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Sleep and Dreaming in Greek and Roman Philosophy

Sleep and Dreaming in Greek and Roman Philosophy

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Historical Issues in Sleep Medicine
Sleep and dreaming in Greek and Roman philosophy
Joseph Barbera
The Youthdale Child and Adolescent Sleep Centre, 227 Victoria St., Toronto, Ont., Canada M5B 1T8
Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Received 9 March 2007; received in revised form 20 September 2007; accepted 22 October 2007
Available online 3 December 2007
Theories as to the function of sleep and dreaming have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. In Ancient Greece
and Rome the predominant view of dreams was that they were divine in origin. This view was held not only in theory but also in
practice with the establishment of various dream-oracles and dream interpretation manuals (Oneirocritica). However, it is also in the
Greek and Roman writings, paralleling advances in philosophy and natural science, that we begin to see the first rationalistic
accounts of dreaming. This paper reviews the evolution of such rational accounts focusing on the influence of Democritus, who
provides us with the first rationalistic account of dreaming in history, and Aristotle, who provides us with the most explicit account
of sleep and dreaming in the ancient world.
Ó2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords:Dream; Sleep; Ancient philosophy; History; Democritus; Aristotle
1. Introduction
It is somewhat of a paradox that such a universal
phenomenon as dreaming, which occurs in nearly all
humans on a more or less nightly basis, should prove
so impervious to scientific inquiry. It is only in the last
half century that dreaming could be closely identified
with a definitive physiological event, i.e., REM sleep
[1](although some appears to occur in NREM sleep
as well[2]). Even with this progress, the definitive func-
tions of dreaming, REM sleep and even sleep itself con-
tinue to elude us and remain the subjects of considerable
debate. This article reviews the ancient approach to
explaining the phenomena of sleep and dreaming. Such
an historical review helps put our own endeavors in this
area in perspective, in particular by illustrating the value
of critical thinking over the acceptance of dogma.
2. The traditional view
The current assumption that dreaming is a product of
the mind is not one generally shared by our ancient fore-
bears. Authors of the earliest civilizations, including the
Mesopotamians[3,4] and the Egyptians[5], firmly held
to a belief that dreams were divine in origin, i.e., the
product of the gods, and were the means by which they
communicated their wishes to mortal men. This belief in
the divine etiology of dreams was inherited by the
ancient Greeks, and later the Romans. This sentiment
is best seen inThe Odyssey in which Homer declares
the presence of two gates from the underworld admit-
ting dreams to mortals, one of horn and one of ivory,
that were responsible, respectively, for truthful and
deceptive dreams[6]. The belief in the divine origin of
dreams is repeated not only in multiple literary works
of the ancient world, but also in historical accounts
[7–9]. Dream-oracles were common in the ancient world,
wherein supplicants were subjected to dream incubation,
the process by which they were induced to sleep in the
hopes of receiving a prophetic dream. In some cases,
1389-9457/$ - see front matterÓ 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
E-mail address:joseph.barbera@utoronto.ca
Sleep Medicine 9 (2008) 906–910
such as the cult of Asclepius, such practices were a part
of medical treatment[9,10]. It was this same practical
use of the prophetic power of dreams that led to the
publication of various dream interpretation manuals
culminating in the Oneirocritica of Artemidordus (sec-
ond century AD)[11].
According to Dodds[7], the ancient Greeks never
spoke ofhaving a dream, but always ofseeing a dream.
The dreamer, in other words, was a passive recipient of
an objective dream reality rather than an active agent in
the dream’s creation. This view is consistent with a belief
in the divine origin of dreams, a view which was preva-
lent throughout the Greek and Roman worlds. How-
ever, it was also in this time period that we begin to
see the development of alternative hypotheses.
3. Early Greek philosophy
Beginning with Thales’s prediction of an eclipse in
585 BC, early Greek philosophers attempted to under-
stand nature on its own terms, i.e., in accordance with
natural laws and in a natural order, as opposed to sim-
ply ascribing various phenomena to divine agency[12].
While it would seem natural that the earliest philoso-
phers would give some thought to the universal phe-
nomena of sleep and dreaming, we unfortunately have
only fragments of their formulations. Heraclitus (c.
535–475 BC) ‘‘the obscure’’ seemed to emphasize the
subjective nature of dreams in his memorable phrase,
‘‘for those who are awake there is a single, common uni-
verse, whereas in sleep each person turns away into his
own private universe’’[13]. The Pythagoreans appear
to have supported the divine origin of dreams as they
believed that the air was ‘‘full of souls’’ capable of affect-
ing dreams[14]. Empedocles (c. 490–430 BC), on the
other hand, felt that dreams depended on the dreamer
[14]. He also described sleep as occurring from a moder-
ate cooling of heat in the blood, with death being the
result of a total cooling[15]. A similar ‘‘cooling’’
hypothesis for sleep was also ascribed to Parmenides
[16]. Leucippus, the first ‘‘atomist’’ and the teacher of
Democritus, described sleep as something that happened
to the body, and not the soul, and which occurred when
‘‘the excretion of fine-textured atoms exceeds the accre-
tion of psychic warmth’’[17].
4. Democritus
It is with Democritus of Abdera (460–370 BC) that
we see the first systemic theory with respect to dreams.
Democritus is best known as one of the founders of
‘‘Atomism,’’ the belief that the universe consisted of
an infinite number and variety of immutable atoms
whose continual motion and interaction were responsi-
ble for the varied and ever changing nature of the world.
Atomism informs Democritus’s theories of perception,
thought and ultimately dreams. According to Democr-
itus, all objects emit a continuous stream ofeid
fast-moving films of atoms or ‘‘effluences.’’ Perception
results from the impact ofeid
olaon the sensory organs
with subsequent transmission to the soul (Democritus
considered the soul and mind be equivalent and consti-
tuted by fine spherical atoms permeating throughout the
body). Thought (at least in the form of mental imagery)
occurred by way ofeid
olapenetrating the pores of the
body, thus bypassing the sensory organs and having a
direct impact on the soul. The direct impact ofeid
on the soul was also held by Democritus to be responsi-
ble for dreams:
The eid
ola penetrate bodies through their pores and
when they come up again cause people to see things in
their sleep; they come from things of every kind, artifact,
clothes, plants, but especially from animals, because of
the quantity of motion and heat they contain. (Plutarch
Convivial Questions VIII.10.2)[17, p. 126–127].
Such a process, which occurs best in ‘‘smooth air,’’
and can be obstructed by such things as falling leaves,
would account for dream imagery in sleep. Democritus,
however, granted such incoming effluences a greater
They do not merely reproduce the shape of the body. . .but
they also pick up images of each person’s psychic motions,
desires, habits, and emotions, and when, together with
these images, they collide with people they talk as if they
were alive, and tell those who receive them the opinions,
words and actions of those who emitted them. . . (Plutarch
Convivial QuestionsVIII.10.2)[17, p. 127].
For Democritus dreams are externally generated phe-
nomena resulting from the impact of effluences emitted
by objects that come to impact on the soul, but such
effluences, coming form other individuals, still contain
the attributes of the persons who emitted them and, in
a way, have a life of their own bearing upon the drea-
mer. Thus, Democritus provides us with the first natu-
ralistic account of dreaming; but it is one that is not
inconsistent with the passive, externally derived, objec-
tive reality that Greeks attributed to dreams. Democr-
itus’s theory of dreams would prove to be influential
in the thinking of subsequent scholars including Aris-
totle and Epicurus who would develop or build on his
5. Plato
For the most part Plato (427–347 BC) supports the
divine origin of dreams as inCharmides[18]where he
makesreference to the Gates of Horn and Ivory, and
in theCrito[19] where he has Socrates divining the tim-
ing of his own death based on a dream.
J. Barbera / Sleep Medicine 9 (2008) 906–910
In theTimaeus[20], however, Plato offers a naturalis-
tic explanation for both sleep and dreaming which is
related to his theory of vision. According to Plato,
vision is the product of a non-burning, light giving,
‘‘pure fire’’ which streams out from the eyes and strikes
external objects. The subsequent ‘‘motions’’ produced
are transmitted back to the soul where visual perception
occurs. At night the ‘‘external and kindred fire’’ departs
with a subsequent cessation of vision and a resultant
induction of sleep. With the eyelids closed the ‘‘internal
fire’’ is directed inward to equalize the ‘‘inward
motions,’’ where such equalization occurs there is quiet
sleep and where it does not there is dreaming. Despite
this naturalistic account Plato still allows for the possi-
bility of divination through dreams, ascribing the site
of dream prophecy to the liver.
Plato also allows for a psychological component in
dreams. In a well known passage from theRepublic
[21]he discusses the idea that ‘‘. . .in all of us, even the
most highly respectable, there is a lawless wild beast nat-
ure, which peers out in sleep.’’ In dreams one expresses
the bestial desires (including incest with one’s mother)
that are normally repressed in wakefulness. Plato thus
presages Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory of dreaming
[22], falling short primarily by allowing dreams to
express forbidden wishes in an overt rather than dis-
guised form.
6. Aristotle
Aristotle provides us with the most systemic study of
sleep and dreaming in the ancient world which is con-
tained in three full essays on the subject includingOn
Sleep and Waking(De Somno et Vigilia), On Dreams
(De Insomniis) andOn Divination Through Sleep (De
Divination per Somnum)[23,24].
Aristotle’s perspective in these essays is single-mind-
edly rationalistic. InOn Sleep and Waking[19] he iden-
tifies sleep and waking as diametrically opposed
phenomena characterized, respectively, by the absence
or presence of perception. Physiologically, Aristotle pos-
its, sleep and waking result from the disabling and acti-
vation of the body’s primary sense-organ, which
Aristotle took to be the heart. He describes how sleep
is induced by the ‘‘exhalations’’ of ingested foods which
thicken and heat the blood, rising to the brain where
they are cooled before coalescing in the heart. Similar
effects are ascribed to soporific agents, states of fatigue
and certain illnesses. Aristotle distinguishes sleep from
temporary incapacities of perception, such as fainting,
and describes sleep as a form of ‘‘seizure.’’
InOn Dreams[23] Aristotle suggests that dreams are
neither the work of ‘‘judgment’’ nor of perception in an
‘‘unqualified’’ way. Rather, dreams are the work of per-
ception, but only of its imagining (phantastikon) capac-
ity. While this distinction is somewhat vague,
Aristotle’s general meaning is that the appearances
(phantasamata) that characterize dreams are the result
of the perceptual mechanism being activated, but in
the absence of external stimulation. According to Aris-
totle, sensory stimulation in wakefulness produces
‘movements’ within the body (presumably in the blood-
stream) which persist for a time after the external stim-
ulation has ceased. Such persisting sense impressions
may give rise to delayed or false perceptions in wakeful-
ness, particularly in emotional states or illnesses (as in
illusions). It is these perceptual remnants that also give
rise to dreaming. As he states:
From the above it is plain that the movements arising
from sense impressions, both those coming from outside
and those from within the body, are present not only
when people are awake, but also whenever the affection
called sleep comes upon them, and that they are espe-
cially apparent at that time. For in the day-time, while
the senses and the intellect are functioning, they are
pushed aside or obscured, like a smaller fire next to a
larger one, or minor pains and pleasures next to big
ones, though when the latter cease, even the minor ones
come to the surface. By night, however, owing to the
inactivity of the special sense and their inability to func-
tion because of the reversed flow of heat from the outer
parts to the interior, they are carried inward to the start-
ing-point of perception, and become apparent as the dis-
turbance subsides[23, p. 97].
Dreams are thus, for Aristotle, the result of persistent
sense impressions traveling in the blood stream and acti-
vating perceptions in the heart. This activity occurs dur-
ing wakefulness, but is more apparent in sleep due to a
suspension of normal perception and judgment. The
variable turbulence of blood in sleep also accounts for
why dream ‘‘appearances’’ may at times be coherent
and akin to reality, while at other times are incomplete
and distorted. The suspension of judgment in sleep,
however, also results in the acceptance of such percep-
tual remnants as real, even in distorted form (an obser-
vation which finds its modern neurophysiologic basis in
the form of neuroimaging studies demonstrating
decreased frontal lobe functioning in REM sleep[25]).
Aristotle also makes a distinction between dreams,
proper and extraneous perceptual remnants occurring
in wake, in the process giving the earliest descriptions
of hypnopomic/hypnogogic hallucinations.
InOn Divination through Sleep[13], Aristotle firmly
rejects the traditional view of the divinatory power of
dreams. He explains away the foretelling of future
events based on dreams as mere coincidences. However,
Aristotle offers a few exceptions in which dreams may
hold some prognostic capacity. One such exception
occurs in cases where dreams act as early signs of med-
ical illness. The physical changes produced by such ill-
J. Barbera / Sleep Medicine 9 (2008) 906–910

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