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
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
“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