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Reviewed by:
  • Dreams, Virtue and Divine Knowledge in Early Christian Egypt by Bronwen Neil, Doru Costache, and Kevin Wagner
  • Adam Rasmussen
Bronwen Neil, Doru Costache, and Kevin Wagner
Dreams, Virtue and Divine Knowledge in Early Christian Egypt
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019
Pp. ix + 214. $99.99.

The authors of this collection of essays ably draw out and interpret the main lines of early Christian thought on sleep and dreaming, ambiguous and contested though they be. Their thesis is that an “Alexandrian tradition” can be discerned that took a generally positive view of sleep and dreams as a conduit for divine communication. Nevertheless, there was a danger of demonic deceptions and sexual dreams that threatened monks’ ascetic progress.

Chapter One, “An Introduction to Greco-Roman Traditions on Dream and Virtue,” serves as background. Neil and Wagner briefly survey the view of dreams in pre-Christian Greek authors, namely Homer, the earliest extant dream-interpretation manual (by Artemidorus), Plato, Aristotle, and Galen. This is followed by a look at the views of virtue in “Homeric society,” the Stoics, Plato, and Aristotle. Plato analogizes the soul to a city and assigns a specific cardinal virtue to each part: wisdom to the rulers/rational, courage to the soldiers/spirited, and temperance to the governed/appetitive. During sleep, the rational part remained active. Aristotle, though having a similar view of virtue, believed the rational mind shut off during sleep. Thus, dreams had no relation to virtue or knowledge.

Chapter Two, “The Development of an Alexandrian Tradition,” surveys the views of dreams in the New Testament, Philo, Clement, Origen, Plotinus, Tertullian, Lactantius, Augustine, Athanasius, Evagrius, and Synesius of Cyrene. The authors after Origen are treated only briefly. This chapter lays a foundation for the chapters on Athanasius and Synesius, rather than providing a comprehensive account. Philo believed dreams could be interpreted allegorically in the same way as Scripture. This tradition continued through all the Alexandrian authors. In contrast, the North African authors were skeptical about the value of dreams. Athanasius and Evagrius were concerned about monks having sexual dreams that threatened their ascetic progress.

With Chapter Three, “Sleep, Dreams and Soul-Travel: Athanasius within the Tradition,” one arrives at the heart of the volume. The first half focuses on the practice of “sleep reduction.” Costache grapples with Athanasius’s contradictory attitudes toward this form of ascesis. When monks he considered heretical practiced it, he criticized it as a literalistic reading of Scripture that deprived the body of needed rest. But when St. Antony practiced it, he praised it as a great ascetic practice that allowed one to attain “resurrectional life” even in this life (82). Notwithstanding some euphemistic references to “pastoral strategies” (79, 84, 86, 93), Costache concludes that the inconsistency was a matter of polemics (86). To criticize in your enemies what you praise in your friends is a time-honored rhetorical technique! The second half of the chapter is about dreams. Compared to the Alexandrian authors, Athanasius has a negative view of dreams. Rather than a means of divine communication, they are demonic deceptions, even when they turn out to be true. Although some authors have interpreted Athanasius’s Against [End Page 344] the Gentiles as stating that anyone, while asleep, can engage in “soul-travel” (communicating with angels and saints), Costache argues that for Athanasius this was an exceptional occurrence attainable only by ascetics who had already purified their minds from carnal pleasures.

Chapter Four, “Synesius of Cyrene and Neoplatonic Dream Theory,” examines the views of the Neoplatonists Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and the philosopher-bishop Synesius. Synesius, even after becoming a bishop, was a proponent of theurgic rituals (a kind of divination) as a pre-eminent means of attaining communion with the noetic realm. Theurgy worked because the human mind bore a sympathy with the cosmos. His positive view of theurgy was shared by Iamblichus, but stood in contrast to that of Plotinus and Porphyry, who considered it valuable only for non-philosophers, who were unable to train their spiritual sense-perception through philosophy and apatheia. For all four authors, the four cardinal virtues were also a necessary means to enlightenment.

Chapter Five, “Expanding beyond the Egyptian Ascetic Tradition,” serves as the...


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