Thursday, June 1, 2023

News from the Time of Queen Anne: In Dreams the Soul Plays Freely Beyond the Body

The great English essayist Joseph Addison, co-founder of The Spectator, published a 1,500 word piece on dreams in issue number 482 of his magazine in September 18, 1712. It remains one of the cleverest - and liveliest - accounts of what goes on in dreaming that you are likely to find. 

He starts with a Latin tag from Petronius, suggesting that when the body is prostrate in sleep "the mind plays with no weight upon it". Then he breezily observes that most authors who have written on dreams "have generally considered them only as Revelations of what has already happened in distant parts of the World, or as Presages of what is to happen in future Periods of time". The last bit might startle modern readers since our psychology fairly consistently ignores how dreams routinely show us the future. Addison makes it clear later on that he does not dismiss the divinatory aspect of dreaming, far from it. He wants to waste no time impressing on his readers some things he considers even more important.

Dreams, he tells us, demonstrate "the great Excellency of an Human Soul" and give "some Intimation of its Independency on Matter". 

Dreams Are Relaxations and Amusements of the Soul

"In the First Place, our Dreams are great Instances of that Activity which is natural to the human Soul, and which it is not in the power of Sleep to deaden or abate. When the Man appears tired and worn out with the Labours of the Day, this active part in his Composition is still busied and unwearied.

"When the Organs of Sense want their due Repose and necessary Reparations, and the Body is no longer able to keep pace with that spiritual Substance to which it is united, the Soul exerts her self in her several Faculties, and continues in Action till her Partner is again qualified to bear her Company. In this case Dreams look like the Relaxations and Amusements of the Soul, when she is disencumbered of her Machine, her Sports and Recreations, when she has laid her Charge asleep...

"In the Second Place, Dreams are an Instance of that Agility and Perfection which is natural to the Faculties of the Mind, when they are disengaged from the Body. The Soul is clogged and retarded in her Operations, when she acts in Conjunction with a Companion that is so heavy and unwieldy in its Motions. 

"But in Dreams it is wonderful to observe with what a Sprightliness and Alacrity she exerts her self. The slow of Speech make unpremeditated Harangues, or converse readily in Languages that they are but little acquainted with. The Grave abound in Pleasantries, the Dull in Repartees and Points of Wit. There is not a more painful Action of the Mind, than Invention; yet in Dreams it works with that Ease and Activity, that we are not sensible when the Faculty is employed. For instance, I believe every one, some time or other, dreams that he is reading Papers, Books, or Letters; in which case the Invention prompts so readily, that the Mind is imposed upon, and mistakes its own Suggestions for the Compositions of another."

Portrait of Joseph Addison by Sir Godfrey Kneller c.1712

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