By Philip Newman Lawton


The Montréal Review, February 2024



In dreams,” said Delmore Schwartz, “begin responsibilities.” This is nowhere truer than in the case of René Descartes (1596-1650), whose dreams committed him without reserve to the life of the mind.

For context, René Descartes was both an original thinker and a man of his times, the turbulent first half of the seventeenth century, when the Dutch carried on their fight to expel the Spanish, the Thirty Years’ War spread across the continent, and the Scientific Revolution challenged ecclesiastical authority.

Descartes’s mother died when he was an infant. His father, Joachim, a counselor to the Parliament of Bretagne, remarried and started a second family; René lived near Tours with his widowed maternal grandmother until the age of 10, when he entered the Jesuits’ École de la Flêche. He was, says John R. Cole, “an almost-orphan.” Nine years later he enrolled at the University of Poitiers, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a licentiate in civil and canon law. Unwilling to follow his distant father into a legal career, however, he provisionally settled upon what Desmond Clarke calls “the other standard path to social promotion in French life,” the respectable occupation of a gentleman army officer. He first enlisted in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau—Cole suggests he was rebelling against his father—but later joined the army of the Catholic League, and in September 1619 he attended the grand coronation of Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor in the Frankfurt cathedral.

Serving as an army officer was not to be his long-term profession. By living frugally on a modest inheritance from his mother, he enjoyed the freedom to travel where he would “in the great book of the world” and to devote himself to full-time scientific inquiry. “Thanks to God,” he wrote, “I did not at all feel myself of a condition which would oblige me to make a trade of science for the care of my fortune.” He became an amateur of science in the original French sense of the word, a lover, an enthusiast.

All the same, in his Méditations touchant la première philosophie, Descartes supposed he might be duped by an evil spirit. In the context of his systematic doubt, one might easily misconstrue the mauvais génie as a conceit introduced merely for the sake of argument. Yet, in seventeenth-century France it was popularly assumed that specters were ubiquitous. Clarke writes, “It was accepted without question that there were both good and evil spiritual forces at work in the world, and that the real issue was…to join the battle between good and evil on the side of God and his angelic legions.” Descartes was supremely interested in investigating natural phenomena, but he also assented to the reality of spiritual visitants, and here, too, he was in concert with the age.

The almost-orphan opened the first Méditation with a radical new departure:

It is already some time ago that I saw that, from my first years, I had accepted many false opinions for true ones, and that what I had since then founded on such ill-assured principles could only be strongly doubtful and uncertain; such that I would have to undertake seriously, once in my life, to undo all the opinions that I had taken into my belief since then, and to start anew from the foundations, if I wanted to establish something firm and constant in the sciences.

His project was heroic. For once and all, he would go back to the beginning, uproot his received opinions, and rebuild his knowledge on solid footing. He resolved, in effect, to take up his given name, to become René, Renatus, to be born again, and, this time around, to make no questionable assumptions and accept no dubious propositions.
In the second Méditation, Descartes recounted his discovery of a bedrock truth: I think, therefore I am. (Some historians of ideas date the start of the Enlightenment to the cogito.) Even if deceived, even if dreaming, I am a thing that thinks, I am a thinking thing. “What is a thing that thinks? It means a thing that doubts, that affirms, that denies, that wants, that does not want, that also imagines, and that feels.” In Discours de la méthode, he recalled the circumstances in which he had this fundamental insight:

I was then in Germany, where the occasion of the wars which are not yet over had called me; and, as I returned to the army from the coronation of the Emperor, the start of winter detained me in a place where, finding no conversation that diverted me, and having, by good luck, no cares or passions to trouble me, I spent the entire day in a room heated by a stove, where I had the leisure for sustained thinking.

While staying in that poêle in Germany, Descartes had three dreams so meaningful that he imagined they came from on high and so vivid that he wondered if he were awake. He recounted them in a 12-page manuscript entitled “Olympica.” Descartes took these dreams seriously, and, convinced that they were meaningful, he tried to make sense of their manifest content. Could they offer any insight into his path in life?

The manuscript is lost, but Adrian Baillet retailed Descartes’s narrative in his Vie de Monsieur Des Cartes (1691). In Baillet’s telling, the young Descartes—he was 23—had purged his intellect of preconceptions and undertaken the search for truth that would occupy the rest of his days. His mind abuzz, he retired for the night of November 10, 1619, in a state of enthusiasm. It is a wonder he could sleep at all.

In the first dream, Descartes was walking on the street when there appeared some phantoms who so terrified him that, sensing weakness on his right side, he lurched to the left. Embarrassed, he tried to correct himself, but a whirlwind spun him around on his left foot three or four times. He wanted to reach the chapel of a school and pray. He thought he would fall with every step. Realizing he had passed an acquaintance, he turned back to greet him, but the wind violently pushed him toward the chapel. A person in the school’s courtyard called him by name and said that, if he wanted to find Monsieur N., he had something to give him. Descartes imagined it was a melon from another country. While the wind continued to buffet him, he noticed that those who came together around the man in the courtyard were standing in stillness. He woke up and felt a pain that made him genuinely fear it was the operation of some evil spirit, quelque mauvais génie, who wanted to trick him. He turned onto his right side. He prayed to God to be safeguarded from any bad effect of his dream and preserved from all the misfortunes that might threaten him in punishment for his sins.

Baillet says Descartes took this dream and the next one for “menacing admonitions touching upon his past life, which may not have been as innocent before God as before men.” Although his conduct appears blameless, his need to beseech forgiveness may be rather more specific than the free-floating sense of guilt to which all Catholics are subject. The melon in the first dream, he said, “signified the charms of solitude”—and, by implication, privacy—but it was “presented as a purely human enticement” (that is, unlike other elements in this dream, the round, firm fruit was not a sign from heaven). In a 1929 letter to Maxime Leroy, Freud commented, “If it [the melon] is correlated with his state of sin, this association [with solitude] might stand for a sexual picture which occupied the lonely young man’s imagination.” The designation Monsieur N., that is, Monsieur [Name], is a convention signifying that Descartes knows but declines to identify the man who offers the melon. He attributes the wind to an evil spirit who would, oddly, force him in the direction he himself wanted to go, that is, to church. He has nothing to say about the linguistically rich interplay between left and right, le gauche, the sinister and ungainly, and le droit, the dexterous, the graceful, and, of course, the law.

Only after two hours of wakefulness did Descartes fall asleep again. A second dream came to him. He heard a sharp noise that he took for a clap of thunder. He woke up in fright and saw sparks of fire throughout the bedchamber. He opened and closed his eyes, perceived the room clearly, and, thus reassured, calmly went back to sleep.

Descartes neither attributed the detonation to a poltergeist nor sought a scientific explanation of the event (it was scarcely a dream). His interpretation, according to Baillet, was that the terror he experienced “marked, to his mind, his synderesis, that is, the remorse of his conscience with regard to the sins that he might have committed over the course of his life to that point.” In scholasticism, as Descartes would have known, synderesis or synteresis is a person’s ingrained knowledge of universal moral principles. Baillet continues, “The lightning whose flash he heard was a sign of the Spirit of Truth which descended on him to possess him.”

Sleep researcher A.I. Otaiku suggests that Descartes, on this occasion, suffered an episode of exploding head syndrome (EHS), a phenomenon that was classified only in this century. One theory holds that EHS results from a paroxysm of neuronal activity in auditory and visual regions of the brain during the transition from consciousness to sleep. “If so,” Otaiku concludes, “EHS may represent a sensory variant of hypnic jerks.” In any case, the startling report sounded only once, blinking chased the sparks away, and he “calmly went back to sleep.” It is not clear whether calmly was originally Descartes’s word—it seems complacent, but he was, after all, intrepid, an officer, a traveler—or one of Baillet’s interpolations.

A moment later, he had a third dream. A book, which proved to be a dictionary, unaccountably appeared on his table. He was delighted, but before he got it open another volume, this one the Corpus Poetarum, materialized in his hand. He stumbled on Ausonius’s verse, Quod vitae sectabor iter? (What Path Shall I Follow in Life?) He tried to show an unidentified man another poem, “Est & Non” (It Is and Is Not), but he was unable to find it in the anthology. Flipping the pages, he came across some small portraits. He was in the middle of explaining that he did not know how he came into possession of the book of poems when it disappeared. Once more he saw the first volume on the table, but this time the dictionary was incomplete. He realized he was dreaming, and, while still asleep, interpreted his dream: the dictionary represented the sciences; the poetry collection meant philosophy and wisdom united, the divinity of enthusiasm and the force of imagination jointly producing the seeds of sagacity found in all men like the sparks of fire in flintstones. He judged that the verse about the uncertainty surrounding the choice of a career was the counsel of a wise person, or even Moral Theology. 

Eyes open, fully awake, Descartes continued to think about the third dream. By the collected poets he understood revelation and enthusiasm, “of whose favor he did not despair.” Associating “Est & Non” with the Pythagoreans’ yes and no, he thought the verse referred to truth and falsity in human knowledge and the secular sciences, and “he was daring enough to persuade himself that the Spirit of Truth wanted, by this dream, to open to him the treasures of all these sciences.” According to Descartes, this last dream “marked the future;” it had to do with “what should happen to him in the rest of his life.” He gave no further thought to the miniature portraits after an Italian painter visited him the next day.

That upon its second appearance the dictionary was incomplete is a meaningful detail. It signifies that science itself is unfinished, there are phenomena to be observed and explained, knowledge to be acquired and transmitted, a life’s work to be accomplished.

Many years later, Descartes would offer a different account of his career choice, a prosaic version, no dreams, metaphors, poetry. It is almost certainly confabulation, but, as the fourth and final step of the provisional ethics set forth in Discours de la méthode, he claimed to have conducted a review of men’s occupations in life so as to select the best one. He concluded, “I thought that I could do no better than to continue in the same occupation where I found myself, that is, to spend all my life in cultivating my reason and to advance as far as I could in knowledge of the truth, following the method that I had prescribed for myself.”

Descartes’s resolution may have originated in the sober deliberation that he professes to remember. More likely, however, it emerged in a series of dreams on a winter night. From his ensuing commitment to the life of the mind came all the philosophical insights, scientific discoveries, and mathematical advances that he would set forth in his published works and private correspondence. Lewis S. Feuer ventured, “Modern philosophy, we might say, was born during the night of Descartes’ three dreams.” If so, the Age of Reason dawned with the visions that troubled his sleep.


Philip Newman Lawton is a former investment professional with major insurance companies and international banks. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium), an MBA in finance from Northeastern University (Boston), and a graduate certificate in international economic relations from American University (Washington, DC). His work has appeared in numerous academic journals and literary magazines.



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