Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Old mental illnesses

Elsewhere in the Atlantic, there was a recent shortish article looking at Greek and Roman understandings of mental illness.  Nothing too startling in there, I guess, although I don't think I had read before that Socrates heard voices:
Socrates seems to have had recurrent hallucinations of one particular type: A voice spoke to him, usually advising him not to do things. His disciples were in awe of this phenomenon, but some of his later admirers thought they needed to explain it away—they thought it suggested that he was slightly cracked.


TimT said...

Seems to me that interpretation of Socrates' line of thought - as a kind of mental illness - is highly questionable, to say the least.

- The Ancients had a well-developed concept of divine inspiration. The Greeks are no exception to this, as the regular invocations to the Muses or the Gods at the beginning of works of literature attest. It seems much more likely that Socrates would have been attempting to claim he was being ordered by divine authority to carry out his philosophy than admitting to mental illness. If his disciples were embarrassed by this then I'm not aware of it being the case.

- He certainly doesn't seem to have been troubled by his Daemon who gave him instructions from time to time - quite the contrary. It doesn't seem to be a case of mental illness as we'd recognise it today. In fact what is most disturbing about Socrates is his sanity in light of what happened to him (his trial and death).

- The habit of explaining stories such as Socrates Daemon (or other examples, eg, Paul's Road to Damascus conversion) as examples of madness, mental instability, etc, seems to me to be *very* 20th century - a quaint version of solipsism, a way of conveniently explaining *everything* as a function of the mind.

- On the whole the most reasonable reading of Socrates account of his Daemon would seem to be to take him on his word. It's impossible to know exactly what he means anyway, since we are not living in his mind, but to do otherwise - to interpret his Daemon as a symptom of mental instability - would seem to be acting in a singularly unimaginative manner and denying anything that does not fit with our own particular ideology.

Steve said...

You seem to know a lot about Socrates' Daemon. (Have I placed the inverted comma correctly?)

Have you ever read about Philip K Dick's claim that (I think) quite late in his career, when in a slump, he got very specific directions beamed into his brain about how to come good again - I think including better margin settings for his typewriter. But, there is no doubt, he really was "cracked" and brain addled from drugs.

As for St Paul - I thought the most common medical theory was that the Road to Damascus was a kind of epileptic fit. (Although the fact we only know of one such incident suffered by him perhaps indicates the explanation is stretching things a bit.)

TimT said...

Well I don't know that much, but having read a small portion of the dialogues I never walk away with an impression that Socrates is insane. (The alternative, 'Socrates's' sounds ridiculous!)

I remember Dick's claim. In the case of him (and Ginsberg too, for that matter, who spent part of his youth taking LSD and then apparently had a revelation while masturbating - he said he heard an angel reciting Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' to him!) the explanation of madness seems *more* likely, partly because that's an explanation they would have explored themselves and, in a strange way, began acting it out.

I hadn't read that explanation about St Paul's - I would have thought the medical explanations might have been closer to delusional schizophrenia, or something similar. Possibly fasting induced madness(?). Isn't there at least one other incident where Paul is said to receive direct instruction from God (he's fasting and praying in a temple I think? It's in Acts somewhere). Then again there's also the issue of what Paul says, directly, about his conversion (in the epistles) as compared to what Luke says (in the Acts). I wonder if the expert quoted looks at this as an example of madness, too. (There's certainly the sense in the interview that the interviewer is more eager to press the 'Socrates was nuts' line than the professor).

John said...

Hearing voices is not indicative of psychopathology. There are a number of studies highlighting that a surprising number of psychologically healthy people do hear voices.

However, it is also true that the first degree relatives of schizophrenics often display subtle signs of shizophrenia like behaviors(though I suspect more towards the negative symptoms spectrum) and are often unusually intelligent and creative.

As for St. Paul, forget it, psycho history is a guessing game.