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Meno’s Dream

by Ben Roth

This report, or tale perhaps, comes down to us from Avicenna, who credits it to Aristotle, though it is not to be found in the now surviving corpus of the peripatetic philosopher. Aristotle (according to Avicenna) already reports worries that it is apocryphal, and hedges over it source. Questions of proper attribution, we will see, are in any case quite fitting.

A nameless former Pythagorean, continuing to hold with the master’s mathematical teachings but disavowing the more mystical aspects of his cult, was found by his servant sitting at the hearth one morning. Normally, the servant was the first in the household to rise, but the former Pythagorean—Meno, let us decide to call him—had not slept. At first, he barely looked up, until he noticed the strange expression on his servant’s face, at once perplexed and somewhat amused.

“I have had a dream,” the servant is said to have said, looking beyond him into the fire. “I find myself walking in an arid desert canyon, my hands trailing through wild growths of sage and rosemary, releasing their scent into the warm air. Through twists and turns, the canyon gradually descends, at one point the walls arching in and almost touching overhead. Finally and suddenly, it opens onto a beach, where I find you, master.”

One imagines, even if Avicenna does not so comment, that at it is only at this point, where he himself makes an appearance, that the still sleepy Meno takes any interest, as even the dreams of our most beloved fail to concern us, unless they include us.

“At first,” the servant continued, still looking into the hearth’s flames, “you do not acknowledge me, so deep in concentration are you over your task. For around you is a marvelously complex city, hundreds of miniature buildings shaped in sand. A network of streets and alleys weaves through them, as well as a series of canals, whose water the gentle lapping of the waves constantly replenishes.”

“‘Note the bridges,’ you say, pointing with a rod at carefully placed bits of driftwood. ‘They number seven.’ Only then do you look up at me.”

Avicenna reports that the servant went on to detail his master’s subsequent speech, and his accompanying movements as he stepped carefully from boulevard to square, island to embankment, within his city, using the rod to note distances matching or multiple, and the emergent angles and overall geometry.

“I did not understand your meanings, but your eyes glowed with conviction,” he said, before turning away to prepare breakfast.

As his mind slowly woke, Meno pondered his servant’s dream—who suddenly saw his master spring up and across the room to his chalk and slate.

Scratching out a diagram, he called out a question, but the practicalities of the day had already displaced the details of the dream from his servant’s thoughts. “Nevermind!” we can imagine him calling out. “I remember what you said!”

“What you said I said,” he might have added after a moment.

The former Pythagorean had realized that his city of sand modeled an ingenious and unexpected proof of the very problem he had been worrying throughout the previous sleepless night, and so many more before. He had tried to work it in pure numbers, but here one could see it. Ignoring the meal now set on the table, he dashed out of the house to share the proof with his fellow thinkers.

All did not end well, however. “Who,” Schelling asks centuries later in an obscure lecture course, Der Grund und Abgrund von Vernunft, haphazardly transcribed by one of his students, “is the author of this proof? The former Pythagorean? His servant? The servant’s idea of his master? The dream itself?” On what, the German idealist wonders, are our systems of reason and logic built? The question is not idle, Schelling insists, as the proof at hand would become central to later developments of logic. Indeed, according to Frege, it is among the few ancient insights still relevant as Aristotelean logic gives way to its modern successors; Gödel affirms the point.

Already, according to Avicenna, Meno himself had the same worries. After a week of drink and feasting with his brethren to celebrate his work, he began to doubt whether it was really his. Looking at the proof, he could no longer remember what it was to not see it. He questioned his servant repeatedly about what he remembered of the dream. He futilely tried to explain the proof to him, searching his face for signs of understanding, for signs that he had already understood. Unwilling to explain to his fellow thinkers the co-opted source of the proof, and so unable to look them in the eye as they continued to celebrate “his” work and turned to elaborating it many corollaries, he distanced himself from his former sources of society.

The contemporary interpreter, whether following Freud or empirical psychology, may protest that the notion of our brains continuing to labor beneath the level of, or even the possibility of explicit access by, consciousness is now familiar. Yet it was not the former Pythagorean’s own brain, but rather his servant’s, that did the work here, a literal yet local notion of collective unconsciousness that only the rarest of Jungians might accept. And so we might insist that the servant, despite his supposed lack of education, must have somehow been steeped in mathematics and contrived this manner to roundaboutly deliver the solution and so respite to his sleepless master. Speaking against this debunking possibility (which he says Aristotle quickly dismisses), Avicenna reports that the former Pythagorean himself eventually wanted it to be true, that he would have happily surrendered any credit (which he didn’t feel he could claim anyway) in order for this mystery to be solved and his confidence in reason restored. Thus a would-be debunker is left to ascribe cruelty to Meno’s servant, if he refused, even in the face of his master’s increasing desperation, to admit that the accomplishment was really his own.

Reflecting on the final developments of the story, Aristotle, Avicenna reports, attends to matters other than those of human interest and feeling. Should we credit an idea to its source, or only he who understands it? What is the proper typology of causes here? Does a reason still have weight if we only understand that but not why it is as it is?

Avicenna himself declines to draw a moral, flatly declaiming the tale’s conclusion instead. No longer able to take pride in the proof, the former Pythagorean took long walks through the country, trying to find the shoreside canyon his servant had described. He took to his bed, hoping to find an answer in his own dreams, his waking mind now unknown to him. There he did not find an answer, but instead the recurring image of an abyss. Running through a labyrinthian city, he flees an unknown threat looming behind. Each time he tries a door, looking for shelter, the building dissolves into sand before him. Each night, before waking, he would be left standing on a precipice, but here he became dissociated from his body, looking as if from above at himself staring down not into slopes of sage and rosemary, but total blackness. Eventually, all possible pleasure—or even bare confidence—drained from it, he took his own life. Avicenna reports nothing concerning the fate of the servant.



Ben Roth’s fiction has been published by Nanoism, Flash, Blink-Ink, Sci Phi Journal, Aesthetics for Birds, Cuento Magazine, 101 Words, decomp journal, Bodega Magazine (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Gambling the Aisle, Sensitive Skin, Euphony, Your Impossible Voice, Quibble, and The Bookends Review, and his criticism by Chicago Review, AGNI Online, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Having taught writing at Harvard and philosophy at Tufts, he will begin as an assistant professor at Emerson College in the fall.

Philosophy Note:

I recently reconnected with a friend from college, who told me she had a dream in which I updated her on what philosophy had and hadn’t solved. I continued professionally into philosophy; she did not. This story was inspired by imagining if the dream me had told her something that proved to be a genuinely new philosophical idea.