On the eve of St Martin’s day, Nov 10 1619, Descartes claims to have gone to bed sober but filled with enthusiasm about having that day found the kernel of what was to become his mathesis universalis, a general method of escaping error. He then reports having a series of three dreams, which he wrote down and interpreted in a manuscript titled, cryptically, Olympica — which he did not publish but which was found among his personal affects at the end of his life. Clearly it had some importance to him, to have been kept that long.
To understand these dreams, we need to read Ausonius’ triad of Pythagorean poems: Quod vitae sectabor iter, Vir bonus et sapiens, and Est et non cuncti monosyllaba nota frequetent — two of which are alluded to in the third dream. They form a clear progression which gives sense to Descartes’ three dreams, as well as their interpretations by him.
The main theme is deliverance from ‘the repentance and remorse of weak minds’: the first poem is about the notion that all choice is error, i.e. that one can be in the wrong no matter what one does, and the first dream is about the haunting fear of being driven about by evil and to evil regardless of one’s conscious intentions; the second poem outlines the notion of the good man, clearly as embraced by Descartes, as one who takes hold of his fate by reflection, and the second dream is a highly compressed allegory for synderesis, i.e. the sparks of conscience (scintilla conscientae), to which Descartes responds with recourse to philosophy; the third poem is a mocking repudiation of the disputatious or dogmatic attitude, which forces wise men to bite their tongues or else split very fine hairs in order to avoid being contravened even over the most obvious things, and the third dream is a tranquil allegory for all of this — indicating that the kind of life Descartes must take, in light of the situation of the first poem, is that of the good man of the second poem, who thereby speaks the truth in the manner indicated in the third poem. That is, he will enter the world of ‘yes and no’, to show the way in which we might live good lives and escape the double-binds of guilty conscience and become free.
An important bit of context for the second dream is that the phrase scintilla conscientae is a commonplace from St Jerome’s commentary on Ezekiel, which is all about synderesis or the common knowledge which forms the basis of conscience. It is quite plausible that Descartes would have this symbolism imprinted in his imagination from his Jesuitical education, and if we postulate that this is the origin of the ‘sparks’ of the second dream, which he first attributes (when dreaming) to the fire and then (on waking) attributes to a physiological effect in his eyes, thereby assuaging his terror, the import of the allegory is clear: philosophy provides the means to assuage irrational doubts and terrors of conscience.
It also helps to know that in the early 17th century there was already a well-established literature surrounding the interpretation of dreams, Macrobius being the principal author but encompassing many texts with which a well-read person might presumably have been familiar — and the very fact that Descartes went to the trouble of writing down and interpreting these dreams suggests that he was thus familiar. There is precedent for this: Gerolamo Cardano and J.B. von Helmont wrote similar dream interpretations, the template for which is provided by Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and the interpretative scheme for which is supplied by Macrobius’ Commentary theron, which was one of the classics.
As to the specific contents of the dream, the Corpus Poeticum of the third dream was in fact a real book which had editions of 1603 and 1611, and we have no reason not to credit Descartes’ statement that he knows the book very well. The ‘Dictionary’ was very probably the Lexicon of Goclenius, a standard reference text published in Latin in 1613 and widely available both in the Netherlands when Descartes had visited the previous year and in Germany where he was staying at the time of the dreams. What makes it a good fit is that 1) it is an iconic contemporary text explaining all the technical terms of the extant sciences, an ideal symbol for higher learning; and 2) it is the only such text to contain a (mis)quotation of Ausonius right at the head of its opening dedicatory letter. On the hypothesis that Descartes had perused the book not to long ago, the subliminal association would be strong enough to put both books on the same table in the third dream. Indeed, since Goclenius Lexicon is something of a handbook of scholasticism, it makes it easier to understand how in Descartes’ mind it would have been opposed and inferior to the ‘wisdom and philosophy’ he attributes to the book of poetry.
Much has been made of the ‘melon’ that Descartes thinks Monsieur N wants to give him, but by far the most plausible candidate for explaining it is that Descartes’ unconscious is simply punning in Greek: proficiency in Greek and close study of several Greek works were part of the Jesuit curriculum in Descartes’ formative years, and ‘ou mallon’, with which the French ‘un melon’ would be homophonic, is Greek for ‘no more’, in the sense of ‘no more this than that’. ‘Ou mallon’ is in fact a key and oft-used catchphrase in the writings of Sextus Empiricus, in which it is explained as a skeptical tag used to indicate that something ‘no more is than is not’, i.e. that our evidence for it is insufficient to warrant either affirmation or denial; this interpretation would make the melon an iconic foreshadowing of the matter of the third dream, which is all about ‘is and not’. This is a long noted pattern in dream analysis: incongruous yet highly significant details in an earlier dream return in increasingly explicit forms in subsequent dreams, becoming less ambiguous and more intelligible as the analysis progresses.
However, given the typical overdetermination of dream symbols, it may or may not be worth dwelling on the sphericity of melons as also significant, which would draw our attention to a further resonance with the second poem, wherein the good man ‘is like the globe of the world, rounded and contained within himself.’ Furthermore, given that at this stage Descartes did already harbor ambitions to come up with a ‘system of the world’, if the melon is a stand-in for the globe, then the strange fruit from a foreign land could well be an intimation of the ambition whose fruit was to be Le Monde. It is a stretch, but oneiromancy licenses such things; if we allow this, then the absent Monsieur N. is quite obviously Isaac Beeckman, who Descartes had first met exactly one year prior to the date of the dreams, an event which we know had made a large impression on the young man, and thus Beeckman quite plausibly would have been on his mind on the anniversary of their encounter. However, it does sit in some tension with the aforementioned Greek pun: the one a symbol of skepticism, the other of science.
The fact that the poems around which the third dream revolves are precisely the only ones in the collection of Ausonius that are called by him ‘Pythagorean’ is also noteworthy, once one realizes that at the time the doctrine of heliocentrism was referred to by both its proponents and opponents as the ‘Pythagorean doctrine’, the followers of Pythagoras having been the first to explain the apparent motion of the heavens by the real motion of the Earth. Given that this would have been the period where Descartes’ conversion to mathematical science was coming into full flower following his first stay in Holland and tutelage under Beeckman, and that following the Holy Office’s Decree of 1616 that books teaching this ‘false Pythagorean doctrine’ were to be ‘suspended pending correction’, he would have been in precisely the sort of bind that makes for fruitful dreams: the Church’s position would have forced him to choose between his faith and his science, and the dreams dumbly indicate a solution to this conflict.
The central phenomenon here, described in the first poem and reenacted in Descartes’ dreams, is the realization, abrupt and shocking as a thunderclap, that ‘there is no escape, and no right answer’. It is the experience of being in a double-bind, ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. It is a repeatable experience, and a modern instance is poetically documented by J.V. Cunningham; if left untranscended, it is a fundamental source of pessimism. But Descartes finds a way out, adumbrated by the third poem: to delicately navigate the world of ‘is and not’, in other words to carefully carve out a third way between open conflict with the Church and dishonesty, by carefully restricting his public pronouncements only to what he could defend unimpeachably. The invisible axis of symmetry about which the third dream revolves is the second poem, bracketed by the explicit mention of the first and third: it is Descartes’ desire to take the path of the good and wise man, who is careful and critical in all he does, saying only what he must and examining all else in the silence and freedom of his own thoughts.
This is all highly conjectural, but it is suggestive in light of Discourse III and the main thrust of Descartes’ method: it is a way of silencing irrational doubt about the basic rightness of one’s thoughts and actions, which dogs one like an evil demon.
Alice Browne, ‘Descartes’ Dreams’
Philip DeLacy, ‘Ou Mallon and the Antecedents of Skepticism’
Douglas Kries, ‘Origen, Plato and Conscience (Synderesis) in Jerome’s Ezekiel Commentary’
H.G. Evelyn-White, Ausonius, with an English Translation