The Dreams Of Tantalus

The Dreams Of Tantalus

We are all like Tantalus. We are all thirsty for the true goods, but we all drink dreams. While we absorb the deadly waves of the river of Lethe through our open throats, we scarcely lick with our lips a shadowlike bit of nectar and ambrosia. Therefore, a troublesome thirst continually burns us, oh we poor Tantali (qtd. in Kristeller, 210).

This wonderful quote, which I found in Paul Kristeller’s work on Marsilio Ficino, is in the context of Ficino’s musings on melancholia, especially the melancholy of scholars.

Ficino uses the Greek myth of Tantalus to illustrate how we come so very close to truth at times, only to have it snatched away from us. Banished to Hades by the gods for serving up his son at a banquet, he was caused to stand chin-deep in the water with fruit dangling above him. When he would try to eat or drink, the water would recede or the fruit would be lifted away, just out of his reach. A horrible punishment, indeed!

I have experienced this many times in my own search for truth. Just when I think I have retained a nugget of insight into the workings of my own psyche, I am dashed against the rocks by doubt and fear. I reach for that delicious piece of fruit, only to have it snatched away from me by some element of uncertainty. I stoop to drink from the waters of life and they, in turn, recede from me. It is a terrible plight, especially for the thoughtful person.

This phrase strikes a deep chord within me: “we all drink dreams.” We thirst for truth, but instead, we drink dreams. One way I look at this is to think about my own experiences with dreams. Most of the time, I cannot remember my dreams. It is utterly frustrating. I know that what I just dreamed is important, possibly some clue to help me understand myself better, but the image just slips away. Sometimes I can close my eyes and think about it a little and a bit of it will return. If I wait until I am fully awake, it is useless. I have to be in a hypnagogic state to even come close to remembering. Usually, no effort on my part will retrieve it. This may be part of what Ficino is talking about. We desire to drink freely and fully from the waters of life, but instead we drink only bits and pieces of elusive images.

Ficino says we “absorb the deadly waves of the river of Lethe.” In some Greek myths, if a newly dead soul drank from the Lethe, he/she would forget what had happened to them in their previous life. To Ficino, forgetfulness seems to be a deadly state. Possibly, he is thinking of Socrates’ doctrine of recollection. Perhaps he feels that forgetfulness leads us away from truth because we do not remember truth discovered in previous existences. When we forget truth, we grab at shadows of the true. We mistake the shadows for the real. In this state, we are deceived. It is similar to the Hindu concept of maya.

Even though we drink our fill from the waves of the Lethe, we are still parched, hence our state of melancholia. This happens to me occasionally. I may feel that I have learned many new things from my studies, and thus I feel elated. The next day, I may awaken with a gnawing feeling of despondency. I can’t explain it; it is simply there. I may have no apparent reason to feel sad, but yet I do. It is a great mystery to me. I feel, however, that my encounters with sadness actually lift me, in a paradoxical way, toward that which I seek.


Works Cited

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino. New York: Columbia UP,

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