“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.
“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.’
“Celsus Albinovanus: Hello! I hope this finds you well.
Muse, take this message to Nero’s friend and secretary,
Should he ask how I’m doing, tell him that even though I threatened
Many fine things, I don’t live rightly or pleasantly.
And this isn’t because hail ruined my vines or heat shrank my olives
Or because my flock is getting sick in a far-away field.
No, it’s that my mind is less well than any part of my body.
I don’t want to listen or learn about anything that relieves the disease.
I start fights with doctors; I fly into a rage with friends
Over why they want to get me out of this deadly funk.
I keep stalking what hurt me, I avoid anything I suspect will help.
I flit back and forth, wanting the Tibur in Rome and in Rome the Tibur.
After that, ask him if he’s well, how he and his stuff are,
How his standing is with the young man and his crew.
If he says “well”, first, rejoice! But then
Leave this reminder in his little ears:
“As you bear fortune, Celsus, we’ll bear you.”
Celso gaudere et bene rem gerere Albinovano
Musa rogata refer, comiti scribaeque Neronis.
si quaeret quid agam, dic multa et pulchra minantem
vivere nec recte nec suaviter; haud quia grando
contuderit vitis oleamque momorderit aestus,
nec quia longinquis armentum aegrotet in agris;
sed quia mente minus validus quam corpore toto
nil audire velim, nil discere, quod levet aegrum;
fidis offendar medicis, irascar amicis,
cur me funesto properent arcere veterno;
quae nocuere sequar, fugiam quae profore credam;
Romae Tibur amem ventosus, Tibure Romam.
Post haec, ut valeat, quo pacto rem gerat et se,
ut placeat iuveni percontare utque cohorti.
si dicet, “recte,” primum gaudere, subinde
praeceptum auriculis hoc instillare memento:
“ut tu fortunam, sic nos te, Celse, feremus.”
“Chance is also capable of afflicting us with sickness, stripping us of possessions, or bad-mouthing us to people or ruler. But it cannot make a good, brave, or great-souled person a wicked coward with a cheap mind. And chance cannot steal away the mindset which when always with is is of greater use in life than a captain upon the sea.
It is impossible for a captain to calm a rough wave and the wind and equally so to find a harbor when he needs it where he wants it. And he cannot face whatever happens fearlessly and steadfast. But, as long as he he does not forget himself and uses his skill, “he flees the clouded sea / once he has furled the sail to the lower mast”.
Whenever the sea looms over him, he sits in his shaking and trembles. But the mindset of the wise person provides the most calm to his bodily responses, eliminating the conditions of disease with self-control, a wise diet, and measured toils. Even if the cause of suffering comes from the outside there is a passage through the storm if “he endures it well with a light and drawn sailed” as Asclepiades says. But if something unexpected and serious overtakes him and overpowers, well, the harbor is close and he can still swim free of his body as from a ship that will float no more.”
This and the following passage are from Plutarch’s On Whether Sickness of the Body or Mind Are Worse (Moralia 500 ff). The following (especially the last line of the first paragraph) appears to perpetuate the stigmatizing of mental illness. And it does: many behaviors we today would see as parafunctional and requiring therapy, ancient authors viewed as issues of will. But it also seems to attest well to the madness of certain manufactured protests….
“Just as, therefore, the storm which keeps you from docking is more dangerous than the one that won’t let you sail, the storms of the soul are worse when they do not allow a person to control or put down his troubled thoughts—this person goes without a helmsman, without ballast in confusion and wandering, taking off in steep and opposite courses until suffering a harrowing shipwreck and crushing his life. This is why it is worse to suffer sickness of mind than the body: For those who are sick, merely suffer; the sick of mind suffer and harm others.
But why is it necessary to repeat the great number of afflictions? Current events remind me of them. Do you see this immense, mixed up crowd which clings together and mixes around the seat of government and the market?”
“What can I think is the reason, Brutus, that since we consist of soul and body an art for the care and keeping of the body has been sought out and its utility has been accredited to the discovery of the immortal gods, but a art of healing for the soul as not as much been desired because its discover nor has it been practiced once it was known, nor has it been applauded with gratitude by so many, and has in fact been held with suspicion or anger by most?
Is this because we judge the body’s sickness and sorrow with the mind but we cannot use the body to sense sickness of the spirit? The outcome is that the mind must render judgment on itself at that moment when the very tool it needs to do this is sick.
But if nature had crafted us at birth to be able to see the soul itself and to perceive it with it as our guide to complete the course of life, there would clear be no one who would require argument and doctrine. As it stands we have received a tiny spark of understanding that we put out so fast because we are twisted by bad habits and opinions that none of nature’s light remains.
Truly, the seeds of virtue are implanted naturally within us and if we let them develop nature would guide us to a happy life. But, still, we find ourselves taken out into the light in a world of evil and the most twisted ideas possible so that it seems like we sucked down madness with our nurse’s milk. When we go with our parents and are given over to teachers, we have already been so steeped in different fallacies that truth has to yield to vanity and nature bows before the confirmation of opinions.”
Quidnam esse, Brute, causae putem cur, cum constemus ex animo et corpore, corporis curandi tuendique causa quaesita sit ars atque eius utilitas deorum immortalium inventioni consecrata, animi autem medicina nec tam desiderata sit, ante quam inventa, nec tam culta, postea quam cognita est, nec tam multis grata et probata, pluribus etiam suspecta et invisa? An quod corporis gravitatem et dolorem animo iudicamus, animi morbum corpore non sentimus? Ita fit ut animus de se ipse tum iudicet, cum id ipsum, quo iudicatur, aegrotet.
Quod si tales nos natura genuisset, ut eam ipsam intueri et perspicere eademque optima duce cursum vitae conficere possemus, haud erat sane quod quisquam rationem ac doctrinam requireret. Nunc parvulos nobis dedit igniculos, quos celeriter malis moribus opinionibusque depravati sic restinguimus, ut nusquam naturae lumen appareat. Sunt enim ingeniis nostris semina innata virtutum, quae si adolescere liceret, ipsa nos ad beatam vitam natura perduceret: nunc autem, simul atque editi in lucem et suscepti sumus, in omni continuo pravitate et in summa opinionum perversitate versamur, ut paene cum lacte nutricis errorem suxisse videamur. Cum vero parentibus redditi, dein magistris traditi sumus, tum ita variis imbuimur erroribus, ut vanitati veritas et opinioni confirmatae natura ipsa cedat.
“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.”
“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.”
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”)
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.’ “
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.
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….”
“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.”