Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture

By Stuart Clark | Go to book overview

9
Dreams: The Epistemology of Sleep

At either end of a fifty-year period of European intellectual history, Montaigne and Descartes made celebrated statements about the implications of dreaming. In the 1588 edition of his Essais, Montaigne remarked that:

Those who have compared our life to a dream were perhaps more right than they thought.
When we dream, our soul lives, acts, exercises all her faculties, neither more nor less than
when she is awake; but if more loosely and obscurely, still surely not so much so that the
difference is as between night and bright daylight; rather as between night and shade.

In later versions Montaigne added the slightly stronger observation that: '"sleeping we are awake, and waking asleep. I do not see so clearly in sleep; but my wakefulness I never find pure and cloudless enough.'1 Descartes, writing in the first of his Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641, made the philosophically (and theologically) notorious statement that he wished to suppose that:

some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in
order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and
all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my
judgement.2

Neither of these statements was supposed to be metaphorical. Montaigne certainly refers to the conceit of life as a dream but he mentions it only to dismiss it. It is too close to the literal truth to be a good metaphor. Instead, as we saw in the previous chapter, he was engaged in systematically doubting the evidence of the senses and the capacities of reason. In this context, dreams were epistemologically significant, and quite precisely so. Montaigne's remark comes at a point, late in the 'Apology for Raymond Sebond', where he is defending the earlier claim that 'external objects surrender to our mercy; they dwell in us as we please'. He has reached the point of suggesting that the senses and the rational soul often succeed only in deceiving each other—hence making it thinkable that sleeping and waking are not such different experiences after all. The passage we began with continues by posing this paradox:

Since our reason and our soul accept the fancies and opinions which arise in it while sleep-
ing, and authorize the actions of our dreams with the same approbation as they do those of
the day, why do we not consider the possibility that our thinking, our acting, may be
another sort of dreaming, and our waking another kind of sleep?3

-300-

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Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contents ix
  • Contents x
  • 1: Species: Vision and Values 9
  • 2: Fantasies: Seeing Without What Was Within 39
  • 3: Prestiges: Illusions in Magic and Art 78
  • 4: Glamours: Demons and Virtual Worlds 123
  • 5: Images: the Reformation of the Eyes 161
  • 6: Apparitions: the Discernment of Spirits 204
  • 7: Sights: King Saul and King Macbeth 236
  • 8: Seemings: Philosophical Scepticism 266
  • 9: Dreams: the Epistemology of Sleep 300
  • 10: Signs: Vision and the New Philosophy 329
  • Bibliography 365
  • Index 401
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