The notion of the depressive and insane artist (etc.) is an ancient one. In this passage it is also related to the stories of heroes. The different symptoms of madness Aristotle offers here are interesting. For instance, Bellerophon’s avoidance of other humans is seen as a symptom rather than a cause of his madness.
Aristotle, Problems 30
“What reason is it that all those men who are preeminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the other arts are clearly melancholic and are so much so that they are also overcome by the afflictions from the black bile, as is implied in the tales of Herakles of the heroes? For that figure seems to be of this nature and because of this the ancients called the illnesses of epilepsy a sacred disease after him. And his madness toward his children and the outbreak of open sores before he vanished on Mt. Oitê make this clear. For this comes to many because of the black bile. These sores developed on the Spartan Lysander before his death.
In addition to this there are tales about Ajax and Bellerophon. The first of them was completely mad; but the second pursued isolated places, which is how Homer depicts him as “when that man was hated by all the gods / then he wandered alone on the Alêian plain / consuming his heart and avoiding the path of other people.”
And many other heroes seem to have shared afflictions with these men. In later times, Empedocles, Plato, Socrates and many other famous people [suffered] too. In addition, most of those who worked at poetry [suffered]. In many people like this the diseases develop from a kind of mixture in the body while in others there is a clear nature predisposing them to these maladies. But all, to put it simply, as has been said, are this way somehow because of nature.”
1. Διὰ τί πάντες ὅσοι περιττοὶ γεγόνασιν ἄνδρες ἢ κατὰ φιλοσοφίαν ἢ πολιτικὴν ἢ ποίησιν ἢ τέχνας φαίνονται μελαγχολικοὶ ὄντες, καὶ οἱ μὲν οὕτως ὥστε καὶ λαμβάνεσθαι τοῖς ἀπὸ μελαίνης χολῆς ἀρρωστήμασιν, οἷον λέγεται τῶν [τε] ἡρωϊκῶν τὰ περὶ τὸν Ἡρακλέα; καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνος ἔοικε | γενέσθαι ταύτης τῆς φύσεως, διὸ καὶ τὰ ἀρρωστήματα τῶν ἐπιληπτικῶν ἀπ᾿ ἐκείνου προσηγόρευον οἱ ἀρχαῖοι ἱερὰν νόσον. καὶ ἡ περὶ τοὺς παῖδας ἔκστασις καὶ ἡ πρὸ τῆς ἀφανίσεως ἐν Οἴτῃ τῶν ἑλκῶν ἔκφυσις γενομένη τοῦτο δηλοῖ· καὶ γὰρ τοῦτο γίνεται πολλοῖς ἀπὸ μελαίνης χολῆς. συνέβη δὲ καὶ | Λυσάνδρῳ τῷ Λάκωνι πρὸ τῆς τελευτῆς γενέσθαι τὰ ἕλκη ταῦτα. ἔτι δὲ τὰ περὶ Αἴαντα καὶ Βελλεροφόντην, ὧν ὁ μὲν ἐκστατικὸς ἐγένετο παντελῶς, ὁ δὲ τὰς ἐρημίας ἐδίωκεν, διὸ οὕτως ἐποίησεν Ὅμηρος
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ καὶ κεῖνος ἀπήχθετο πᾶσι θεοῖσιν,
ἤτοι ὁ κὰπ πεδίον τὸ Ἀλήϊον οἶος ἀλᾶτο
ὃν | θυμὸν κατέδων, πάτον ἀνθρώπων ἀλεείνων.
καὶ ἄλλοι δὲ πολλοὶ τῶν ἡρώων ὁμοιοπαθεῖς φαίνονται τούτοις. τῶν δὲ ὕστερον Ἐμπεδοκλῆς καὶ Πλάτων καὶ Σωκράτης καὶ ἕτεροι συχνοὶ τῶν γνωρίμων. ἔτι δὲ τῶν περὶ τὴν ποίησιν οἱ πλεῖστοι. πολλοῖς μὲν γὰρ τῶν τοιούτων γίνεται νοσήματα ἀπὸ | τῆς τοιαύτης κράσεως τῷ σώματι, τοῖς δὲ ἡ φύσις δήλη ῥέπουσα πρὸς τὰ πάθη. πάντες δ᾿ οὖν ὡς εἰπεῖν ἁπλῶς εἰσί, καθάπερ ἐλέχθη, τοιοῦτοι τὴν φύσιν.
Another figure often seen as less than sane is Philoktetes who his described as (2.721)
“He lies there on the island suffering strong pains
In fertile Lemnos where the sons of the Achaeans left him
Suffering with an evil wound from a murderous watersnake.”
ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων
Λήμνῳ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθι μιν λίπον υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἕλκεϊ μοχθίζοντα κακῷ ὀλοόφρονος ὕδρου·
When Odysseus is described in book 5 of the Odyssey, his first line is identical with Philoktetes’ (Od. 5.13-15):
“He lies there on the island suffering strong pains
In the halls of Kalypso the nymph who holds him
By necessity. He is not able to return to his paternal land.”
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων,
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ’ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι·
If we can imagine an “abnormal mental state” for these figures, the implication is the inverse, perhaps, of what Aristotle indicates for Bellerophon. Their madness is caused by isolation rather than causing it. When commenting upon Odysseus’ first appearance in book 5, an ancient scholar records Aristonicus’ comment that the language is more fit (οἰκειότερον ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι) for the Iliad at 2.721 where Philoktetes is described. He adds that it would be right for him instead to be “tortured in his heart” (νῦν δὲ ἔδει τετιημένος ἦτορ εἶναι, Schol. H ad Od. 5.13).
Psychologists have studied the emotional and physical effects of isolation over the past few generations. These studies reinforce important themes of the Odyssey, namely that individual identity is constitutive of social relationships without which we cease to be ourselves. Modern studies of isolated individuals have shown that limited social engagements have deleterious emotional effects including a rise in fear and paranoia and a decrease in self-esteem. Some have even argued that over time, the brain of an isolated person has fewer neural connections and a thinner cerebral cortex. Inmates have difficulties with memory, distorted perceptions of reality, and display a deterioration of language function. Isolation’s biological changes affect the very parts of the brain that facilitate social interaction, higher order analytical thinking, and the ability to plan and act in the world.
David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependency of Discourse. Ann Arbor. 2000.
39: “Beginning with ancient Greece, Thiher’s study demonstrates that literary stories of mental discordance have provided the foundation for scientific explanations of cognitive deviance. Rather than view this historical material as superficial and primitive, Thiher argues for a historical vision of madness as that which could productively give voice to the existence of disparate, and even antithetical, “realities”.
Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. (2000), ―”A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs.Non-Solitary Confinement.“‖ , 102(1), 19.
Betty Gilmore and Nanon M. Williams. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas 2014.
Fatos Kaba, Andrea Lewis, Sarah Glowa-Kollisch, James Hadler, David Lee, Howard Alper, Daniel Selling, Ross MacDonald, Angela Solimo, Amanda Parsons, and Homer Venters. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442-447.
Shruti Ravindran. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27 February 2014.
Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.
One thought on “Heroes, Isolation, and Madness”
In my experience, it’s a vicious cycle. You become sad so you want to be alone. You can’t seem to stop being alone and other things make you sad which make you want to be alone more and this makes you sadder. So on and so forth.
It’s stuff like this that convinces me the ancients were no dummies. At times it sounds like they had a better grasp on things than anyone today.