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Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority


John Bickley

In Dreams, Visions, and the Rhetoric of Authority, John Bickley explores the ways dreams and visions in literature function as authorizing devices, both affirming and complicating a text’s authority. After providing a framework for categorizing the diverse genres and modes of dream and vision texts, Bickley demonstrates how the theme of authority and strategies for textual self-authorization play out in four highly influential works: the Book of Daniel, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Love, and Chaucer’s Hous of Fame.

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Chapter 3: Macrobius: Establishing the Authoritative Philosophical Form


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Establishing the Authoritative Philosophical Form


Establishing the Authoritative Philosophical Form

Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio proves to be a highly influential work for the men of letters of the High and Late Middle Ages.1 Macrobius’ characteristic Neoplatonist emphasis on authority in his discussion of Cicero’s dream vision helps to establish authority as a central issue in the form. Following the pattern of other Neoplatonic encyclopedists, throughout the commentary Macrobius stresses his (authoritative) sources.2 Macrobius’ first move is to defend the legitimacy of using fiction in philosophical treatises.3 His next move takes the defense of fiction in a more specific direction, narrowing his discussion to the philosophical authority of the dream vision proper.

With his Neoplatonic encyclopedist’s passion for authority and the privileging of indirect expression of higher philosophical truths, Macrobius holds up the dream vision as the authoritative fictional mode for philosophical discourse. Macrobius argues that the power of dream fiction ultimately rests upon that dream’s ability to construct within itself an authoritative support structure (including revelation to properly authoritative figures concerning legitimate subject matter) and to convey its truths through the tastefully and ← 45 | 46 → appropriately indirect rhetorical mode. His most important contribution to succeeding intellectual circles is his famous five categories of dreams:4

These five categories of dreams—three legitimate and two illegitimate—as well as his paradigmatic application of those categories to the Dream...

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