Synesius of Cyrene on Dreams as a Pathway to the Divine

Bronwen Neil, FAHA
Associate Professor, Australian Catholic University
Assistant Director of the Centre for Early Christian Studies
Brisbane QLD
Visiting Fellow School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, Australian National University

Abstract: The germ of the idea of deification (theosis) through contemplation of the divine (theoria) is found in Plato, who wrote of a divine spark in each human being that longs to return to the stars, whence it came. The idea was considerably developed by the neo-Platonists, both Christian and non-Christian, in the third and fourth centuries. I consider the origins and development of this concept in Synesius’ forebears, Plotinus and his disciple Porphyry, and its usage in Synesius’ works. I suggest that Synesius’ development of the Plotinian idea of the possibility of union with the divine (henosis), through the sacred vehicle of dream interpretation, a form of divine contemplation, shows the influence of the eastern Christian(ised) doctrine of deification as it is found in the works of Athanasius of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa. Like Athanasius and unlike Gregory, Synesius believed that dreams were a device which the divine could use to strengthen virtue.