William V. Harris


On his book Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity

Cover Interview of October 14, 2009

The wide angle

We do not know why we dream, or what if anything our dreams may mean – though some theories are much more plausible than others.  In these circumstances it is worth considering what other highly articulate cultures have had to say on the subject, and especially what our intellectual ancestors among the Greeks and Romans had to say.

All the more so because it is hard to resist the notion that dreams reflect, in some way, our “real” thoughts or “real” personalities.  This idea has ancient roots – though it was not the general belief of the Greeks or Romans.

What is in fact most extraordinary about ancient ideas about dreams is ancient skepticism.  What fits least well with common assumptions about the Greeks and Romans is the clear-eyed rationality of certain among them.

Hence the study of ancient dreams offers a window into the development of ancient religious thought, including early Christianity.

It also offers a window into the development of ancient science, or, as some might like to say, “proto-science.”

The historiographical challenge here is pluridisciplinarity.  One kind of history-writing that is, in my opinion, destined to grow in importance requires not only some use of social sciences (in this case anthropology) but, more importantly still, some use of natural sciences (in this case psychology).  Without considering exact scientific descriptions of the phenomenon of dreaming, it would have been impossible to reach a balanced conclusion about the credibility of ancient dream-reports.

From my point of view, this study continues the sort of historical-psychological investigation that I undertook in Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity.  Indeed, rage was an important part of the psychological landscape of antiquity.