350 BC
by Aristotle
translated by J. I. Beare

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 coincidence do not
occur according to any universal or general law.


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 toms and weather-signs, e.g. those of train 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 he 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 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
The most skilful 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. Skilful, 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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