On Dreams

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On Dreams
by Thomas Browne
Source Collected Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkin pub. Fletcher and Son Norwich 1835-36


Half our dayes wee passe in the shadowe of the earth, and the brother of death exacteth a third part of our lives. A good part of our sleepes is peeced out with visions, and phantasticall objects wherin wee are confessedly deceaved. The day supplyeth us with truths, the night with fictions and falsehoods, which uncomfortably divide the natural account of our beings. And therefore having passed the day in sober labours and rationall enquiries of truth, wee are fayne to betake ourselves unto such a state of being, wherin the soberest heads have acted all the monstrosities of melancholy, and which unto open eyes are no better then folly and madnesse.

Happy are they that go to bed with grave musick like Pythagoras, or have wayes to compose the phantasticall spirit, whose unrulie wandrings takes of inward sleepe, filling our heads with St. Anthonies visions, and the dreams of Lipara in the sober chambers of rest.Virtuous thoughts of the day laye up good treasors for the night, whereby the impressions on imaginarie formes arise into sober similitudes, acceptable unto our slumbring selves, and preparatory unto divine impressions: hereby Solomons sleepe was happy. Thus prepared Jacob might well dreame of Angells upon a pillowe of stone, and the first sleepe of Adam might bee the best any after.

That there should bee divine dreames seemes unreasonably doubted by Aristotle. That there are demonicall dreames wee have little reason to doubt. Why may there not bee Angelicall?If there bee Guardian spirits, they may not bee unactively about us in sleepe, butt may sometimes order our dreames, and many strange hints, instigations, or discoveries which are so amazing unto us, may arise from such foundations. Butt the phantasms of sleepe do commonly walk in the great roade of naturall & animal dreames; wherin the thoughts or actions of the day are acted over and echoed in the night. Who can therefore wonder that Chrysostome should dreame of St. Paul who dayly read his Epistles; or that Cardan whose head was so taken up about the starres should dream that his soul was in the moone! Pious persons whose thoughts are dayly busied about heaven & the blessed state therof, can hardly escape the nightly phantasms of it, which though sometimes taken for illuminations or divine dreames, yet rightly perpended may prove butt animal visions and naturall night scenes of their waking contemplations.

Many dreames are made out by sagacious exposition from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamentall sence & mysterie of similitude, whereby hee that understands upon what naturall fundamentall every notionall dependeth, may by sumbolicall adaptation hold a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus. In dreames of such a nature Artemidorus, Achmet, and Astrampsychus, from Greek, Egyptian, and Arabian oneirocriticisme, may hint some interpretation, who, while wee read of a ladder in Jacobs dreame, will tell us that ladders and scalarie ascents signifie preferment, &while wee consider the dreame of Pharaoh, do teach us, that rivers overflowing speake plenty, leane oxen famin and scarcitie, and therefore it was butt reasonable in Pharaoh to demand the interpretation from his magitians, who being Egyptians, should have been well versed in symbols & the hieroglyphicall notions of things. The greatest tyrant in such divinations was Nabuchodonosor, while beside the interpretation hee demanded the dreame itself; which being probably determin’d by divine immission, might escape the common roade of phantasms, that might have been traced by Satan.

When Alexander going to beseidge Tyre dreampt of a Satyre, it was no hard exposition for a Grecian to say, Tyre will bee thine. Hee that dreamed that he sawe his father washed by Jupiter and annoynted by the sunne, had cause to feare that hee might be crucified, whereby his body would bee washed by the rayne & drop by the heat of the sunne. The dreame of Vespasian was of harder exposition, as also that of the Emperour Mauritius concerning his successor Phocas. And a man might have been hard putt to it to interpret the languadge of Aesculapius, when to a consumptive person hee held forth his fingers, implying thereby that his cure laye in dates, from the homonomie of the Greeck which signifies dates & fingers. Wee owe unto dreames that Galen was a physitian, Dion an historian, and that the world hath seen some notable peeces of Cardan , yet hee that should order his affayres by dreames, or make the night rule unto the day, might be ridiculously deluded. Wherin Cicero is much to be pittied; who having excellently discoursed of the vanitie of dreames, was yet undone by the flatterie of his owne, which urged him to apply himself unto Augustus.

However dreames may bee fallacious concerning outward events, yet may they bee truly significant at home, & whereby wee may more sensibly understand ourselves. Men act in sleepe with some conformity unto their awaked senses, & consolations or discoureagments may bee drawne from dreames, which intimately tell us ourselves. Luther was not like to feare a spirit in the night, when such an apparition would not terrifie him in the daye. Alexander would hardly have runne away in the sharpest combates of sleepe, nor Demosthenes have stood stoutly to it, who was scarce able to do it in his prepared senses. Persons of radicall integritie will not easily bee perverted in their dreames, nor noble minds pitifully things in sleepe. Crassus would have hardly been bountifull in a dreame, whose fist was so close awake. Butt a man might have lived all his life upon the sleeping hand of Antonius.

There is an Art to make dreames as well as their interpretations, and physitians will tell us that some food makes turbulent, some gives quiet dreames. Cato who doated upon cabbadge might find the crude effects thereof in his sleepe; wherein the Egyptians might find some advantage by their superstitious abstinence from onions. Pythagoras might have more calmer sleepes if hee totally abstained from beanes. Even Daniel, that great interpreter of dreames, in his leguminous dyet seeemes to have chosen no advantageous food for quiet sleepes according to Graecian physick.To adde unto the delusion of dreames, the phantasticall objects seeme greater then they are, and being beheld in the vaporous state of sleepe, enlarge their diameters unto us; whereby it may prove more easie to dreame of Gyants then pygmies. Democritus might seldome of Atomes, who so often thought of them.

Helmont might dreame himself a bubble extending unto the eigth sphere. A little water makes a sea, a small puff of wind a Tempest, a graine of sulphur kindled in the blood may make a flame like Etna , and a small spark in the bowels of Olympias a lightning over all the chamber.Butt beside these innocent delusions there is a sinfull state of dreames; death alone, not sleepe is able to putt an end unto sinne, & there may bee a night booke of our Iniquities; for beside the trangressions of the day, casuists will tell us of mortall sinnes in dreames arising from evil precogitations; meanwhile human lawe regards not noctambulos; and if a night walker should breacke his neck, or kill a man, takes no notice of it.Dionysius was absurdly tyrannicall to kill a man for dreaming that hee had killed him, and really to take away his life who had butt fantastically taken away his. Lamia was ridiculously unjust to sue a yong man for a reward, who had confessed that pleasure from her in a dreame, wch shee had denyed unto his awaking senses, conceaving that shee had merited somewhat from his phantasticall fruition & shadowe of herself.

If there bee such debts, wee owe deeply unto sympathies, butt the common spirit of the world must be judg in such arreareges.If some have swounded they may have also dyed in dreames since death is butt a confirmed swounding. Whether Plato dyed in a dreame, as some deliver, he must rise agayne to informe us. That some have never dreamed is as improbable as that some have never laughed. That children dreame not the first half yeare, that men dreame not in some countries, with many more, are unto me sick mens dreames, dreames out of the Ivorie gate, and visions before midnight.

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This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.