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The phosphene dreams of a young Christian soldier

On a blustery St. Martin’s Eve in 1619, a 23-year-old French gentleman soldier in the service of Maximilian of Bavaria was billeted near Ulm, Germany. Having recently quit his military service under Maurice of Nassau, he was new to the Bavarian army and a stranger to the area. The weather and lack of associates motivated the youth to remain alone in his room for days at a time. It was a comfortable room, warmed against the bitter cold by a porcelain stove. One can imagine that such cozy solitude might provide occasion for the young man to reflect on his course in life. He had studied law at Poitiers and military science at Breda but had yet to decide on a career. Perhaps, he hoped for some guidance as he crawled under the covers for a warm winter’s nap. That young soldier was Rene Descartes and, as legend has it, guidance came on that fateful night of 10-11 November 1619 in the form of three dreams.

The first dream begins with Descartes walking along a road amongst terrifying shadows or phantoms. He was forced to walk to the left due to a feeling of feebleness in his right side. Descartes was ashamed of walking in this manner and tried to straighten up but was struck by a whirlwind that spun him around several times on his left foot. He then saw a college up ahead and began to walk toward it with the intention of entering the school’s chapel to pray. But, on his way, he passed an acquaintance without acknowledging him and turned back to greet him only to be pushed back by the blowing wind. At the same time, Descartes saw someone else at the center of the courtyard, who politely called his name and remarked that he wanted to find Monsieur N. so as to give him something, which Descartes imagined to be a melon from a foreign land.

In the second, Descartes heard a loud sound that he took to be thunder. The fright from the noise woke him. Upon opening his eyes, he saw sparks of fire from the stove glittering about the room, but dismissed them as nothing out of the ordinary, having remembered that he had had the experience before while awake.

The third dream finds Descartes at a table with a book on it. Upon closer examination he is pleased to discover that it is a dictionary or encyclopedia, for he believes it will help him in his studies. At the same time, he also finds a collection of poems, picks it up, and opens it to a random page to find the verse “What path in life should I pursue?” A man Descartes did not recognize then appeared and highly recommended a poem beginning with the line “It is, and it is not.” Descartes recognized this as the opening to a poem by Ausonius and looked for it in the poetry collection but to no avail. He then told the man that he knew of another poem by Ausonius with the first line “What path in life should I pursue?” The man asked to see it but, again, Descartes couldn’t find it. The encyclopedia disappeared during this time only to reappear a moment later at the end of the table but not as complete. Finally, the man and both books disappeared.

Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, famously refers to his time holed up in a stove-heated room as the time when he discovered his new method. It is also the setting of his later Meditations on First Philosophy. So, Descartes’ time at Ulm was clearly important to his personal and intellectual growth. However Descartes’ first biographer, Adrien Baillet, takes things a step further by suggesting that these dreams were the divine inspiration for this new method. Unfortunately, Descartes’ own account of these dreams is no longer extant, and so there is no way to confirm whether or not he believed this himself. However, a quick look at aspects of Baillet’s report of the dreamer’s reaction may prove insightful.

According to Baillet, Descartes understood the buffeting whirlwinds of the first dream as an evil spirit trying to compel him to do something. In the second dream Descartes interpreted the thunder as the Spirit of Truth (or the Holy Spirit) taking possession of him. Also recall that he witnessed the glittering sparks from the stove but then calmed himself with the memory of such things happening during waking life. Descartes took the third dream’s encyclopedia as representing all the knowledge of the sciences, while the poetry collection represented philosophy and wisdom joined together. He also took the verse “It is, and it is not,” which is the “yes and no” of Pythagoras, to mean the truth and falsity of human knowledge and the profane sciences.

Notice that the reference to an evil spirit foreshadows the scenario for doubt in the First Meditation wherein an evil demon keeps him off balance with his constant deception. The second dream was in some ways indistinguishable from waking life, which is a key point of the dream argument. Finally, “it is, and it is not” is one way of expressing the law of non-contradiction, which is a basic principle of geometrical reasoning. Also, recall that this line was found right after the verse “What path in life should I pursue?” One might then infer that the light of truth expressed through the Holy Spirit emblazoned these images into Descartes’ closed eyes to move him to pick up Pythagoras’s tool and set off on the path of discovery, which is the mode of demonstration underpinning the entire Meditations.

Perhaps Baillet intended his reader to make just such an interpretation in an effort to save Descartes’ illustrious works from the numerous condemnations they received from both pope and king, including placement on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1663. By encouraging his readers to infer that a divine light inspired Cartesian method and philosophy, Baillet may have been trying to save his legacy from this literary hell. However, without Descartes’ own account of these dreams’ influence on him, we are left with only the daydreams of our own shadowy speculations.

Featured image credit: René Descartes’ Principia Philosophiae by Nightryder84 (Own work). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Mblizart

    Well, but why we can read “phosphene” in the tittle please ?

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