The Lessons of Ancient Philosophy


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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  1. The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.

    ~Thomas Jefferson

    Interesting take. I have a somewhat different view. Thomas Szasz is most marginal if looked at in relation to psychiatry and, in particular, bio-psychiatry, the mainstream stream current in the world of corporate imperialism. I don’t think he is really so marginal at all in so far as other disciplines are concerned. Philosophy and law, for instance. Parallels to the American civil war come to mind. Were the radical abolitionists marginal? Were people involved in the Underground Railroad? 30 or 40 years ago. Szasz wasn’t marginal in the sense that he is being said to be marginal in Michael Fontaine’s presentation. Criticism of conventional psychiatry was pretty much routine. The DSM-III and NAMI (in the USA) have changed a lot of things, haven’t they? In the 1850’s John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry launched the war that freed the slaves. John Brown was hung for the raid, but people are still talking about the aftermath. I guess we could do a lot of talking about John Brown’s failure by ignoring his success. Thomas Szasz may not have been a John Brown, but to some of us, he was close enough. I’m more worried about all these more recent calls for stricter social control measures. They are being directed, using terrorism as an excuse, against protesters, and using violence as an excuse, against marginalized people. It goes along with psychiatry’s role in social control as an arm of the state. The government always distrusted its people, that’s why we have an electoral college rather than direct democracy. Multi-national corporations, commerical interests, control the public opinion through the media. Distrust breeds distrust, and on the heels of distrust, we get tyranny.

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    • It seems the quote I used in the comment above has only been attributed, and falsely so, to Jefferson. He did say, “…in questions of power then, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.” Regarding the quote, and it may be a distortion of something Ann Rand said, it applies. Thomas Szasz was fond quoting John Dahlberg Acton, the 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902). He’s the person who gave us, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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      • Also, if it is important to make a reference to the ancients, should the “happy, tranquil life” be the highest end? Don’t the pleasantries of Elwood P. Dodd, main protagonist in the movie Harvey give us a reason to pause. Curious thing for a philosopher to value, and duplicitous to boot. Certainly, psychology I know has much use for the mild and pleasant, as well as, the evasive, not to mention, the deceptive. When the problem is power dynamics, in other words, ‘why don’t we look at something else, dear’?

        When it comes to Michael Fontaine’s comparison of Hippocrates mystical medical principals to the approach of biological reductive psychiatry today, I think he may have hit upon something. ‘Shock’ is still psychiatry’s answer to ‘insanity’. In this, hellebore resembles neuroleptics.

        “Black hellebore” was used by the ancients in paralysis, gout and other diseases, more particularly in insanity. “Black hellebore” is also toxic, causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, emesis (vomiting), catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate), and finally, collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Although Helleborus niger (black hellebore) contains protoanemonin, or ranunculin, which has an acrid taste and can cause burning of the eyes, mouth, and throat, oral ulceration, gastroenteritis, and hematemesis, research in the 1970s showed that the roots of H. niger do not contain the cardiotoxic compounds helleborin, hellebrin, and helleborein that are responsible for the lethal reputation of “black hellebore”. It seems that earlier studies may have used a commercial preparation containing a mixture of material from other species such as Helleborus viridis, green hellebore.

        There are other drugs, and other uses to which they may be put. As has been stated many times over, drugs are the panacea of modern biological psychiatry. Not all effects are unpleasant either. Remember opium, and opium derivatives.
        Anti-depressants, Huxley’s Soma in the present era, despite myriad adverse effects, are everywhere. According to National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 11 % of the USA population are on them. I think, and in relation to other drugs, one might reflect on the land of the lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. There was also a Star Trek episode along a similar theme, and probably derived from similar Greek tales. Through ingesting the lotus fruit/blossom, one achieved a pleasant apathy. If Marx called religion the opium of the masses, I’m not sure the philosophy of Epicurus would be any less immune to criticism along similar lines.

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        • I again have to take exception to the idea that Hippocrates and the Ancient Greek physicians primarily promoted strong “neuroleptic” herbs for treating emotional distress.

          Like most traditional systems of healing such as traditional Chinese Medicine, Unani Tibb and Ayurveda, Ancient Greek medicine stressed the importance of allowing the body to naturally heal from emotional and physical distress through a healthy diet and lifestyle, a good environment and the appropriate use of herbs and food.

          The main philosophy of Hippocrates was Vis Medicatrix Naturae…essentially saying that the human body has a natural tendency to heal itself and physicians should simply assist in that natural healing process.

          Essentially the Ancient Greeks, like many traditional societies, emphasized nourishment, not allopathic dramatic intervention.

          We would do well to examine these traditional systems for helping people experiencing emotional distress instead of relying on the shock and awe system of mental health treatment that we employ today.

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      • Joanna

        Great article that makes us think more deeply about history, and acknowledge some of the accomplishments of well known philosophers and thinkers and understand their limitations as well. I also believe that the Christian concepts of “sin” and “original sin” deserve more in depth analysis when understanding how “mental illness” has been understood within human society.

        I am so glad that you pointed out that many of these great philosophers lived in a class society where slavery and patriarchy were pervasive and accepted as a fact of life. Thomas Jefferson, I believe, owned (over many years) up to 600 slaves and made an enormous part of his income buying and selling human beings. His words and deeds, and what grew out of them, must be understood with these enormous limitations kept in mind. There would be no modern America without it being built on the backs of African slaves.

        Michael Fontaine’s article was also provocative and I learned from reading it. I believe he made an error in his contextual use of the word “failure” as many have pointed out. Just because certain ideas or movements are unable (at a particular historical moment) to bring down the “beast,” does not imply that they were a failure. Michael, however should NOT be criticized for merely attempting to critically analyze the role of Szasz or for attempting to point out some possible shortcomings. We all must take some risks in doing this if we are to learn from the past.

        Our current movement owes a great debt to Thomas Szasz; I am educated and provoked by every video I watch of him speaking and by reading his words. But our movement must ALSO be willing to make a deeply critical analysis of both his accomplishments and, yes, his failures. How else are we going to move forward if we don’t learn from past mistakes; we all make them.

        What follows are more questions I have about Szasz rather than any type of worked out analysis:
        1) Did Szasz’s uncritical views toward capitalism and his promotion of Libertarianism prevent him from uniting with the powerful movements of the 1960’s and thereby limit the ability of his penetrating critique of psychiatry from gaining much needed allies at such a crucial time in our history?
        2) Did his inability to seek out or make alliances with other social movements, especially those on the Left in the 60’s who were critically evaluating every aspect of American society, force him to pragmatically ally himself with Scientology and thereby push his political role more to the fringes and thus limit the political impact of his critique?
        3) Did Szasz’s failure to link his powerful critique of psychiatry and the entire therapeutic state to the development of modern capitalism, confine and limit his analysis from taking on the role of poverty in creating psychological distress and creating the material basis for more psychiatric labeling. And relatedly did this also restrain him from criticizing the profit hungry role of the pharmaceutical industry and its inseparable connection to the growth and expansion of Biological Psychiatry?

        These are questions I plan to investigate myself in future study. These questions are not meant to underplay his significance or imply that had Szarz allied himself with these movements mentioned above, that somehow psychiatry and the therapeutic state would now be dead and buried. I am only implying that we might be further along in our struggle if such unity had been developed, and therefore we need to learn and sum up why this did not happen.

        I am raising these points here in this thread because Michael Fontaine’s thread was so long that I was unable (with my computer) to get on to reply.


        Thanks for the kind words in the last thread about my participation here at MIA. I would like to correct one word of your description of me. You lumped me in as a mental health “reformer.” I have repeated criticized “reformist” approaches in our movement. I believe this system must be totally dismantled. I am not opposed to reforms, but see reforms more coming out of the struggle for revolution, not the other way around.

        And also I have listened to that William Sax video you recommended, and despite being an atheist, I fully acknowledge the positive role that cultural rituals can have in helping people in more primitive societies deal with psychological distress. As he points out, they deal with it as a family or group problem, not an individual problem.

        BTW, your writing (I read it all) and participation at MIA continues to educate and move me. I like the way you blend your personal experience with deep philosophical and political discourse. And if your father wants to know if someone can be anti-psychiatry and against Scientology (I believe it is a dangerous cult) tell him to give me a call; I’ll vouch for you anytime.

        And finally, Jonah, I am writing something on the issue of force in psychiatry, could you please highlight (provide the MIA address) of a few of your best comments on this subject so I might note them in a future blog.


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        • Richard: As a left-wing libertarian whose favorite writer is Noam Chomsky, I have wondered how I can reconcile the views of Chomsky to Szasz, a right-wing libertarian. I wonder if their paths and the ideas ever crossed. I remember once Chomsky making a reference to big Pharma.

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          • You’ll be disappointed to know that Chomsky apparently doesn’t get it regarding the absurdity of the term “mental illness,” which shows that the greatest minds have limitations. I think Frank B. posted a link once to an interview with Judi Chamberlin who spoke of meeting Chomsky and being disappointed with his cluelessness.

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          • Basically, I don’t think the left can continue to uphold the medical dogmas concerning “mental illness” indefinitely. Sooner or later, the social dimension becomes social again, and context matters. In this regard, it’s important for psychiatric survivors to remind those on the left that we’re there with them.

            I wouldn’t want to make any criticism of Noam Chomsky excessive. I like to feel we’re on the same team. Thing is, he has an unfortunate tendency to pathologize those he sees as the opposition. White out that aspect of Chomsky, and he’s Okay, too, as the TA people put it.

            Thomas Szasz would make every example of government spending on social welfare a matter of state intrusion that smacked of socialism. Big government is the enemy. Before the libertarian party’s rightward slide, libertarians were anarchists. I’m for a more egalitarian system than that which elevates 1 % of the population, sell outs and collaborators, above the rest of the population. I feel we must break the stranglehold of corporate imperialism. I don’t see anarchy and big government as potentially in agreement in the slightest, and so I think there are things to be gained from looking at his perspective, and taking from it what can serve us. An anarchist and a communist, this means being very discriminating though in what one does take from his point of view as regards politics in general. His call for the separation of medicine from the state though, gets my thumbs up.

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        • Regarding Szasz, probably yes, yes and yes, but what does it matter? Szasz wasn’t a leftist. His contribution was the deconstruction of “mental illness.”
          What we do with his insight is up to us.

          Thank god that last thread finally died a natural death. Can the banned people come back now?

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          • Don’t want to alienate the right really, and that has happened to at least one person I know of, and right here on MIA. The liberals are the worst. E. Fuller Torrey, for instance, praises Kennedy for legislating a community mental health system, very epidemic, and blasts Reagan for closing state hospitals. The mental health movement has created a social mess. Defeating forced psychiatry is a bi-partisan, a multiple party even, issue. We don’t help ourselves when we don’t recognize that fact for what it is. Seeing it as left-wing is a way of backing oneself into a corner one doesn’t need to be in. Especially when, with regard to that issue, we have many allies who are right of center.

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          • Old head and Frank thanks for tying in Chomsky to the discussion. I am trying to tie in the specific issue of forced psychiatry as addressed on this site to broader social movements. I also concur that liberals in power are a bigger obstacle to change than every day people who may identify as conservative. I mistakenly believed that others on the left like me, thought that psychiatry and “mental patients,” formed an antagonist relationship, one which naturally one would be on the side of the mental patient. This was my belief before I became entangled with psychiatry. Through personal experience and then through scholarship, it appeared to me that the left broadly did not interrogate psychiatry in the same fashion as other powerful institutions in our society.
            For example, our local chapter of the ACLU is promoting awareness about mass incarceration and youth. Good Thing, ditto for mass surveillance. But my reading suggests that they do not cast a critical eye on psychiatry.
            Ralph Nader currently is trying to promote left-right alliances around specific issues. I think that this is a positive development for us on this website, though he seems to be talking more about the leadership class in left right circles. I tend to view the situation as one where every day people can come together for change, and don’t allow ourselves to be used as pawns by the two factions. Don’t allow ourselves to be pitted against each other as Fox and MSNB try so desperately try to do. Also Szasz was critical of Nader’s stance on psychiatry.

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          • Ralph Nader was supporting the Treatment Advocacy Center at one time. I don’t know if this true any longer. It is one of the reasons, at present, I would never vote for him. Despite that little matter of disagreement, I do believe he is right about the need for such broad-based alliances. Dissident psychologist Bruce Levine additionally has addressed the same subject to good effect. His posts on the topic can be found on this website.

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          • Well I would agree Szasz is of course the premier critic of the 1000 room edifice that is psychiatry ( I think he said something like that if memory serves). However I wouldn`t say Chomsky was clueless on these matters of liberty!…granted this aspect of liberty has not been his focus he still “gets it“ to some degree:

            “For example, it’s considered not nice to treat human beings by the techniques of the police state. It’s not nice to coerce people or to control them or to train machine guns on them. But, on the other hand, if you have a mass of people you want to control and you can claim you’re not doing anything ugly like that but just applying the methods of science which, as everyone knows, are neutral and good and benevolent and achieve the same result, that’s much more palatable. Much more acceptable. So one finds, let’s say, in total institutions, in institutions in which masses of people are placed subject to external controls, like prisons, schools and mental hospitals, not quite even that behaviorist psychology is in vogue but that it provides support. It may even sharpen and refine the methods which are known intuitively to anyone who has to control masses of people. It provides a kind of palatable ideology for the application of these techniques of coercion. “
            (Noam Chomsky, On Psychology
            Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Cohen
            Excerpted from Psychologists on Psychology: Modern Innovators Talk About Their Work, Taplinger, 1977)

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          • Thanks for the quotes Fred. Here’s what I was referring to, it’s from an interview with Judi Chamberlin, godmother of the mental patients’ liberation movement, with Darby Penney:

            ” DP: I think still to this day there are lots of people who are otherwise progressive, who just plain don’t get it.
            JC: Oh, yeah.
            DP: Why do you think that is?
            JC: Some times I think it’s because they’ve had personal experiences in their family and they just think. well, this person is really nuts, crazy, whatever and they really can’t deal with them. Some times I think it’s because they’re therapized… There’s this wonderful book about the women’s movement written by two British psychologists, one of whom is an ex and an activist. It’s called Changing Our Minds. It’s about how the women’s movement kind of got highjacked by the therapy movement. About three or four years ago, this British magazine that’s published by Mind (which is kind of like the British Mental Health Association but it’s much more radical than ours, although the activists there find it pretty conservative) asked me to do an interview with Noam Chomsky. And I was so thrilled, you know, I was going to talk to Noam Chomsky about these issues. He didn’t get it at all.
            DP: You’re kidding me.
            JC: Didn’t get it at all. It was so disillusioning.
            DP: Oh, that is disillusioning, because he’s my hero.
            JC: Yeah, he didn’t get it at all.
            DP: Ah, geeze.
            JC: I was so disappointed I never wanted to transcribe the tape…
            DP: Well, I’ll never write him in for president again.
            JC: (Laughing) Yeah. I felt the same thing. I figured that someone that bright, with that good a political analysis of things, someone who really sees all kinds of oppression…It’s about medicine, he kept saying. It’s about illness and…
            DP: And that’s the thing that I’ve heard from other progressives who say oh, it’s a medical thing.
            JC: Ah huh. Yup.
            DP: But even still. Even if you believe that it’s a medical thing, which I don’t, why does that justify the violation of human rights?
            JC: Right. If you’re walking down the street and a dermatologist looks at you and says, “God, you’ve got the most terrible case of acne I’ve ever seen. Come to my office right now,” and drags you there by your hair…”

            Again thanks to Frank for coming up with this link:
   (pages 21-22)

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    • Watching people who list their academic “credentials” after their names yet who are not only not “survivors,” but who travel primarily in academic and “mental health” circles, attempting to discuss these issues is somewhat like watching white liberals trying to discuss John Brown, the Black Panther Party, Mumia Abu-Jamal or Ferguson. It is also not insignificant that they clearly have not learned from Szasz as they still speak in medical model terms without quotation marks or any hint of irony. And they treat what they label “mental illness” as a mystery.

      Neither Epicurus nor Szasz, as discussed below, had a class analysis, nor did Szasz ever attempt to promote a school of philosophy; the comparison remains forced.

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      • One thing Thomas Szasz did do was achieve focus where opposition to forced psychiatry is concerned. Discrimination, prejudice, so called “stigma”, harm, etc., it all stems from this social control mechanism the state has developed called mental health law. Deviation from some postulated norm is a quasi-legal quasi-medical matter for the state to suppress. I hope the left figures that out someday. We know, given the history of the Soviets, and psychiatry in the east, where not figuring it out leads.

        As for credentials, I should have become an academic? This is the message everywhere. School is the ladder to “success” within the “corporation” power structure or…elsewhere. You’ve got you’re Harvard survivors and you’ve got the riff raff nonetheless I persist. Maybe I should give it all up. It’s hard, man. If anybody has MY number, it isn’t doing me any good. I’m not Allen Frances, ISEPP has got him at their conference this year, nor Patrick Kennedy, he’s doing Alternatives.

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  2. Thank you for this articulate article with your usual great insight and thank you for a long history of community service in mental health care.

    I agree that a historical perspective can teach us a great deal about our mental process; a consideration of the original debate in psychology explains emotional distress. Psychology split from philosophy to move a debate about the nature of thinking from a philosophy of mind to a science of the mental process and behavior. Associationists founded psychology with Rationalists; Associationists advocated associative thinking while Rationalists argued for a mental process based on rationalism. The Associationists were the legacy of classical British empiricists; the empiricists were the legacy of Aristotle and Plato who also advocate associative thinking.

    The original debate in psychology remains unresolved and still the most important but subsequent discoveries in elementary neuroscience now explain associative thinking which also explains emotional distress.

    Basic empirical neuroscience now explains the historical thinking theory of associative thinking; please consider a new paradigm of emotional distress at

    Regards, Steve


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  3. To respond to Frank, I agree that Szasz’s views, and the whole antipsychiatry movement, have been influential in many areas, including law and humanities. In my experience their influence is fading, however, as the population has been so deluged with the idea that mental disorder is a chemical imbalance. A group of humanities lecturers I spoke to recently were amazed to hear that this is a figment of marketing, and has never been demonstrated. They thought it was scientifically proven. But to say that Szasz’s critique of psychiatry is not currently influential is not to say that it is unimportant. I think his critique was right and that it will be influential in the long-run.

    On the issue of Hippocratic medicine, I expect that it was both proto-modern and traditional. It survived, up until the 19th century, as the humoural approach to medicine, which represented a curious blend of the empirical and the mystical.

    In response to Steve, the history of psychology is also fascinating and thanks for this brief summary.

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    • Joanna: My Sense is that the entertainment media is the most important institution cementing the notion of chemical imbalances in the public’s mind. Us critics of psychiatry read and write a lot about the alliance between Bib Pharma and Psychiatry, but who are the psychiatric consultants on various TV and film projects that put forth the notion of chemical imbalances? I never saw Black Box, Maybe it will make it to Netflix. The lead character on Homeland is “bipolar.” She and her supervisor move heaven and earth to keep her out of the mental hospital, as do psychiatrists and lawyers in real life, who avoid these places like the plague. Why is that if these places are supposed to be so helpful.

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  4. I guess one women’s “fascinating paper” is another man’s “load of rubbish that goes to show you can publish anything if you put enough references”.

    So it is Christianity’s fault, is it? And not, I don’t know, urbanization and industrialization and the consequent break-down of communities? An urbanization and industrialization which was the direct consequence of the weakening of Christianity from the Renaissance onward – think of the relaxation of the Christian prohibition of usury in the XV century and how that led to the birth of Capitalism (which is to say, a return to the economic system of Ancient Rome, an economy based on overt or covert slavery).

    As always the paper in question is written from a purely English perspective, i.e. a Protestant perspective, and it therefore ignores the fact that Protestantism is not in fact Christianism but materialism in Christian clothing (read Max Weber, who was on to something even if he didn’t know what himself).

    And Hegel?! Hegel the teacher of Marx and Engels? The godfather of all fascisms? Oh, by all means, let’s have more of him and less of that evil Christianity.

    Frankly Joanna I expected more from you, this is incredibly shallow stuff. Anyway, if you want to know something about the Greek and what a great civilization of raping-and-pillaging slave drivers they were (albeit with a great panache for symbolic logic and mathematics) I’d recommend you read some Greek literature (Xenophon’s “Anabasis” would be a good starting point).

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    • 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.

      So psych industry! Philosophy doesn’t always tend toward the self-indulgent and, to the exclusion of the dark and deep tragic. light and shallow.

      Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize for literature in part out of fear of becoming what he was anyway, an institution. Now Epicurus is praised for becoming something of an institution, and Szasz is being criticized for not becoming an institution. Personally, I don’t think it too late for either of them.

      I feel I am among a number of people who had problems with the Michael Fontaine piece in that it seemed to be a way for him to use Epicurus to downplay and degrade the importance of Thomas Szasz. His was an intellectual influence that meant, and means, a great deal to a good number of people, especially in the psychiatric survivor movement. He opposed forced psychiatry in thought and teaching throughout his career. Of course, he had, as we all do, the psycho-pharmaceutical complex, what he called the therapeutic state, to contend with. For my part, if anybody is going to score points, I want those points to go to the memory of Thomas Szasz because if they’re not going to him, well, they’re going to the psycho-pharmaceutical industrial complex, aren’t they? I get it that he wasn’t into the alternative thing the way some of you mental health professionals and paraprofessionals are. I don’t think it is in my best interest to support the psycho-pharmaceutical industrial complex in any way, shape, or form.

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      • I think that interpreting the Michael Fontaine piece as intending to downplay and degrade the importance of Thomas Szasz is a misreading of the piece. I think the central thrust of it was only that, if Epicurus was more “successful,” it’s because his message was somewhat more appealing. When he says, in conclusion, “The other reason Szaszianism has failed is because—on my evidence— psychiatrists do not know what philosophers have to say about the mind or soul. They are committed to the Hippocratic, reductionist-materialist view that it’s just the brain. They aren’t taught that other views are out there. Perhaps they should be” he seems, to me, to be reflecting not on Szaszianism’s “failure” but rather on the shortcomings of psychiatry and psychiatrists. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone who reads to the end of the piece could see it differently.

        Yes, of course, Szasz has not “failed,” insofar as there are legions of people for whom his thinking and work has been, and will continue to be, critically important. When I spoke with Mr. Fontaine about the piece we shared how appalled and saddened we were at the scant – and largely uncomprehending and unappreciative – notice his passing received. It was with this shared appreciation of Szasz’ work, and a shared hope and intention to remedy the deficit in some small way, that I put his piece on MiA. Which is why I have been saddened at the reception it initially received. I believe that it was unfair to Mr. Fontaine, whom I know to have a profound respect for Szasz, both personally and intellectually.

        I believe his article took a rhetorical slant that was somewhat nuanced – something of an “I come not to praise Caeser, but to bury him,” ironic device – owing I suppose to its initial venue, and I know that the result of the presentation at the APA was that many of the psychiatrists who did see it have continued to engage with Mr. Fontaine with a renewed appreciation for Szasz. It saddens me that his reward for such a public service, for which I can imagine no personal benefit he could have possibly expected, has included the harsh and demeaning treatment he received on MiA.

        I know Mr. Fontaine to be an ally of anyone who wants Szasz to be better known and appreciated. I also know that he has many more worthwhile articles on other topics that he and I discussed. I hope he will continue to be willing to post on MiA.

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        • The mental patient gloves off. I think to say that Epicurus was more successful because he had a more appealing message is bunk. Of course, I could be wrong. Hallmarks always seems to do a pretty brisk business.

          Michael Fontaine as Marc Anthony? And who were the psychiatrists he spoke to? The senators who killed Caesar, or the people? Come, come. I really don’t think he was addressing “friends, Romans, and countrymen”. Were they in the minority, which I don’t think they are, they might have been said to be conspirators. That said, Julius Caesar was no angel in his own right.

          He did put Thomas Szasz name out there. Yes, I agree about that. Hopefully it will lead to more people reading him, and judging him on his merits. I’m hopeful it doesn’t lead to more people dismissing him out of hand because this classic professors says he wasn’t Epicurus. I didn’t see it, in that regard, as a promising portrayal.

          I certainly don’t believe in censorship, and his post has generated much lively discussion, and so, in that regard, I hope he continues with it, too.

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          • Kermit,

            I too hope that Michael will continue posting, but you have to agree that his first piece was prone te being at least misinterpreted by those whose only introduction to Michael Fontaine was that article.

            Thomas Szasz has had a great impact on many of us. From time to time I discover a new jewel. Yesterday, for instance, while reading comments in his other piece, I did a search and I found this,


            It is a 1994 talk given in the context of the then failed attempt to pass a universal health insurance law in the US. The talk itself goes beyond psychaitry but in it Szasz shows the type of clear and sharp thinking so many of us respect him for. While I am sure many in MIA will disagree with his position on the issue at had, he explains in very clear terms the therapeutic state and why health care has become such an effective weapon to limit people’s freedom. The model of health insurance gives people the illusion of getting free stuff, which is a great incentive to surrender freedom. In a way the same happens online all the time, with people giving Google and Facebook their private lives to get “free” services in return. Nobody explains the Faustian nature of the healthcare arrangement better than him.

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  5. Cannotsay;

    Yes, I do have to agree that it was prone to misinterpretation, given that it was misinterpreted. What I’m uncomfortable with is the degree to which that misinterpretation took the form of ad hominem attacks. That is the problem with ad hominem attacks; they assume, they label, they presume to know things that can’t be known, leading to statements that the person cannot refute, or would be foolish to try. They do not invite discussion.

    The meaning seemed very clear to me when I read it, and more so when I spoke with him. I do not fault people for misinterpreting. But on these pages it should be sufficient to question the author’s meaning, challenge the facts or logic, and invite discussion. To go further into characterizing the person is to commit the same offense that so many here have experienced at the hands of psychiatry and psychology. If for that reason alone, I would hope we could avoid falling into that trap.

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    • Thanks for replying.

      I hope we can leave the misunderstandings behind and that Michael will continue to post in MIA.

      The last point I want to make is this. One of the things that great communicators live by is the old adage “know your audience”. In retrospect I see that Michael wrote the article for an APA audience and he warned us about it at the beginning of his essay. The MiA audiesnce is made mostly of people who are either critical of the APA gospel, have suffered great irreparable harm because of said gospel or both.

      When I was going through the deepest moments of my own psychiatric experience, well before I stumbled on Mad In America, discovering Thomas Szasz’s writings and the CCHR documentaries they inspired was a true life saving for me. Before shutting down all my contact with psychiatry I shared some of that with my CBT therapist. My recollection of those final sessions is that he didn’t really know what to say. He didn’t validate what I was saying but he didn’t have a good explanation as to why what I was saying wasn’t right either. I think he wasn’t very surprised when a few weeks later I told him: nice to meet you but I am by myself now. Some years later, armed from knowledge about my rights under US laws, I requested a copy of my psychotherapy notes that were made available to me in its entirety through a HIPAA request. My CBT therapist wrote during those last sessionst things like “the patient is speaking a lot about anti psychiatry” or “researching anti psychaitry seems to have become his part time job”. Now, when I read the notes, I was well aware of what anti psychiatry meant, but not when I was sharing my Szasz’s inspired concerns with my CBT therapist. This tells you that while Szasz might not have become a household mainstream name, psychiatry’s practitioners are well aware of his message and the implications for their practice.

      In psychiatry, Thomas Szasz is like the little kid who tells his friends that there is no Santa Claus. The adults who hear that there is no Santa Claus are well aware that the statement is true, but rather than admitting the truth to all little kids, they admonish the little kid for what they perceive is a troublemaker who is threatening a tool that allows those adults to keep their little children under control.

      Well, the MIA audience is made mostly of little children who know that there is no Santa Claus whose hero is that lillte kid who spilled the beans for them. A speech designed for the adults assuring them that the truth didn’t get very far with all kids at large is unlikely to be well recieved by such an audience. So what happened was expected.

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      • Well, the MIA audience is made mostly of little children who know that there is no Santa Claus whose hero is that lillte kid who spilled the beans for them. A speech designed for the adults assuring them that the truth didn’t get very far with all kids at large is unlikely to be well recieved by such an audience. So what happened was expected.

        Honestly I think you are right, this does seem to be the attitude. I think that might be what touches a cord, not that you are right, but that this is the attitude.

        It’s almost like some of these “adults” are in a way trolling the “children” deliberately………..

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    • What I’m uncomfortable with is the degree to which that misinterpretation took the form of ad hominem attacks.

      OK I thought we weren’t supposed to be discussing this anymore, but could you pray tell give a specific example of what you mean by an “ad hominem attack? I think we might have a problem of definition, or maybe some things were deleted before i got a chance to see them, because i recall nothing of the sort. Thanks.

      BTW it would seem that a characteristic of a truly well-written piece would be to guard against “misinterpretation” if that’s what you want to call it. It’s not like folks here have no grasp of subtlety.

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  6. Misinterpretation? Let’s see…Thomas Szasz fails. Epicurus succeeds. With Epicurus succeeding the mental health service industry succeeds. Most people on this website know they are in the right place because most of them work in the mental health service industry. It is a growth industry where success means additional “mental illness” labeling. A “mental illness” boom, the epidemic in R. Whitaker’s book, is just meat on the table.

    On another page we learn that the struggle against coercive psychiatry has failed. therefore, it is okay for psychiatry to take away people’s liberty. Thomas Szasz had something to do with that failure .

    Epicurus becomes the chief propagandist for the mental health service industry. Thomas Szasz was just the opposition, too negative, and its annoying gadfly. Slap. Now that he’s officially out of the picture, and departed, we can safely declare psychiatry the official state religion. Did I miss something?

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  7. In response to John Doe, of course there is much more to say about Christianity and society, and many ways of viewing their relationship. I was only selecting one aspect of the Christian religion to make a point about the way the ancient world contrasts with our modern values.

    Despite what you say, there is a consensus that aspects of Christian philosophy facilitated the rise of modernity, and despite the pitfalls that have come with our modern civilisation, I for one am grateful to Christianity for the emergence of a society that is no longer based on static and rigid hierarchical structures, that values freedom of thought and has enabled the rise of science and democracy.

    Nevertheless, I think modern society has inherited a moral burden, which can be traced back to conceptions of original sin, but has also been an influential current in modern secular philosophy, such as Kant’s idea of the conflict between duty and appetites. It seems likely that this idea makes it more difficult for people to be at peace with themselves, hence I think it is worth reflecting that it is not universal- that other societies have had different perceptions of the nature of human nature.

    Finally, the view of Hegel as an apologist for authoritarianism, although once popular, is no longer credible, and is especially curious given that for Hegel the highest aspiration was freedom.

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    • Hi Joanna,

      How I’d love to really dig into these subjects, but obviously this is not the best place and format to do it – and I’m sure you have better things to do anyway (me, not so much; the woes of unemployment)

      However, briefly:

      I must really give you a minus point for resorting to a “consensus” – show me a consensus and I’ll show you groupthink, as you of all people should know, dedicated as you are to debunk a great “consensus” (something for which you have my deepest respect and admiration).
      Did Christian philosophy facilitated the rise of modernity? There is no doubt a correlation, but you cannot assume causality; rather, I’d say modernity arises as a “heresy” of Christianity, the ultimate form of heresy: the removal of God from Christianity. So, for example, the three theological virtues of Christianity, Faith, Hope and Charity become their three modern materialistic counterparts: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. I suppose you could call this facilitation, but only in the same way you could say that Hitler facilitated the creation of the State of Israel. For my part I don’t think facilitation is the right word.
      In any case, as you’ve probably already noticed we don’t share the same enthusiasm for modernity and its alleged conquests. I’d in fact say that the increase in political freedom brought on by modernity has come at the cost of personal freedom – a freedom which was at its highest in those “dark” Middle Ages. I know this might sound shocking (or just plain stupid) to you, but I would invite you to compare the treatment of “mental illness” in early and high medieval society with its treatment today. And here’s a hint in the form of a question that sounds like a joke: what does European medieval society have in common with the WHO schizophrenia studies? This is of course very debatable, but I find that the best gauge for the level of personal freedom in a society is its treatment of the “mentally ill”.

      Moving on to Original Sin and sticking only to its psychological dimension, I would propose this for you to consider:
      First, even if you scoff at the notion of the Bible as a divinely inspired text, you should still consider the possibility that the Genesis account of original sin may in fact reflect oral traditions which stretch very far back in time, perhaps -and I know this might sound fanciful- all the way back to the earliest human culture, to the rise of “self-awareness”, the moment of humanization. In other words: we are not looking at a philosophical/religious construct but at the symbolic recollection of an experience.
      With that in mind, you can try to look at the doctrine of Original Sin from a evolutionary perspective, so to speak: as the tension between our animal need of assertion and domination on the one hand and our social dimension and the demands of our self-awareness on the other. In this regard, the doctrine of Original Sin is not an extraneous burden on the psyche but an accurate description of what is actually going on in it, as well as pointing to a way out of the conflict.
      I’m sorry if this sounds like gibberish, it’s hard to be both brief and clear. Perhaps it’s easier to look at an example in connection with the much-maligned idea of “guilt”: in Steven Morgan’s recent MIA post “Stranger” (which is outstanding, btw) he describes his encounter with Brian, a man tormented because he has “had sex” with his daughter. Now, what does modernity and psychiatry have to offer this man? Alfred Kinsey would tell him not to worry about it, it probably did his daughter good. Obviously Brian, if he is still alive, knows that is not true; he knows he has done something terrible: he feels guilty and he IS guilty. So again I ask you, what can you offer Brian? Suicide? Mind-suicide through drugs and/or medication? Now try to imagine what the doctrine of Original Sin and Christianity in general can offer Brian. Not an excuse, not a denial of guilt, but a genuine way out of guilt.
      I imagine many people would not want to give Brian a way out, they would say he has earned his torment and maybe they are right, but to that I would say that Brian’s healing is an important and fundamental part of Brian’s daughter’s healing, who I have no doubt is in need of healing. And of the healing of Brian’s society; Steven’s healing, my healing, your healing.

      Misplaced guilt, such as that felt by abuse victims, is a very bad thing indeed, but not all guilt is misplaced and at one point or another all of us will be guilty of something, though hopefully not on Brian’s scale. The concept of Original Sin, if correctly understood, does not bring about misplaced guilt but on the contrary gives us a way out of genuine guilt, that is to say: redemption. I will admit however that this idea of sin and Original Sin is probably more often than not misunderstood and misused, but to deny Original Sin because most people misunderstand it is like denying quantum mechanics because most people misunderstand them.

      I’ll end this rambling rant with a note on Hegel. “Authoritarianism” is a modern secular sin, and like all sins we tend to see them in our enemies but never in our friends, much less in ourselves (unless of course you subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin), in sort, it is not a very useful concept. More useful I think would be to look at the role Hegel and Idealism played in the revolutionary movements of the XIX and XX centuries. All those revolutions promised and believed in Hegel’s brand of “freedom”, a freedom where the individual determines what is right and what is wrong (dialectically, of course). You’ll disagree no doubt, but I think you can clearly join the dots all the way from Hegel’s grand freedom to wholesale genocide and prision-States (the road to Hell is paved with etc, etc.).

      Anyway, if you have read this far you will have exercised the very Christian virtues of Patience, Fortitude and Perseverance. Praise the Lord.

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      • The enlightenment gave us both the American and the French revolutions. I’m a little more perturbed that the current disenlightenment we are experiencing at present, this reaction against reason and ingenuity, as well as against the freedom and responsibility that go with a highly developed mammalian brain, might be designated the new dark ages. Of course, the dark ages followed the fall of the Roman Empire, but they certainly were no bed of roses. Given a plague that killed off a good third of the population, well, I leave you to your own judgment, mistakes, and devices. Okay. The light of reason has burned out, has it? Anybody got a match? Stalagmites are a little lacking as far as good company goes.

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      • While I think that you are over doing your defense of Christianity and the alleged freedom that existed during the middle ages, without a doubt, blaming so called “mental illness” on Christianity is obviously a red herring.

        My take is this: there were, there are, and there always be among us people who see themselves as mind guardians for the rest of society. These people usually delude themselves that they are in the business of “helping” but they are really control freaks. These people will latch onto whatever the fad of the day is to justify imposing their notions of behavioral orthodoxy onto others.

        The type of person that wants to be a psychiatrist in our society is the type of person who would have become a member of a religious tribunal 300 years ago. Same instincts, different means.

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    • Hi Joanna,
      Thank you for broadening this discussion to include the dimension of how the patriarchal mono myth that surrounds us, that grows out of western culture’s embrace of the Genesis creation story, may effect us psychologically. It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s provocative statement- “Our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.”
      Many people I’ve seen in therapy over the past 35 years have felt bad about themselves, partially because they believed they carried the stain of original sin, that at their core, they were lacking in inherent goodness and innocence- as they were taught by their parents and religious leaders.

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    • Hi Joanna – Thanks for your valuable reflections. I was thinking how difficult in can be to tackle novel presentations when what you hope is to comment in straightforward manner while achieving good perspective on the context as it develops in the thread, your spontaneous responses to the article, etc., etc. You want to lay out your side because it’s the ground floor of experience talking. You want the whole of the benefit of the vicarious lessons learned, too, from whoever had some similar struggles. You want things to appeal about your reactions and sometimes to repel as much as you got hints of something irksome in the chain of cause and effect that got you survivor status. I know this is second nature stuff for you. What maybe Michael F. went about blithely was trying to omit the sorts of clarifications of historicity and its effects on our perceptions that you commonly make. For instance, he might have mentioned once that Athenian culture relied so strongly on shame, that it was a much more public culture than ours, where you worked off the negative image you might have impressed people with right away. Something about how it meant to seem credible in regard to defending yourself as worthy to your name. Beyond what we reasonably consider the need in our societies. Likewise, he would have more carefully played to his audience of “white-collars” if he hadn’t credited them for so much perspective, and now, I’m thinking of both his entertaining pieces. These geniuses connected with Szasz’s legacy on the one hand and his perceived infamy on the other, are not such patient and scholastically determined folks. I mean, about the alternative crew, none of them are offering to restructure all the bs diagnoses, take your Medicare and review the medical records that explain the nonsense you went through, offer to undo or redress the injuries to your body and name… like they very well could here with an ad in the back of Rolling Stone. “Our side” in care is still very regularly their own side in the game of who legitimizes what that already can without beating their head against the wall. So, Dr. Fontaine didn’t push his authority into the commanding role like he might have with the Plautus piece, in particular. He should have told the gold boys and gals that he could only offer them hints at the right means of cross-cultural interpretation, that it would take thousands of closely spaced pages to get any given remark that we want seen in parallel with our historical situation, adequately understood for the proposition of defining abnormality or psychiatric distress. Despite such common perceptions that the academic and professionals working out the terms of clinical encounters are in charge of discourse for all the right reasons, the survivor testimonials and insights about non-compliant modes of recovery offer the best self-help and most helpful range of perspectives on shopping around for care and information that might save your life, because you see the experts weren’t meant to, apparently. Between “the highly trained” and the ordinary needy/deceived/deranged client, the client is the more advantageous ally, as long as they have decided on great scepticism about doctor’s orders and not believing that nothing much happened when they were detained while innocent of causing or intending reckless destruction, violence, or acting with any malicious intents. I think that good, articulate, witty Dr. Fontaine forgot what kind of bad jokes your helping professions are here, stateside, as friends and allies to anyone most practical about their needs in extreme circumstances. Most even loosely articulate persons I met in hospitals as fellow patients were just in extended states of inability of coping with these mad mind-readers who wouldn’t ask them a thing that they could tell them if it meant not translating it into checklists of the symptoms that got approved.

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  8. On the topic of Christianity I would claim Jesus for the home team as he would today meet all the criterion for the schizophrenia label….. pontious pilate was the first psychiatrist, if largtil had been available in the Galilee things might have worked out differently….. as it was it was death by cop….imo

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