Know-nothings, Faith-healers, and Quacks: Mystifying and Abusing Mental Illness

Hippocrates of Cos, The Sacred Disease 1 and 2

“This work is about that disease which people call “sacred”. It does not seem to me to be more divine or more sacred than any of the rest of the diseases, but it also has a natural cause and people have assumed it is sacred because of their own inexperience and their considerable wonder over how different it seems to them.”

[…]

Περὶ τῆς ίερῆς νούσου καλεομένης ὧδ᾿ ἔχει. οὐδέν τί μοι δοκεῖ τῶν ἄλλων θειοτέρη εἶναι νούσων οὐδὲ ἱερωτέρη, ἀλλὰ φύσιν μὲν ἔχει καὶ πρόφασιν, οἱ δ᾿ ἄνθρωποι ἐνόμισαν θεῖόν τι πρῆγμα εἶναι ὑπὸ ἀπειρίης καὶ θαυμασιότητος, ὅτι οὐδὲν ἔοικεν ἑτέροισι·

“Those who first claimed that the disease is divinely caused seem to me to be something like the wizards, snake-oil salesmen, faith-healers, and quacks of today, those kinds of men who pretend to great piety and superior knowledge. These kinds of healers shelter themselves and use superstition as a shield against their own helplessness when they have nothing they can do to help. They claim that this affliction is sacred so it won’t be clear that they don’t know anything. They add a ready-made story and throw in a treatment in order to keep their own position strong.”

Ἐμοὶ δὲ δοκέουσιν οἱ πρῶτοι τοῦτο τὸ νόσημα ἱερώσαντες τοιοῦτοι εἶναι ἄνθρωποι οἷοι καὶ νῦν εἰσι μάγοι τε καὶ καθάρται καὶ ἀγύρται καὶ ἀλαζόνες, οὗτοι δὲ καὶ προσποιέονται σφόδρα θεοσεβέες εἶναι καὶ πλέον τι εἰδέναι. οὗτοι τοίνυν παραμπεχόμενοι καὶ προβαλλόμενοι τὸ θεῖον τῆς ἀμηχανίης τοῦ μὴ ἔχειν ὅ τι προσενέγκαντες ὠφελήσουσι, καὶ ὡς μὴ κατάδηλοι ἔωσιν οὐδὲν ἐπιστάμενοι, ἱερὸν ἐνόμισαν τοῦτο τὸ πάθος εἶναι· καὶ λόγους ἐπιλέξαντες ἐπιτηδείους τὴν ἴησιν κατεστήσαντο ἐς τὸ ἀσφαλὲς σφίσιν αὐτοῖσι,

As Vivian Nutton makes clear in the overview of Mental Illness in the Ancient World (available in Brill’s New Pauly), Hippocrates Breaks from Ancient Near Eastern and Early Greek tradition here in offering physical explanations for mental illness of all kinds instead of divine explanations. Platonic and Aristotelian traditions follow with variations on somatism (the body as the cause), adding in addition to the humors, bile, and disharmony among the organs, habits (excessive consumption, actions) and environments. These approaches were refined by Hellenistic doctors and the work of Rufus and Galen where treatments also came to include psychotherapeutic as well as the physical treatments. The swing towards demonic possession as an explanation during Late Antiquity and the Christian middle ages took mental health approaches back towards the ‘sacred’ explanations of pre-rational antiquity.

Some other posts about mental health from antiquity. Oftentimes translators keep the ancient Greek term melancholy (“black bile”)

 

Galen says loss of speech is not melancholy

Women, misogyny, and suicide

Lykanthropy as a type of melancholy

Hippocrates on melancholic desire for isolation

Hippocrates and Galen on hallucination and depression

The positive side of delusion

Aristotle on Mind-body connection

Music for healing mental affliction

Galen on the use of narcotics

Celsus on abusive treatments for mental illness

Seneca and Epictetus on Sick Days for Mental Health

Seneca and Plutarch on Whether Peace of Mind Helps

Epictetus, Treatises Collected by Arrian, 2.15: To those who cling tenaciously to any judgments they have made 

“Whenever some people hear these words—that it is right to be consistent, that the moral person is free by nature and never compelled, while everything else may be hindered, forced, enslaved, subjected to others—they imagine that it is right that they maintain every judgment they have made without compromising at all.

But the first issue is that the judgment should be a good one. For, if I wish to maintain the state of my body, it should be when it is healthy, well-exercised. If you show me that you have the tones of a fevered mind and brag about it, I will say ‘Dude, look for a therapist. This is not health, but sickness.’ “

ιε′. Πρὸς τοὺς σκληρῶς τισιν ὧν ἔκριναν ἐμμένοντας.

῞Οταν ἀκούσωσί τινες τούτων τῶν λόγων, ὅτι βέβαιον εἶναι δεῖ καὶ ἡ μὲν προαίρεσις ἐλεύθερον φύσει καὶ ἀνανάγκαστον, τὰ δ’ ἄλλα κωλυτά, ἀναγκαστά, δοῦλα, ἀλλότρια, φαντάζονται ὅτι δεῖ παντὶ τῷ κριθέντι ὑπ’ αὐτῶν ἀπαραβάτως ἐμμένειν. ἀλλὰ πρῶτον ὑγιὲς εἶναι δεῖ τὸ κεκριμένον. θέλω γὰρ εἶναι τόνους ἐν σώματι, ἀλλ’ ὡς ὑγιαίνοντι, ὡς ἀθλοῦντι· ἂν δέ μοι φρενιτικοῦ τόνους ἔχων ἐνδεικνύῃ[ς] καὶ ἀλαζονεύῃ ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς, ἐρῶ σοι ὅτι ‘ἄνθρωπε, ζήτει τὸν θεραπεύσοντα. τοῦτο οὐκ εἰσὶ τόνοι, ἀλλ’ ἀτονία’.

 

Image result for ancient greek asclepius relief
Hygeia [“Health”] and her father Asklepios Taken from Pinterest

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