Though it’s only a few pages long, The Dream of Scipio (translated from the Latin Somnium Scipionis) has left a lasting impression since it was first written a few thousand years ago. A large part of what remains of the sixth book of Cicero’s Republic, this is a text that condenses some of the most important ideas of ancient cosmology and philosophy.
What is The Dream of Scipio about? What are its main themes, and what are some of the key Stoic themes we find in this famous ancient work?
Let’s take a closer look at what you need to know about The Dream of Scipio and how it provides excellent examples of some of the core Stoic ideas.
Known in Latin as Sominum Scipionis, the Dream of Scipio is found in the sixth book of Cicero’s De Re Publica. Unfortunately, parts of the entire work are missing, leaving the Somium Scipionis as the bulk of the remaining content we have from Cicero’s sixth book.
We have Macrobius, a Latin writer, to thank for the fact that we still have access to this final book of Cicero’s Republic. In the fifth century, he wrote a Neoplatonic commentary on this work. Furthermore, many of the copies of Macrobius’s commentary had Somnius Scipionis tacked on at the end.
De re publica, which can be translated to On the Commonwealth, is a six-book volume that was written between 54 BC and 51 BC. Large parts of the work are missing, but we can still glean Cicero’s explanation of Roman constitutional theory. It deliberately takes the form of a Socratic dialogue inspired by Plato’s Republic.
In this text, our main character is named Scipio Aemilianus. Looking closely at the Roman government that had existed since the kings, we learn about the various constitutional types and how citizens can participate in the governance of their homeland.
The Dream of Scipio is a prominent section of Cicero's work The Republic, as mentioned above.
This section is found in the final book of The Republic and depicts a dream experienced by Scipio Aemilianus, a Roman general and statesman. In this dream, Scipio meets his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, a celebrated Roman general and hero who imparts various philosophical and ethical teachings.
The dream begins with Scipio Aemilianus finding himself in a truly magnificent celestial realm, which is clearly intended to be a symbol of the heavens or the afterlife. This otherworldly setting represents the immortal and divine nature of the soul– a major theme of the text.
As the dream goes on, Scipio Aemilianus encounters his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, who had died long before. Scipio Africanus is portrayed as a wise and virtuous figure, embodying the Stoic ideal of the sage.
At this point, Scipio Africanus engages Scipio Aemilianus in a philosophical conversation, discussing several key concepts.
"We must conceive of this whole universe as one commonwealth of which both gods and men are members."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Scipio’s grandfather also reflects on the greatness of Rome and the legacy of the Roman Republic during this dream. He reminds Scipio Aemilianus of his duty to serve and protect Rome, emphasizing the importance of patriotism and civic responsibility.
A fascinating aspect of this dream is that Scipio’s grandfather provides Scipio Aemilianus with a perspective of the Earth from the heavens, showing the insignificance of worldly affairs in the grand scheme of the cosmos. It’s all thanks to this cosmic perspective that Scipio Aemilianus is encouraged to prioritize higher moral and philosophical values.
At the end of the dream, Scipio Aemilianus returns to the mortal world. When he wakes up, he has a transformed perspective on life and a renewed sense of duty and purpose.
The Dream of Scipio serves as a philosophical and ethical allegory, conveying Cicero's beliefs about the immortality of the soul, the pursuit of virtue, the significance of one's civic duty, and the Stoic principles of cosmic order and rationality. It has had a lasting influence on Western thought and continues to be studied and admired for its exploration of these enduring philosophical questions and ideas.
Now that we’ve taken a look at what happens in The Dream of Scipio let’s take a look at things from a different angle. What are the primary themes of this text, and what can we take away from it?
The central theme of the Dream of Scipio is the fact that our souls continue on after we die– aka the immortality of the soul.
Scipio's dream revolves around the idea that the soul is immortal. In the dream, he is visited by his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, who has ascended to the heavens. Without a belief in the continuation of the soul after death, this drama could not have been played out. We see through this section of the sixth book Cicero’s belief in the enduring nature of the human soul and the idea that death is not the end of our existence.
Scipio's dream also touches on the importance of moral virtue and the rewards that virtuous individuals can expect in the afterlife.
"It is difficult to persuade mankind that the love of virtue is the love of themselves."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Cicero emphasizes the significance of leading a virtuous life and the connection between virtue and immortality.
Cicero's The Republic is a dialogue that explores various forms of government and the ideal state, so this is a major theme of the text. The character of Scipio himself represents a virtuous and just ruler, and the dream is thought to serve as a way to reinforce the idea that wise and just leaders can leave a lasting legacy.
Another critical theme in this section of Cicero’s Republic is the importance of friendship in one’s life.
“Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
The concept of friendship is exemplified through the strong bond between Scipio Aemilianus and his close friend, Gaius Laelius, who is also present during the dream sequence. Cicero presents a vivid portrait of their friendship as one characterized by mutual respect, trust, and intellectual camaraderie. Laelius was known as "the Wise" in Roman history, and his presence in the dialogue further underscores the significance of friendship in the pursuit of wisdom.
“A friend is, as it were, a second self.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Friendship is seen as one of the highest virtues in this dream– the dialogue emphasizes that true friendship is not just a source of personal happiness but also a means to achieve moral and intellectual excellence. Friends like Laelius are described as indispensable in fostering moral character and growth.
“Life is nothing without friendship.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Another fascinating aspect of the Dream of Scipio is that it suggests that the impact of friendship extends beyond earthly existence. The friendships we cultivate, and the values we uphold with friends can contribute to our lasting legacy and reputation.
In Scipio’s Dream, we also find discussions of the cosmic order and the harmony of the universe.
During the dream, Scipio Africanus takes Scipio Aemilianus on a journey beyond the mortal realm and offers him a celestial view of the cosmos. He reveals the heavens as a realm of divine order and rationality governed by cosmic laws. This vision underscores the Stoic belief in a harmonious and orderly universe, a concept closely related to the Stoic concept of the Logos, the divine reason that governs everything.
This celestial journey and the panoramic view of the Earth from the heavens emphasize that individuals are part of a much larger and perfectly ordered whole. This recognition encourages a sense of humility and alignment with the natural order.
Those familiar with Stoicism will likely see something they recognize here– the dream demonstrates that living in accordance with the cosmic order is synonymous with living a virtuous life. Scipio Africanus instructs his grandson on the importance of upholding the virtues, as it aligns with the divine rationality of the cosmos. This suggests that by living virtuously and in harmony with nature, one participates in this overarching cosmic harmony.
Scipio Africanus– Scipio’s grandfather– was a revered Roman general and statesman. This makes him a powerful symbol of an exemplary ancestor.
In the dream, he appears as a paragon of virtue and wisdom. His life is presented as a model of ethical conduct, military prowess, and statesmanship. This portrayal underscores the idea that one's ancestors can serve as role models for living a virtuous and successful life on this earthly plane.
"There never was a great soul that did not have some divine inspiration."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
During the dream, our main character is urged by his grandfather to uphold the legacy of their family and to protect Rome, as his predecessors did. This notion of tradition and familial legacy is tied to the Stoic idea of living in harmony with nature and one's natural role in the grand order of the universe.
Furthermore, Cicero's dialogue suggests that ancestral wisdom is a valuable resource for guiding one's actions and decisions. At the same time, the theme of respect for one's ancestors is closely tied to the notion of duty. Scipio Aemilianus is reminded of his duty to protect Rome and to continue the work of his ancestors in service to the state.
Scipio's love for his country, Rome, is abundantly evident in the dream. This love for one's homeland and the idea of serving the greater good is a recurring theme in Cicero's political writings, as they often discuss the role the citizen can play in governance.
"No phase of life, whether public or private, can be free from duty."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
In his dream, Scipio is reminded by his grandfather of his profound love for Rome. This love for Rome is portrayed as a manifestation of civic virtue and a sense of duty to protect and advance the interests of the state.
Loving one’s country this much comes at a serious cost that many of us would think twice about before taking on– Cicero presents the idea that love for one's country should lead individuals to place the welfare of the republic above personal interests. Scipio Africanus encourages Scipio Aemilianus to take up the mantle of leadership and fulfill his duty as a Roman citizen to safeguard the city and the republic.
Backing up a bit, let’s take a moment to take a look at exactly who Cicero was and how he influenced history.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, orator, philosopher, and one of the most influential figures in Roman history. He is often regarded as one of the greatest orators in the history of the Roman Republic. Born in 106 BC, Cicero lived until the mid-1st century BC.
Cicero was renowned for his eloquence and skill in public speaking. His speeches in the Roman Senate and in the courts earned him a reputation as a masterful orator– furthermore, he played a significant role in the Roman legal system as an advocate and a lawyer.
He held several important political positions during the late Roman Republic, including consul, the highest political office, in 63 BCE. He was known for his defense of the Roman Republic's traditional republican values and his opposition to the power grabs of figures like Julius Caesar and the First Triumvirate.
Known for his extensive body of work, Cicero’s speeches, letters, essays, and dialogues cover a wide array of subjects, making him an important source for understanding the politics, culture, and philosophy of the late Roman Republic. He had a huge influence on the development of rhetorical theory and practice thanks to works like De Oratore and Brutus.
Western thought and culture have been deeply influenced by the writings of Cicero. His ideas on law, justice, politics, and philosophy have continued to influence scholars and thinkers over the centuries. His works were widely studied during the Renaissance, and his ideas continue to be a subject of interest for scholars of classical antiquity in the current day.
Cicero was not a Stoic philosopher. At the same time, he was heavily influenced by Stoicism and often incorporated Stoic ideas into his writings. He truly was an eclectic philosopher, drawing from various philosophical schools, including the Academy, Peripatetics, and Stoicism, among others.
Cicero's interest in Stoicism is evident in his philosophical works, especially in his moral and ethical writings. He admired many aspects of Stoic philosophy, such as the emphasis on virtue, the importance of moral character, the pursuit of wisdom, and the idea of living in accordance with nature and reason.
"Wisdom is the only thing which can relieve us from the sway of the passions and the fear of danger, and which can teach us to bear the injuries of fortune itself with moderation, and which shows us all the ways which lead to tranquility and peace."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
It’s important to note that, while he was influenced by Stoicism, Cicero did not align himself exclusively with any one philosophical school. Instead, he often took a broader approach, drawing from various traditions to create a more comprehensive philosophy in his eyes.
Cicero was a unique and fascinating man who drew from many different philosophies in his works. This means that we can’t rightly call him a Stoic, but we can identify a number of prominent Stoic concepts in his works. Let’s explore the most notable Stoic ideas that show up in The Dream of Scipio.
As discussed above, the core theme of the Dream of Scipio is the immortality of the soul. Scipio's dream portrays his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, as having ascended to the heavens after his death.
Though it isn’t often discussed in the world of modern Stoicism, the Stoics make it pretty clear in their writings that they believe that the soul continues on after we die.
At the same time, it’s important to note that our favorite Stoic philosophers certainly all had their own ideas that can’t simply be lumped into one neat pile. Ultimately, the Stoic belief in the immortality of the soul is somewhat nuanced. While the Stoics did believe in the immortality of the soul in a sense, their concept of immortality differs from some other philosophical and religious traditions.
Another crucial aspect of the Dream of Scipio is the importance of moral virtue and the rewards of leading a virtuous life.
Even the most casual follower of Stoicism is likely aware that virtue is a central concept in philosophy, and Stoic philosophers like Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius stressed the significance of living in accordance with nature and moral principles.
The Dream of Scipio also discusses the order and harmony of the universe, echoing Stoic beliefs in a rational and orderly cosmos governed by divine reason. Stoicism teaches that one should live in accordance with this cosmic order, and Scipio's vision underscores the Stoic notion that understanding and aligning with the natural order is central to living a good life.
Another important concept in Stoicism is that philosophy encourages individuals to accept their fate and the providence of the universe– a notion that is encapsulated in the Latin phrase amor fati. In Scipio's Dream, Scipio Africanus highlights the idea that events are governed by divine providence, and individuals should trust in this order.
Furthermore, Stoicism teaches individuals to transcend personal desires and emotions and to focus on what is rational and in accordance with the natural order. By doing so, they can achieve emotional balance and live a life of inner serenity. The dialogue illustrates that understanding and accepting the rationality of the universe can help individuals navigate the challenges of life.
Stoicism places a strong emphasis on the importance for each individual to pursue wisdom and cultivate reason in their own lives.
In the dream, Scipio is portrayed as a wise and philosophical figure, reflecting the Stoic ideal of the sage who possesses wisdom and exercises reason to navigate life's challenges. Our main character is encouraged to use his rational faculty to navigate life and make virtuous choices.
Wisdom is often considered the highest virtue, as one needs wisdom in order to practice the other cardinal virtues of courage, justice, and self-control. Scipio's dream highlights the significance of seeking wisdom not only for personal growth but also as a means of living a life in accordance with the Stoic ideal.
We also find in the dialogue the idea that one can work to attain wisdom through philosophical contemplation, another popular idea among the Stoics. Scipio Aemilianus engages in profound philosophical discussions in his dream, where he explores lots of crucial metaphysical and ethical topics. One can clearly see the influence here of the Stoic practice of philosophical inquiry as a way to gain insights into the nature of reality and the principles of virtue.
The dream also highlights another Stoic theme– a commitment to the greater good. Stoicism encourages individuals to act in accordance with their duty to society and to prioritize the common welfare.
Duty, in the Stoic view, is intrinsically tied to ethics and the pursuit of virtue. Virtue, as understood by the Stoics, includes wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control. These virtues guide an individual's actions, and fulfilling one's duty is seen as synonymous with living virtuously. Scipio's Dream emphasizes the importance of aligning one's actions with these same virtues held with such esteem by the Stoics.
Unlike other Hellenistic philosophical schools, the Stoics didn’t shirk from civic duty. They understood their role as a part of a larger order and, therefore, did not believe in hiding themselves from the actual functioning of society.
The Dream of Scipio is an incredible text– one we are lucky to still have access to thousands of years later. Exploring Stoic themes like the importance of duty, the value of virtue, the order of the universe, and more, this is a fascinating piece that helps us zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture of things.
As evidenced by the way that our main character, Scipio, learned to use virtue in his own life through his dream, the ideas of Stoicism can be applied to your actual life in a way that helps you improve yourself and achieve a state of inner peace.
Whether you’ve been studying Stoicism for years or you’re just learning about it right now, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more quotes, articles, inspiration, and philosophical musings!