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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Sleeping

by Matt Qvortrup

Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. But there are exceptions to the rule. ‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

René Descartes (1596-1650) liked a good sleep-in. No wonder the sleepy Frenchman often reminisced about dreaming in his philosophy. For example, in his Discourse on Method he wrote that, “asleep we can in the same way imagine ourselves possessed of another body and that we see other stars and another earth, when there is nothing of the kind.” Alas, his employer Queen Christina of Sweden was an early-bird and demanded philosophy lessons at five in the morning. That killed the French rationalist, after he caught pneumonia from venturing out in the snowy Swedish dawn.

Writing circa one hundred years later, David Hume was of the same mind as Descartes: “A man sound asleep”, he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature, “is insensible of time” (p.84). Søren Kierkegaard too, another century on, liked to stay in bed. “My time I divide as follows: the one half I sleep; the other half I dream. I never dream when I sleep; that would be a shame, because to sleep is the height of genius,” the existentialist wrote in Either-Or.

These philosophers mostly enjoyed sleep. Not all philosophers did. Plato had little time for those who preferred a lie in: “Asleep, man is useless, he may as well be dead.” Unlike his drowsier colleagues, the Athenian philosopher thought “it a disgrace and unworthy of a gentleman…if he devotes the whole of any night to sleep” (Laws 297). Immanuel Kant clearly got that memo. He had his servant wake him up every day at 5am.

Thomas Hobbes too wrote about sleep; but he was more interested in the causes of bad dreams. Always unromantic, and true to his mechanistic worldview, the Englishman believed that "dreams are caused by the distemper of some inward parts of the Body" (Leviathan, p.95). He also suggested that food might cause dreams and nightmares. Interestingly, the same idea had occurred to Aristotle a couple of millennia before. He proposed that dreams were a result of indigestion. And, based on his indefatigable empirical studies, Aristotle concluded, in the aptly entitled On Sleep, that people with small veins, dwarfs, and people with large heads, sleep a lot (De Somno, 3.457). Aristotle surely would not have been surprised that one of Snow White’s diminutive cohabitors was named ‘Sleepy’.

Ethical philosophers have also written about sleep, and what we might call the natural rights of sleepy heads. The Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot believed it was immoral to photograph a sleeping person (Natural Goodness, 2001, p.64). Whether this is a cardinal sin might be debated, but her other observation is undeniable: “In human life it is an Aristotelian necessity (something on which our way of life depends) that if, for instance, a stranger should come on us when we are sleeping he will not think it all right to kill us” (p.114)!

This was a bit long-winded. Are you still awake? Okay, I see… Sweet dreams, then! For, as Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Blessed are the sleepy ones: for they shall soon nod off.”

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2021

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University

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