On Sleep and Sleeplessness

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


WITH regard to sleep and waking, we must consider what they are: whether they are peculiar to soul or to body, or common to both; and if common, to what part of soul or body they appertain: further, from what cause it arises that they are attributes of animals, and whether all animals share in them both, or some partake of the one only, others of the other only, or some partake of neither and some of both.

Further, in addition to these questions, we must also inquire what the dream is, and from what cause sleepers sometimes dream, and sometimes do not; or whether the truth is that sleepers always dream but do not always remember (their dream); and if this occurs, what its explanation is.

Again, [we must inquire] whether it is possible or not to foresee the future (in dreams), and if it be possible, in what manner; further, whether, supposing it possible, it extends only to things to be accomplished by the agency of Man, or to those also of which the cause lies in supra-human agency, and which result from the workings of Nature, or of Spontaneity.

First, then, this much is clear, that waking and sleep appertain to the same part of an animal, inasmuch as they are opposites, and sleep is evidently a privation of waking. For contraries, in natural as well as in all other matters, are seen always to present themselves in the same subject, and to be affections of the same: examples are- health and sickness, beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, sight and blindness, hearing and deafness. This is also clear from the following considerations. The criterion by which we know the waking person to be awake is identical with that by which we know the sleeper to be asleep; for we assume that one who is exercising sense-perception is awake, and that every one who is awake perceives either some external movement or else some movement in his own consciousness. If waking, then, consists in nothing else than the exercise of sense-perception, the inference is clear, that the organ, in virtue of which animals perceive, is that by which they wake, when they are awake, or sleep, when they are asleep.

But since the exercise of sense-perception does not belong to soul or body exclusively, then (since the subject of actuality is in every case identical with that of potentiality, and what is called sense-perception, as actuality, is a movement of the soul through the body) it is clear that its affection is not an affection of soul exclusively, and that a soulless body has not the potentiality of perception. [Thus sleep and waking are not attributes of pure intelligence, on the one hand, or of inanimate bodies, on the other.]

Now, whereas we have already elsewhere distinguished what are called the parts of the soul, and whereas the nutrient is, in all living bodies, capable of existing without the other parts, while none of the others can exist without the nutrient; it is clear that sleep and waking are not affections of such living things as partake only of growth and decay, e.g. not of plants, because these have not the faculty of sense-perception, whether or not this be capable of separate existence; in its potentiality, indeed, and in its relationships, it is separable.

Likewise it is clear that [of those which either sleep or wake] there is no animal which is always awake or always asleep, but that both these affections belong [alternately] to the same animals. For if there be an animal not endued with sense-perception, it is impossible that this should either sleep or wake; since both these are affections of the activity of the primary faculty of sense-perception. But it is equally impossible also that either of these two affections should perpetually attach itself to the same animal, e.g. that some species of animal should be always asleep or always awake, without intermission; for all organs which have a natural function must lose power when they work beyond the natural time-limit of their working period; for instance, the eyes [must lose power] from [too-long continued] seeing, and must give it up; and so it is with the hand and every other member which has a function. Now, if sense-perception is the function of a special organ, this also, if it continues perceiving beyond the appointed time-limit of its continuous working period, will lose its power, and will do its work no longer. Accordingly, if the waking period is determined by this fact, that in it sense-perception is free; if in the case of some contraries one of the two must be present, while in the case of others this is not necessary; if waking is the contrary of sleeping, and one of these two must be present to every animal: it must follow that the state of sleeping is necessary. Finally, if such affection is Sleep, and this is a state of powerlessness arising from excess of waking, and excess of waking is in its origin sometimes morbid, sometimes not, so that the powerlessness or dissolution of activity will be so or not; it is inevitable that every creature which wakes must also be capable of sleeping, since it is impossible that it should continue actualizing its powers perpetually.

So, also, it is impossible for any animal to continue always sleeping. For sleep is an affection of the organ of sense-perception- a sort of tie or inhibition of function imposed on it, so that every creature that sleeps must needs have the organ of sense-perception. Now, that alone which is capable of sense-perception in actuality has the faculty of sense-perception; but to realize this faculty, in the proper and unqualified sense, is impossible while one is asleep. All sleep, therefore, must be susceptible of awakening. Accordingly, almost all other animals are clearly observed to partake in sleep, whether they are aquatic, aerial, or terrestrial, since fishes of all kinds, and molluscs, as well as all others which have eyes, have been seen sleeping. ’Hard-eyed’ creatures and insects manifestly assume the posture of sleep; but the sleep of all such creatures is of brief duration, so that often it might well baffle one’s observation to decide whether they sleep or not. Of testaceous animals, on the contrary, no direct sensible evidence is as yet forthcoming to determine whether they sleep, but if the above reasoning be convincing to any one, he who follows it will admit this [viz. that they do so.]

That, therefore, all animals sleep may be gathered from these considerations. For an animal is defined as such by its possessing sense-perception; and we assert that sleep is, in a certain way, an inhibition of function, or, as it were, a tie, imposed on sense-perception, while its loosening or remission constitutes the being awake. But no plant can partake in either of these affections, for without sense-perception there is neither sleeping nor waking. But creatures which have sense-perception have likewise the feeling of pain and pleasure, while those which have these have appetite as well; but plants have none of these affections. A mark of this is that the nutrient part does its own work better when (the animal) is asleep than when it is awake. Nutrition and growth are then especially promoted, a fact which implies that creatures do not need sense-perception to assist these processes.


Related Resources


Download Options

Title: On Sleep and Sleeplessness

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: On Sleep and Sleeplessness

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Aristotle, "Chapter 1," On Sleep and Sleeplessness, trans. J. I. Beare Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGHHL29INYBE62N.

MLA: Aristotle. "Chapter 1." On Sleep and Sleeplessness, translted by J. I. Beare, Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGHHL29INYBE62N.

Harvard: Aristotle, 'Chapter 1' in On Sleep and Sleeplessness, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGHHL29INYBE62N.