As Michael Fontaine’s recent piece illustrates, history has a great deal to teach us about the nature of this complex thing called madness and how we, as a society, might respond to it better. It is not only fascinating to know that modern debates about the nature of ‘mental illness’ are reflected in ancient teachings, we can learn much from seeing the issues aired in a radically different social and historical context.
Ancient Greek philosophers remain of interest because of their profound insights into the situation of human beings and their place in the world. Reading their work takes us back to a place before Christianity started to shape the human psyche, and reminds us that some of the things we take for granted are not necessarily set in stone. Christianity, for example, has instilled in us the belief that human beings are inherently sinful, and being good is a constant battle against our inner nature. For many ancient philosophers, however, there was no conflict between pleasure and ‘virtue’, between desire and duty. As the contemporary philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre put it ‘the concepts of virtue and goodness on the one hand, and those of happiness, success and fulfillment of desire on the other are indissolubly linked’ (After Virtue, p 140).
The Greek philosophers debated the nature of happiness and how to satisfy desire, but did not question that goodness led to happiness. For Aristotle, being good was being a good citizen, and this was what people desired to be. For Epicurus, the route to goodness and happiness was less political, but discovering the truth about the world through philosophy still involved associating and living co-operatively with other, like-minded people.
A fascinating paper by Roland Littlewood and Simon Dein links the emergence of schizophrenia with the rise of Christianity, pointing to aspects of Christianity such as self-scrutiny and ambiguous agency. The moral domain is also surely relevant. Christian morality forces all of us to live in a state of perpetual moral dissonance, continually judging ourselves and finding ourselves wanting. We are, according to this view, waging a continual war against our fundamental biological nature, in a perspective that has been secularised in the ideas of Social Darwinism.
In this sense the ancient conception of human nature, whether articulated by Epicurus, Aristotle or more recent philosophers like Hegel, is surely more conducive to mental stability. Human beings want to be good, according to this view. We want to live in harmony with others. Our Reason (intelligence), which enables us to do so, is just as fundamental a part of our human nature as our biological urges. Conversely, a society dominated by the modern idea of the autonomous, isolated self that is inherently self-centred and morally suspect, seems likely to produce more casualties.
I am not saying that we should return to some Halcion state based on ancient civilisation. The ancient world, like most other traditional societies was for the most part structurally hierarchical and static, and even during its most enlightened period in democratic Athens excluded the majority of the population (slaves and women) from any sort of power. The individualism of the Enlightenment, which followed from the moral agency at the heart of Christianity, was the necessary corollary of the overthrow of traditional society, opening the way for people to imagine better, more equal and more just ways of living together. Nevertheless, studying the ancient world reveals some of tensions that modern people have to struggle with.
Fontaine’s post compares the ideas of Epicurus and Thomas Szasz and asks why the former inspired a successful social movement and the latter remain marginal. Epicurus was proposing a route to happiness and fulfilment through philosophical development, which was something that appealed to those who had the leisure to indulge it. Szasz was challenging the basis of an institution that has played an important, if controversial, role in the structure of modern western societies for almost two centuries. Their views on the nature of human suffering may be similar in many respects, and the comparison is enlightening. The context of their ideas is totally different, however, and it is not surprising that they have had quite different receptions.
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