Dreaming and Morality: From Plato to Freud and Back

 George Anastaplo

For often when a man is asleep something
in his soul tells him that what appears to
him is a dream.

— Aristotle

 I.

 It should be recalled that the Socrates of Plato’s Republic observed that even those of us who are reputed most respectable may harbor a brood of questionable desires which are revealed in our sleep. (See 571E sq., 534D sq.) And, Socrates counsels, how one conducts oneself during one’s waking hours, especially as one is about to go to sleep, can usually affect what happens to these desires when one is asleep.

It should also be recalled that the Socrates of Plato’s Theaetetus argues, in response to a suggestion that knowledge is perception, that there are more and less reliable perceptions. It is pointed out, for example, that one may have, in madness, in an illness, or in sleep, false perceptions which may not be distinguishable, at that moment, from sound perceptions. Here is a critical exchange in which this difficulty is recognized (Theaetetus 158B-D):

SOCRATES: That which I suspect you’ve often heard from questioners–what evidence could one have to prove, if someone should ask now on these terms at the present moment, whether we’re asleep and dreaming everything we’re thinking, or we’re awake and conversing with one another while awake.

THEAETETUS: That’s it Socrates, it is perplexing as to what evidence one must use for showing it, for all the same things follow in parallel as if they were correlative. For just as there’s nothing to prevent that what we’ve now conversed about also be dreamt as (seem) a conversation with one another in sleep, so whenever in a dream what we dream we’re explaining (what we seem to be explaining) are dreams, the similarity of these to those is strange.

SOCRATES: You do see, then, that it’s not the possibility of disputation which is difficult, when it’s even open to dispute as to whether it is in waking or in dreaming, and when indeed the time we spend in sleeping is equal to that when we’re awake. In each of the two times, our soul insists that whatever its opinions are at the moment cannot be more certainly true, so for an equal time we say these things are the things which are, and for an equal time those, and we insist with a similar vehemence in each time.

THEAETETUS: That’s altogether so.

 (See, for a longer passage from Plato’s Theaetetus, the Addendum to this paper.)

It should be recalled as well that, at the end of Plato’s Apology, Socrates extols, as one of the conditions of the dead, the condition of a dreamless sleep, which would be “a wondrous gain.” (40D) Does this kind of observation suggest that, by and large, it is better not to dream than to dream, so far as the sleeper is concerned?

There can be, in any event, something topsy-turvy, and not usually to be desired, about the dreams one has, whatever their usefulness may somehow be in the operations of the body. However spectacular some dreams may be, and however imaginative some dreamers routinely are, we do not usually make much of our dreams. Whatever may be true in other times and places, it seems to me that most of us say little about our dreams and hear little from others about their dreams in the ordinary course of things.

This impression was confirmed for me during a memorial service which I recently attended. It was quite a long service and so I was able, with a view to this paper, to inventory both the titles and the opening lines in a hymnal of some four-hundred pages. Although there were several hymns which spoke of going to sleep and of waking, either literally or figuratively, there was little said (at least in the titles and opening lines) about dreaming. It is said in one hymn (#146, “Soon the Day Will Arrive,” in the hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition), “Some have dreamed, some have died, to make a bright tomorrow, and our vision remains in our hearts.” And, it is said in another hymn, #50, “When Darkness Nears,” “and peace slips in with the songs that our dreams will sing.” It is also said in this hymn that “we’ll love the night and its mystery now so near.”

One does not, at least in our more or less sophisticated circles, hear much made of dreams (whatever use may still be made in other parts of this city of, say, “dream books,” something that was evidently considered useful in playing “the numbers” once and perhaps the Lottery today).

II.

All that I have said thus far is, of course, in marked contrast to the emphasis upon dreams and dream interpretation in the Freudian scheme of things. Thus, an editor of one edition of The Interpretation of Dreams has said of that book, “For Freud, it was and remained the central book of his prolific career.” (Ritchie Robertson, ed., The Interpretation of Dreams [Oxford University Press, 1999], p. vii.)

A useful entry into Freud’s discussion of dreams is provided, for our purposes, by one of our colleagues (Charles R. Elder, The Grammar of the Unconscious [University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994], p. 57):

The basic theory of dreams can be described in terms of four propositions: (1) every dream has a meaning (Sinn, Bedeutung) that can be interpreted; (2) the meaning of a dream is the fulfillment of a wish; (3) this wish–a repressed wish, ultimately from childhood–is the motive for the dream; and (4) this wish arises from the unconscious (hence, the concept of the unconscious is a necessary assumption both for the interpretation of dreams and for the explanation of their construction).

Our primary purpose on this occasion is to consider, in a preliminary way, a matter, introduced by Freud fairly early in his book, about which relatively little is said thereafter. This is the subject, “Ethical Feelings in Dreams,” to be found at pages 55-62 of the Oxford University Press edition of The Interpretation of Dreams. (This section, translated as “The Moral Sense in Dreams,” is found at pages 98-106 in the edition we are using of the James Strachey translation.)

Freud says, at the outset of this section, that the authorities he had consulted are divided about the character of ethical feelings in dreams: “The certainty with which one writer asserts that the dream knows nothing of moral demands is matched by the assurance with which another affirms that mankind’s moral nature also holds good in our dream-life.” (p. 55) The problem of morality is posed by the appearance of questionable impulses that the dreamer deals with one way or another. The Elder book provides us this challenging observation (Elder, p. 59, n. 5):

“Obviously one must hold oneself responsible for the evil impulses of one’s dreams, ” Freud writes. “What else is one to do with them? Unless the content of the dream (rightly understood) is inspired by alien spirit, it is a part of my own being” (SAND, 133).

We all seem to have access, from our own experiences, to a massive amount of material bearing on this issue of the ethical feelings in dreams. How is that material to be interpreted?

III.

It is clear, from Freud’s review of the arguments of those who assert that “the dream knows nothing of moral demands” and of those who assert that “mankind’s moral nature also holds good in our dream-life”–it is clear that there are intelligent people on both sides of the controversy defined by Freud. It is likely, therefore, that there is something that can be said in support of each side here.

Perhaps we can begin to clarify these issues, however inconclusive our own answers may have to be, by asking how “morality” is to be understood. Morality is seen by some as an a-natural, if not even as an unnatural, imposition upon our desires. If so, then we may well strive in our dreams to get rid of, or at least to come to terms with, such an imposition or suppression. Even this striving, it can at once be added, can be regarded as natural and hence perhaps as good, or moral.

On the other hand, morality is seen by some as a natural completion, and hence as an improvement, of the soul. We are much better for such morality, made stronger and more comfortable thereby in sorting out our interests and impulses. If we are empowered by morality, would we not be disposed to draw upon it in our dreams, just as we are disposed to draw upon the languages and other skills that we have had to work hard to develop? Morality can be seen as being tested and exercised in our dreams, thereby developing it even more.

IV.

How, then, may the two schools that Freud recognizes here be reconciled? One can be moral and still have impulses, flights of fancy, and recollections of choices made heretofore and hence of alternatives passed up.

Why should one be troubled by such flights of fancy? After all, we do manage them, play with them, perhaps learn from them. Among the things learned, or confirmed and reinforced, is how to tame energies and discharge impulses that run the risk of being too rigidly confined.

Do these “excursions” undermine morality? Or do they examine it, refine it, and substantially strengthen it, partly by reaffirming it. One can thus be reminded of alternatives that one does routinely reject. Certainly, it is not a “cloister’d virtue” that is to be praised here.

Critical to all this is the fact–or so it has long seemed to me–the fact that we are pretty much in control of our dreams. Certainly, few of us believe that anyone outside of us is directing any of the dreams we happen to have. If, indeed, we are in control, what morality, or standards of conduct, do we bring to dreams? And what are we after? It is perhaps useful to keep in mind here the Aristotelian proposition that all of our acts aim at some good.

I suspect that most of us do learn, over many years, both what kind of dreams may be useful for us and how we can manage and use them. As our waking life is tempered and reformed by what we learn through our dreams, so our dreams are apt to make use of whatever we find useful in our waking life, including the morality that comes to guide us, almost instinctively.

V.

We are, it can be argued, “experts” in dealing with dreams, just as we are in dealing with various other workings of our minds and with many workings of our bodies. Just as we are reconciled to various bodily functions and physical limitations, so are we reconciled to the experimenting and recapitulating that goes on in our dreams.

When dreams become troublesome, that can be a clue to something that is going wrong in ourselves, just as is the case with the malfunctioning of various parts of the body. In fact, a troubling dream may even reflect something wrong in the body (just as with Ebenezer Scrooge’s “undigested bit of beef”).

Further light can be cast on the debate reported by Freud as to the status of morality in our dreams, light that is provided by our recognition that we do not usually seem to be troubled because of what we do or say in our dreams. That is, we are not troubled upon discovering ourselves to be a-moral, if not even immoral, now and then in our dream-conduct. We somehow sense, that is, that dreams do not really matter, at least not in the way that similar activities would matter if resorted to while we are awake. It is our enduring sense of morality that helps us keep dreams in their proper place.

Dreams, then, may provide a safe, and otherwise socially acceptable, way of experimenting and learning more about (and thus refining and strengthening) what we are and want. Dreams may also be just another way of eliminating the waste products of our inner life, and as such they can be usefully tested for what they suggest about our general condition, especially when we sense that something has gone wrong with our overall grasp of things.

VI.

Dreams, I have been suggesting, are more likely to be persuasive for the dreamer if they do use and respect the dreamer’s everyday morality–unless, of course, something has gone really wrong in the workings of the dreamer’s soul.

One may wonder whether Freud’s view of morality–is it an imposition or is it a completion?–one may wonder whether his view of morality affected the soundness of his theories about dreams, and hence about psychoanalysis. Dreams can help one know oneself better, as various facets of one’s mind (including one’s imagination) are isolated and magnified and thus made easier to study. But the enduring helpfulness of the study of dreams depends upon a sound grounding in the best of the human soul.

If one does not appreciate what morality is and is not–if, for example, one is suspicious of any systematic disciplining of impulses–if, in short, one’s view of morality is suspicious, then one may make too much of various elements of a dream. Those elements in us which draw upon the low can become easy to dwell upon–but even those things, I have also been suggesting, cannot be seen and used properly if the highmindedness to which we may be naturally inclined is not recognized for what it is.

VII.

We can, in closing, return to Plato and dreams. The last dream Socrates is reported to have had is that recorded in the Phaedo, where Socrates is quoted as saying, “In the course of my life I have often had the same dream, appearing in different forms at different times, but always saying the same thing ‘Socrates, practice and cultivate the arts.’” (60E) This dream, which returned to Socrates in prison, is a far cry from that brood of questionable desires associated with dreams in the Republic.

Perhaps the very last (new) dream Socrates had is that reported at the beginning of the Crito. Here is the relevant exchange, following upon Crito’s news that the ship from Delos will arrive today, which would mean that Socrates would die tomorrow (44A-B) :

Socrates: . . . I do not suppose it will come [today] but rather tomorrow. I infer it from a certain dream I had a little earlier tonight. . . .

Crito: What was the dream?

Socrates: It seemed that a certain woman approached me, beautiful and well-formed, dressed in white, and that she called me by name and said, “Socrates, on the third day thou would’st arrive in fertile Phthia.”

Crito: The dream is strange, Socrates.

Socrates: No, quite manifest, at least as it seems to me, Crito.

Crito: Too much so, as is likely.

Crito’s ineptitude in the conversation that follows is anticipated here. A more astute advocate for his position might have argued to Socrates that the dream was ratifying Crito’s plan to secure Socrates’ escape from prison and thereafter his flight to Thessaly (that is, in the direction of Phthia).

Crito does seem to sense that Socrates’ dream does not bode well for his escape plan. Socrates, it is likely, knew from the outset why Crito had come so early this morning–and he bolsters in anticipation, by the use of “mystery,” the argument that he will have to make to Crito which Crito will not be able to follow properly. Socrates is saying, in effect, in quoting as he does from an Achilles who threatens to leave Troy for home, “ I will not go away from here any more than Achilles did.” Socrates could also be understood to recognize that his enduring fame, and hence influence, will come from staying in Athens, as Achilles’ had come from staying at Troy. And that, it can be added, may be a better reason for staying than any of those made explicit in the conversation thereafter with Crito.

Dreams, we can see here, can cut “both ways.” This may be not unrelated to why there are two schools of thought as to the effects of moral feelings in dreams. The dream of dreams in the Platonic dialogues may be the Cave conjured up in the Republic: it is clear to the thoughtful reader that the dreamlike images conjured up there may not be what they seem.

Still another dream of sorts, this time in the Crito, is the bringing of the Laws “on stage,” so to speak, to impress Crito with a display that may do what a proper argument could not. Then there is the bringing on of the Corybantes at the end, who, in their dreamlike frenzy, impede serious deliberation for the moment. (Such deliberation can be returned to, two days later, in the Phaedo, when others besides Crito are there to permit Socrates to develop his argument.)

It is obvious that Socrates “dreams up,” as we would say, both the Laws and the Corybantes. Did he also “dream up,” rather than dream, the imposing woman dressed in white? If Socrates did not actually say that he had had this dream, it is then something that Plato conjures up, and in doing so (which I suspect is more likely) he can remind us of how much we do control the dreams we have and then make something of.

We can control as well–at least (we can hope) to some extent–the thinking we do about the dreams we have, and to some extent about the dreams others may say they have. Critical to any such thinking, I have suggested on this occasion, is the moral perspective from which both dream construction and dream interpretation are approached.

ADDENDUM

Plato, Theaetetus 157-158

SOCRATES: Then let’s not leave out anything that’s missing from it. What’s missing is the stuff about dreams and illnesses–madness as well as everything else–and everything said to be a mishearing or misseeing or any different mispercieving. You know surely that, in all these cases, it seems to be widely agreed upon that the speech which we were just now going through gets refuted, since it’s as certain as can be that false perception come to be for us here. And far from it being the case that the things appearing to each also are these things, but, wholly the contrary, none of the things which appears is.

THEAETETUS: What you say, Socrates, is most true.

SOCRATES: Then precisely what speech, my boy, is left for him who’s laying down perception as knowledge, and that the things appearing to each also are these things for him to whom they appear?

THEAETETUS: Well, I, Socrates, am reluctant to say that I don’t know what I’m to say, because you just now rebuked me when I said it, since truly to this extent I would be incapable of disputing that the crazy or the dreamers are not opining false things, whenever some of them believe they are gods and some feathered and they’re thinking of themselves in their sleep as flying.

SOCRATES: Then you really don’t have in mind the following sort of disputation about them, and especially about dreaming and waking?

THEAETETUS: What sort?

SOCRATES: That which I suspect you’ve often heard from questioners–what evidence could one have to prove, if someone should ask now on these terms at the present moment, whether we’re asleep and dreaming everything we’re thinking, or we’re awake and conversing with one another while awake.

THEAETETUS: That’s it , Socrates, it is perplexing as to what evidence one must use for showing it, for all the same things follow in parallel as if they were correlative. For just as there’s nothing to prevent that what we’ve now conversed about also be dreamt as (seem) a conversation with one another in sleep, so whenever in a dream what we dream we’re explaining (what we seem to be explaining) are dreams, the similarity of these to those is strange.

SOCRATES: You do see, then, that it’s not the possibility of disputation which is difficult, when it’s even open to dispute as to whether it is in waking or in dreaming, and when indeed the time we spend in sleeping is equal to that when we’re awake. In each of the two times, our soul insists that whatever its opinions are at the moment cannot be more certainly true, so for an equal time we say these things are the things which are, and for an equal time those, and we insist with a similar vehemence in each time.

THEAETETUS: That’s altogether so.

SOCRATES: Doesn’t, then, the same speech hold as well for bouts of illness and fits of madness, except for the time, which isn’t equal?

THEAETETUS: Right.

SOCRATES: What then? Will the truth be determined by the length and brevity of the time?

THEAETETUS: But that would be laughable in many ways.

SOCRATES: Well, do you have anything else that’s a clear pointer as to which sorts of these opinions (are) true?

THEAETETUS: No, not in my opinion.

____________________
This paper was prepared for a Staff Seminar, The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, March 21, 2001.

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