Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Augustine and Wrongdoing in Dreams

Today is another student choice today for one of my classes, and this time they chose the topic of dreaming. I've had them read Eric Schwitzgebel's Why Did We Think We Dreamed in Black and White? and part of the fairly good philosophy of dreaming article in the IEP. I've been thinking about Augustine and ethics for dreaming. In the IEP article, Springett says (2a),

Saint Augustine, seeking to live a morally perfect life, was worried about some of the actions he carried out in dreams. For somebody who devoted his life to celibacy, his sexual dreams of fornication worried him. In his Confessions (Book X; Chapter 30), he writes to God. He talks of his success in quelling sexual thoughts and earlier habits from his life before his religious conversion. But he declares that in dreams he seems to have little control over committing the acts that he avoids during the waking day. He rhetorically asks “am I not myself during sleep?” believing that it really is him who is the central character of his dreams. In trying to solve the problem Augustine appeals to the apparent experiential difference between waking and dreaming life. He draws a crucial distinction between “happenings” and “actions.” Dreams fall into the former category. Augustine was not carrying out actions but was rather undergoing an experience which happened to him without choice on his part. By effectively removing agency from dreaming, we cannot be responsible for what happens in our dreams. As a result, the notion of sin or moral responsibility cannot be applied to our dreams (Flanagan, 2000: p.18; pp. 179 – 183).

Augustine's brief comments about dreaming are difficult fully to explicate, but I'm currently inclining toward thinking that Augustine's actual position is much subtler than this. In the relevant passage, Augustine notes that Christian moral teaching required him to give up concubinage, and that God's grace allowed him to do so. However, his memory still carries the past images, and, indeed, traces of the past habits, of his immoral life in his mind. When he is awake, they sometimes come to mind against his will, but when he is asleep, things are different: he sometimes consents to them, and they seem real:

Am I not myself at that time, O Lord my God? And there is yet so much difference between myself and myself, in that instant wherein I pass back from waking to sleeping, or return from sleeping to waking! Where, then, is the reason which when waking resists such suggestions?

One possibility is that we are so different in sleeping that our reason is practically shut up; but, as Augustine notes, sometimes we do resist these images and suggestions of wrongdoing in dreams, and, moreover, when our conscience evaluates our failures to resist on waking, it is not pained or grieved that we did these things but that they were done in us. It's this latter that Springett, following Flanagan, is summarizing as a distinction between action and happening, but I'm not sure this is what Augustine actually has in mind. I think rather, Augustine is saying that there are at least two morally relevant actions here: commission and consent. We do not always commit misdeeds in our dreams; but we sometimes do consent to them. These are distinct kinds of moral action, which we assess differently when we are looking at matters of moral responsibility. The former is an active choice; but the latter is more passive. One of Augustine's words for it is languor, feebleness or weakness. We are morally responsible for it, but we are not responsible for it in the way we are responsible for deliberately chosen acts but the way we are responsible for our weaknesses and failings. Another word he uses for it is visco, glue or birdlime; we find ourselves stuck in concupiscence or craving independently of any particular choice, and unable to resist as strongly in dreaming as in waking, we find ourselves not merely thinking it, not merely enjoying it, both of which may occur fully against our will, but actually consenting to it. A third thing he calls it is a rebellion or insurgency of the soul against itself.

Thus I think one should see Augustine as drawing a distinction not between action and happening but between action and some third thing that is in between action and happening, in which it is not something we do, in a proper sense, but it is also not something that merely happens to us -- it is something that is done or made in us. Likewise, I don't think we can interpret Augustine as saying that there are no actions in dreams -- he clearly thinks that we sometimes do act in dreams by resisting suggestions in it, and it seems at least plausible to interpret him as saying that we sometimes do commit sins in dreams -- it's just that the immediate point he's making is that even when we don't, we still have this languor, this feebleness from our moral illness, by which we can still sometimes consent to wrongdoing even while not actively choosing it.

And, of course, Augustine trusts that God through grace is reshaping him so that even this visco concupsicentiae will no longer mire him down, and in the meantime he confesses it to God:

Is not Your hand able, O Almighty God, to heal all the diseases of my soul, and by Your more abundant grace to quench even the lascivious motions of my sleep? You will increase in me, O Lord, Your gifts more and more, that my soul may follow me to You, disengaged from the bird-lime of concupiscence; that it may not be in rebellion against itself, and even in dreams not simply not, through sensual images, commit those deformities of corruption, even to the pollution of the flesh, but that it may not even consent unto them. For it is no great thing for the Almighty, who is “able to do . . . above all that we ask or think,” to bring it about that no such influence— not even so slight a one as a sign might restrain— should afford gratification to the chaste affection even of one sleeping; and that not only in this life, but at my present age. But what I still am in this species of my ill, have I confessed unto my good Lord; rejoicing with trembling in that which You have given me, and bewailing myself for that wherein I am still imperfect; trusting that You will perfect Your mercies in me, even to the fullness of peace, which both that which is within and that which is without shall have with You, when death is swallowed up in victory.


  1. Not sure exactly what to think of the Schwitzgebel paper. The indeterminate-color hypothesis seems natural enough, but I think he goes for too much in suggesting we are "pervasively and grossly mistaken about our own conscious experience" in general.
    Unless I've misunderstood him, I'm tempted to say such a statement is incoherent. If we were really so mistaken about our conscious experience, how could we even identify what it is our beliefs are about? The beliefs would simply fail to cohere, and what we'd really have is a confusion of beliefs about more than one thing, each of which we're individually mostly-right about.

  2. branemrys6:25 AM

    I'm inclined to agree; the case doesn't support a skepticism about introspection as strong as he wants it to support. And, as you say, it doesn't seem it could -- it depends on introspection itself.

  3. It seems to me that "pervasively and grossly mistaken" memories of dreams are just a failure to remember the dream in anything more than a vague way. Something else has taken the dream's place in memory, much like how a dream itself is not a misperception of physical reality but simply a perception of something else instead.


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