On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Stefani Echeverria-Fenn, one of the founders of the Sportula. We are hosting it one year after the overt racism of the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego.

When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.

I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”

The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.

I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.

This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.

Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.

François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx.jpg
François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx

Continue reading “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything”

Retreat or Resist? Seneca and Plutarch Disagree on Peace of Mind

How do we maintain equanimity in the midst of chaos? 

Seneca, Moral Epistle 94.68-69

“Don’t believe it is possible for anyone to be happy because of someone else’s unhappiness. These examples placed before our ears and ears, must be taken apart—we have to empty our hearts of the corrupting tales that fill them. Virtue must be introduced into the place they held—a virtue which can uproot these lies and contrafactual ideologies; a virtue which may separate us from the people whom we have trusted too much, to return us to sane beliefs.

This is wisdom, truly: to be returned to a prior state and to that place from where public sickness dislodged us. A great part of health is to have rejected the champions of madness and to have abandoned that union which was destructive for everyone involved.”

Non est quod credas quemquam fieri aliena infelicitate felicem. Omnia ista exempla, quae oculis atque auribus nostris ingeruntur, retexenda sunt et plenum malis sermonibus pectus exhauriendum. Inducenda in occupatum locum virtus, quae mendacia et contra verum placentia exstirpet, quae nos a populo, cui nimis credimus, separet ac sinceris opinionibus reddat. Hoc est enim sapientia, in naturam converti et eo restitui,unde publicus error expulerit. Magna pars sanitatis est hortatores insaniae reliquisse et ex isto coitu invicem noxio procul abisse.

Seneca seems to be unfamiliar with schadenfreude (probably because it was a Greek word). Or, perhaps he refuses to acknowledge it as real tranquility. Plutarch may have agreed that Seneca’s prescription was good for attaining ataraxia, but Plutarch does not see it as a efficacious for mental health. 

Plutarch, On the Tranquility of the Mind 465c-d

“The one who said that “it is necessary that someone who would be tranquil avoid doing much both in private and public” makes tranquility extremely pricey for us since its price is doing nothing. This would be like advising a sick man “Wretch, stay unmoving in your sheets” [Eur. Orestes 258.].

And certainly, depriving the body of experience is bad medicine for mental illness. The doctor of the mind is no better who would relieve it of trouble and pain through laziness, softness and the betrayal of friends, relatives and country. Therefore, it is also a lie that tranquility comes to those who don’t do much. For it would be necessary for women to be more tranquil than men since they do most everything at home….”

Ὁ μὲν οὖν εἰπὼν ὅτι “δεῖ τὸν εὐθυμεῖσθαι μέλλοντα μὴ πολλὰ πρήσσειν μήτε ἰδίῃ μήτε ξυνῇ,” πρῶτον μὲν ἡμῖν πολυτελῆ τὴν εὐθυμίαν καθίστησι, γινομένην ὤνιον ἀπραξίας· οἷον ἀρρώστῳ παραινῶν ἑκάστῳ
μέν᾿, ὦ ταλαίπωρ᾿, ἀτρέμα σοῖς ἐν δεμνίοις.
καίτοι κακὸν μὲν ἀναισθησία σώματος φάρμακον ἀπονοίας· οὐδὲν δὲ βελτίων ψυχῆς ἰατρὸς ὁ ῥᾳθυμίᾳ καὶ μαλακίᾳ καὶ προδοσίᾳ φίλων καὶ οἰκείων καὶ πατρίδος ἐξαιρῶν τὸ ταραχῶδες αὐτῆς καὶ λυπηρόν.
Ἔπειτα καὶ ψεῦδός ἐστι τὸ εὐθυμεῖν τοὺς μὴ πολλὰ πράσσοντας. ἔδει γὰρ εὐθυμοτέρας εἶναι γυναῖκας ἀνδρῶν οἰκουρίᾳ τὰ πολλὰ συνούσας·

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Libanius, Upon Facing Another Monday

Libanius, Autobiography 246

“And the affair followed and these were my fears, leaving me with a desire for nothing but death. And my conversations with everyone nearby were about this as were my prayers to the gods. One who mentioned baths was my enemy; anyone who mentioned dinner was my enemy.

And I fled in exile from the books which contained the classical texts of my toil; I fled from writing and composition of my lectures. I lost my ability to speak even though my students were shouting for me. Whenever I tried, I was taken off track like a boat facing an opposing wind. Even though they harbored hopes of hearing me, I still went silent. My doctors were telling me to seek healing somewhere else because there were no medicines for these kinds of ills in their craft.”

καὶ εἵπετο δὲ τὸ ἔργον, φόβοι τε ἐκεῖνοι καὶ πλὴν τελευτῆς οὐδενὸς ἐπιθυμία. ἀλλὰ περὶ τούτου λόγοι τε πρὸς τοὺς ἀεὶ παρόντας εὐχαί τε πρὸς θεούς. ἐχθρὸς μὲν ὁ λουτροῦ μεμνημένος, ἐχθρὸς δὲ ὁ δείπνου, καὶ φυγὴ ἀπὸ βιβλίων ἐν οἷς οἱ τῶν ἀρχαίων πόνοι, φυγὴ δὲ ἀπὸ γραφῆς τε καὶ ποιήσεως λόγων, κατελέλυτο δὲ τὸ λέγειν, καὶ ταῦτα τῶν νέων βοαῖς τοῦτο ἀπαιτούντων. ὁπότε γὰρ δὴ πρὸς αὐτὸ γιγνοίμην ἀπεφερόμην ὥσπερ ἀκάτιον ἐναντίῳ πνεύματι, καὶ οἱ μὲν εἶχον ἀκροάσεως ἐλπίδας, ἐγὼ δ᾿ ἂν1ἐσίγων. ἰατροὶ δὲ τὴν τούτων ἴασιν ἄλλοθι ζητεῖν ἐκέλευον, ὡς οὐκ ὄντων σφίσι τῶν τοιούτων ἐν τῇ τέχνῃ φαρμάκων.

mondays

Retreat or Resist? Seneca and Plutarch Disagree on Peace of Mind

How do we maintain equanimity in the midst of chaos? 

Seneca, Moral Epistle 94.68-69

“Don’t believe it is possible for anyone to be happy because of someone else’s unhappiness. These examples placed before our ears and ears, must be taken apart—we have to empty our hearts of the corrupting tales that fill them. Virtue must be introduced into the place they held—a virtue which can uproot these lies and contrafactual ideologies; a virtue which may separate us from the people whom we have trusted too much, to return us to sane beliefs.

This is wisdom, truly: to be returned to a prior state and to that place from where public sickness dislodged us. A great part of health is to have rejected the champions of madness and to have abandoned that union which was destructive for everyone involved.”

Non est quod credas quemquam fieri aliena infelicitate felicem. Omnia ista exempla, quae oculis atque auribus nostris ingeruntur, retexenda sunt et plenum malis sermonibus pectus exhauriendum. Inducenda in occupatum locum virtus, quae mendacia et contra verum placentia exstirpet, quae nos a populo, cui nimis credimus, separet ac sinceris opinionibus reddat. Hoc est enim sapientia, in naturam converti et eo restitui,unde publicus error expulerit. Magna pars sanitatis est hortatores insaniae reliquisse et ex isto coitu invicem noxio procul abisse.

Seneca seems to be unfamiliar with schadenfreude (probably because it was a Greek word). Or, perhaps he refuses to acknowledge it as real tranquility. Plutarch may have agreed that Seneca’s prescription was good for attaining ataraxia, but Plutarch does not see it as a efficacious for mental health. 

Plutarch, On the Tranquility of the Mind 465c-d

“The one who said that “it is necessary that someone who would be tranquil avoid doing much both in private and public” makes tranquility extremely pricey for us since its price is doing nothing. This would be like advising a sick man “Wretch, stay unmoving in your sheets” [Eur. Orestes 258.].

And certainly, depriving the body of experience is bad medicine for mental illness. The doctor of the mind is no better who would relieve it of trouble and pain through laziness, softness and the betrayal of friends, relatives and country. Therefore, it is also a lie that tranquility comes to those who don’t do much. For it would be necessary for women to be more tranquil than men since they do most everything at home….”

Ὁ μὲν οὖν εἰπὼν ὅτι “δεῖ τὸν εὐθυμεῖσθαι μέλλοντα μὴ πολλὰ πρήσσειν μήτε ἰδίῃ μήτε ξυνῇ,” πρῶτον μὲν ἡμῖν πολυτελῆ τὴν εὐθυμίαν καθίστησι, γινομένην ὤνιον ἀπραξίας· οἷον ἀρρώστῳ παραινῶν ἑκάστῳ
μέν᾿, ὦ ταλαίπωρ᾿, ἀτρέμα σοῖς ἐν δεμνίοις.
καίτοι κακὸν μὲν ἀναισθησία σώματος φάρμακον ἀπονοίας· οὐδὲν δὲ βελτίων ψυχῆς ἰατρὸς ὁ ῥᾳθυμίᾳ καὶ μαλακίᾳ καὶ προδοσίᾳ φίλων καὶ οἰκείων καὶ πατρίδος ἐξαιρῶν τὸ ταραχῶδες αὐτῆς καὶ λυπηρόν.
Ἔπειτα καὶ ψεῦδός ἐστι τὸ εὐθυμεῖν τοὺς μὴ πολλὰ πράσσοντας. ἔδει γὰρ εὐθυμοτέρας εἶναι γυναῖκας ἀνδρῶν οἰκουρίᾳ τὰ πολλὰ συνούσας·

Image result for Ancient Greek insanity

Night Terrors and Anxiety Attacks in Hippocrates

Hippocrates of Cos, Critical Days  302

“And whenever the liver swells more against his lungs, someone goes mad. He thinks he sees before his eyes creeping things and all kinds of beasts, fighting soldiers even as he believes that he is fighting with them. He speaks as if he is seeing these things and lashes out and threatens if someone forbids him from going out. If he stands, he may not be able to raise his legs and falls. His feet are always cold and whenever he sleeps, he jumps up from slumber and has witnessed frightening dreams.

We know that this fitfulness and fearing comes from dreams: whenever he calms down, he describes the kinds of dreams that he shaped out with his body and was describing with his tongue. He suffers these things in this way. And there are times when he is speechless for a whole day and night, gasping deeply for breath. When he stops this mad episode, he is immediately sensible again and if someone asks him a question, he responds right away and understands everything which was said. But, then later again, he falls under the same symptoms. This malady strikes most often when someone is abroad, especially if someone is walking on a deserted road. But it does happen other times too.’

καὶ ὁκόταν τὸ ἧπαρ μᾶλλον ἀναπτυχθῇ πρὸς τὰς φρένας, παραφρονέει· καὶ προφαίνεσθαί οἱ δοκέει πρὸ τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἄλλα παντοδαπὰ θηρία, καὶ ὁπλίτας μαχομένους, καὶ αὐτὸς αὐτοῖς δοκέει μάχεσθαι· καὶ τοιαῦτα λέγει ὡς ὁρέων, καὶ ἐξέρχεται, καὶ ἀπειλεῖ, ἢν μή τις αὐτὸν ἐῴη διεξιέναι· καὶ ἢν ἀναστῇ, οὐ δύναται αἴρειν τὰ σκέλεα, ἀλλὰ πίπτει. οἱ δὲ πόδες αἰεὶ ψυχροί γίνονται· καὶ ὁκόταν καθεύδῃ, ἀναΐσσει ἐκ τοῦ ὕπνου, καὶ ἐνύπνια ὁρῇ φοβερά. τῷδε δὲ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἀπὸ ἐνυπνίων ἀναΐσσει καὶ φοβέεται· ὅταν ἔννοος γένηται, ἀφηγεῖται τὰ ἐνύπνια τοιαῦτα ὁκοῖα καὶ τῷ σώματι ἐποίεέ τε καὶ τῇ γλώσσῃ ἔλεγε. ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ὧδε πάσχει. ἔστι δ᾿ ὅτε καὶ ἄφωνος γίνεται ὅλην τὴν ἡμέρην καὶ τὴν νύκτα, ἀναπνέων πολὺ ἀθρόον πνεῦμα. ὅταν δὲ παύσηται παραφρονέων, εὐθὺς ἔννοος γίνεται, καὶ ἢν ἐρωτᾷ τις αὐτόν, ὀρθῶς ἀποκρίνεται, καὶ γινώσκει πάντα τὰ λεγόμενα· εἶτ᾿ αὖθις ὀλίγῳ ὕστερον ἐν τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἄλγεσι κεῖται. αὕτη ἡ νοῦσος προσπίπτει μάλιστα ἐν ἀποδημίῃ, καὶ ἤν πῃ ἐρήμην ὁδὸν βαδίσῃ· λαμβάνει δὲ καὶ ἄλλως.

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Image from the British Library

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’.

 

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Hygeia [“Health”] and her father Asklepios Taken from Pinterest

The Sickness of the Soul: Cicero on Irrational Hate

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.25-6

“Furthermore, for these things it is believed that their opposites are born from fear, just as in hatred of women as in the Misogunos of Atilius or that against the whole race of humankind which we have heard that Timon who is called the Misanthrope felt or even being inhospitable. All these diseases of the soul develop from a special fear of those things which people fear and then hate. They define a disease of the soul, moreover, as a vehement belief about a thing which is not desired even though it is anticipated powerfully, a belief which is constant and deeply held.”

Quae autem sunt his contraria, ea nasci putantur a metu, ut odium mulierum, quale in Μισογύνῳ Atilii1 est, ut in hominum universum genus, quod accepimus de Timone, qui μισάνθρωπος appellatur, ut inhospitalitas est: quae omnes aegrotationes animi ex quodam metu nascuntur earum rerum, quas fugiunt et oderunt. Definiunt autem animi aegrotationem opinationem vehementem de re non expetenda, tamquam valde expetenda sit, inhaerentem et penitus insitam.

Royal 15 D V   f. 107v
2nd half of the 15th century, Royal MS 15 D V, f. 107v