Victory Nuovo on Lucretius: Dreaming and waking, doubt and certainty

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of essays on Lucretius, an early philosopher who provides a link to “lost classics” through his epic poem “On the Nature of Things.”
The French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) is commonly styled “the father of modern philosophy.” This has become an academic cliché. It is mistaken, and should be forgotten. If anyone deserves the title, it is Francis Bacon (1561–1626), for he championed the inseparable link between philosophy and the study of nature, whereas Descartes unwittingly caused their separation.
Then again, modern philosophy, which began during the 17th century in Europe, has had many progenitors, fathers and mothers. Among the latter, special mention should go to Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1663), who fashioned a materialist system of reality, and to Damaris, Lady Masham (1659–1708). She was the daughter of Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), a Cambridge philosopher, who created a modern system of Platonism.
By her own admission, she was not a Platonist, although, in 1682, she and John Locke became Platonic lovers and philosophical confidants, and the affair continued until he died, on Oct. 28, 1704. She was with him at the time, sitting by his side, reading to him from the Psalms. Her philosophical writings, especially her correspondence, reveals a mind acute and powerful, or, as one commentator has described it, “wickedly critical.” Her published works, which appeared anonymously, were attributed to Locke, for there were affinities of style and content between them, although it could as well be said that his writings resemble hers just as much as hers did his. Influence among intimates works both ways. But I digress.
Descartes, in his most widely read work, Meditations on First Philosophy, contended that one should not begin to philosophize without first abandoning all doubtful beliefs. Because this would be an unending task to examine every belief, he advised classifying them according to type and seeking for each class a reason for doubt. It was he who made as a staple of modern philosophy the argument that because the senses sometimes deceive us, we ought not trust the senses, and, therefore, all beliefs founded on sensory perception must be classed as doubtful.
The same applies to waking and dreaming. Descartes observed that sometimes when dreaming, we are tricked into believing that we are awake. But, according to his method of doubt, if whilst dreaming, I dream I am awake, then all waking beliefs should be set aside as doubtful.
When he wrote these things, Descartes probably had Lucretius in mind. The examples he gives are drawn from Lucretius’ text, although their meaning is inverted, if not subverted. I discussed sensory knowledge in the previous essay. Now, I turn to Lucretius’ account of dreaming.
First, one must recall that Lucretius was a consistent materialist. Not only are mind and soul material things, but so also are ideas, thoughts, images, flitting about in space, entering the mind, unseen, through pores of the body. Everything is constantly casting off films of its material substance, sometimes in the form of a subtle image of itself. In this fragile state they move about among a multitude of other images, colliding, losing parts and gaining others, so that the atmosphere becomes filled with images of strange and impossible creatures. Unseen, because they are extremely subtle, they enter the imagination and become the subjects of fantasies, dreams, and delusions, and, sometimes, great painting and literature.
Mirrors and puddles receive their images as films, too subtle to see, that cross the distance from objects on wings of light or propelled by the wind. The waking mind is free to think about whatever it pleases; yet its thoughts are nonetheless material events. How this all occurs, where images reside when we are not thinking them, Lucretius does not pretend to know. How the mind chooses its thoughts at will from among images that float in and out of consciousness remains an unsolved problem still today. It is just another aspect of the spontaneity of thinking, which we all experience many times a day.
When an animal sleeps, its senses shut down, the body is senseless, “our whole body lies in profound quietness,” yet “in the blind darkness of night, we think we see the sun, and the light of day, and we seem to exchange our narrow room for sky and sea, rivers, and mountains … to utter speech while saying nothing.” In dreams, we are ghosts of ourselves, strangely incorporeal, deprived of the physical reality of waking consciousness that only the senses provide. Every night, as we dream, we become ghosts. See for yourself.
To be sure, dreams sometimes activate the body. Lucretius was an observer of animals, of horses and hounds, obviously dreaming of the race or the hunt, their limbs moving, snorting and yelping, as thought called to action, and of the dreaming of youths in puberty, longing for satisfaction. It is as though the mind, without the senses, has no way to control its mental activity. We are only delivered from nightmares by waking.
Now from all of this, Lucretius would have us draw a difficult conclusion. Dreaming is not unlike waking thought, nor are mirages unlike the real things of which they are counterfeit. There is no silver bullet, like Descartes’ hackneyed “Cogito, ergo sum,” “Je pense, donc je suis,” “I think, therefore I am,” which he supposed would bring us home free in the hide-and-seek of conscious existence.
There is only attentiveness. Anyone who supposes that the senses are not to be trusted, because they sometimes deceive us, should attend to those moments when the objects before us are perfectly evident, or if you worry about being in a dream and not knowing it, then pay attention to your dreaming, and to your waking. The differences are subtle but real. Sentient beings have worked their way up the ladder of being by just such attentiveness.
Our difficulties with doubt and certainty are evidence to Lucretius that we are jerry-built creatures. In his discussion of dreaming and waking, he observes, anticipating Darwin, that our senses and our minds were not fashioned for certainty in everything. In fact, they evolved for no particular purpose, but we adapted them to our developing needs and purposes, and our species survived.
Whether waking and dreaming, we human animals have made remarkable use of them, most efficiently in the useful arts and crafts, in medicine, surgery, cabinet making, in fine art and poetry, in laws of civil society, and in such sublime ideas as truth, beauty, goodness, and justice, and by employing them we have filled a storehouse of fantasies to entertain and console us. But, we must not forget, the fertile human mind is also the source of the most monstrous evil and destructive fantasies.
Postscript: All that I have written in the last two essays are based upon the fourth Book of De Rerum Natura. There is more that I have not mentioned, in particular, Lucretius’ thoughts on romantic love, when concludes Book IV. It’s worth reading.

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