25 July 2009

St Benedict's Vision & the Dream of Scipio

Yesterday, I quoted from and commented on (here) the 35th chapter of Book II of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, where he says of St Benedict, ‘A marvelous thing followed in this contemplation for, as he himself related afterwards, the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun’ (The Life of St Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 164). I noted that the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, on pp. 168-72 of his commentary, had compared this vision of ‘the world reduced to a point’ with Cicero’s famous ‘Dream of Scipio’. Today I would like to comment on that just a bit more.

The Somnium Scipionis is the only completely intact portion of Cicero’s De Republica. Wildly popular in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it tells of how Scipio Africanus Minor had a dream wherein he was taken up into the heavens and spoke with his adoptive grandfather, Scipio Africanus Major. At one point (Somn. Scip. xvi), he writes (Cicero, On the Good Life, trans. Michael Grant [Harmondsworth, UK: 1971], p. 346):

As I gazed out from where I stood, first in one direction and then another, the whole prospect looked marvellously beautiful. There were stars we never see from the earth, and they were larger than we could possibly have imagined. The smallest was the luminary which is farthest away from heaven and nearest to the earth, and shines with reflected light [the moon, of course]. 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.

It seems this description of a vision of the earth from a great distance, appearing so small, made a deep impression on the ancient world, an impression from which the Western mind never really recovered. In The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), C.S. Lewis writes:

This passage [from Cicero] was constantly in the minds of succeeding writers. The insignificance (by cosmic standards) of the Earth became as much a commonplace to the medieval, as to the modern, thinker; it was part of the moralists’ stock-in-trade, used, as Cicero uses it (xix), to mortify human ambition. (p. 26)

Among other medieval writers, it is interesting to note that Dante Alighieri echoes Cicero in the Paradiso, immediately after Dante the Pilgrim has encountered St Benedict in Canto XXII.133-135 (The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine: Cantica III—Paradise (Il Paradiso), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds [London: Penguin, 1962], p. 253):

So with my vision I went traversing
The seven planets till this globe I saw,
Whereat I smiled, it seemed so poor a thing.

But while de Vogüé points out that the comparison with St Benedict’s vision ‘hardly needs to be emphasized’ (later he adds that both are nocturnal experiences [p. 171]), he also remarks that the difference is ‘considerable’ (p. 169). First of all, it is only the earth that Scipio, in the Somnium, and Dante, in the Paradiso, see, while it is made clear in St Gregory’s explanation (which I quoted in this post) to his interlocutor, Peter, that St Benedict has been vouchsafed a vision of the ‘whole of creation’ (II.xxxv.6), ‘heaven and earth’ (II.xxxv.7). So while to Scipio the earth is only small in comparison to the vast cosmos, St Benedict, like the Righteous Melchizedek, ‘had transcended time and nature’ (St Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 10.20a, Maximus the Confessor, trans. Fr Andrew Louth [London: Routledge, 1999], p. 115), and as St Gregory Palamas says, he ‘overlooks the universe’ (‘Topics of Natural and Theological Science’ 24, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 356).

Finally, commenting on St Gregory’s explanation of the 'how' of St Benedict’s vision, de Vogüé writes:

Coming from mystical theology, this explanation contrasts with the moralizing aim of Scipio’s dream. The purpose of Cicero was, by the use of a sublime myth, to lead his reader on to despising human glory and to a very pure conception of duty. Gregory’s purpose is to account for an extraordinary spiritual experience whose possibility he wishes to establish and whosse mechanism he tries to outline. As for detaching himself from earthly goods, Benedict has done that long since. The experience of the tower is not intended to cure him of the desire for human glory, like young Scipio, but to put on his long life of renunciation the seal of a dazzling revelation, a premonition of the glorious vision and heavenly condition into which, like the soul of Germanus, his own soul will soon be admitted. (p. 170)


Mike said...

Very interesting vision. As I was reading it I couldn't help think of when Moses was being shown the world by God in the Pearl of Great Price, he states " And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.
9 And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he cell unto the earth.
10 And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed. (Moses 1:8-10) (LDS.org)

Cicero thought on the us being spiritual beings, is true. Some times in life I think I am what I am and nothing more, but reading this reminds me that I am eternal, and made and fashioned after the likeness of my God. I love in the new testament how St. Paul talks about how we can become joint heirs with Christ if we are faithful and keep Gods commandments

aaronandbrighid said...


Thank you for your comment. Obviously, I don't accept the Book of Mormon as authentic or authoritative, but it's always interesting to see parallels between different religions' Scriptures.