression he had of a prophetic voice, and ‘this tribute to the imagining nature’, displaying here his originality in the eyes of the Greek philosophers, with this sentence of an ‘enquiry upon the representations of the soul’, that has all the liking of the title of a lesson by Hypatia. Almost all the works of Synesius of this time find their source in Hypatia, that had as Socrates the scholiast notes, ‘a wide culture that made her outmatch the philosophers of her time’. Synesius, who also shared this culture, but slightly different, more literary, was well placed to make us understand who was Hypatia.’

Part 2

We continue our sharings from the Blue House of HYGEIA with an excerpt from Synesius’ treatise, ‘On dreams’-chapter 8.

English from the site

*[1] We shall pray for a dream, even as Homer, perchance, prayed. And if you are worthy, the god far away is present with you. Nay, even what time the god sets little store on these matters, he comes to your side if only you are asleep; and this is the whole system of the initiation. In it no one has ever yet lamented his poverty, on the ground that thus he had less possession than the rich. On the other hand, some of the ceremonies which deal with foreknowledge choose their priests from the most heavily assessed as the Athenians choose their trierarchs. And great expense there must needs be, and, no less, happy opportunity, if we are to obtain a Cretan herb, an Egyptian feather, an Iberian bone, and, by Zeus, some prodigy begotten and nourished in a hidden corner of earth and sea, ‘Where that the sun god sinks ‘neath the earth and where he arises’. *note: [Homer, Odyssey 1.24.][2] For surely this and much like it is said of those who practice external divination, and what ordinary person would be right enough for this out of his own resources? But the dream is visible to the man who is worth five hundred medimni, and equally to the possessor of three hundred, to the teamster no less than to the peasant who tills the boundary land for a livelihood, to the galleyslave and the common laborer alike, to the exempted and to the payer of taxes. [1304] It makes no difference to the god whether a man is an ‘eteoboutades'( a true man= a free man) or a newly-bought slave.[3] And this accessibility to all makes divination very humane; for its simple and artless character is worthy of a philosopher, and its freedom from violence gives it sanctity. That it is present everywhere and does not employ water or rock or a chasm in the earth, is its most divine quality, and that through divination of this sort we do not become occupied with one matter only, or lose opportunities through it, this also is the first thing worthy to say of it.[4] For surely no one every left any important matter he might have in hand, to go home to sleep, to meet a dream by appointment. Time, however, which the living being must spend of his nature, inasmuch as our being in the waking state is insufficient to the support of its energy, time, I say, has come to convey to men, as the proverb has it, “the by-work which is greater than the work,” for it links the desirable with the inevitable and well-being with being itself.[5] As to these forms of foreknowledge, on the other hand, which come to us through all manner of instruments, we must be content if, having occupied the greater part of life, they make some concession to its remaining needs and activities. If you were to give yourself up to any of these things, you would scarcely find divination of use to you for your purpose, for it is not every place or every season in which one can receive the equipment for the initiation, nor is there every facility for carrying about with you the necessary implements. To speak nothing else but those things which the prisons were lately congested, they are loads for a wagon or a ship’s hold. Combined with this there were other elements in the initiation, namely registrars and witnesses. For this would be a more accurate statement, since our time has made many denunciations through those who serve the laws, by whom once betrayed, such initiations become matters for the gaze and the hearing of an unholy mob.[6] Thus, in addition to the baseness of stooping to such practices, it is, I am persuaded, a course hateful to the god. For not to await voluntarily any one’s coming, but to set him moving by pressure and leverage, this is like the employment of force, a thing which even when it has happened among men, the legislator has not allowed to pass unpunished. In addition to all these points, difficult enough to those who seek after the future in this way, there is also the chance of interruption of their activity, and to those who go abroad, the abandonment of the art; for it is no small matter, when moving everywhere, to pack and convey the properties necessary for its practice.[7] Of divination by dreams, each one of us is perforce his own instrument, so much so that it is not possible to desert our oracle there even if we so desired. Nay, even if we remain at home, she dwells with us; if we go abroad she accompanies us; she is with us on the field of battle, she is at our side in the life of the city; she labors with us in the fields and barters with us in the market place. The laws of a malicious government do not forbid her, nor would they have the power to do so, even if they wished, for they have no proof against those who invoke her. For how then? Should we be violating the law by sleeping? A tyrant could never enjoin us not to gaze into dreams, at least not unless he actually banished sleep from his kingdom; and it would be the act of a fool to wish for that which is impossible of fulfillment, and of an impious man to make laws which should be contrary to nature and to God.[8] To her then we must go, woman and man of us, young and old, poor and rich alike, the artisan and the orator. She repudiates neither race, nor age, nor condition, nor calling. She is present to every one, everywhere, this zealous prophetess, [1305] this wise counselor, who holdeth her peace. She herself is alike initiator and initiated, to announce to us good tidings; in such wise as to prolong our pleasure by seizing joy beforehand; to inform against the worst so as to guard against and repel it beforehand.

Part 3

And we share a weebit more from Synesius’ treatise, ‘On Dreams’. A continuation from the preceding post on the subject of the dynamics of incubation. English from the site.

From Chapter 6:[4] Now since man has a soul, we might from that source discover what his position may be. Of a man’s imaginative pneuma is pure and well-defined, and whether he is waking or sleeping receives true impressions of things, it promises him a better lot, so far as the soul’s formation is concerned. Then again it is not least by the visions which it emits and around which it lives, when undisturbed by another outside force, that we investigate what is the state of the spiritual pneuma, and philosophy, the while, furnishes us with tests to this end, so that we must of necessity cherish it and together see it to that we do not at any time wander.[5] Now the best nurture for us is that we should become active by the force of application, anticipating the onsets of weird and headlong visions, and that the emanation of life should be, as far as possible, once for all intellectual: for this is to be turned towards the best and delivered from the worst, and to hold intercourse with (material) things only as necessity entails. Intellectual application is the most incisive weapon against those things which combine to injure the pneuma, for this mysteriously refines it and raises it towards God; and when it has become adapted to it, draws the divine spirit envelope (pneuma) by its kindred nature to association with the soul. In like manner, whenever it becomes compressed by reason of its density and grows too small to fill the places assigned to it by the providence which has molded man, to wit, the cavities of the brain; then since nature abhors a vacuum in existing things, an evil spirit envelope (pneuma) enters in; and what suffering for the soul with such an ill-omened guest at its board![6] For as to those places which have come to exist for this very purpose of belonging to the pneuma, it is their nature to be occupied by a worse or by a better one. In the one case there is a penalty for the godless who have defiled the divine part in them, in the other there is the goal of piety or whatsoever is near to that goal. From Chapter 7:[1] We, therefore, have set ourselves to speak of divination through dreams, that men should not despise it, but rather cultivate it, seeing that it fulfills a service to life; and it is to this end that we have so much occupied ourselves with the imaginative nature. The immediate need for it here below has been perhaps clearly shown by our discourse, but a better fruit of a sane spirit is the uplifting of the soul, a really sacred gain; so that it becomes a sort of cult of piety to endeavor that this form of divination should be ours. [1301] Nay, some men already through some such motive, enticed by their passion for knowledge of the future, have had set before them, instead of a groaning board a sacred and modest one, and have hailed the joys of a couch pure and undefiled.[2] For as to the man who would consult his bed as he does the tripod of the Pythian deity, (Apollo) far be it from him to make the night spent in it witnesses of unbridled passion. Rather does he bow before God and pray to Him. What is collected little by little becomes much in the end, and that which happens through quite another cause terminates in a greater one. Thus those who did not set out at first with this object have come, in their advance, to love God and one day to be united to Him. We must not therefore disregard a prophetic art which journeys to divine things, and has, dependent on it, the most precious of all things which are in the power of man. Nor indeed has the soul that is united with God less need here because of the fact that it has been deemed worthy to handle better things. Nor is it heedless of the animal in us.[3] Nay, from its vantage ground it has a steady and much more distinct view of things below than when it is with them and is mingled with the inferior elements. Remaining unmoved, it will give to the animal in us the appearance of things that come into existence. This is, according to the proverb, to descend without descending, where the better takes unchallenged mastery of the worse. This art of divination I resolve to possess for myself and to bequeath to my children. In order to enter upon this no man need pack up for a long journey or voyage beyond the frontiers, as to Pytho [Pytho is a poetic name for the oracle of Delphi.] or to Hammon. It is enough to wash one’s hands, to keep a holy silence, and to sleep.

Interior of the Asklepion, by Robert Thom

Part 2 and 3:…/content/synesius/synesius-dreams/
A Synesius Tryptic About Dreams

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