Aristotle on Dreams


Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Dreams of Aristotle

Aristotle wrote two short pieces on dreams and their meaning: On Dreams and On Prophesying on Dreams. In the first he presents arguments for the origin of dreams and their relationship to other aspects of human existence. In the second he analyzes whether dreams can foreshadow the future.
Aristotle approaches his subject as a scientist, looking for a practical explanation for an experience men found mysterious and frightful. Given that the only ways to acquire knowledge are through sense perception or intelligence, and that our senses are not operating during sleep, he asserts that the senses cannot contribute to dreaming. That means dreams must originate in our intellect. Of course the experiences in dreams are still based on sense perception (we see things when we dream), but that experience is disconnected from reality.Residual perceptions are common in everyday life. If you look at the sun briefly and then look away, the image of the sun remains in your eye for a while. In the same way, Aristotle asserts that when the external object of a perception has been removed, there still remains an impression which itself is an object of perception. While we sleep, these impressions are re-created in dreams.
Sensory impressions present themselves when an individual is awake and asleep, but the senses work with the brain during the day to keep reality in perspective. At night there is no balance between impressions because the senses are not available, so dreams produce wild and obscure sensations.
Aristotle describes the dream sequence as “little eddies in a river forming and breaking into other forms by colliding with obstacles.” He believed there could be no dreaming immediately after a meal because the heat caused by digestion disturbed the flow of phantasms in the brain. Similarly, dreams that occur during a fever or intoxication reflect a disturbed state of the body in their weirdness of form and character.
In On Prophesying on Dreams, Aristotle contemplates what he calls the divination that takes place during sleep and whether it caused by dreams. Since there is no known cause of this divination it is normal to be skeptical about it. It cannot come from a god because these experiences occur in common people and god does not communicate to them. So is it merely that dreams act as causes or tokens of divination? Indeed, it may be that some of these representations are the causes of actions cognate to them. We may think and plan some activity during the day whose significance causes a vivid dream at night. In this case the activity has paved the way for the dream. But the converse is also true, because thoughts which occur first in sleep may be the starting points of something that occurs when we are awake.
Aristotle believes that most “prophetic” dreams are coincidences based on the fact that the dreamer has no real participation in the story of the dream. We often mention things during conversation that later come to pass and this same phenomena occurs in dreams. Because the engine of both wakefulness and dreams is the brain, we understand why this has to be so. Again, because god does not communicate to the common people, their visions must be a random result of their physical temperament – “excitable and garrulous”. The common people have chance experiences where visions play a part in their slumber, like the gambler who plays even and odd.
Prophetic dreams are caused by the condition of sleep; the fact that there is less to disturb the body than during the day. There is no wind at night to disturb the senses and compete with the visions of our dreams.
To Aristotle, the most skillful interpreter of dreams is the man who is able to observe resemblances in them. That is he can make sense out the forms in disturbed water; to put the pieces together which, to the common man, can only be seen when the water is calm.

Aristotle on Dreams

Aristotle, a Greek born in the Ionian city of Stagira (384-322 B.C.) was one of the first writers to attempt a study of the mind and dreams in a systematic way. He was the son of Nicomachus the court physician to Amyntas III, king of Macydon. In 367 B.C. he went to Athens and studied at Plato’s Academy until Plato’s death in 347 B.C.. Along with Socrates and Plato, he became one of the great philosophers who were instrumental in forming the foundations of Western rational thinking.
Although in his early years Aristotle followed the Platonic belief that the soul and the body were separate entities, he later formulated the non-dualistic idea that the body and soul (soul in Greek thought was ones personal consciousness, personal memories and experiences) were polarities of one thing. In his treatise De Anima, part of his mature writings, he defines the soul as that which animates the body, that which quickens it to life. The soul is that which also directs the process of the body’s growth and survival. So the soul is the blueprint that directs the purpose of the material side of human nature. To quote from Search For The Soul (Time Life Books), ‘The oak tree is the purpose that the matter of the acorn serves.’
This concept, without of course detailed knowledge of DNA, is not unlike the present day view of the non dualistic view of body and mind, both linked not only to the blueprint from our genetic material, but also that our being is constantly a dynamic interrelationship between all parts.
Aristotle deals with the subtleties of sleep and dreams in three great treatises – De Somno et Vigilia; De Insomnis; and De Divinatione Per Somnum. (On Sleep and Dreams – On Sleeping and Waking – On Divination Through Sleep.) The views on dreaming are developed out of Aristotle’s concepts of mind and imagination, and his observation of how people deal with sleeping and waking. For instance he saw imagination as the result of sensory and subjective perception occurring after the disappearance of the sensed object. Recognising that the human mind can form powerful and realistic ‘afterimages’ of things no longer present. Aristotle carried this insight into the realm of sleep and applied it to dreaming. He added to this the observation that while awake we have the easy ability to distinguish between what is an external object and what is our imagined object. In sleep however this faculty disappears or is almost completely absent. This produces the sense of enormous reality we have in dreams, and the feeling that we are facing actual events and people. It is what Freud called the hallucinatory property of dreams. See: Freud; hallucinations and hallucinogenshallucinations and visions.
Dreams were therefore, in Aristotle’s observations, not sent by a god – even animals could be seen to dream – but the product of experiences had while awake, and then used by our imagination during dreaming; or else arising from internal but perhaps subtle sensations such as the symptoms of illness. Because our ‘common sense’ faculty that usually distinguishes between fact and fancy is absent during sleep, we are thus prone to the amazing fantasies of dreams, beyond correction of our judgement or evaluation. However he does qualify this slightly by making one of the first historical references to the faculty of lucid dreaming, by saying, ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.’ Many authorities quote Aristotle as the first to mention lucidity in dreaming. However, this seems to be part of the mistaken Western sense of superiority. Buddhism, founded in 500 BC, had lucidity as part of its basic goals. Yoga, an even older practice, gave methods to wake up in sleep. See: Greece (ancient) dream beliefs –Buddhism and Dreams – Yoga and Dreams.
Useful Questions and Hints:
See Aristides.
Do I have a common sense attitude to dreams or am I lost in fantasy? If I have a common sense attitude to dreams, does my ‘common sense’ tend to kill out my creativeness?
Aristotle didn’t say much about altered states of consciousness – see ASC’s.

by Aristotle translated by J. I. Beare
Electronically Enhanced Text (c) Copyright 1996, World Library(R)
DAK Upgraded Edition, Copyright 2000, DAK Industries 2000, Inc(R)
                              CHAPTER 1
As to the divination which takes place in sleep, and is said to be
based on dreams, we cannot lightly either dismiss it with contempt or
give it implicit confidence. The fact that all persons, or many,
suppose dreams to possess a special significance, tends to inspire us
with belief in it [such divination], as founded on the testimony of
experience; and indeed that divination in dreams should, as regards
some subjects, be genuine, is not incredible, for it has a show of
reason; from which one might form a like opinion also respecting all
other dreams. Yet the fact of our seeing no probable cause to account
for such divination tends to inspire us with distrust. For, in
addition to its further unreasonableness, it is absurd to combine the
idea that the sender of such dreams should be God with the fact that
those to whom he sends them are not the best and wisest, but merely
commonplace persons. If, however, we abstract from the causality of
God, none of the other causes assigned appears probable. For that
certain persons should have foresight in dreams concerning things
destined to take place at the Pillars of Hercules, or on the banks of
the Borysthenes, seems to be something to discover the explanation of
which surpasses the wit of man. Well then, the dreams in question must
be regarded either as causes, or as tokens, of the events, or else
as coincidences; either as all, or some, of these, or as one only. I
use the word ’cause’ in the sense in which the moon is [the cause] of
an eclipse of the sun, or in which fatigue is [a cause] of fever;
‘token’ [in the sense in which] the entrance of a star [into the
shadow] is a token of the eclipse, or [in which] roughness of the
tongue [is a token] of fever; while by ‘coincidence’ I mean, for
example, the occurrence of an eclipse of the sun while some one is
taking a walk; for the walking is neither a token nor a cause of the
eclipse, nor the eclipse [a cause or token] of the walking. For this
reason no coincidence takes place according to a universal or general
rule. Are we then to say that some dreams are causes, others tokens,
e.g. of events taking place in the bodily organism? At all events,
even scientific physicians tell us that one should pay diligent
attention to dreams, and to hold this view is reasonable also for
those who are not practitioners, but speculative philosophers. For the
movements which occur in the daytime [within the body] are, unless
very great and violent, lost sight of in contrast with the waking
movements, which are more impressive. In sleep the opposite takes
place, for then even trifling movements seem considerable. This is
plain in what often happens during sleep; for example, dreamers fancy
that they are affected by thunder and lightning, when in fact there
are only faint ringings in their ears; or that they are enjoying honey
or other sweet savours, when only a tiny drop of phlegm is flowing
down [the oesophagus]; or that they are walking through fire, and
feeling intense heat, when there is only a slight warmth affecting
certain parts of the body. When they are awakened, these things appear
to them in this their true character. But since the beginnings of all
events are small, so, it is clear, are those also of the diseases or
other affections about to occur in our bodies. In conclusion, it is
manifest that these beginnings must be more evident in sleeping than
in waking moments.
Nay, indeed, it is not improbable that some of the presentations
which come before the mind in sleep may even be causes of the actions
cognate to each of them. For as when we are about to act [in waking
hours], or are engaged in any course of action, or have already
performed certain actions, we often find ourselves concerned with
these actions, or performing them, in a vivid dream; the cause whereof
is that the dream-movement has had a way paved for it from the
original movements set up in the daytime; exactly so, but conversely,
it must happen that the movements set up first in sleep should also
prove to be starting-points of actions to be performed in the daytime,
since the recurrence by day of the thought of these actions also has
had its way paved for it in the images before the mind at night. Thus
then it is quite conceivable that some dreams may be tokens and causes
[of future events].
Most [so-called prophetic] dreams are, however, to be classed as
mere coincidences, especially all such as are extravagant, and those
in the fulfilment of which the dreamers have no initiative, such as in
the case of a sea-fight, or of things taking place far away. As
regards these it is natural that the fact should stand as it does
whenever a person, on mentioning something, finds the very thing
mentioned come to pass. Why, indeed, should this not happen also in
sleep? The probability is, rather, that many such things should
happen. As, then, one’s mentioning a particular person is neither
token nor cause of this person’s presenting himself, so, in the
parallel instance, the dream is, to him who has seen it, neither token
nor cause of its [so-called] fulfilment, but a mere coincidence. Hence
the fact that many dreams have no ‘fulfilment’, for coincidences do
not occur according to any universal or general law.
                              CHAPTER 2
On the whole, forasmuch as certain of the lower animals also dream,
it may be concluded that dreams are not sent by God, nor are they
designed for this purpose [to reveal the future]. They have a divine
aspect, however, for Nature [their cause] is divinely planned, though
not itself divine. A special proof [of their not being sent by God] is
this: the power of foreseeing the future and of having vivid dreams is
found in persons of inferior type, which implies that God does not
send their dreams; but merely that all those whose physical
temperament is, as it were, garrulous and excitable, see sights of all
descriptions; for, inasmuch as they experience many movements of every
kind, they just chance to have visions resembling objective facts,
their luck in these matters being merely like that of persons who play
at even and odd. For the principle which is expressed in the gambler’s
maxim: ‘If you make many throws your luck must change,’ holds in their
case also.
That many dreams have no fulfilment is not strange, for it is so too
with many bodily symptoms and weather-signs, e.g. those of rain or
wind. For if another movement occurs more influential than that from
which, while [the event to which it pointed was] still future, the
given token was derived, the event [to which such token pointed] does
not take place. So, of the things which ought to be accomplished by
human agency, many, though well-planned are by the operation of other
principles more powerful [than man’s agency] brought to nought. For,
speaking generally, that which was about to happen is not in every
case what now is happening; nor is that which shall hereafter be
identical with that which is now going to be. Still, however, we
must hold that the beginnings from which, as we said, no consummation
follows, are real beginnings, and these constitute natural tokens of
certain events, even though the events do not come to pass.
As for [prophetic] dreams which involve not such beginnings [sc. of
future events] as we have here described, but such as are extravagant
in times, or places, or magnitudes; or those involving beginnings
which are not extravagant in any of these respects, while yet the
persons who see the dream hold not in their own hands the beginnings
[of the event to which it points]: unless the foresight which such
dreams give is the result of pure coincidence, the following would be
a better explanation of it than that proposed by Democritus, who
alleges ‘images’ and ’emanations’ as its cause. As, when something has
caused motion in water or air, this [the portion moved] moves another
[portion of water or air], and, though the cause has ceased to
operate, such motion propagates itself to a certain point, though
there the prime movement is not present; just so it may well be that a
movement and a consequent sense-perception should reach sleeping souls
from the objects from which Democritus represents ‘images’ and
’emanations’ coming; that such movements, in whatever way they arrive,
should be more perceptible at night [than by day], because when
proceeding thus in the daytime they are more liable to dissolution
(since at night the air is less disturbed, there being then less
wind); and that they shall be perceived within the body owing to
sleep, since persons are more sensitive even to slight sensory
movements when asleep than when awake. It is these movements then that
cause ‘presentations’, as a result of which sleepers foresee the
future even relatively to such events as those referred to above.
These considerations also explain why this experience befalls
commonplace persons and not the most intelligent. For it would have
regularly occurred both in the daytime and to the wise had it been God
who sent it; but, as we have explained the matter, it is quite natural
that commonplace persons should be those who have foresight [in
dreams]. For the mind of such persons is not given to thinking, but,
as it were, derelict, or totally vacant, and, when once set moving, is
borne passively on in the direction taken by that which moves it. With
regard to the fact that some persons who are liable to derangement
have this foresight, its explanation is that their normal mental
movements do not impede [the alien movements], but are beaten off by
the latter. Therefore it is that they have an especially keen
perception of the alien movements.
That certain persons in particular should have vivid dreams, e.g.
that familiar friends should thus have foresight in a special degree
respecting one another, is due to the fact that such friends are most
solicitous on one another’s behalf. For as acquaintances in particular
recognize and perceive one another a long way off, so also they do as
regards the sensory movements respecting one another; for sensory
movements which refer to persons familiarly known are themselves more
familiar. Atrabilious persons, owing to their impetuosity, are, when
they, as it were, shoot from a distance, expert at hitting; while,
owing to their mutability, the series of movements deploys quickly
before their minds. For even as the insane recite, or con over in
thought, the poems of Philaegides, e.g. the Aphrodite, whose parts
succeed in order of similitude, just so do they [the ‘atrabilious’] go
on and on stringing sensory movements together. Moreover, owing to
their aforesaid impetuosity, one movement within them is not liable to
be knocked out of its course by some other movement.
The most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of
observing resemblances. Any one may interpret dreams which are vivid
and plain. But, speaking of ‘resemblances’, I mean that dream
presentations are analogous to the forms reflected in water, as indeed
we have already stated. In the latter case, if the motion in the water
be great, the reflexion has no resemblance to its original, nor do the
forms resemble the real objects. Skillful, indeed, would he be in
interpreting such reflexions who could rapidly discern, and at a
glance comprehend, the scattered and distorted fragments of such
forms, so as to perceive that one of them represents a man, or a
horse, or anything whatever. Accordingly, in the other case also, in a
similar way, some such thing as this [blurred image] is all that a
dream amounts to; for the internal movement effaces the clearness of
the dream.
The questions, therefore, which we proposed as to the nature of
sleep and the dream, and the cause to which each of them is due, and
also as to divination as a result of dreams, in every form of it, have
now been discussed.

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