Those who compared our lives to a dream have more reason than they thought.
The dreams and our imagination give meaning to life, though most of the times they are just what they are: myths, dreams, illusion, unconsciousness.
The presence of dream and illusion in our lives are a current theme in philosophical and literary thought. In its most radical presentation, this concept proclaims that men live immersed in dreams and illusion.
Life is but a dream
Behold! Human beings live in an underground cave. (…) They only see their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.
Plato, 428-347 b.C., Greek philosopher, in The Republic
Castles in the air – they are so easy to take refuge in. And easy to build, too.
Henrik Ibsen, 1826-1906, Norwegian writer, The Master Builder
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…
William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, English writer, The Tempest
A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea.
Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924, Anglo-polish writer, Lord Jim
What is life? An illusion, a dream, a fiction, and the biggest well is small, because all life is a dream, and the dreams, themselves are only dreams.
Calderon de la Barca, 1600-1681, Spanish writer, Life is a Dream
In the night that brings the sleep, the dreams laugh of us, wandering in front of our eyes.
Petronius, Satiricon, I Century b. C., Roman writer
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1802-1809, English poet, The Higher Pantheism.
Man Can't Live Without dreams
Some thinkers, mainly modern and contemporary, defend that man can’t live without illusion. It's part of human nature, a way of escaping from the suffering and lack of meaning present in our deeper existence. Life demands the dream. Man can’t tolerate the inner side of reality.
What men do when awake they do when asleep.
Heraclitus, 540-480 b. C., Greek philosopher, Fragments
A mere trifle consoles us, for a mere trifle distresses us.
Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662, French philosopher, physic and mathematician, Thoughts
The Human species does not tolerate too much reality.
T. S. Eliot, 1888-1965, Anglo-American writer, in E. Morin Method V
Men have always fought reality with all their strengths.
Jean Servier, French writer, in E. Morin Method V
Take the life-lie away from the average man and straight away you take away his happiness.
Henrik Ibsen, 1826-1906, Norwegian writer, The Wild Duck
To man, as important as the technique is the creation of an imaginary world and the fabulous proliferation of myths, beliefs and religions.
There exists a universal propensity to believe in ghosts and spirits, to believe in sorcery and, yet more frequently, in the efficacy of magic and sacrifices.
The illusion occurs throughout history, in all societies and all individuals. All spirits, as soon as they get out of a disillusion, are ready to fall into another one.
The archaic lived in a world inhabited with spirits, supernatural beings, fabulous legends, chimeras, miracles. Dreams were part of reality.
The myth fortifies man, because it hides from him the incomprehensibility of his destiny and because it fills up the nothingness of death.
E. Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, Method V
life is largely a dream
The dreams and our imagination give meaning to life, though most of the times dreams are just what they are: just dreams.
Blessings on him who invented sleep, the mantle that covers all human thoughts, the food that satisfies hunger, the drink that slakes thirst, the fire that warms cold, the cold that moderates heat, and, lastly, the common currency that buys all things, the balance and weight that equalizes the shepherd and the king, the simpleton and the sage.
Miguel de Cervantes, 1547-1616, Spanish writer, Don Quixote
Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination is the supreme master of art, as of life.
Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924, Anglo-polish writer, Some reminiscences
A man is always a storyteller; he tries to see his life as if he were telling it. But one has to choose: to live or to tell"
Jean Paul Sartre, 1905-1980, French philosopher and writer, The nausea
I had a dream, which was not all a dream…
Lord Byron, 1788-1824, English poet, Darkness
When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.
Montaigne, 1533-1592, French writer, Essays
Do what you will this life's a fiction
And is made up of contradiction.
William Blake, 1757-1827, English writer, Gnomic Verses
Once, I, Chang Tzu, dreamed that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke and there I was, visible Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Tzu.
Chang-Tzu, III - II a.C., Chinese philosopher, Book of Chang-Tzu
Life as a dream
George Berkeley, in the eighteenth century, doubted even of the material world. To him the physical world – mountains, houses, people... – didn’t exist. They were illusions, ideas. To Berkeley, only ideas existed.
This is an extreme conception, rather marginal, which contradicts much evidence, and that has aroused repulsive and vigorous reactions. Samuel Johnson, a famous writer and contemporary of Berkeley, reacted to the other thesis saying: «I can easily refute him!» And he kicked a stone, which made him limp.
Incomparably more consensual is the idea that we are predisposed to live in illusion, in fantasy, in dream. That is a way of escaping from the hostile reality, from life’s cruelty, from the threat of death, from the uninteresting.
Full lucidity is intermittent, we only get it from time to time. Our knowledge, and its truth, is very limited. This is an ancient idea. Four hundred years before Christ, Demosthenes considered that «nothing is easier than auto-illusion: all man wishes to be true all in which he believes».
But there are other opinions still more radical:
«Men have always fought reality with all their strength », said Jean Servier.
And Edgar Morin, in the same line:
«The illusion crosses all history, all the societies, all the individuals, and all the spirits, as soon as they get out of a disillusion, are ready to fall into another one.»
In short: to these authors, man lives in a world of myths, of fantasies, far way from reality. This is a way of getting existential comfort, and is a biased form of giving meaning to man’s lives.
On the same line, Sigmund Freud said we should thank the illusions. And accept them without complaining. If eventually they collide with reality and break into pieces, they are, after all, a way of giving meaning to life.
Anyway, even accepting the relevance of illusion and dream in our lives, it’s still true that conscience has a place in our existence. Our thoughts about the illusion and the dreams in which we live, are a proof of that «wavering small flame», that Edgar Morin speaks of.
When the Bible, in the Ecclesiastes, asserts over and over that «all is vanity and striving after wind», behind that allusion to a certain type of illusion – the existential illusion, connected to the many of our daily wills which are condemned to end up in smoke – is the fact that we are conscious of this: the conscience of illusion and, so, the denial of that same illusion.
Suggested best-seller reading: Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions