Scipios Dream

Scipios Dream

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51 BC

A selection from the sixth book of Marcus Tullius (Tully) Cicero’s On the Republic which describes a fictional dream of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, set two years before he commanded the army at the destruction of Carthage (146 BC) in the Third Punic War, in which he is visited by his dead grandfather (by adoption), Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War, who repelled Hannibal from the gates of Rome. The fragment, which remained popular throughout the middle ages right up to the Renaissance, is famous for its description of the ‘music of the spheres’, an idea which is attributed to Pythagoras, and as a mystical vision of Platonic philosophy.

When we finally parted and retired to bed, my journey and the lateness of the hour had made me tired, and I fell into a deeper sleep than usual. As I slept I had a dream, prompted no doubt by what we had been talking about. For it frequently happens that the subjects of our meditations and discussions reappear in our dreams. […] And so I dreamt that Africanus was with me; his appearance recalled his portrait busts rather than his actual living self.

I recognized him – and trembled with fear. But he spoke to me; and this is what he said.

‘Calm your self, Scipio. Do not be afraid. But remember carefully the things I am about to tell you. Do you see that city there? It was I who made its people submit to Rome. But now they are starting up the old conflicts once again; they refuse to remain at peace!’ And from where he stood amid the bright illumination of radiant stars, he pointed down at Carthage, and began speaking once more. ‘This,’ he declared, ‘is the city you have come to attack. But within the space of two years you will have been elected consul, and then you will overthrow the place utterly. […] But at the time when you yourself are proceeding in Triumph to the Capitol, you will find the government in a state of confusion… .’

‘After that, Africanus, it will be your duty to devote to your people the full splendid benifit of your intergrity, talent and wisdom. But at that juncture I see two divergent paths of destiny opening up before you. For when your life has completed seven times eight circuitous revolutions of the sun,… [and] brought you to your supreme moment of destiny, that is the time when the entire Roman State will turn to you and all that you stand for… . The fate of the whole country, at that juncture, will depend on you and you alone. In other words, it will be your duty to assume the role of dictator, and restore order to our commonwealth… .’

‘Every man who has preserved or helped his country, or has made its greatness even greater, is reserved a special place in heaven, where he may enjoy an eternal life of happiness.’

‘To be sure they are still living,’ he replied, ‘seeing that they have escaped from the prison-house of their bodies– that is to say from “life”, as you call it, which is, in fact, death.’

‘For unless God, whose sacred domain is all that you see around you here, has freed you from your confinement in the body, you cannot be admitted to this place.’

‘Do as I have done, who begot you. Cherish justice and devotion.’

‘That is the life which leads to heaven, and to the company of those who, having completed their lives int he world, are now released from their bodies and dwell in that region you see over there, which the Greeks have taught you people on earth to call the Milky Way.’

As I gazed out from where I stood, first in one direction and then another, the whole prospect looked marvellously beautiful. […] These starry spheres were much larger than the earth. Indeed the earth now seemed to me so small that I began to think less of this empire of ours, which only amounts to a pinpoint on its surface.

While I looked more and more intently down at the earth Africanus checked me. ‘How long,’ he asked, ‘do you propose to keep your eyes fastened down there upon that world of yours? Look up, instead, and look round at the sacred region into which you have now entered.

‘The universe is held together by nine concentric spheres. The outermost sphere is heaven itself, and it includes and embraces all the rest. For it is the Supreme God in person, enclosing and comprehending everything that exists, that is to say all the stars which are fixed in the sky yet rotate upon their eternal courses. Within this outermost sphere are eight others. Seven of them contain the planets– a single one in each sphere, all moving in the contrary direction tot he great movement of heaven itself. The next sphere to the ouermost is occupied by the orb which people on earth name after Saturn. Blow Saturn shines the brilliant light of Jupiter… . Then comes the star we call Mars… .’

‘Next, almost midway between heaven and earth, blazes the Sun. He is the prince, lord and ruler of all the other worlds, the mind and guiding principle of the entire universe, so gigantic in size that everything, everythere, is pervaded and drenched by his light. In attendance upon the Sun are Venus and Mercury, each in its own orbit; and the lowest sphere of all contains the Moon, which takes its light, as it revolves, from the rays of the sun. Above the Moon there is nothing which is not eternal, but beneath that level everything is moral [mortal?] and transient (except only for the souls in human beings, which are a gift to mankind from the gods). For there below the Moon is the earth, the ninth and lowest of the spheres, lying at the centre of the universe. The earth remains fixed and without motion; all things are drawn to it, because the natural force of gravity pulls them down.’

I surveyed the scene in a stupor. But finally I recovered enough to ask: ‘What is this sound, so strong and so sweet, which fills my ears?’
‘That,’ he replied, ‘is the music of the spheres. They create it by their own motion as they rush upon their way. The intervals between them, although differing in length, are all measured according to a fixed scheme of proportions; and this arrangement produces a melodious blend of high and low notes, from which emerges a varied harmony. For it cannot be that these vast movements should take place in silence, and nature has ordained that tehspheres utter music, those at the summit giving forth high sounds, whereas the sounds of those beneath are low and deep. That is to say, the spheres containing the uppermost stars, comprising those regions of the sky where the movements are speediest, give out a high and piercing sound, whereas the Moon, which lies beneath all the others, sends forth the lowest note.

‘The ninth of the spheres, the earth, fixed at the centre of the universe, is motionless and silent.’

‘The ears of mankind are filled with this music all the time. But they have become completely deaf to its melody; no other human faculty has become so atrophied as this. The same thing happens where the Nile rushes down from high mountains to the place known as Catadupa. For the sound there is so loud that the people who live nearby have entirely lost their sense of hearing. And that, too, is why the mighty music of the spheres, created by the immeasurably fast rotations of the whole universe, cannot be apprehended by the human ears– any more than you can look at the light of the Sun, which is so intense it blots out your power of vision altogether.’
The scene filled me with awe and delight. ANd yet all the time I still could not help riveting my eyes upon our own world there below. Africanus noticed this, and spoke again. ‘I see,’ he said, ‘that your gaze is still fastened, even now, upon the places where mortals dwell upon the earth. But can you not understand that the earth is totally insignificant? Contemplate these heavenly regions instead! Scorn what is is mortal!

‘For the lips of mankind can give you no fame or glory worth the seeking. Note how few and minute are the inhabited portions of the earth, and look upon the vast deserts that divide each one of these patches from the next. See, the inhabitants of the world are so cut off from one another that their difference centres cannot even communicate with each other. The place where you yourself dwell, for example, is far removed from certain of the other populated areas, both in latitude and longitude; and some people live in regions that are at the very opposite end of the world from yours. Surely you cannot expect them to honour your name.’

‘…you will realize, if you look, what a diminutive section of this region [the northern hemisphere] can really be regarded as your property. For the territory you occupy is nothing more than a small island, narrow from north to south, somewhat less narrow from east to west, and surrounded by the sea which is known on earth as Atlantic… .’

‘And I must disabuse you of any idea that your own fame, or the fame of any one of us, could ever be great enough to extend beyond these known and settled lands. […] Not one of the inhabitants of all those eastern tracts, or the remote west either, or the far off north and south, will ever so much as hear the sound of your name! And once you leave all these hosts of people out of acocunt, you will have to conclude that the area over which your glory is so eager to extend itself is really of the most trifling dimensions.
‘And how about the people who do know and speak about us. The point is, how long will this go on? Assume, if you like, that future generations, having inherited our praises from their fathers, will indeed retain the desire to hand them down to their children as well. Even so the deluges and conflagrations which inevitably descend upon the earth at fixed intervals will make it impossible for any glory we may gain in this way to be eternal– or even to last for any length of time. But in any case why do you regard it as so important to be talked about by people who have not yet been born? After all, you were never spoken of by all the multitudes who lived before you– and they were every bit as numerous, and were better men.’

‘Look upwards, then! Contemplate this place which is a habitation for all eternity! Then you will not need any longer to be at the mercy of what the multitude says about you: then you will not have to put your trust in whatever human rewards your achievements may earn.

‘Instead let Virtue herself, by her own unaided allurements, summon you to a glory that is genuine and real. Feel no concern about what other people may say about you. They will say it in any case. Besides, whatever words they may choose to utter will not pass beyond the narrow limits you now see below you. No utterance of man about his fellowmen has ever been lasting. When a person dies his words die with him. Posterity forgets them; and they pass into annihilation.’

‘Strive on. And rest assured that it is only your body that is mortal; your true self is nothing of the kind. FOr the man you outwardly appear to be is not yourself at all. Your real self is not that corporal, palpable shape, but the spirit inside. Understand that you are god. You have a god’s capacity of aliveness and sensation and memory and foresight; a god’s power to rule and govern and direct the body that is your servant, in the same way as God himself, who reigns over us, directs the entire universe. And this rule exercised by eternal God is mirrored in the dominance of your frail body by your immortal soul.’

‘Use this eternal force, therefore, for the most splendid deeds it is in you to achieve! And the very best deeds are those which serve your country. A soul devoted to such pursuits will find it easiest of all to soar upwards to this place, which is its proper habitation and home. And its flight will be all the more rapid if already during the period of confinement within the body it has ranged freely abroad, and, by contemplating what lies outside itself, has contrived to detach itself from the body to the greatest possible degre.
‘When, on the other hand, a man has failed to do this, and has abandoned himself instead to bodily indulgence and become its slave, letting the passions which serve pleasure impel him to flout the laws both of gods and of men, his soul, after departing from his body, hovers about close to the earth. Nor does it return to this place until many ages of torment have been undergone.’

Then Africanus vanished; and I awoke from my sleep.

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