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Topic # I70

Cicero, “The Dream of Scipio”

25 March 2002
Scribe: Danial Kharazmi


These minutes were spoken on 1 April; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes.



              Professor Hutchinson began Monday’s lecture on The Dream of Scipio by explaining that this text has had a unique, curious, and interesting history.  It was lost during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and only rediscovered in more modern times, nevertheless, the ideas contained within the text are very well known.  The Dream of Scipio is a myth from the sixth book of Cicero’s Republic; a very large six-volume text.  A scholar by the name of Macrobius wrote a commentary about The Dream of Scipio, prior to the Middle Ages, that managed to survive throughout the following years, while Cicero’s text had mysteriously disappeared. At the time of the rediscovery of this text, knowledge about ancient philosophy was very limited and, therefore, it was always a feeling of refreshment to retrieve something from the ancient world.  Although this rediscovery was a very gradual process at first, it accelerated slightly during the Renaissance period.


The Dream of Scipio was discovered in 1820, when Cardinal Mai, a religious scholar, was reading a manuscript that seemed rather strange, because under each written line there was another line written in what appeared to be very old and outdated handwriting.  This was not so strange, however, in medieval times, when paper was expensive and needed to be re-used; the resulting manuscript is called a ‘palimpsest’ (‘palin’ from the Greek word for ‘again’).  This was possible only with parchment, which could be used more than once; even though the ink soaked through the hide, you could scrape it off and write again as though it was a fresh piece.  The works of Archimedes were also discovered on palimpsest manuscripts.


The Dream of Scipio is divided into two parts.  In the story, the younger Scipio has a dream where the older Scipio visits him, and in this dream the younger Scipio has visions of the spirit world. This text is very similar to Aristotle’s dialogue Eudemus, or On The Soul, and many have been influenced by that dialogue.


The Dream of Scipio begins by describing and celebrating the virtues of Scipio, along with the glorification and achievements of certain great leaders.


‘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 the radiant stars, he pointed down at Carthage, and began speaking once more.  ‘This,’ he declared, ‘is the city you have come to attack.  At present you are not much more than an ordinary soldier.  But within the space of two years you will have been elected consul, and then you will overthrow the place utterly.  Thereafter the surname, which you now bear as an inheritance from myself, will be yours by your own right.  Later on, after you have destroyed the Carthage and celebrated  a Triumph, after you have held the office of censor and undertaken missions to Egypt, Syria, Asia and Greece, you will be elected to the consulship for the second time, while you are absent, and you will win a very great war and raze Numantia to the ground.  But at the time when you yourself are proceeding in Triumph to the Capitol, you will find the government in a state of confusion: for which machinations of my grandsons will be responsible.’  (Cicero On The Good Life, 343).


Here we can see a mixture of ideas unfolding.  Professor Hutchinson felt that this passage is rather alarming, because it gives a frank and honest impression about the fervent nationalism of a Roman citizen.  What has Scipio done that is worth such praise? He has destroyed a city.  What is wrong about this passage is that ‘greatness’ is a moral term, and Professor Hutchinson admitted that he would not classify Scipio’s expression of patriotism in the destruction of a hostile city, as a ‘great’ deed and thus, this glorification of imperial power is rather hard to swallow. 


Before and after the transitional period, the Roman republic was strongly in favor of imperial and economic power.  Many writers wrote speeches branding the different groups of people as foul and criminal. This was the foundation of the suppression of Christians and martyrdom of Christians, because they would not submit to the god of the state.  Professor Hutchinson recalled a time when he went to Rome and was struck by a large monument created by Mussolini, which symbolized the ideals of fascism and imperialism.  Therefore, even nowadays, such ideas are being instilled within the minds of Roman citizens.


Professor Hutchinson then pointed out a misprint in this specific translation (the 1971 Penguin edition) of The Dream of Scipio, where on page 347 the word ‘moral’ is written, mistakenly, instead of the word ‘mortal’.  On this same page, the sun is described as being the ruler of all things and this is clearly a Pythagorean idea borrowed by Cicero. The reference to the music that Scipio hears in his dream reveals how we, living mortals, are deaf to the sounds of the Spheres because we are too used to them.  This is on page 347 where Scipio asks, ‘What is this sound, so strong and so sweet, which fills my ears?’


The climax of the story is on page 353.  ‘Strive on,’ he replied.  ‘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 corporeal, 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.’  This passage is a transition to a famous argument contained in Plato’s Phaedrus, which could not be improved by Cicero, and so he simply translated it.


To conclude the lecture, Professor Hutchinson read from the final pages of the text.


‘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 its 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 degree. (Cicero On the Good Life, 354)