Dreaming and Empathy
One of the greatest speeches ever offered Americans, in fact, one of the greatest examples of soaring rhetoric ever, was that of Martin Luther King, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 23 August 1963 over a half century ago. It was titled, “I have a dream.” It was a call to make America great again – not great in power, not great in wealth, but great in making reality match ideal aspirations.
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
It is a dream that speaks to us today because Martin Luther King envisioned that one day the voters of Alabama would elect a man like Doug Jones who, in a deep red state, would beat Roy Moore, a racist, a hater of homosexuals and Muslims alike, a despicable man found guilty twice of flouting the constitution as a judge but never prosecuted for his alleged pursuit of nubile teenagers.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
It was and remains one of the great speeches of history about noble dreams.
In this week’s parshat, the dream being interpreted is not a noble one, but one dreamt by a noble, one dreamt by the great Pharaoh of Egypt himself. In Genesis 41, in fact, he is recorded as having had two dreams.
After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke.5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.
As Joseph uniquely interpreted that dream, it was about the seven fat years to come that would be eaten up by the following seven years of famine and shortages. It was an economic dream about the future. And it was a dream that offered Joseph the opportunity to play on that forecast to construct a national policy of savings and subsequent distribution that would enhance the reputation of Pharaoh far and wide, for the surplus saved would be shared broadly to help even non-Egyptians. A dream by a noble was translated into a noble dream.
In the writings of Cicero, also one of the great rhetoricians of history, in his essay “On the Good Life,” he told the story of Scipio the Younger who had a dream that Scipio the Elder had visited him from the nether or spirit world. The Elder told the Younger of his achievements, of how he had made Rome a great power, of how he had made the people of Carthage submit to Rome. But now the people of Carthage are becoming a noisy mob. Now they are protesting Rome’s rule. Now once again they are raising the conflicts of old, threatening the peace and challenging the imperial power.
Carthage is the city, Scipio the Elder urges, that the Younger must attack, that you must destroy. This is the city the destruction of which will turn you from an ordinary soldier to a great leader who can then use the victory two years later to become consul. Scipio the Elder predicts that this will lead to even greater accomplishments, the conquest and destruction of other cities in revolt and, most importantly, bringing order and discipline back to the rule of Rome itself which, because of Scipio the Elder’s own grandchildren, has become a place of licentiousness, anarchy and disorder.
Scipio the Younger’s dream is a vision of imperial might and power. It is a dream in which the sun is depicted as the ruler of all. There is only one sun and one ruler. And in his dream, Scipio hears the music of the spheres to which most people are deaf. He hears about the harmony promised by the spirit world, for the body is mortal, the flesh is weak, and the true self is the inner self, the spirit inside, the self-recognition that he, Scipio the Younger, is truly a god impelled by an inner and truer spirit, by an immortal soul within a mortal body, born to exercise the rule of the eternal god, rule that demands unquestioning obedience.
Why is Martin Luther’s dream, that is also attuned to the music of the spheres in the eternal spiritual world, about human equality, about freedom, about respecting the dignity of all, whereas Scipio the Younger’s dream is about harmony imposed from above by a powerful imperial ruler that quashes those who would question that power? Plato in the Phaedrus offers an answer. For Scipio the Younger’s dream was of raising earth to heaven while that of Martin Luther King was of bringing heaven down to earth.
Plato in his dialogue, Phaedrus, has a striking image, an allegory about the life of the soul, of what Jews call the nefesh. It is a story of a charioteer and who has harnessed and is driving forward as he directs two horses, one an unmanageable steed of passion in the quest for personal satisfaction and the other a horse of courage which, unlike the wild horse to which it is tethered, can listen and be guided by the voice of reason, of logos. The horse of courage is beautiful in shape with the highest moral qualities of virtue. The wild horse is ugly and foul. In the horse of courage, the wings of the angels, of the horse as the messenger of the gods, in particular, of Zeus, grow in strength and lift up the weight of the world to the heavens where the gods live. In the ugly horse of unbridled passion, the wings shrink and disappear. The bad horse will always drag the charioteer back to earth.
What is most notable about the Pharaoh’s dream, in contrast, is that, though it is a dream by a noble, though it is a dream by one who takes himself and is taken to be a sun god, it is such an earthly dream, about cows without wings, not horses, about stalks of wheat and not even animals. In the Socratic world, only intelligence grasped by logos and having no material appearance captures the character of the heavens. However, Martin Luther’s dream takes place in technicolour, for it is not just a vision about black and white lying down together in the same field, but of people of all colours in between, of people symbolized by Joseph’s famous multi-coloured coat.
The irony in Plato is that the advocate of these militaristic virtues of strength and courage and nobility was himself a Harvey Weinstein, said to be “unprepossessing to the point of grotesqueness.” Socrates had a flat nose rather than a bulbous one, protruding eyes and walked very awkwardly, a complete contrast to Joseph who was a man of beautiful shape, though having a foul mouth full of malicious gossip, especially about his brothers. Joseph was not only a tattle tale; he maligned his brothers and told of their so-called dirty deeds.
If Socrates had an “inner voice” that told him what was true and what was not, Pharaoh had a vision of the outer world that told him about how the world, how the future, would unfold. However, he could not interpret nor execute the message of his own dreams. Whereas the main concern of Socrates was the soul’s immortality, Joseph’s mission becomes serving the mortality of the body and ensuring that there is enough to eat and drink for all. Through logos, in the worship of Socratic reasoning, wisdom comes through purification of thoughts, through clarification of words and their meanings. Joseph’s wisdom comes from hermeneutics, the ability to interpret visions and dreams. For Socrates, in the last hours of his life in the Phaedrus, is more than ever preoccupied with the soul’s immortality and a framework whereby man is but a chattel of the gods destined if he is great to be enslaved to a divine vision.
The parallels and differences are striking. Socrates’ final days are spent in prison in dialogue with his fellow philosophers. Joseph had been cast into a pit, sold into slavery and ended up in prison on false charges only to be rescued because of his abilities to interpret dreams. He rises to the highest office in the land, the effective vizier of the sun-god, the Pharaoh. My colleague at York, the estimable specialist in Greek philosophy, Gerald Naddaf, translated a book by Luc Brisson called, Plato the Myth Maker. Myth and narrative was, for Plato, not up to the standards of logos, in which conclusions are derived by reason and defended by argument. The “truths” of myths, on the other hand, were not falsifiable before the high judge of reason. But Joseph’s visions were verified by the course of human history, as were Martin Luther King’s.
A myth, a dream, is not false news. Mythos, the term in Greek, is a word that takes the form of advice and is something one says rather than something one writes. It is neither true nor false, real or fake. From Xenophanes on, the purpose of Greek philosophy, of using logos, was to denounce the myths of Homer and Hesiod of having any validity. Plato brought mythos back into philosophy as a useful illustrative device. However, in the Torah, narrative, myth, dreams – the whole paraphernalia of the text – cries out; narrative is superior in allowing one to listen to the harmony of the spheres. But what is that harmony? Is it that of the war lover, that of the insistence on a unified and imperial command structure, or that of disorder, of disharmony in the family and in political life altogether?
In the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, we see that truth can be envisioned and not simply argued about and verified. But that truth needs an interpreter. However, what is more important is to attend to, not the skills of Joseph as an interpreter, but the wisdom of Pharaoh in using Joseph, not only as his interpreter, but as his vizier to carry out that vision. And it is not the vision of a sun god, of an imperial ruler, but the dream of a man who sees the world, not as it is, but as it is becoming, who sees his role as protecting and feeding his subjects and not of using them, like Scipio, both father and son, to achieve immortal glory. Mythos for both the Pharaoh and Joseph has both credulity and historical value that the monochromatic world of logos lacks. Memory and recollection of dreams and their interpretation offers the route to a better future. Instead of logos divorced from the oral tradition, a text that is wedded to oral memory is more significant, for it passes on the wisdom of the ages from generation to generation, from dor to dor, מדור לדור.
If he had been a man of prejudice, Pharaoh could have dismissed a dandy and possibly a gay man serving as his dream interpreter. Certainly, if he had been a Roman statesman, he might have freed his slave and even done business with him, but it highly unlikely that he would have appointed a former slave, his vizier. Finally, Pharaoh would not have authorized a program of economic distribution to protect the lives of all. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian Pharaoh criticizes the God, Theuth, the inventor of writing, by arguing that, “writing is not a recipe for memory and wisdom” but for forgetfulness and the appearance of wisdom. With computers, we do not need to learn to spell even. With cell phones, we no longer need to remember phone numbers. Thought and discourse become separated from memory.
The Torah always keeps the two married. Memories of dreams in particular provide an inestimable source of wisdom. It is not as if material wealth frees one up to have time to dream, but that dreams reveal the necessity of husbanding one’s wealth and then redistributing it for the benefit of all others, for the common good rather than for the glory of the ruler and conqueror.
This suggests that there is an even deeper meaning to the story. The Pharaoh not only employs a lowly Hebrew and former slave to interpret his dreams, he turns him into the manager of the rule of the people and the land. He makes him his economic czar. The Pharaoh recognizes each person for their merit and does not pre-judge them based on class or ethnic origin. He does so based on what the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment – Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith – called a philosophy of sentiment, not a sentimental philosophy, a philosophy of sympathy and empathy for the other. In the very first sentence of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, sympathy is defined as follows:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”
Even Donald Trump is evidently not entirely bereft of an ounce of moral sympathy. It is that sixth sense, that the Pharaoh had in spades, that provides for the recognition of the virtues and merits of all others, for the opportunities of the many and for the protection of all who are in need. Donald Trump must have that ounce, because that is a premise of sentiment, but he sure does his best to hide it and prove he is bankrupt when it comes to morality.
The Pharaoh is the hero of the story for he exemplifies the nature of sentiment and the manifestations of altruism. Sympathy is innate in us all. The Scipios of this world do their best to repress that sentiment within themselves as they repress others and try to establish a rule of order and harmony through military oppression based on their personal vision rather than on what unites all of humanity. For sympathy to express itself, a change in our way of life may arise to challenge us – an environment challenge for example. With sympathy we rise to empathy and enter into an ability to re-enact and understand the suffering of others, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It was Pharaoh who had the dream, who translated Joseph’s interpretation into a vision of practical morality and hired Joseph to implement it, a man who thus far, whatever his external virtues, had not hereto exhibited much empathy for others.
May the song of humanity be with us.
With the help of Alex Zisman