Imagine a cold November night in 1619. You are a soldier for the Dutch Army during the 30 Years War and stationed in Bavaria. To stay warm, you decide to crawl into an oven. While in there, you receive three visions from God about the underlying truths of the universe. You then write some of the most prominent philosophical texts the world has ever seen and are considered the founding person of rationalism and reason.
Philosophers tell this story about the famous French philosopher Rene Descartes. However, how much of it is just that – a story? With a long and complicated history, there is significant controversy over the factual accuracy of the story. This blogpost explores the legend, the impact it is claimed to have had on Descartes’s work, the evidence we have for the legend and the controversies around the story.
What is the Legend of Descartes Sleeping in an Oven?
In his early life, Descartes focused on becoming a lawyer like his father. However, he never actually became one. Descartes felt disillusioned with education (students may relate to this). He wanted to experience something new so, as part of the ultimate gap year, he decided to join the Dutch army as a volunteer to travel the world.
Descartes enlisted during the 30 Years War and he was stationed in Bavaria. On November 10th, 1619 (Saint Martin’s Eve), he spent a night either in an oven or in a room with an oven to escape the cold. During this night, Descartes experienced three dreams or visions.
What were Descartes’s Three Dreams?
In the first perception, Descartes struggled through desperately blowy winds. A person walked past him and acknowledged Descartes but Descartes was distracted by the appearance of a church he knew from his college days. After regaining focus, he then tried to return to the person but the wind blew him towards the church forcibly so he couldn’t seek the person out. Everyone around him seemed unimpacted by the wind. At the church, he met someone he knew. The person gave him a melon and the wind stopped, leading to Descartes waking up.
During the second dream, Descartes believed that the storm of the first dream had returned. The room faded, there was a sudden bang and his head ached. The room then was filled with sparkles before he woke up again.
The final dream consisted of Descartes picking up an encyclopedia and discovering that there was a book of poems inside. One of these poems was Idyll XV by the Roman Poet Ausonius with the first line translating into ‘What road shall I follow in this life?’ An unknown person also presented him with a different poetic verse of Ausonius called ‘Est Et Non.’ The unknown person and the poems disappeared and Descartes was left with an incomplete encyclopaedia as he woke up.
Descartes’s Interpretation of the Three Dreams
It was alleged that Descartes interpreted these dreams in a specific manner. The wind in the first dream represented an evil spirit and that Descartes needed to find unshakable truth. Being pushed towards the church, on the other hand, was God making sure that Descartes fulfilled his destiny. The lightning in the second dream was the truth and reason that came to possess him on that evening and how clear it could be. The encyclopedia in the final dream represented the need to apply scientific methodology to the sciences. Finally, the dreams presented an answer to what Descartes was meant to do with his life; he was meant to unite all of the sciences into one.
What Impact Did Descartes’s Three Dreams Have on Him?
The dreams are said to have an inspirational effect on Descartes. It has been argued that Descartes believed that these were visions presented to him by God. He promised to go on a pilgrimage to Italy as he wanted to write all of these down into a manuscript. The piece he ended up writing in the 1620s was called the Olympica and is said to have described the dreams. However, it is also claimed that Descartes changed his mind and wanted to wait until he had more experience until he wrote the manuscripts. The truths from these dreams were thus explored in Descartes’s Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. The Discourse on the Method goes as far as to mention the night when Descartes received these perceptions.
If the story is true, they had a clear influence on Descartes’s philosophy. Descartes sought to seek unshakable knowledge that could not be doubted. This was to provide a foundation so that knowledge could analytically be built in the same way that mathematical truths could be. Consequently, he developed a method of doubt to find something that was undoubtable. To illustrate this, Descartes used the thought experiment of an evil demon trying to deceive him. He thought that maybe all of our perceptual experiences were just hallucinations produced by this evil demon. With this method, Descartes reached the Cogito – I think, therefore I am. This is the idea that, despite the extensive amount of knowledge we can doubt, we cannot doubt that we exist due to our conscious state.
Why are Descartes’s Dreams So Important?
Descartes is considered one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy within the traditional philosophical canon and one of the most prominent figures in the study of rationalism – a philosophical methodology that relies only on reason to gain knowledge rather than experience or feeling.
What Evidence is There for Descartes’s Dreams?
It is easy to see why the story of the visions appeals to people. However, is there any evidence that these visions occurred?
There is a Lack of Direct Evidence for Descartes’s Dreams
As stated previously, Descartes wrote about these perceptions in the Olympica in 1920 which he wrote in a secret notebook that he had at the time. Upon Descartes’s death, these papers were handed over to a publisher for possible publication. Unfortunately, these documents were not published and eventually lost.
The only other mention of that specific night that Descartes makes is within the Discourse on the Method. He mentions that he spent the entire day in an oven or an oven room. However, he does not make a reference to the dreams. Rather he phrases it in a way that it is an exploration of thought rather than a vision that he received.
The Indirect Evidence for Descartes’s Dreams
Besides Descartes, only two individuals are known to have seen the documents. The first person was Adrien Baillet, a historian who wrote a bibliography on Descartes’s life. It is his book, The Life of Monsieur Descartes that provides the story of the visions that we know today.
The other source is from Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz made a copy of some parts of the notebook and kept it in his private collection. This was also thought to have been lost until their rediscovery and interpretation by Alexander Foucher de Careil in the Royal Library of Handover in 1859 who provided a French translation of the Latin. This version was very brief and unlikely a copy of the entire thing.
What Debates Are There Around Descartes’s Dreams?
With the problems in tracking down the original source, it is no surprise that there is significant debate around the accuracy of the story. In fact, it is only the starting point. Here are further queries historians and philosophers have:
The Sources Have Had Translation Difficulties
There have been translation difficulties with the remains of the text. The original text was written in Latin and thus required both Latin-to-French and French-to-English translations. Particular focus has been made on the translation of ‘oven.’ Some have held that Descartes slept in a literal oven. However, what is more likely is Descartes slept in a room with an oven in it, as this was common at the time.
Another smaller interpretation point is whether Descartes was given a melon or an apple. Some hold that it is more likely he was given an apple rather than a melon, as it is more in line with the Latin meanings. If so, the interpretations of the dreams that Descartes presents become fuzzier.
There Are Alternative Explanations for Descartes’s Dreams
If we accept Baillet’s retelling of events, then Descartes believed that these revelations were directly sent from God. However, few people nowadays would believe that what Descartes experienced was a result of a revelation sent from God. Alternative explanations have been sought.
One theory held by Pierre Daniel Huet and others is that the dreams were likely the result of something that Descartes had consumed (such as alcohol or tobacco). It is noted in Baillet’s text that, at the time, November 10th was the Eve of Saint Martin. This was a time where the soldiers were known to drink too much. As a result, the visions could have been the result of Descartes being drunk. Nonetheless, Baillet’s text adamantly argues that Descartes had not consumed any alcohol that evening.
A theory has also been posed that Descartes suffered from some kind of migraine disorder. This is particularly reflected in the second dream, where he closely describes sensations that would be associated with migraine with aura. He is also thought to have had a sinus tumour that could have produced hallucinations. However, hallucinations occurring as part of migraine are rare and the kind of tumour would make it unlikely that Descartes would see hallucinations as a result of one.
The Dreams are Inconsistent with Descartes’s Later Philosophies
One of the largest controversies is trying to reconcile the tale with Descartes’s philosophies. Later in his career, Descartes rejected the value of dreams and imagination as an authentic source of knowledge in his work as it was not compatible with his rationalistic approach. Even within the Discourse on the Method, Descartes does not mention the dreams but merely states that he had revelations on the night in question. Thus, historians have been suspicious of whether these dreams genuinely occurred. Even Leibniz, who must have seen the original diary himself, treated the dreams with significant suspicions and is thought to have only written a shortened version of the notes of the Olympica. The only person who really embraced these dreams seems to be Baillet, which will be discussed in the next section.
It should be noted though that the inconsistency between Descartes’s rationalism and his receiving a vision from God is not surprising. Descartes was a staunch religious believer who used his method to argue for the existence of God. While it may not be philosophically consistent, for him to break rationalism and to claim he received knowledge in a vision from God is unsurprising.
The Stories of Descartes’s Dreams Could Have Been Invented for Other Reasons
The final theory that is going to be explored is whether Baillet merely invented the dreams or exaggerated the scenario as a literary technique. It has been noted that the three dreams fit very nicely with the three core tenants of Descartes’s philosophy – applying the scientific method to philosophy, his method of doubt and his need to find the absolute truth. It is possible that either Baillet or Descartes himself merely exaggerated the tales in order to create a better narrative around Descartes’s life.
This would seem true to some level – it would be easy to change ideas that Descartes had to visions from God and there would be an understandable motivation for this. Maybe Descartes merely had dreams about these ideas or he had a revelation while sitting in the room. However, to what extent there was an exaggeration or if the dreams ever existed, we will never know.
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