Dream Classic Imparts Wisdom for the Common Wealth

Ancient philosophers Plato and Cicero explored the ideal commonwealth in their writings. Their treatises sought to instill the desire to lead an upright, law abiding life. Departed souls, sometimes in dreams, revealed the way.

Plato’s Myth of Er in his Republic and Cicero’s Dream of Scipio from De re publica are vaunted vehicles.

In Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, (translated with an introduction and notes by William Harris Stahl, Columbia University Press), Macrobius interweaves philosophical discourse with narratives of visions and dreams. His discussion of types of dreams and their prophetic significance (derived from Artemidorus’ Onirocriticon) was one of the leading dream books of — and from — the Middle Ages.

The words of Scipio’s grandfather to Scipio Aemilianus, a philosopher and man of public affairs, in the younger’s dream ring loud in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidential win. The elder suggests what is incumbent upon the new leader and upon us, the citizenry:

That you may be more zealous in safeguarding the commonwealth, Scipio, be persuaded of this: all those who have saved, aided, or enlarged the commonwealth have a definite place marked off in the heavens where they may enjoy a blessed existence forever. Nothing that occurs on earth, indeed, is more gratifying to that supreme God who rules the whole universe than the establishment of associations and federations of men bound together by principles of justice, which are called commonwealths. The governors and protectors of these proceed from here and return hither after death.

In his commentary on Scipio’s dream, Macrobius expounded: “Virtues alone make one blessed and only through them is one able to attain the name.”

Obedience to the virtues — prudence, temperance, courage, and justice — benefits the commonwealth and the man….

Macrobius expands on these virtues in the political arena: “By these virtues . . . upright men … direct the welfare of the citizens, and by these they safeguard their allies with anxious forethought and bind them with the liberality of their justice; by these ‘They have won remembrance among men.’

“… By these virtues the good man is first made lord of himself and then ruler of the state, and is just and prudent in his regard for human welfare, never forgetting his obligations.”

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