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Quod Vitae

Dreamed 1619/11/11 by Rene Descartes

During the winter months of 1619, Descartes, then a soldier, and quartered at Neuburg on the Danube, first divined the principles of the new Method which he afterwards applied in philosophy. He was then in his twenty-fourth year, and, distrustful of what had hitherto been accepted as "knowledge," he had already abandoned his books in order to form his mind for the reception of truth.

During the night of November 11 in this year he had three dreams. It was the Eve of St Martin--the Saint of the convivial; but Descartes declared that he went sober to bed, and indeed, that he had not touched wine during the previous three months.

The first of his dreams was one of acute physical distress and terror, a dream of darkness haunted by strange and spectral beings and a tempestuous wind. He awoke in pain, afflicted by the horror that an evil spirit had aspired to seduce him. He prayed to God to protect him against any evil consequences of this dream, and that He would preserve him from ills which might menace him as a punishment for his sins. These, he realised, had been grave enough to draw down the thunderbolts of heaven upon his head: although he had hitherto led a life which, in the eyes of his fellow men, had been irreproachable enough. After prolonged meditation, he fell asleep again.

Terror, caused by the sound as of a clap of thunder, awoke him suddenly from the dream that then followed. On opening his eyes, he perceived a multitude of fiery sparks scattered about the room. This was not a new experience. He had frequently awaked at night with his eyes so filled with sparks of light that in a confused fashion he had been able to discern the objects around him. Now, however, after opening and shutting his eyes, and observing the qualities of what was represented to him, he wished to explain this phenomenon by philosophic reasoning, and he drew from it conclusions favourable to his soul. His fears left him, and he fell asleep again in peace.

There was nothing terrible in the dream which immediately followed this. It was concerned with two books, one a dictionary with which he was delighted; the other, also new to him, an anthology of poems entitled Corpus Poetarum. On opening the book to read in it, he chanced on the verse, 'Quod vitae sectabor iter?' [What kind of life should one lead?] At this moment in his dream he saw a stranger, who gave him a poem beginning with the words, 'Est et non', declaring that it was an excellent poem. Descartes told the stranger that he knew the poem, that it was one of the Idylls of Ausonius. While he was searching for it in the Corpus, with which he declared he was familiar, he discovered that the dictionary had vanished. He was explaining this to the stranger when it reappeared at the other end of the table. But it was no longer complete. Unable to find 'Est et non' among the poems of Ausonius, he told the stranger of an even lovelier poem by the same poet, 'Quod vitae', but failed to find it, discovering instead several little portraits engraved en taille douce [copperplate]. Both books and stranger then vanished from his imagination. Still asleep, and doubting whether this experience had been a vision or a dream, Descartes decided that it had been a dream and, still asleep, proceeded to interpret it.

He concluded that the dictionary represented the Sciences, and that the Corpus represented Philosophy and Wisdom in union; for even foolish and superficial poets may be full of sentences more serious, more weighty, and better expressed than those in the writings of the philosophers. He attributed this marvel to the divinity of Enthusiasm and to the force of the Imagination, which puts forth the seeds of wisdom that are to be found in the spirit of all men--as sparks of fire may be found in pebbles--much more easily and brilliantly than does the Reason of the Philosophers. He concluded that the poem on the uncertainty as to what kind of life one ought to lead represented the counsel of a wise man or even Moral Theology.

He then awoke, continued his interpretation, and was finally convinced that the Spirit of Truth had in this dream intended to open the treasures of all the Sciences to him.

As for the little portraits, next day an Italian painter called on him, and Descartes sought no further explanation.

SOURCE: Walter de la Mare's Behold, This Dreamer! (NY., Knopf, 1939)


Delicious! Descartes, the Great Rationalist, first concludes God's tossing thunderbolts at him, then sees in the dark by means of mysterious sparks, then decides on his life-course on the basis of a dream within a dream, while taking dream-ESP for granted...

But that is science. In 1619 most scholars still trusted classical authorities and the Bible. Descartes, however strangely he theorizes about the meaning of his experiences, has begun observing.

When you too have experiences that just don't fit accepted paradigms, remember Descartes' courage and integrity--to go with the data. However screwy it is.

--Chris Wayan

Dream 1: nightmares - nocturnes - guilt - God
Dream 2: false-waking dreams - out-of-body experiences - astral planes - light - fire - compare to Gunnhildr's Birth Dream & Wayan's Afterimage
Dream 3: books - brains - life-paths - dreams inside dreams - dreams about dreams - dreamwork - predictive dreams - ESP - transcendent dreams - scientific method

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