An Essay On Dream

By Thomas Paine, 1807

Review is copyright 2016 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2016.01.21

Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: An Essay On Dream
Author: Thomas Paine
Year: 1807
Publisher: Forgotten Books
ISBN 978-1605060309 (U.S.)
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In the collection of Paine’s writings I own, An Essay On Dream was separated from other works, though it appears to have originally been a part of “Part III” of The Age Of Reason, as well as being an introductory chapter to Paine’s Examination Of The Prophecies.

By itself, this essay is very short — barely long enough for a pamphlet. Microsoft Word tells me it has 3,922 words.

In it, Paine gives his theory on how the human mind works and then his assertion on how dreams work — neither of which is supported by modern science. His purpose, it seems, was to discredit the Bible’s use of dreams as messages from God, which he didn’t really discuss until his next work, which I will cover in a separate review.

He also, in the preface (which also serves as a preface for the later work, Examinations Of The Prophecies), points out some of the absurdities of church doctrines, including predestination — “if this were true... their preaching is in vain, and they had better work at some useful calling for their livelihood” — and that the Bible is the Word of God:
“The councils of Nice and Laodicea were held about 350 years after the time Christ is said to have lived; and the books that now compose the New Testament, were then voted for by YEAS and NAYS, as we now vote a law. A great many that were offered had a majority of nays, and were rejected. This is the way the New-Testament came into being.”

What I Liked Least About It

Paine’s understanding of how the human mind works seems to us today to be archaic — it was pre-science, and pure conjecture.
“The three great faculties of the mind are IMAGINATION, JUDGMENT, and MEMORY. Every action of the mind comes under one or the other of these faculties. In a state of wakefulness, as in the day-time, these three faculties are all active; but that is seldom the case in sleep, and never perfectly: and this is the cause that our dreams are not so regular and rational as our waking thoughts.”
Surprisingly, because Paine is considered rational, he goes on to assert that the workings of the human brain cannot be discovered. He also asserts some things as true for everyone, when they appear to be only true for some people. For example, he says that if you’ve forgotten a person’s name, then in a dream you cannot ask him his name and receive the answer. Yet I have done exactly that on several occasions — forgotten the name of a long-ago coworker or schoolmate and then had them tell me their name in a dream.

What I Liked Most About It

Otherwise, Paine’s descriptions of the dreaming process seem spot-on, as do his conclusions:
“In this view of the mind, how absurd it is to place reliance upon dreams, and how much more absurd to make them a foundation for religion; yet the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten by the Holy Ghost, a being never heard of before, stands on the foolish story of an old man’s [Joseph’s] dream.”
He ends by quoting Ecclesiasticus 34:1-2 (also known as Sirach or Wisdom of Sirach, accepted as biblical canon by all branches of the Christian church except for most Protestants):
“The hopes of a man void of understanding are vain and false: and dreams lift up fools. Whoso regardeth dreams is like him that catcheth at a shadow, and followeth after the wind.”
So, basically, the Bible says not to follow dreams, but then uses stories of men and women having dreams to help prove that it’s true.


Like the rest of The Age Of Reason, I wish I had read this earlier, though there’s no way to know if it would have helped break through my force field.

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