“What’s it supposed to mean?” asked a sixth former. He had been sitting in a bus behind a girl whose T-shirt carried the legend ‘Follow your dream.’

“Seriously, what does it mean? How would you put that into Latin? somnium tuum sequere? What would that mean to a Roman? And wouldn’t the same would go for a Greek if you said δίωκε τὸν ὄνειρον?  I’ll tell you what it means: it’s American English for ‘do what you want.’”

I thought this was harsh, while admiring his zeal to detect semantic shifts—and his readiness to use dictionaries. I told a colleague, who enlarged on the theme: yes, he said, this is an Americanism, and the word dream is now used to sell houses and holidays—and also to inveigle the young into show business and commercial sport. And on that subject, he added, why are we becoming a nation of performers while the Chinese are producing and manufacturing things?  A bell rang at this point.

Some of this may be true, but some is not. This sense of dream may not have anything to correspond in Latin or Greek, but it has some pedigree in English, as appears from the OED, which has a long entry for the word. Its use in England to mean a national or personal aspiration seems to go back to the 18th century, though with a flavour of something unlikely or ill-advised.

By 7th Feb 1916, however, it has become something to admire. The OED quotes from the Chicago Tribune for that date: ‘If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.’

And Martin Luther King sealed its respectability in 1963: ‘I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Neither somnus nor ὄνειρος is used in this way, as our student discovered. In classical literature, however, a dream in its original sense may be sent by a god to advise, to warn, or to mislead. They often appear at some pivotal moment, as does—among others in the Bible—Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven in Genesis 28.

The Polis


Tell, Muse, of a 20th-century classical scholar, knighted for his work in political science, who wrote vividly about the polis and produced a painstaking translation of Aristotle’s Politics:

  • Sir Ernest Barker, 1874-1960. Manchester Grammar School and Balliol College Oxford; Craven Scholar 1895, Jenkyns Exhibitioner 1897; Professor of Political Science at Cambridge 1927.

The Oxford DNB describes Barker as a political theorist. It is tempting, when reading him, to misconstrue his very lucidity— so well was that generation of scholars taught to write—and to forget that his explanations, so deceptively simple, are the product of extensive labour, research and critical reading.

Barker on the polis:
‘The assumption of Aristotle, as of Greek thought generally down to the days of Zeno and the Stoic doctrine of the cosmopolis, is that of the small state or civic Republic whose citizens know one another personally, and which can be addressed by a single herald and persuaded by a single orator when it is assembled in its ‘town meeting’. It is a small and intimate society: it is a church as well as a state: it makes no difference between the province of the state and that of society: it is, in a word, an integrated system of social ethics, which realises to the full the capacity of its members, and therefore claims their full allegiance. A limit of size is imposed upon it by its very nature and purpose (as, conversely, the limit of its size has helped to produce its nature and purpose): being a church and a system of social ethics, it cannot be a Babylon. Small as it is, it is complete in itself: it is ‘self-sufficient’, in the sense that it meets from its own resources—its own accumulated moral tradition and the physical yield of its own soil and waters—all the moral and material needs of its members; and as it does not draw upon others, so it is not conceived as giving, or as bound to give, to others, or as making its own contribution to the general development of Hellas. Whole and complete, with a rounded life of its own, the polis rises to a still higher dignity than that of self-sufficiency. It is conceived as ‘natural’—as a scheme of life which, granted the nature of man, it is inevitable and indefeasible. In this conception of ‘nature’ (physis) we touch a cardinal element in the theory of Aristotle.’
Introduction to The Politics of Aristotle, OUP 1946, pp. xlvii-ii

Sir Ernest Barker’s clear and thoughtful translation, with liberal notes and interpolations to help the student, has been published in a revised edition by R. F. Stalley: OUP 2009.