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The Philosophy of Insomnia

April 15, 2011

Willis G. Regier in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Hegel wrote in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right that the owl of Minerva flies only at night. It hoots at insomniacs. I know. I’m one.

Bruises, red eyes, and research remind me that insomnia breaks down body and soul. Noisy neighbors, crying kids, overwork, bad food, sickness, pain, allergies, and rude visitors drive sleep away. So do naked thoughts and the words they wear: insomnias of insult, dread, worry, remorse, faux pas, frustration, revenge, and raw anxiety. Philosophy, in its immense universals, omits nothing (not even nothing). Thus there have always been tired philosophers of insomnia.

Insomnia has intrigued thinkers since the ancients, an interest that continues today, especially in Europe. What light does philosophy’s exploration of the dark of night shine on insomnia, particularly for that quintessential insomniac, the scholar?

Philosophy is no friend of sleep. In his Laws (circa 350 BC), Plato platonized, “When a man is asleep, he is no better than if he were dead; and he who loves life and wisdom will take no more sleep than is necessary for health.” Clement of Alexandria echoed, “There is no use of a sleeping man, as there is not of a dead man. … But whoever of us is most solicitous for living the true life, and for entertaining noble sentiments, will keep awake for as long time as possible.” [More]

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