You know the idiom in English, “It’s all Greek to me,” to express that something is difficult to understand? The Greek language is not only foreign to most English speakers, the Greek alphabet looks quite different from the Latin alphabet used in English and other European languages. Nonetheless, many English words come from Greek, especially technical words used in the sciences, such as mathematics and medicine. This idiom may come from the Latin phrase, “Graecum est; non legitur” (“it is Greek, so it cannot be read”), and it expresses the reality that an average person who is uneducated and untrained in a particular field may have difficulty reading about and understanding that field.
“A little knowledge” of Greek can be useful, but it also “is a dangerous thing,” as another common English expression suggests. This was demonstrated during a private conversation before the funeral of Leilani (O’Malley) Muir, who passed away four years ago on March 14, 2016. Leilani was the first person to successfully file a lawsuit against the Province of Alberta in Canada for being sterilized under the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, which led to several other class action lawsuits against the province for wrongful sterilization.
She had been institutionalized at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, later renamed the Michener Centre, just before her 11th birthday and was subsequently diagnosed as a “moron,” even though her IQ was normal. This false diagnosis allowed the Alberta Eugenics Board to approve her for sterilization, which was accomplished without her knowledge by telling her that she had her appendix removed. It was not until after she was married and found herself unable to conceive a child that a fertility tests led to the discovery that she had been intentionally sterilized and that the procedure was irreversible.
Just before Leilani’s funeral, a person who came to pay his respects said to the [Roman Catholic] priest Leilani had asked to preside at her funeral, who happened to be an acquaintance of his: “You should base your homily on Matthew 5:22.” This verse ends with: “… But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” The Greek word translated as “fool” in this verse is μωρέ [moré], the vocative singular masculine form of μωρός [morós], from which we get the English word moron.
Although psychologists and psychiatrists used to apply the label moron to persons with an IQ of between 50 and 70, the Greek word from which it originates is not only used by Jesus Christ in the above verse, but also by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:10: “We are fools for Christ’s sake…” Psychologists and psychiatrists also used to apply the label idiot to persons with an IQ below 30. This word comes from the Greek word ἰδιώτης [idiótis], of which the plural form is used in Acts 4:13 to describe Saints Peter and John: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men (ἰδιῶται [idiótai]), they marvelled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.”
The use of these and a number of other words with Greek origins in a particular medical context could be described with another Greek word used by Saint Paul in Philippians 3:8, σκύβαλα [skúbala]. This world could accurately be translated into English as “B.S.,” only the Greek does not specifically reference bulls. In truth, the use of such terminology to confuse those who are not familiar with it brings to mind another famous saying in English: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”
While the Greek origins of the above three words may be little known by those who speak English, two other words are often cited by those critical of various aspects of modern medicine: pharmacy and psychiatrist.
Some have discovered or have been told that the Greek origins of the words pharmacy and pharmacist are used in the Bible in reference to magic potions, poison, sorcery, and sorcerers. This is correct and there are five occurrences of this Greek root in the New Testament, all of which confirm this usage. Thus, those accustom to formulating arguments based on biblical passages and examples of Greek usage in the New Testament may feel justified in asserting that this is the only context in which these words were originally used. Of course, a mere five examples of a particular usage does not negate the possibility of other usages.
If one were to search the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use for more than a couple of centuries before the New Testament was written, this same Greek root is found a couple of times in reference to good and healing medicine. Additionally, the second Bishop of Antioch, Saint Ignatius, who was an immediate disciple of Saint John, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, described Holy Communion as the “Medicine of Immortality,” which could be translated, given the Greek that he used, the “Pharmaceutic of Immortality.” In surveying the wider usage of this Greek root, even in Christian contexts, it becomes obvious that it has both positive and negative connotations, much like the English word drug, so a sound argument against the pharmaceutical industry cannot be made using only the etymology of the word pharmacy.
The etymology of the word psychiatry, on the other hand, actually contradicts the modern medical field of so-called “psychiatry.” As mentioned in the first of these posts: “An Orthodox clergyman or monk is called to be a physician of souls, which in Greek is ιατρού των ψυχών (iatrou ton psychon). If one were to coin a single English word based on that Greek, it would be: psychiatrist.” This is not merely some ancient and obsolete Greek usage, but a usage that is still in use today, especially where Orthodox services are served in Greek. A specific example of this occurred just a couple of days after the above mentioned fourth anniversary of Leilani Muir’s passing away. This was the Monday in the Third Week of Great Lent and an English translation of the Troparion of the Prophecy sung during the Sixth Hour on this Monday is:
O Physician of our souls, who knowest the mind of man, in Thy compassion heal our infirmities, for we are weak and broken by sin.
Given the Greek origins of the word psychiatrist and the original Greek text of this troparion, which is still used today in many Orthodox parishes and monasteries, this troparion could be legitimately translated as:
O Our Psychiatrist, who knowest the mind of man, in Thy compassion heal our infirmities, for we are weak and broken by sin.
While etymology of the word psychiatrist suggests this would be a legitimate and acceptable translation of this troparion, the modern understanding of the word psychiatrist suggests otherwise. The words psychiatrist and psychiatry, along with their counterparts in other languages, have come to mean something that is not reflected in their Greek origins. This problem with the word psychiatry happens to be specifically mentioned in the Russian Wikipedia article Психиатрия (Psychiatry):
Термин «психиатрия» предложен в 1803 г. немецким врачом Иоганном Кристианом Рейлем (нем. Johann Reil; 1759—1813) в его знаменитой книге «Рапсодии» (Rhapsodien. 1803, 2 изд. 1818), где, по характеристике Ю. В. Каннабиха, «изложены основы „настоящей психиатрии“, то есть (понимая это слово буквально) — лечения душевных болезней». Этот термин В. А. Гиляровский называл анахронизмом, так как он
«Это, — продолжает А. Е. Личко, — не соответствует нашим современным понятиям о психических заболеваниях», и были попытки заменить термин «психиатрия» другим.
Н. Н. Пуховский, утверждая, что применение «психиатрия», «психиатрические расстройства» невротизирует врача и дезориентирует пациента, и отмечая двойственность представлений о природе и сущности предмета психиатрии (под которым обычно подразумевают, с одной стороны, метафизическое «расстройство психики как символического органа персоны», с другой — «патологию головного мозга человека как органа разума»), предлагает вернуть в практику прежде употреблявшиеся термины «френиатрия» и «алиенистика» и выделять две самостоятельных области терапии ментальных расстройств: френиатрию (лечение патологии мозга как органа разума) и психотерапию (коррекцию расстройств самоопределения человека психологическими методами).
Of course, if you don’t read Russian, you may be tempted to say, “It’s all Greek to me,” and leave it at that. Fortunately, the advent of technologies like Google Translate, although far from perfect, have matured enough to be of great assistance in this regard. Google Translate renders the above Russian into English as:
The term “psychiatry” was proposed in 1803 by the German physician Johann Christian Reil (German: Johann Reil; 1759 — 1813) in his famous book “Rhapsodies” (Rhapsodien. 1803, 2nd ed. 1818), where, according to the characteristic of Yu. V. Kannabikh, “the principles of “real psychiatry” are stated, that is (literally understanding this word) — the treatment of mental illness.” This term V. A. Gilyarovsky called an anachronism, since it
“This,” continues A. E. Lichko, “does not correspond to our modern concepts of mental illness”, and there have been attempts to replace the term “psychiatry” with another.
N. N. Pukhovsky, arguing that the use of “psychiatry”, “psychiatric disorders” neurotizes the doctor and disorientates the patient, and noting the duality of ideas about the nature and essence of the subject of psychiatry (which usually means, on the one hand, the metaphysical “mental disorder as a symbolic organ of a person”, and on the other hand, “pathology of the human brain as an organ of the mind”), proposes to return to practice the previously used terms “phreniatrics” and “alienism” and to distinguish two independent areas the treatment of mental disorders: phreniatrics (treatment of brain pathology as an organ of the mind) and psychotherapy (correction of human self-determination disorders by psychological methods).
As pointed out in the quote from the book Psychiatry: A Manual for Doctors and Students (Психиатрия. Руководство для врачей и студентов) by V. A. Gilyarovsky (В. А. Гиляро́вский), the word psychiatry “assumes the existence of the soul or psyche as something independent of the body, something that can get sick, and that can be treated by itself.” This is problematic, as A. Y. Lichko (А. Е. Личко) indicates, because it “does not correspond to our modern concepts of mental illness.” That is to say, the term psychiatry itself contradicts the biomedical model of mental illness, the very basis of the “psychiatric” theory dominating the American Psychiatric Association, even mandated since the 1980’s.
In addition to all the scientific questions that confound the so-called medical field of “psychiatry,” this one question most clearly demonstrates how fraudulent this field of medicine is: what do psychiatrists treat (i.e., what part of the human person do they treat)? If they cannot point to the specific part of the human person that they study and treat, they cannot coin a term to accurately describe their field of medicine. As it is, the term psychiatry points to the human psyche, which the biomedical model of mental illness completely negates, if not outright denying its existence.
V. M. Behterev (В. М. Бехтерев) suggested the term pathological reflexology, but this term is rather specific to his particular theories, which are covered in his book The Future of Psychiatry: Introduction to Pathological Reflexology. The term suggested by V. P. Osipov (В. П. Осипов), tropopathology, is also quite specific to his ideas concerning a science of behavioural disorders rather than a science of mental experiences and diseases. The term personopathology proposed by A. I. Yushchenko (А. И. Ющенко) is not much better than the term psychiatry as it begs the question: what part of the human person is the personality?
The argument attributed to N. N. Pukhovsky (Н. Н. Пуховский) basically asserts that the term psychiatry causes cognitive dissonance in both the doctor and the patient and that they should return to the terms phreniatrics and alienism.
While the term alienism is used in reference to persons within a legal jurisdiction where they do not have citizenship (i.e., they are estranged or separated from that particular society), the obsolete use of this term for what is now commonly referred to as “psychiatry” is in reference to persons who are estranged or separated from reason (or merely what a specific society believes is reason). Although this could be used to describe various states of extreme mental distress, it still does not identify the part of the person that needs medical assistance. Thus, it does not specifically describe a field of medicine, which is why it can also be used regarding foreign nationals.
The term phreniatrics may appear reasonable because the first part, phreni-, refers to the mind, just as it does in the word schizophrenia. However, the Greek word from which it is derived, φρήν [phren], is also the root of the word diaphragm. This is because the seat of the soul (psyche) was understood by the ancient Greeks as the centre or heart of a man or woman. Orthodox Christian theology makes used of this by teaching that spiritual or mental health is attained by returning the focus of one’s mind from the head (i.e., brain), through which the soul perceives sense knowledge, back down to the heart, through which the soul perceives noetic knowledge.
It is only through noetic knowledge that a man can know and communicate with the Divine, which leads to eternal life. As Saint Paul says in Romans 8:5, “For to be carnally minded (φρόνημα [phronima]) is death, but to be spiritually minded (φρόνημα [phronima]) is life and peace.” Applying Saint Paul’s words here specifically to the so-called medical field of “psychiatry,” to maintain that the mind is merely carnal or bodily (i.e., somatic), which is the fundamental basis of the biomedical model of mental illness, is death and the lack of peace, the very opposite of what is desired.
While the Orthodox see God as Our Psychiatrist, with monks and clergy acting as psychiatrists in cooperation with Our Psychiatrist, there is a place for somatic medicine in the healing of the soul. There are various physical illnesses, injuries, and substances that can affect the mind, temporarily and long term, in negative ways, e.g., high fevers, liver and kidney failure, ECT, lobotomy, other traumatic brain injuries, amphetamines and other “stimulants,” SSRIs and other so-called “antidepressants,” “antipsychotics,” “anxiolytics,” “mood stabilizers,” and “depressants” such as benzodiazepines and alcohol. Research into how these physical illnesses, injuries, and substances negatively affect or destroy the psychosomatic unity of the soul (psyche) and body (soma) and possible ways to heal and strengthen it would be of great value. After all, the more the seat of the soul is cut off from the physical senses, the less such physical stimulation (e.g., hearing, seeing, etc.) can influence the heart of a sick soul. Such a field of medicine could not legitimately call itself “psychiatry,” but a word such as psychosomology would accurately describe such a field of medicine.
Various therapies, though not all, used by psychologists can be very beneficial to a point, with the Orthodox believing that only Orthodoxy can heal a soul further, even to the point of becoming a saint, so a somatic physician who is also a psychologist could potentially offer something beneficial. More often than not, however, the treatments prescribed and administered by so-called “psychiatrists” that distinguish them from psychologists harm the psychosomatic unity and, therefore, the psyche. Since these treatments act against the psyche, they are antipsyche treatments (similar to medical terms like antibody and antitoxin, although antipsyche treatments are harmful rather than beneficial), which means that a physician who prescribes and administers such antipsyche treatments would be an “antipsychiatirst.” Of course, this word has already gained acceptance in opposition to this incorrectly named medical field and this opposition does not necessarily acknowledge a belief in a psyche (soul) that is distinct from the soma (body) either. However, since these antipsyche treatments harm the psyche only indirectly by directly harming the nervous system, the term “antineurologist” is also accurate and more acceptable, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning the human psyche.
All of the above is “Greek” to most people and any attempt to explain it to those who believe in the biomedical model of mental illness may simply be attributed to delusional thinking caused by a chemical imbalance. Nonetheless, it could prove useful in avoiding involvement with somatic doctors attempting to treat the psyche without believing in the psyche. Simply focus on one question: what do psychiatrists treat (i.e., what part of the human person do they treat)?
Would you allow a cardiologist to treat a heart (in Greek, καρδιά [kardiá]) condition if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person cardiologists treat?
Would you allow an oncologist to treat a tumour (in Greek, όγκος [ónkos]) if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person oncologists treat?
Would you allow an dermatologist to treat a skin (in Greek, δέρμα [dérma]) condition if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person dermatologists treat?
Would you allow a neurologist to treat nerve (in Greek, νεύρο [névro]) damage if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person neurologists treat?
Would you allow a gynecologist to treat a woman (in Greek, γυνή [gyní]) if he or she couldn’t explain what parts of the human person are specific to women?
Would you allow a pediatrician to treat a child (in Greek, παιδί [paidí]) if he or she couldn’t explain how a child is physically different from an adult?
Would you allow a nephrologist to treat kidney (in Greek, νεφρός [nefrós]) failure if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person nephrologists treat?
Would you allow an ophthalmologist to perform eye (in Greek, οφθαλμός [ophthalmós]) surgery if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person ophthalmologists treat?
Would you allow an psychiatrist to treat an illness of the soul (in Greek, ψυχή [psychí]) if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person psychiatrists treat? Or leaving out anything controversial: Would you allow an psychiatrist to treat an illness if he or she couldn’t explain what part of the human person psychiatrists treat?
Would you accept an answer to this last question (phrased either way) that is any less precise than acceptable answers to the other questions above?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.