May 29, 2021

1. The Grateful Dead

In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds is much impressed with Aristotle’s view of dreams. Aristotle wrote two essays on the subject, “On Dreams” and “On Divination in Dreams.” Dodds says of these essays,

[Aristotle’s] approach to the problem is coolly rational without being superficial, and he shows at times a brilliant insight, as in his recognition of a common origin for dreams, the hallucinations of the sick, and the illusions of the sane (e.g., when we mistake a stranger for the person we want to see).1

Aristotle says that dreams aren’t sent by the gods. He says that dreams aren’t divine, they’re “daemonic.” Then he goes further and says “Nature is daemonic.” What does Aristotle mean by “daemonic”? I think we can rule out the possibility that he means what we mean by “demonic” or “satanic”; surely he didn’t believe that nature is predominantly evil, and that dreams are created by an evil spirit. Aristotle’s term “daemonic” may mean “having some sort of spirit, will, intelligence.”

As I said in an earlier issue, Mark Twain dreamed that his brother died in a steamboat accident, and a couple months later, his brother died in a steamboat accident. This is a common kind of dream; Dodds calls it a “veridical” dream (truthful dream); we could also call it a prophetic dream. Do veridical dreams reveal future events, as they seem to? Dodds says that Aristotle, like Freud, was “cautiously noncommittal” about veridical dreams.

During Aristotle’s “romantic youth,” Dodds writes, he was more receptive to the occult, and he believed in “the soul’s innate powers of divination.”2 In his mature years, when he wrote his essays on dreams, Aristotle can’t accept precognition, can’t accept that the future already exists and the future can be known. So he takes a rational approach to veridical dreams. He says that two particular types of veridical dream may be genuine:

  1. “dreams conveying foreknowledge of the dreamer’s state of health, which are reasonably explained by the penetration to consciousness of symptoms ignored in waking hours”
  2. dreams that “bring about their own fulfillment by suggesting a course of action to the dreamer”

But what about precognitive dreams, like Mark Twain’s? Aristotle says that such dreams are “probably coincidence... alternatively, he suggests a theory of wave-borne stimuli, on the analogy of disturbances propagated in water or air.” I don’t think coincidence can explain precognition; when you experience precognition yourself, as Twain did, you won’t ascribe it to coincidence. The existence of precognition can be demonstrated, if I’m not mistaken, in the laboratory.

As for “wave-borne stimuli,” I don’t rule out the possibility of some sort of wave causing some occult phenomena, but I don’t see how this could explain the Twain case, or other cases of precognition. Aristotle, like Freud, doesn’t want to admit that there’s a mystery in precognition that he can’t explain. In my view, Aristotle was closer to truth during his “romantic youth,” when he was more receptive to the occult.

The Greek atomists tried to explain all phenomena, including occult phenomena, in a materialistic, mechanistic way. Dodds speaks of “Democritus’ atomist theory of dreams as eidola [images?] which continually emanate from persons and objects, and affect the dreamer’s consciousness by penetrating the pores of his body.”3 The theories of materialists are wilder than the theories of occultists.

Cicero says that sleep should be restful, but instead people worry about their dreams, worry about what their dreams are telling them. Cicero is generally skeptical of the occult. Dodds praises Cicero for “civilized rationalism,”4 so it’s clear that Dodds himself isn’t receptive to the occult, or is only slightly receptive. But Wikipedia says, “Dodds had a lifelong interest in mysticism and psychic research, being a member of the council of the Society for Psychical Research from 1927 and its president from 1961 to 1963.”

In antiquity, skeptics were in the minority; most people, even most educated people, were receptive to the occult, and to veridical dreams.

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius thanked the gods for medical advice vouchsafed to him in sleep; Plutarch abstained from eating eggs because of certain dreams; Dio Cassius was inspired by a dream to write history; and even so enlightened a surgeon as Galen was prepared to perform an operation at the bidding of a dream.5

The Greeks believed that the dead sometimes visit us in dreams. These dead visitors are of two types, the Vengeful Dead and the Grateful Dead. The Vengeful Dead try to avenge themselves for injuries we’ve done them. As for the Grateful Dead, here’s a story about them:
Simonides once came across a corpse lying exposed and buried it. Later, when he was about to board a ship, the person he buried warned him in a dream not to go aboard, so he didn’t. The ship was wrecked, and all aboard died. So the soul of the corpse was grateful to Simonides for burial, and showed its gratitude by warning Simonides about impending danger (shipwreck).6

Is this really an example of Grateful Dead? Or is it an example of the unconscious anticipating the future, as in Mark Twain’s dream? Should we say, as Aristotle did in his “romantic youth,” that the soul has an innate power of divination? Or should we say that the dead don’t completely die, there’s some sort of life-after-death, and the dead sometimes communicate with the living? If one accepts the reality of the occult, it’s often difficult to decide what type of occult phenomenon we’re dealing with.

Dodds says that culture influences dreams; in other words, all cultures don’t dream alike. Our ingrained beliefs shape our dreams, and our dreams reinforce our beliefs. “What the dreamer believes he therefore sees, and what he sees he therefore believes.”7 Since the Greeks were more family-oriented than we are, and less individualistic, their dreams often involved the father and other family members giving advice to the dreamer. In Homer, dreams often involve a visit from a wise advisor.8

The ancient Greeks, like other early peoples, had a keen interest in dream interpretation (oneirocritice), and often consulted “dream books,” which purported to explain symbols. You could pay a street vendor, a street psychologist, to interpret your dream, just as you can hire a palm reader today. “Both Aeschylus and Sophocles,” Dodds writes, “recognize the interpretation of dreams as an important branch of divination (mantike).”9

Like other early peoples, the Greeks distinguished between important dreams and unimportant dreams.10 Homer divided dreams into true dreams that came through the Gate of Horn, and false dreams that came through the Gate of Ivory. Primitives speak of “big dreams,” significant dreams. Modern psychologists like Jung also say that some dreams are especially significant.

Dodds seems to accept Freud’s view that dreams are ego-centric. Dodds quotes Freud’s remark, “Every dream treats of one’s own person.”11 I’m skeptical. When primitives seek a “big dream,” aren’t they seeking advice for their tribe, their community? Perhaps Freud is extrapolating from the dreams of his Viennese patients, perhaps other people have other dreams.

Often a primitive who had a question or problem would seek advice from a dream. Sometimes he would cut off a joint of a finger, or a whole finger, as a kind of advance payment for dream advice; sometimes he would fast; sometimes he would sleep in a holy place — a temple or a cave.12 Dodds refers to this type of sleep as “incubation.” Dodds says, “in some narratives of medieval incubation the patient waits as much as a year.”13 Big dreams aren’t cheap. People who were less determined, or less masochistic, could put a branch of laurel under their pillow.

Such techniques shouldn’t be hastily dismissed as superstitious. A technique like incubation shows that one has a will to dream, and will has an effect on the unconscious. A strong will does indeed raise the chance of a dream. Hence people who are in therapy, and are asked to report their dreams, usually dream more because their will is engaged.

In an earlier issue, I mentioned Elias Howe, who was struggling to develop the first sewing-machine. Howe dreamed that “a savage king in a strange country” had ordered him to construct a sewing-machine. The king’s warriors “carried spears that were pierced near the head.” Eureka! The eye of the needle should be at the point! Howe’s will to overcome his difficulties, and make the machine, activated his unconscious and produced the dream.

Greeks often asked Asclepius, the god of healing, for health advice, or slept in his temple, hoping he would visit them in a dream. Asclepius had tame snakes, as we see in the photo below; this is one reason why snakes are associated with medicine.

In a play by Aristophanes called Plutus, sick people visit the temple of Asclepius, see a vision of the god, and are healed by the temple snakes. Dodds says that snakes really did live at such temples.14 Dodds describes the atmosphere at such temples:

Every rumor of a cure, bringing as it did fresh hope to the desperate, will have been seized on and magnified in that expectant community of suffering.... Aristophanes gets the psychology right when he describes the other patients crowding round Plutus to congratulate him on recovering his eyesight.15

Dodds compares such temples to the shrine at Lourdes. “As we see in the case of Lourdes,” he writes, “a healing shrine can maintain its reputation on a very low percentage of successes, provided a few of them are sensational.”16 One who isn’t cured often continues to have faith in the shrine; he thinks he should visit the shrine again, or he thinks that he has failed to win the favor of the divinity. “Piety represents failure as a sign of the god’s moral disapproval.”17

Cicero was skeptical of the cult of Asclepius, as he was skeptical of dream wisdom. Dodds speaks of, “the cool judgement of Cicero that ‘few patients owe their lives to Asclepius rather than Hippocrates.’”18

One who wasn’t skeptical of the cult of Asclepius was the orator Aelius Aristides. Wikipedia:

Hoping to advance his career as an orator, late in 143 AD Aristides traveled to Rome, but his ambitions were thwarted by severe illness. He returned home to Smyrna. Seeking relief, he eventually turned to Asclepius, “the paramount healing god of the ancient world,” and traveled to the god’s temple at Pergamum, “one of the chief healing sites in the ancient world,” where “incubants” slept on the temple grounds, then recorded their dreams in search of prescriptions from the god.

Dodds says that Aristides had a “deep-seated desire for self-punishment,” hence he dreamed of prescriptions such as “river-bathing in mid-winter, and running barefoot in the frost.”19 Usually Aristides followed these prescriptions, but when he was told to sacrifice a finger, he sacrificed a ring instead.

Socrates was probably receptive to the cult of Asclepius, as he was receptive to the wisdom of the Pythia. Socrates’ last words were, “I owe a cock to Asclepius.” Scholars have long debated the meaning of these words. Nietzsche argued that Socrates means, “Life is an illness. I’m now dying, that is, I’m being cured of the illness of life. Since I’m being cured, I owe a cock to Asclepius, the god of cures.” This interpretation is consistent with Nietzsche’s view that Socrates was decadent, and therefore he had a negative attitude toward life.

Other interpretations of Socrates’ words can be found here. Perhaps the simplest and most prosaic interpretation, and the one I would favor, is that Socrates had an illness a month or so before he died, and he vowed to give a cock to Asclepius if he were cured. He was cured, but didn’t find time to pay the debt, so he’s asking a disciple to pay the debt.

This interpretation is open to the objection, “Why would Plato mention such a trivial matter? And why would he give it such a prominent place — the end of the dialogue, and the end of Socrates’ life?” I would respond, Plato ends the dialogue with Socrates’ last words, Plato is reporting what happened. There’s no need to ascribe a deep meaning to those words; the significance of those words is simply that they were Socrates’ last words.

Dodds mentions Socrates’ famous daemon, the inner voice that advised him and warned him. Dodds says that visions and voices were more common among primitives, and among the ancient Greeks, than they are today; Dodds speaks of, “the mass of ancient epiphany-stories.”20 They were sometimes called spectaculum, perhaps because they were “something seen.”

In my piece on my father, I said how I heard him call me as he was dying, though he was far away. Johnson and Boswell discussed such voices:

[Johnson] mentioned a thing as not infrequent, of which I had never heard before — being called, that is, hearing one’s name pronounced by the voice of a known person at a great distance, far beyond the possibility of being reached by any sound uttered by human organs. ‘An acquaintance, on whose veracity I can depend, told me, that walking home one evening to Kilmarnock, he heard himself called from a wood, by the voice of a brother who had gone to America; and the next packet brought accounts of that brother’s death.’ Macbean [Johnson’s “old amanuensis”] asserted that this inexplicable calling was a thing very well known. Dr. Johnson said, that one day at Oxford, as he was turning the key of his chamber, he heard his mother distinctly call Sam. She was then at Lichfield; but nothing ensued. This phenomenon is, I think, as wonderful as any other mysterious fact, which many people are very slow to believe, or rather, indeed, reject with an obstinate contempt.

The experience of being “called” illustrates a general principle of the occult, namely, “Everything is connected, but some things are more connected than others.” You’re more likely to be “called” by someone you know well than by a random person in Timbuktu. Telepathic communication generally takes place between people who know each other well. Likewise, in quantum physics, particles that communicate over vast distances are particles that were once close, once paired.

2. Ideas and Visions

I’ve often argued in this e-zine that original ideas come through intuition, through vision; they come effortlessly, manna from heaven; they don’t come through logical thought or prolonged reasoning or diligent research. I’ve quoted Schopenhauer’s remark, “Deep truths may be perceived, but can never be excogitated.” And I’ve quoted Emerson: “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.”

I now realize that the word “idea” is related to the Greek eidos meaning sight or image, and eidos is related to the Latin video, I see, and goes back to the Sanskrit vedas, seeing/vision. The word “intuition” is from the Latin “to look at.” And the word “theory” comes from a Greek word meaning viewing or spectacle; “theory” is related to “theater.” The deepest truths are the result of seeing, perception; truth is seen as dreams are seen.

Philosophy is more about vision than about argument and logic. Data and argument are only useful to persuade others, data and argument don’t produce ideas. Philosophy is describing a vision, so others will see what you’ve seen. Philosophy is visions, vedas.

The philosopher is distinguished by passion rather than reasoning, he has a tendency to be “carried away.” An example is Kierkegaard’s passionate attack on the established church in Denmark. Kierkegaard would have agreed with Coleridge, who said, “Deep Thinking is only attainable by a man of deep Feeling... all Truth is a species of Revelation.” In Plato’s view, “the man of thought was also the man of passion.” The philosopher and the lover are both under the sway of Eros.21

3. Miscellaneous

A. In many American towns, one of the hottest debates is “affordable housing.” Democrats often view zoning laws as elitist or racist, and they allow developers to override zoning laws if part of the development is “affordable housing.” When Democrats see a neighborhood with low crime and clean streets, it makes them uneasy, they begin talking about “privilege” and “inequality.” They try to disturb the neighborhood with “affordable housing” or a homeless shelter. The people who oppose these housing projects aren’t only Republicans — everyone in the neighborhood rises up in opposition. In fact, Republicans may even support such housing projects, if they work in the construction industry.

B. The movie 1917 is set in the trenches of World War I. It’s two hours long, and it was made in 2019. It draws you in, it has plot and suspense. But after two hours, you feel that it lacks character and depth; the movie has little to offer besides action and sentiment. You can’t really believe in the characters, you feel you’re being played with.

C. Nowhere in Africa is a 2001 German movie about a German-Jewish family that goes to Kenya to escape the Nazis. The husband and wife grapple with marital problems, grim news about their relatives in Germany, and the challenges of living in rural Africa. I don’t think anyone would say it’s their favorite movie, but it’s a good movie, an authentic movie, and it won Best Foreign Film.

4. Sigurd Olson

The naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote a series of books celebrating the Quetico-Superior region, a region of lakes and rivers in northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. (This region includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and it’s near the Voyageurs National Park.) Olson’s books describe canoe-trips, campfires, fishing, etc. Olson worked as a canoe guide, a college teacher, and an environmental activist.

Map by Kmusser

Olson’s first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), is sometimes called his best book, so I decided to read part of it. It’s a simple, natural, dignified kind of literature, both lyrical and factual. Olson never tries to impress the reader with his erudition or his literary talent, and he never appeals to our lower angels with spicy anecdotes.

My relatives owned a cabin at Lake George, and developed a taste for Olson’s books. When I was a teenager, we drove to the Quetico-Superior region, and spent about ten days camping and canoeing, following in Olson’s footsteps, or rather in his wake. Literature inspires travel, and travel inspires literature.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Ch. 4, p. 120

Dodds says, “[Aristotle] and his pupils appreciated, better perhaps than any other Greeks, the necessity of studying the irrational factors in behavior if we are to reach a realistic understanding of human nature.”(p. 238) In this respect, Aristotle’s school (the Peripatetic School) was building on Plato. “Plato’s recognition of an irrational element in the soul was seen in the Peripatetic School to mark an important advance beyond the intellectualism of Socrates.”(p. 228, footnote 30) In modern philosophy, as well as ancient philosophy, there’s a trend toward recognizing the importance of the unconscious, and recognizing the limits of reason. For more on Aristotle’s appreciation of the irrational, Dodds recommends Jeanne Croissant’s Aristote et les Mystères. back

2. p. 120, quoting Dodds, not Aristotle back
3. p. 118 back
4. p. 134, footnote 118

When Dodds is writing this book (1951), there seems to be some interest in the occult, at least in Britain. It almost seems as if rationalism is losing its ancient war with mysticism, and Dodds wants to help rationalism, help the underdog. When he discusses the cult of Asclepius, he says, “We should not allow the modern reaction against rationalism to obscure the real debt that mankind owes to those early Greek physicians who laid down the principles of a rational therapy in the face of age-old superstitions like the one we have been considering.” Dodds speaks of, “the pseudo-science of reading omens.”(p. 181)

What Dodds calls “the modern reaction against rationalism” has petered out, at least in academia. Rationalism reigns supreme in academia today, and the occult is utterly routed. Outside academia, however, there’s widespread interest in the occult; the New Age movement is sympathetic with various occult ideas and occult traditions. back

5. p. 121. How many people have been inspired by dreams to write fiction or poetry? Robert Graves was inspired by a dream to write I, Claudius; Graves said that Claudius spoke to him in a dream. back
6. This story is told in Cicero’s De Divinatione, I, 56. I’ve modified the translation. Dodds mentions the story in footnote 52, p. 127. back
7. p. 112, a quote from Tylor, not Dodds. Religion and dream overlap since rites often come from dreams. “Many cults of many gods have been founded, and will continue to be founded, because of dream-encounters with supernatural beings, omens, oracles, and deathbed visions.”(Dodds p. 108, quoting Epinomis, a dialogue that Dodds and some other scholars attribute to Plato) back
8. In Homer, “the dream usually takes the form of a visit paid to a sleeping man or woman by a single dream-figure.... This dream-figure... exists objectively in space, and is independent of the dreamer.”(p. 104) It comes in through the keyhole, speaks to the dreamer, then leaves by the keyhole. Dodds thinks that such dream visitors were common in antiquity, but are rare today.(p. 107)

Dodds doesn’t speak of “Homer,” he speaks of “the Homeric poets.” Evidently Dodds believes that the Iliad and Odyssey were written by several people. (Wikipedia is also written by multiple people, but it’s not a work of art.) back

9. p. 132, footnote 99 back
10. See footnotes 23 and 24, p. 123; see also p. 107 back
11. p. 133, footnote 106 back
12. Footnote 79, p. 130 back
13. p. 128, footnote 61. The OED gives various definitions of incubation, one of which is “The practice of sleeping in a temple or sacred place for oracular purposes.” back
14. See footnote 66, p. 129. On p. 114, Dodds says, “both dogs and snakes were quite real.” back
15. pp. 114, 115 back
16. p. 115 back
17. Footnote 60 back
18. p. 116 back
19. p. 116. This Aristides, Aelius Aristides, should not be confused with an earlier Aristides, who fought in the Persian Wars and was called “The Just.” There’s also a Saint Aristides, who lived around 100 AD back
20. Footnote 84, p. 131; see also pp. 116, 117 back
21. See F. M. Cornford, The Unwritten Philosophy, “The Doctrine of Eros in Plato’s Symposium,” p. 69 back