An Essay on Dream
A ESSAY on Dream.
from the 1807 book Examinaton of the passages in the Hew Testament, printed by author in New York. The paragraphs edited from the 1803 Paris version have been added at the end.
AS a great deal is said in the New Testament about dreams, it is first necessary to explain the nature of dream, and to shew by what operation of the mind a dream is produced during sleep. When this is understood we shall be the better enabled to judge whether any reliance can be placed upon them; and consequently, whether the several matters in the New Testament related of dreams deserve the credit which the writers of that book and priests and commentators ascribe to them.
IN order to understand the nature of dream, or of that which passes in ideal vision during a state of sleep, it is first necessary to understand the composition and decomposition of the human mind.
The three great faculties of the mind are IMAGINATION, JUDGMENT and MEMORY. Every action of the mind comes under one or the other of these faculties. In a state of wakefulness, as in the day time, these three faculties are all active; but that is seldom the case in sleep, and never perfectly; and this is the cause that our dreams are not so regular and rational as our waking thoughts.
The seat of that collection of powers or faculties that constitute what is called the mind is in the brain. There is not, and cannot be, any visible demonstration of this anatomically, but accidents happening to living persons, shew it to be so. An injury done to the brain by a fracture of the scull will sometimes change a wise man into a childish idiot; a being without a mind. But so careful has nature been of that sanctum sanctorum of man, the brain, that of all the external accidents to which humanity is subject, this occurs the most seldom. But we often see it happening by long and habitual intemperance.
Whether those three faculties occupy distinct apartments of the brain, is known only to that almighty power that formed and organized it. We can see the external effects of muscular motion in all the members of the body, though its primum mobile, or first moving cause, is unknown to man. Our external motions are sometimes the effect of intention, sometimes not. If we are sitting and intend to rise, or standing and intend to sit, or to walk, the limbs obey that intention as if they heard the order given. But we make a thousand motions every day, and that as well waking as sleeping, that have no prior intention to direct them. Each member acts as if it had a will or mind of its own. Man governs the whole when he pleases to govern, but in the interim the several parts, like little suburbs, govern themselves without consulting the sovereign.
And all these motions, whatever be the generating cause, are external and visible. But with respect to the brain, no ocular observation can be made upon it. All is mystery; all is darkness in that womb of thought.
Whether the brain is a mass of matter in continual rest; whether it has a vibrating pulsative motion, or a heaving and falling motion like matter in fermentation; whether different parts of the brain have different motions according to the faculty that is employed, be it the imagination, the judgment, or the memory, man knows nothing of. He knows not the cause of his own wit. His own brain conceals it from him.
Comparing invisible by visible things, as metaphysical can sometimes be compared to physical things, the operations of these distinct and several faculties have some resemblance of a watch. The main spring, which puts all in motion, corresponds to the imagination; the pendulum, or balance, which corrects and regulates that motion, corresponds to the judgment, and the hand and dial, like the memory, record the operations.
Now in proportion as these several faculties sleep, slumber, or keep awake, during the continuance of a dream, in that proportion will the dream be reasonable or frantic, remembered or forgotten.
If there is any faculty in mental man that never sleeps it is that volatile thing the imagination. The case is different with the judgment and memory. The sedate and sober constitution of the judgment easily disposes it to rest, and as to the memory it records in silence and is active only when it is called upon.
That the judgment soon goes to sleep may be perceived by our sometimes beginning to dream before we are fully asleep ourselves. Some random thought runs in the mind and we start, as it were, into recollection that we are dreaming between sleeping and waking.
If the judgment sleeps while the imagination keeps awake, the dream will be a riotous assemblage of misshapen images and ranting ideas, and the more active the imagination is the wilder the dream will be. The most inconsistent and the most impossible things will appear right; because that faculty whose province it is to keep order is in a state of absence. The master of the school is gone out and the boys are in an uproar.
If the memory sleeps we shall have no other knowledge of the dream than that we have dreamt, without knowing what it was about. In this case it is sensation rather than recollection that acts. The dream has given us some sense of pain or trouble, and we feel it as a hurt, rather than remember it as a vision.
If memory only slumbers we shall have a faint remembrance of the dream, and after a few minutes it will sometimes happen that the principal passages of the dream will occur to us more fully. The cause of this is that the memory will sometimes continue slumbering or sleeping after we are awake ourselves, and that so fully, that it may, and sometimes do, happen, that we do not immediately recollect where we are, nor what we have been about, or have to do. But when the memory starts into wakefulness it brings the knowledge of these things back upon us, like a flood of light, and sometimes the dream with it.
But the most curious circumstance of the mind in a state of dream is the power it has to become the agent of every person, character and thing of which it dreams. It carries on conversation with several, asks questions, hears answers, gives and receives information, and it acts all these parts itself.
But however various and eccentric the imagination may be in the creating of images and ideas, it cannot supply the place of memory, with respect to things that are forgotten when we are awake. For example, if we have forgotten the name of a person, and dream of seeing him and asking him his name, he cannot tell it; for it is ourselves asking ourselves the question.
But though the imagination cannot supply the place of real memory it has the wild faculty of counterfeiting memory. It dreams of persons it never knew, and talks to them as if it remembered them as old acquaintances. It relates circumstances that never happened, and tells them as if they had happened. It goes to places that never existed, and knows where all the streets and houses are as if we had been there before. The scenes it creates are often as scenes remembered. It will sometimes act a dream within a dream, and in the delusion of dreaming tell a dream it never dreamed and tell it as if it was from memory. It may also be remarked, that the imagination, in a dream, has no idea of time, as time. It counts only by circumstances; and if a succession of circumstances pass in a dream that would require a great length of time to accomplish them, it will appear to the dreamer that a length of time equal thereto has passed also.
As this is the state of the mind in a dream, it may rationally be said that every person is mad once in twenty-four hours, for were he to act in the day as he dreams in the night he would be confined for a lunatic. In a state of wakefulness those three faculties being all active and acting in unison constitute the rational man. In dream it is otherwise, and therefore that state which is called insanity appears to be no other than a disunion of those faculties and a cessation of the judgment, during wakefulness, that we so often experience during sleep; and idiocy, into which some persons have fallen, is that cessation of all the faculties of which we can be sensible when we happen to wake before our memory.
In this view of the mind, how absurd it is to place reliance upon dreams, and how much more absurd to make them a foundation for religion; yet the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten by the holy ghost, a being never heard of before, stands on the story of an old man’s dream. “And behold the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not thou to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the holy ghost.” Matt. ch. 1, v. 20.
After this we have the childish stories of three or four other dreams: about Joseph going into Egypt; about his coming back again; about this, and about that, and this story of dreams has thrown Europe into a dream for more than a thousand years. All the efforts that nature, reason, and conscience have made to awaken man from it have been ascribed by priestcraft and superstition to the workings of the devil, and had it not been for the American revolution, which by establishing the universal right of conscience, first opened the way to free discussion, and for the French revolution that followed, this religion of dreams had continued to be preached, and that after it had ceased to be believed. Those who preached it and did not believe it, still believe the delusion necessary. They were not bold enough to be honest, nor honest enough to be bold.
(The following, in parentheses, is from the 1803 edition which has not been edited for accuracy:)
(Every new religion, like a new play, requires a new apparatus of dresses and machinery, to fit the new characters it creates. The story of Christ in the New Testament brings a new being upon the stage, which it calls the Holy Ghost; and the story of Abraham, the father of the Jews, in the Old Testament, gives existence to a new order of beings it calls angels. There was no Holy Ghost before the time of Christ, nor angels before the time of Abraham.
We hear nothing of these winged gentlemen, till more than two thousand years, according to the Bible chronology, from the time they say the heavens, the earth and all therein were made. After this, they hop about as thick as birds in a grove. The first we hear of pays his addresses to Hagar in the wilderness; then three of them visit Sarah; another wrestles a fall with Jacob; and these birds of passage having found their way to earth and back, are continually coming and going. They eat and drink, and up again to heaven.
What they do with the food they carry away in their bellies, the Bible does not tell us. Perhaps they do as the birds do, discharge it as they fly; for neither the Scripture nor the Church hath told us there are necessary houses for them in heaven. One would think that a system loaded with such gross and vulgar absurdities as Scripture religion is could never have obtained credit; yet we have seen what priestcraft and fanaticism could do, and credulity believe.
From angels in the Old Testament we get to prophets, to witches, to seers of visions, and dreamers of dreams; and sometimes we are told, as in I Samuel ix, 15, that God whispers in the ear. At other times we are not told how the impulse was given, or whether sleeping or waking. In II Samuel xxiv, 1, it is said, “And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go number Israel and Judah.” And in I Chronicles xxi, 1, when the same story is again related, it is said, “And Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel”
Whether this was done sleeping or waking, we are not told, but it seems that David, whom they call “a man after God’s own heart,” did not know by what spirit he was moved; and as to the men called inspired penmen, they agree so well about the matter that in one book they say it was God, and in the other that it was the devil.
Yet this is trash that the Church imposes upon the world as the WORD OF GOD; this is the collection of lies and contradictions called the HOLY BIBLE! this is the rubbish called REVEALED RELIGION!
The idea that writers of the Old Testament had of a God was boisterous, contemptible, and vulgar. They make Him the Mars of the Jews, the fighting God of Israel, the conjuring God of their priests and prophets. They tell us as many fables of Him as the Greeks told of Hercules. They pit Him against Pharaoh, as it were to box with him, and Moses carries the challenge. They make their God to say insultingly, “I will get me honor upon Pharaoh and upon all his host, upon his chariots and upon his horsemen.” And that He may keep His word, they make Him set a trap in the Red Sea, in the dead of the night, for Pharaoh, his host and his horses, and drown them as a rat-catcher would do so many rats. Great honor indeed! the story of Jack the giant-killer is better told!
They match Him against the Egyptian magicians to conjure with them, and after hard conjuring on both sides (for where there is no great contest there is no great honor) they bring Him off victorious. The first three essays are a dead match: each party turns his rod into a serpent, the rivers into blood, and creates frogs: but upon the fourth, the God of the Israelites obtains the laurel, He covers them all over with lice! The Egyptian magicians cannot do the same, and this lousy triumph proclaims the victory!
They make their God to rain fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and belch fire and smoke upon Mount Sinai, as if He was the Pluto of the lower regions. They make Him salt up Lot’s wife like pickled pork; they make Him pass like Shakespeare’s Queen Mab into the brain of their priests, prophets and prophetesses, and tickle them into dreams, and after making Him play all kinds of tricks they confound Him with Satan, and leave us at a loss to know what God they meant!
This is the descriptive God of the Old Testament; and as to the New, though the authors of it have varied the scene, they have continued the vulgarity.
Is man ever to be the dupe of priestcraft, the slave of superstition? Is he never to have just ideas of his Creator? It is better not to believe there is a God than to believe of Him falsely. When we behold the mighty universe that surrounds us, and dart our contemplation into the eternity of space, filled with innumerable orbs revolving in eternal harmony, how paltry must the tales of the Old and New Testaments, profanely called the Word of God, appear to thoughtful man!
The stupendous wisdom and unerring order that reign and govern throughout this wondrous whole, and call us to reflection, put to shame the Bible! The God of eternity and of all that is real, is not the god of passing dreams and shadows of man’s imagination. The God of truth is not the god of fable; the belief of a god begotten and a god crucified, is a god blasphemed. It is making a profane use of reason.)
I shall conclude this Essay on Dream with the two first verses of the 36 chapter of Ecclesiasticus one of the books of the Apocrypha.
- “The hopes of man void of understanding are vain and false; and dreams lift up fools. — Whoso regardeth dreams is like him that catcheth at a shadow, and followeth after the wind,”
I now proceed to an examination of the passages in the bible called prophecies of the coming of Christ, and to shew there are no prophecies of any such person. That the passages clandestinely stiled prophecies are not prophecies, and that they refer to circumstances the Jewish nation was in at the time they were written or spoken, and not to any distance of future time or person.