Obscurious – What’s in a Dream?

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.” ~ Einstein

obscurious.4René Descartes: What’s in a Dream?

In 1619, French mathematician René Descartes had recently finished schooling and began soldering through Europe to gain experience and insight. While stationed in Bavaria, a young Descartes experienced three powerful dreams – dreams thought to be divine enlightenment. The dreams, or visions, would not only alter the course of Descartes’ life but would forge a path of inspiration to modern thought and new methods of scientific understanding. René Descartes dream account is displayed below: 

“I am walking in an unknown street, when suddenly ghosts appear in front of me. Terrified, I want to flee, but I feel a great weakness on my right side, and am obliged to lean on my left to be able to advance. Ashamed of walking in this grotesque position, I make an immense effort to stand upright, but an impetuous wind suddenly spins me three or four times on my left foot, like a top. Then I stop spinning and force myself to continue to advance, but my body’s position makes walking difficult, and I think that I am going to fall with each step that I take.

A college, whose door is open, then appears in my path. I enter, thinking to find refuge there, and perhaps a remedy for what is ailing me. I then see the college church and want to go there to pray, but I notice that I have passed a man whom I know, without greeting him. I want to turn back to say something agreeable to him, but am violently pushed back by the wind which is blowing against the church and stopping me from advancing. At the same time, I see, in the middle of the college courtyard, another person who calls me by my name and says to me: “Would you be kind enough to carry something to one of our friends?”

I ask what I am to carry. I receive no answer, but imagine (I don’t know why) that it is a melon brought from some foreign country. I continue walking, dragging myself along and tottering, while the people whom I meet are walking firmly on their feet. The wind has dropped. I am so unhappy that I wake up.

The dream has anguished me so much I think perhaps a bad genie has come to torment me. I make a long prayer to secure myself against the bad effects of my vision and after two hours of unhappy thoughts, I go back to sleep. After a short time, I go back to sleep once more, and find myself in a third dream. In front of me, on a table, is a book. Having opened it, I see that it is a dictionary. Then I notice a second book, this one a poetry anthology. I flick through it and immediately come upon the latin verse: Quod vitae sectabor iter? (Which path in life will I choose?)

At the same time, an unknown man appears and presents me with a poem which starts with Est et non (what is and is not). He adds that it is an excellent work. I reply: “I know. It is in this book of poems. Look!”

But I flick through the anthology in vain; I can’t find the poem. So, I take up the dictionary and notice that some of the pages are missing. I am exchanging a few more words with the stranger when, suddenly, the books and the man disappear. When I awake I am very troubled by these three dreams, thinking that they have been sent to me by Heaven and I begin to try to decipher their meaning.”

After waking from the final rousing dream, the French mathematician claims that the stranger presented him with the revelatory suggestion that: “The conquest of Nature is to be achieved through number and measurement.”

Ultimately, the dreams bestowed the gift of inspiration to discover what lies in the space between what is known and what is yet to be known. But, when and how are dreams or ideas mindfully transformed into such a discipline? The origins of dreams are a topic of mysterious intrigue; notably when an irrational experience lays the groundwork for a rational methodology. René Descartes did not hesitate to speculate the rationality of his newfound concepts. He would spend the rest of his life passionately studying these questions and postulating theories on applicable systems of understanding. He spent years contemplating the significance of dreams and began work on a treatise called Rules for the Direction of the Mind, which he was unable to finish. He wrote multiple publications regarding the proper method for scientific and philosophical thinking – analyzing how the mind works in formulating and interpreting ideas in dreams and waking life.

As guided by the stranger in his dream, the French mathematician and philosopher embraced the conquest of nature and visualized a world unified by numbers and measurement – a man possessed by an irrational genius that introduced a new method of universal perception that would serve as a bridge between the known and the unknown. With an immeasurable legacy and vast body of knowledge, Descartes will be featured as an ongoing topic of intrigue in upcoming Obscurious prompts.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ~ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


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