Is Mental Illness REAL?
Top 10 CRAZIEST characters from the Ancient World
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
“I hear voices.”
“Really?” I replied. The statement took me a little off guard. I had only just befriended her, after all, and it was still the first semester of university.
“I’m telling you,” she continued, as if reading my thoughts, “because my therapist told me I should be open about it.”
“Yes, of course...”
“You see, it was only a little while ago that I realized that not everyone hears voices... so it’s all quite new to me in a way.”
We were sitting on a bench, overlooking a sunny, calm field. The conversation seemed a bit out of context, truth be told.
“So,” I finally ventured out of curiosity, “what do they say?”
Her relaxed disposition jerked; a shadow passed.
“I haven’t told anyone that. Not even my therapist”.
And with that, she got up and walked across the grass.
I have often wondered what it was like when she realized that her ‘normal’ wasn’t everyone’s ‘normal’... And, by extension, if there was something that I was experiencing that not everyone else was?
Indeed, I continue to ponder, who determines what is ‘normal’ in the first place?
Now, this sort of thinking only opens up for much larger questions...
One: Is it right for someone(s) to determine what is ‘normal’/’sane’?
Two: If a person is outside of that range of ‘normal’, is that bad? Is that ‘insane’?
In a sentence, Is Mental Illness Real?
As usual, you can reply to this email or write me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Of course, the concept of madness is interesting and clearly a popular theme throughout the ages (just recalling my AP English exam on King Lear for a moment). In fact, not too long ago fellow Classical Wisdom reader, Alex R., wrote it asking, What kinds of psychopathy were evident in the population of Ancient Greece and Rome?
He went on to ask, “I'm wondering about evidence of such pathologies such as, rage-aholism, sociopathic and psychopathic behaviors, i.e., oppositional disorders, schizophrenia, etc...
“Did the ancients have anything like these evident within their culture, and if so, how did they deal with it? Treatments? Any type of counseling? Interventions?”
Well, for the second part of Alex’s inquiry, I did a very interesting podcast with Cornell professor Michael Fontaine*** addressing the topic here.
However, the first part was left unanswered. So, I’ve tried to make my amends below. Read on to learn the ten craziest historical figures from the ancient world....some are quirky… some are downright evil!
All the best,
Founder and Director
***Exciting news! Next month Classical Wisdom is hosting a truly thought provoking panel discussion with Michael Fontaine, Donald Robertson and Massimo Pigliucci on How to Grieve. Watch this space for details...
In the meantime, make sure to sign up for this month’s event on Zoroastrianism, taking place next week (September 28th @Noon EDT). You can secure your spot here:
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The Top Ten Craziest Characters from the Ancient World
While the great philosopher is often remembered for his method of questioning and devotion to the laws and justice, he is also a famous example of one who ‘hears voices’. In his trial he admits to having a ‘daemon’, a heavenly voice that occasionally speaks to him and guides him along his path of inquisition and philosophical exploration.
The daemon never explicitly tells Socrates what to do, but it whispers to him and deters him away from certain paths. It was the daemon, Socrates says, that warned him that he should not become a politician.
“You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician”.
It’s at this point that Socrates remarks, humorously, that this was probably a good idea. For if the citizens of Athens want to execute him as a philosopher, how much sooner would they have executed him if he were a politician?
Normally when folks think of madness in the ancient world, it is Caligula, Rome’s third emperor, that they conjure in their minds. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate, consul.
Adding to the list of excesses, Caligula elevated himself to godhood, allegedly cut open his wife’s stomach to see the sex of the baby, carried on a love-affair with his own sister, brazenly, in front of her husband, and made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel after attacking the sea.
And one time, when there were no criminals to throw to the beasts at the Colosseum, he had his guard force an entire section of the crowd in instead.
Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.
While Nero may look positively level headed compared to Caligula, he did enough horrible things to make one question his sanity. Not only rumored to have started an immense fire in Rome in order to clear space for his new palace, he also had his mother and brother in law murdered. His first attempt at his mother’s life involved creating a special boat that could be sunk on command, but when she survived, he was forced to resort to more standard methods.
But he gets much darker than that... An early persecutor of Christians, Nero famously burned them alive in order to light his garden. He kicked his pregnant wife to death and was so reviled that it’s thought the Book of Revelations’ Antichrist is a veiled reference to his cruel and torturous ways.
4. Oracle of Delphi
As mentioned in the previous newsletter, the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi, was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Greeks, but were thought by many, including Plutarch, to be mad.
One theory is that her oracular powers derived from vapors, hallucinogenic gases, from the Kerna spring waters that flowed under the temple. Another hypothesis is that her prophecies were the result of the poisonous plant, Oleander.
Either way, she wielded great influence through her advice and suggestions over the rich and powerful in the ancient world... even if her words were not always sensical.
Caracalla, ruler of Rome from 198 to 217 AD, was a big fan of ordering murder and violence, and the only people who didn’t hate him were the soldiers he paid off.
He also had no problem killing on scale. For instance, cities that displeased him, like Alexandria, suddenly had much smaller populations after he visited, as all the people that came to greet him were killed.
Once around 20,000 were slaughtered in days of looting and violence. Another time, Caracalla tricked an enemy nation into thinking he had accepted a treaty and marriage proposal from them, and then slaughtered the girl and all the guests.
You may remember him from the Gladiator movie (played by Joaquin Phoenix), but Commodus was essentially bred by his father to be a nasty piece of something or other. He is best known for his love of the Colosseum where he would fight and kill gladiators... who were armed with toy swords and usually heavily wounded before they even stepped into the ring. Commodus bragged that he killed 100 bears... all of which were immobile and tied up. And he bankrupted the people of Rome, having charged them an insane “appearance fee” for these acts.
Moreover, he kept a harem of kidnapping victims for orgies and auctioned off state positions and anyone who stood against him was murdered. Eventually he was killed... strangled by a gladiator.
Emperor from 218 to 222, Elagabalus was obviously deeply mentally disturbed. Having ascended the throne at a young age, he replaced the pantheon with a new Sun god... and then proclaimed himself its avatar.
He scandalized even the sexual libertines, due to his multiple marriages and affairs, especially when he married and deflowered a vestal virgin, causing her to break her sacred vow and be buried alive.
He also supposedly dressed as woman and prostituted himself out on palace grounds. Desperately wanting female genitalia, Elagabalus suggested giving himself a vagina by slicing open his stomach. He had a favorite slave who he called husband and who called him wife. Rumors include having his men hunt for well-hung men around the country, and forcing them to be castrated, and encouraging his “husband” to beat him for straying.
He was assassinated after only four years as emperor.
8. King Herod
King of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC, Herod was famous for wanting to kill Jesus and for the “Massacre of the Innocents”, where he ordered every boy at the age of 2 or younger in Bethlehem to be killed. Responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, Herod killed the high priest, his rivals, grandfather-in law, mother-in law, brother-in law, uncle, wife, 3 sons (one of which was murdered only a few days before Herod’s death)... and just about anyone else who he distrusted and thought was a threat to him.
A more lovable ‘crazy’, Pythagoras is best known for his mathematical genius and eponymous theorem we all learned in school. However, he had a few strange quirks, including a strange religion he created.
The main tenets of his cult were that souls are reincarnated... and beans are evil. No, not figuratively... actual beans.
Commandments include oddities such as: Do not eat beans (obviously), do not step over a crossbar, sit on a quart or walk on highways. Do not leave the pot's impression in the ashes after removing it from the fire, or stir a fire without iron, or let swallows nest under the roof.
His sect had a few more ‘sane’ rules like vegetarianism and pacifism, but he broke those when he slaughtered an ox. He ironically died in a fight.
A Greek Scientist & Philosopher, 490-430 B.C., Empedocles is equal measures genius and insane. While he discovered that light travels at a speed, the Earth is a sphere, centrifugal force, and a very crude theory of evolution.... He also thought he was a God, with a capital G.
To prove his immortality, Empedocles announced that he would jump into a volcano--Mt Etna--and come back out unscathed. He didn’t.
I asked a lot of questions above... and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any/all of them. So, to quickly repeat them:
1: Is it right for someone(s) to determine what is ‘normal’/’sane’?
2: If a person is outside of that range of ‘normal’, is that bad? Is that ‘insane’?
And so: 3: Is Mental Illness Real?
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Evocative question with many volumes devoted to its answer. I’ll attempt a short one.
“REAL” (especially in capital letters 😉) is a tough case to make for any object or idea much less one as inky and controversial as “mental illness”. Nevertheless, after much thought - and 30 years as a practicing psychoanalyst - I will give it a go with the confidence I might be at the level of “justified belief” instead of simply “opinion”.
I’m my view, mental illness is real and can be manifested and known in the subjective experience of unnecessary suffering in a person and/or the others in interaction with that person. When the suffering is mostly located within the person (perhaps like Anya’s new college friend with an apparently unspeakable collection of hallucinations) we see mental illness. In Caligula’s instability and cruelty we more easily see the unnecessary suffering inflicted upon others. Most times it’s a mixture (i.e. agoraphobic terror which torments the individual and gives pain to loved ones). This definition leaves aside all questions of etiology.
Freud described mental health as the ability to “love and work” with only the “misery of everyday life” remaining after a successful treatment. I believe that definition also implies that it is the presence of phenomena which lead to unnecessary suffering which ought to qualify as mental illness.
I believe this definition also marries well with the interests and goals of most schools of philosophy. After all, it’s hard to make a case for the good life or optimal happiness and well being for individuals or groups including any measure of unnecessary suffering.
Fascinating topic! Thanks for another excellent and thought provoking post, as usual...
I notice that Thomas Szasz (author of the controversial book "The Myth of Mental Illness") has lately been exonerated for many of his views. A psychiatrist and academic himself, Szasz argued that what we call "mental illness" is really closer to a metaphor, a way of explaining particular patterns of behavior, rather than a physiological "illness" or "disease" as we more commonly use the terms.
Szasz cited the since discarded "illnesses" of drapetomania and hysteria as examples of when society, disapproving of a particular behavior (slaves fleeing their owners and women not bending to a man's will, in the above cases) were not really "illnesses" at all, but simply a way for society to label and diminish one's individual agency and, thereby, better control them. (If you assign a runaway slave a mental "illness," it's easier for society to invoke "civil commitment," for example, to claim that their behavior is driven by some kind of aberrant condition that needs to be treated, even by involuntary hospitalization.)
Nowadays, we generally consider the desire for freedom (from slavery) and individual expression (even if it means - gulp - going against one's partner's desires) as perfectly natural. It's interesting to think of the way society shapes our perceptions of what is and is not acceptable, and the labels used to stigmatize those society disapproves of in order to victimize and control them.
Also interesting to consider the kinds of societies we build, and what types of behavior they incentivize and reward. If we build a society around the ancient Greek concepts of arete (excellence), isonomia (equality before the law) and xenia (hospitality) for example, we might expect an entirely different outcome than if we build one incentivizing other types of behavior... blind obedience, for example, in place of individual virtue and character... or one prizing victimhood in lieu of eudaimonia (the concept of happiness and human flourishing).