Cicero, The Dream of Scipio

The passage begins with Africanus appearing to Scipio, who finds himself taken to heaven and looking down on earth and the other spheres of the universe:

   "Do not fear, Scipio, but be calm. Note carefully all the things I will tell you. Do you see Carthage there? I was the one who made that city submit to Rome, though now they stir up all the ancient conflicts yet once more and refuse to live in peace with Rome." From where he stood amid the brightness of the stars, Africanus pointed down at Carthage, and said, "This is the city you have come to attack. At this moment, you are merely an ordinary soldier, but within two years you will be consul, and then you will utterly lay waste to this city. At that moment, your surname, which you've inherited from me, will belong to you by right. After you've destroyed Carthage, celebrated your triumph in Rome, held the office of censor, travelled to Egypt, Syria, Asia, Greece, you will become consul yet again, and you will win a great war and level Numantia. But when you are celebrating this triumph in Rome, you will find the government in a state of anarchy, the results of the plots of Tiberius Gracchus, my grandson.

   "After that, it will be your duty to devote to your people the beneficence of your integrity, talent, and wisdom. At that juncture, I see two paths which destiny opens up for you. For when your life has completed seven times eight revolutions of the sun, and when these two numbers [seven and eight], each of which for different reasons possesses some quality of perfection, have in their natural course brought you to your highest destiny, that is the time when Rome will turn to you and everything you represent. At that time, the fate of the entire country will depend on you alone. It will be your duty to take on the burden of the dictatorship, and restore order to the fractured state; an event that will be prevented only if your own criminal kinsmen turn their murderous hands against you."

   He continued, "Mark this, for this thought will steel your determination to rush to the defense of your homeland. Every man who has preserved or defended his country, or has made it greater, is reserved a special place in heaven, where he enjoys an eternal life of happiness. Of all those things one might do on earth, nothing is more pleasing to the Supreme God, ruler of the universe, than the gatherings of men who are bound together by law and custom in those communities we call states. In fact, it is from this place, here, in heaven, that the rulers and preservers of states come from, and to which they eventually return."

   I now saw my dead father, Paullus, approaching, and I burst into tears. My father put his arms around me and kissed me, telling me not to weep. When, with effort, I held back my tears, I managed to say, "Since this, my dear father, is the true life, as Africanus declares, why must I remain on earth? Why can I not join you?"

   "That cannot be," my father replied, "for unless God, who rules all you see around you here, frees you from your confinement in the body, you cannot gain entrance to this paradise. You see, humans are brought into existence in order to inhabit the earth, which is at the center of this holy place, this paradise. They have been given souls made out of the undying fire which make up stars and constellations, consisting of spherical bodies animated by the divine mind, each moving with marvelous speed, each in its own orbit and cycle It is destined that you and other righteous men suffer your souls to be imprisoned with your bodies; you may not abandon life except when commanded by the Supreme God who bestowed it on you. Otherwise, you will have failed your duty, the duty which you, like every other human being, were meant to fulfill.

   "Do upon earth as your grandfather did. Do as I have done, your father. Love justice and devotion. These are owed to both your parents and kinsmen; but more than anything else, they are owed to your country. Such is the life that leads to heaven, and to the company of those who, having finished their lives in the world, are now freed from their bodies and dwell in that region you gaze upon, the Milky Way." As he said this, he pointed to a circle of light, flashing brilliantly among all the other fires of heaven. As I looked around from my vantage point in every direction, the whole view was complete and beautiful. I saw stars never seen from the earth, larger than anyone has ever imagined. The smallest of these stars was the one farthest from heaven and nearest to the earth, the moon, which shone only with a reflected light. The starry spheres were much larger than the earth. The earth, in fact, seemed so minute in relation to these spheres that I began to think less of this vast Roman Empire of ours which is only a pinpoint on the surface of this small earth.

   While I stared fixedly at the earth, Africanus angrily rebuked me. "How long do you intend to keep staring at that world of yours? Look up, look at the blessed region you've entered. Look, the universe is held together by nine concentric spheres; the outermost sphere is heaven itself and embraces and includes all the other spheres. This is the Supreme God, enveloping and comprehending everything in existence, all the fixed and rotating stars. Contained within this outermost sphere are eight other spheres. Seven of these spheres contain the planets, one planet in each sphere, which all move contrary to the movement of heaven. The sphere neighboring the outermost sphere is occupied by the planet named after Saturn. Below Saturn shines Jupiter, a planet which brings good fortune and health. Then comes Mars, blood-red and evil to men on earth. Next, the Sun, prince, lord and king of all other worlds, the mind, the guiding principle of the entire universe, so enormous that everything in every corner of the universe is pervaded by its light. Attending the Sun are Venus and Mercury, and the lowest sphere of all contains the Moon, which derives its light from the Sun. Everything is eternal above the Moon; everything beneath it is moral and transient, except for human souls, a gift from the gods to humanity. Below the Moon lies the earth, the ninth and lowest of the spheres, at the very center of the universe. Fixed in place, the earth does not move. All things are drawn to it, because gravity pulls them down."

   I was dumbfounded for quite a while before I managed to inquire, "What sound do I hear, so magnificent, so sweet, which fills my ears?"

   "That is the music of the spheres," he answered. "The spheres create this music by their own motion as they move. The intervals between the spheres, though they differ in length, are all measured according to a fixed scheme of proportions; this arrangement of proportions produces a harmony of high and low notes. Did you believe that these motions could take place in silence? Rather, nature has ordained that these spheres give forth music, the highest spheres singing high sounds, the lowest singing deep and low sounds. The spheres containing the uppermost stars are the regions where the motions are fastest, and so they give off high sounds; the Moon, on the other hand, lies beneath the others and moves very slowly, and so gives off the lowest note. The ninth sphere, the earth, since it does not move at all, is motionless and silent. But the other eight spheres produce seven notes, each corresponding to one of the notes on the scale. You may wonder why they don't give off eight sounds; this is because two of the spheres move at identical speeds. So the spheres give off seven notes, the number fundamental to all existing things. Some people have imitated these musical effects with their instruments and their voices, giving themselves the possibility of returning to this place. Others have the same chance as well if they devote themselves to heavenly activities while living on earth. You should realize that human ears are constantly filled with this music, but they have made themselves completely deaf to it. No other human sense is as weak as this. A similar thing occurs where the Nile rushes down from a mountain to Catadupa; the noise is so loud that the people living nearby have become completely deaf. That's why this great music of the spheres, created by the whole universe, can't be heard by humans. It is similar to looking into the sun, which is so bright it will blind you entirely."

   I was both awestruck and delighted. Nevertheless, I kept looking back to earth. Africanus took note of this and said, "I see you're still stuck on the place where mortals live. Don't you see how insignificant this earth is? Think on the heavenly regions! You should have nothing but scorn for mortal things. For mortals can't give you any fame or glory that is worth seeking or having. Look, the inhabited portions of the earth are tiny and few, the rest is vast desert dividing one inhabited area from another. The inhabitants of earth are so removed from each other that they cannot even communicate with one another. The place where you live is so very far away from other populated areas; some people live in areas on the opposite side of the globe. Do you expect them to honor or glorify your name? Look at all the different zones enveloping the earth; the two most widely separated from one another, at opposite poles of the heavens, are fixed with an icy cold, while the midmost zone burns with the heat of the sun. Only the two zones between these extremes are habitable The zone which lies south of yours has no connection or means of connection with your zone, because they are prevented from crossing the midmost zone. If you look at your own northern zone, you can't help but notice how small a section of this region can be regarded as yours. The territory you occupy, your vast Empire, is nothing more than a small island, narrow from north to south, a bit wider east to west, surrounded by the sea which is known as the Atlantic. In spite of the grand name given to this stretch of water, mark how small it really is.

   "So where do you get the idea that your fame, or anyone's fame, can ever be so great that it would extend beyond these inhabited lands? Your fame could never cross the Caucasus mountains you see there, nor could it ford the Ganges river. Not one person in these eastern regions, or the remote western regions, or the far north or south for that matter, will ever hear your name, let alone desire to remember it. Once you leave all these people out, you can see how small and trivial an area your glory will spread over.

   "What about the people who do know and speak about us? How long do you think they will remember us or even desire to remember us? Let us even grant that future generations will desire to remember us. Think about the deluges and conflagrations which descend on the earth at set intervals. These disasters make it impossible for our glory to last for any length of time, let alone for eternity. But putting all this aside, why do you even want people who have never even been born to talk about you, people you will never know. Think about it: all those multitudes of people who preceded you in life never spoke about you—there are as many people who preceded you as will follow you, and the early generations were better than later generations, for humanity continues to degenerate.

   "Keep in mind also that even those who may perchance hear our names mentioned will not remember them even for one year. By this I do not mean a "year" as is commonly understood, which is measured by the orbit of the sun, the movement of only one sphere, but rather when all the spheres return to the places where they started from, so that after an immense interval of time the entire heaven resumes its original configuration—only that great period of rotation can properly be called a year. I can't even guess how many generations of human life this immense span of time comprises. Long ago, when the soul of Romulus ascended into these sacred expanses, to those living it seemed that a shadow had suddenly passed over the sun and blotted out its light. When the sun goes into eclipse once again, that will mean that all the constellations and all the stars have returned to their original positions. By this you will know that the Great Year will have been completed. But, up to now, only one-twentieth of this year has passed.

   "Concerning yourself, never lose hope that you might come back here one day. For this is the place which offers great and magnificent men their true reward, for all fame or glory you win among mere human beings should simply be ignored, since such fame and glory can scarcely be said to be eternal if it cannot last one Great Year. Fix your gaze upwards, then! Think on this place, a dwelling place for all eternity! Then you will no longer have any use for what the masses might say about you or for any human rewards your achievements may merit. Rather, let Virtue herself, by her own unclad beauty, call you to a true and genuine glory. Ignore what people say about you, for they will say it anyway and whatever words they may say will not pass beyond the narrow bounds you see below you. Nothing anyone has ever said has ever abided, for when people die, their words die, too; the future forgets them and tosses them on the rubbish heap of oblivion."

   When he ceased speaking, I shouted my agreement. "Even as a boy, I exerted myself with every fiber of my being to follow your example and the example of my father. I intended never to be unworthy of your reputation. If there is really a path leading to heaven for those who selflessly serve their country, the knowledge of this goal will inspire me to redouble my efforts!"

   "Strive on," he answered, "secure in the knowledge that only your body is mortal and that your true self endures forever. The man you appear to be is not yourself at all, for your real self is not that corporeal, palpable, changing form you see, but the spirit inside. Remember that you are a god, you have a god's potential for life, sensation, memory, and foresight, a god's power to rule, to govern, and to direct the body which is given to you as a servant, in the same way God, who reigns over us, directs the entire universe. This sovereignty exercised by the eternal God over the universe is mirrored by the sovereignty your immortal soul exercises over your frail body.

   "That which is always in motion is eternal. However, that which communicates motion to some other thing but is itself moved by some other force, must necessarily cease to exist once this outside motion has ceased. Therefore, the only thing that never ceases to move is that which has the power to create motion on its own, for it can continue to move eternally because its power to achieve motion depends on itself alone. This is the source and the first principle of motion for all things that move. Being the first principle, it has no beginning. For since the first principle is the origin of everything else, it cannot have an origin itself. If it did originate from something else, we could not call it the first principle. And since it never had a beginning, it will never have an end. For if it did end, it could never be reborn from any other source and would no longer be capable of creating things, which is obviously what the first principle has to do. The source of all movement, then, is that which has set itself in motion and has no beginning or end. If it had beginning or end, one would have to imagine the entire heaven and every other created thing crashing down and ceasing to be, for that is what would happen if the force generating their motion were taken away.

   "Therefore, since it has been demonstrated that the self-moving principle is eternal, the same must be applied to the human soul. For unlike inanimate objects which can only be set in motion by some external force, the soul, in its very substance and nature, is an animate thing that, as such, derives its animation and motion from within itself. Since the soul possesses this characteristic of self-motion, we can only conclude that it, too, has no beginning and lives forever.

   "Use this everlasting force, then, for the most resplendent deeds possible! And remember that the most splendid deeds you can do are those which serve your country. Those souls devoted to such deeds will find it easy to wing their way to this place, which is the true and genuine home for human souls. The soul's flight will be all the more quick if, during the period of confinement within the body, this soul has contemplatively roamed widely, thinking on what lies outside itself, and has contrived ways to detach itself from the body as much as possible. When one has failed to do this, and has abandoned the soul to bodily indulgence and enslaved it to the body, allowing those passions which are bonded to pleasure to persuade the soul to flout the laws of gods and men, this soul, after departing from the body, can only hover weakly above the earth. Nor does it return to its proper place in the heavens until it has suffered many ages of torment."

   At these words, Africanus vanished, and I awoke from my sleep.

Translated from the Latin by Richard Hooker
�93, Richard Hooker


1 The Roman equivalent of Prime Minister; the two consuls elected every year essentially ran Rome during the Republican era.
2 See your textbook for an account of the Second Triumvirate.
3 The word "official" means "someone who engages in his duty"; for Romans, your duties were ultimately almost entirely directed towards the state, which is why we use the term to describe a public official.

World Cultures

�96, Richard Hooker

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Updated 6-6-1999