Descartes’s “Olympica”, or how one night changed the course of philosophy

dream 1
Image taken from Chapbooks of the 18th Century by John Ashton. Sourced from

One of the reasons for which I love the history of philosophy is the trivia that comes with it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t interesting and weird facts to know about contemporary figures in philosophy. But the facts about historical figures are just, I don’t know, weirder?

Today I want to share an interesting factoid about Descartes and three dreams that changed the course of his life. According to him, the night of November 10th to 11th, 1619 was the most significant night of his life. The three dreams he had that night supposedly provided him with the purpose and drive that he needed to usher in the modern era of philosophy.

Sadly, most of Descartes’s own notes about these dreams didn’t survive [1]. Thankfully Adrien Billet, a 17th Century biographer of Descartes’s, has preserved an account of them in his La vie de M. Descartes [2], and below I’m able to give you a glimpse of what he experienced that was so vivid as to change the course of a then, twenty three year old Frenchman’s life.

According to Descartes, there were three dreams. However, I think we can argue that one was actually an auditory hallucination, and I’ll explain why shortly. Let me start with the first dream, which Billet retells as follows:

After going to sleep, [Descartes’s] imagination was struck by the appearance of some phantoms who appeared to him and who frightened him so much, that thinking he was walking through the streets, he was forced to turn over on his left side in order to get to the place he wanted to go, because he felt a great weakness on his right.

This dream in itself doesn’t seem to be particularly interesting. The details we have of it are quite vague, though they seem sufficient to say simply that it was particularly vivid.

dreams 2
El sueño del caballero, or The Knight’s Dream (ca. 1655), by Antonio de Pereda (source via the Public Domain Review)

The second dream begins after Descartes rolls over.

Immediately he had a new dream in which he believed he heard a sharp and shattering noise, which he took for a clap of thunder. The fright it gave him woke him directly, and after opening his eyes, he perceived many sparkling lights scattered about the room. The same thing had often happened to him at other times and it was not very unusual for him, when he awoke in the middle of the night, to have his eyes clear enough to catch a glimpse of the objects closest to him.

There are some good reasons to think this wasn’t so much a dream, but an auditory hallucination called Exploding Head Syndrome. According to the linked wikipedia article, it is “a benign condition in which a person hears loud imagined noises or experiences an explosive feeling when falling asleep or waking up.” Prima facie this seems to fit neatly with Descartes’s description. It is classified as a “parasomnia”, that is, a type of disorder involving, among other things, abnormal movements, behaviours, emotions or perceptions, and typically occurs while falling asleep, sleeping, between sleep stages and when waking. Interestingly, the symptoms can coincide with seeing flashes of light – another thing Descartes describes. Unfortunately the Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about EHS being associated with vivid or lucid dreams, or anything of that sort. Nonetheless, I think that even based on the scant evidence we have, this “second dream” was actually an instance of this phenomenon.

The third dream seems to be the most significant to me, and perhaps the turbulence caused by the loud noise our protagonist heard and interpreted as his second dream helped lend significance to this dream.

In this last dream [Descartes] found a book on his table, without knowing who had put it there. He opened it, and seeing that it was an encyclopaedia (Dictionnaire), he was delighted, hoping that it could be of great use to him. At the same instant he felt under his hand another book, equally new to him, without knowing where it had come from. He found that it was an anthology of poems by different authors called the Corpus Poetarum. He was drawn by the desire to read something in it and on opening the verse,

“Quod vitae sectabor iter?” [What path of life shall I pursue?]

At the same moment he became aware of a man he did not know, who hands him a piece of poetry, beginning with Est & Non, and who praised it to him as an excellent composition. (…) He had not finished before he saw the book reappear on the other end of the table. But he found that the encyclopaedia was no longer complete as it had appeared the first time. Meanwhile, he went on to the poems of Ausonius, in the anthology of poetry through which he was leafing, and unable to find the poem which begins Est & Non, he said to the man that he knew another by the same poet which was even more beautiful than this one, and that it began Quod vitae sectabor iter? The man asked him to show it to him, and M. Descartes set about to look for it, when he came upon several copperplate engravings (graves en taille douce) of small portraits.

Before he awoke, Descartes wondered if it was a dream or a vision, ultimately deciding it was the former, and even interpreting it to himself while asleep (!).

He decided that the encyclopedia meant nothing other than all the branches of learning brought together, and that the anthology of poems, called the Corpus Poetarum, indicated in particular and in a most precise fashion Philosophy and Wisdom joined together. Indeed, he did not believe that one should be so very astonished to see that the poets, even those who write nothing but twaddle, were full of sayings more serious, more sensible, and better expressed than those found in the writings of the philosophers (…) M.Descartes continued to interpret his dream in his sleep,judging that the poem on the uncertainty of the type of life one should choose, which begins by Quod vitae sectabor iter?, indicated the good advice of a wise person, or even Moral Theology (…)

By the poets collected in the anthology he understood the Revelation and the Inspiration by which he did not despair of seeing himself favored. By the poem Est & Non, which is the Yes and the No of Pythagoras, he understood Truth and Falsity in human understanding and profane learning. Seeing that the application of all these things succeeded in suiting him so satisfactorily, he was bold enough to conclude that the Spirit of Truth had chosen to use this dream to reveal the treasures of all the disciplines of learning to him (…)

This last dream, which contained nothing but the most pleasant and agreeable things, seemed to him to indicate the future, and it was limited to those things which should happen to him in the remainder of his life. But he took the two earlier dreams as warnings concerning his past life, which might not have been as innocent in the eyes of God as it was to men. And he believed that this was the reason for the terror and fright which accompanied these two dreams.

I quote the text at length here, because I think Descartes’ own interpretation speaks quite well of the significance of the dreams he had. What strikes me as particularly interesting is that he interpreted the dream as putting him on a search for truth and distinguishing it from falsity, which foreshadows his greatest achievement in philosophy, the Meditations.

There is a further blip in these dreams make later on. The French jurist and historian, Maxime Leroy, when writing a book on Descartes sent a summary of these dreams to Freud, asking him to analyse them. The father of psychoanalysis obliged, and his response is in vol. XXI of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have institutional access to the web version, and my university’s main library which houses the works of Freud is sadly (but also, very happily!) being refurbished, and I won’t be able to get my hands on it for another two weeks.

[1] What is left of them, is in French in Ouvres de Descartes ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, vol X.
[2] I cite here at length the translation of Billet’s text found in John Benton’s translation. Benton, J. (1980) “Descartes’ Olympica”, Philosophy and Literature, vol.4 (2), pp. 163-166. In my excerpts I attempt to avoid as much as possible Billet’s own additions and instead focus on the account of the dreams themselves.

Getting back to reading

DescartesNow that I’ve finished my MA, I’ve slowly been making my way into the backlog of fiction and other things that have stacked up over the past two years. What I haven’t thought much about though is my philosophical reading list, now that I’ve cleared up some brainpower for new stuff.

The list below is mostly exploratory reading based on what I’ve had in my reading list, what I’m interested in pursuing in my PhD, and what I hope to write a paper or two about. You’ll notice that most of the reading list consists of introductory texts (two each for Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza), and the SEP and IEP entries for them. The reason for this is that while I have some background information on these three, I haven’t really kept up with any of the literature, and I find that SEP and IEP (along with the Cambridge and other types of introductory texts) can quickly catch me up.

The important thing to remember is that the secondary literature is, ahem, secondary. Reading the secondary literature without ever reading the primary sources is a good way to forget about what is genuinely interesting in the sources, and to prejudice yourself against the texts themselves.

The list below isn’t in any particular order, except perhaps, the order in which I thought of these texts.

Reading List

  1. SEP entries on Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz
  2. IEP entries on Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz
  3. Descartes, Principles of Philosophy
  4. Descartes, Passions of the Soul
  5. Spinoza, Ethics
  6. Spinoza, Treatise on Theology and Politics
  7. Leibniz, New Essays on Human understanding
  8. Leibniz, Monadology
  9. Cambridge Companion to Descartes
  10. Cambridge Companion to Leibniz
  11. Cambridge Companion to Spinoza
  12. Nicholas Jolley, Leibniz
  13. Clarke, Desmond, Descartes: A Biography
  14. Henry Allison, Benedict de Spinoza