Madness in the Past: Revisiting Ancient Greece

Abandon reason and logic, embrace madness and insanity, and you will see the world for what it is. For then you will see the truth and nothing else.

At least, that is what Socrates thought. There was, however, one condition; this madness shall be of divine nature.

Socrates (470 – 399 BC) was one of the first, if not the first, popular figure in ancient Greek history who talked about mental illness or madness to be precise. However, the way he thought of madness was more as a blessing from the Gods and a gift of heaven than neurotransmitter imbalance. He called this divine madness theia mania”.


“Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift. Madness comes from God whereas sober sense is merely human.”

~ Socrates


How was madness a blessing was later described in detail by Plato (428 – 348 BC) , a disciple of Socrates. In his writing “Phaedrus”, his protagonist of the dialogue (Socrates) explains to Phaedrus (an aristocrat associated with the inner-circle of the Socrates) the four types of Divine Madness;

  1. Prophetic madness – inspired by Apollo
  2. Ritual madness – inspired by Dionysus
  3. Poetic madness – inspired by muses
  4. Erotic madness – inspired by Aphrodite and Eros

So awkwardly unexpected eh? Here’s the good news. Not all of the Greeks thought of madness as a blessing from the gods. As a matter of fact, Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) was one of the first Greek physicians who made madness an object of scientific speculation. He believed that brain was the center of our emotions and controlled our behavior in one way or another.

According to Hippocrates, madness resulted from an imbalance of four bodily fluids or humors i.e. blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Melancholy, for instance, was caused by an excess of black bile.

Even Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), a disciple of Plato, supported and elaborated on the theory of Hippocrates and with the help of a Roman physician Galen (130 – 210 AD), made it one of the Europe’s dominant medical model.

Unfortunately, the impact of these medical theories began to decline during the 1st century AD, and another Greek physician, Celsus (14 BC – 50 AD), established the idea of madness as divine punishment or demonic possession, which gained even more popularity with the rise of Christianity, and got incorporated in the religion of common people.

 

 

The attitude of ancient Greeks towards the mentally ill was undoubtedly quite different from a man of present day. Mostly owing to the fact that most of the people thought of mental illness as a punishment or a blessing from the gods. This not only made them avoid the mentally ill but also revere and respect them. They were possessed by Gods after all! Moreover, the state did not feel responsible for taking care of the insane. Either their families looked after them or they were thrown into the streets.

Before Hippocrates, people referred to epilepsy as the “sacred disease”. They thought it was caused, not unlike other psychological illnesses, by supernatural spirits and stuff. Until in the late 5th century BC, when one of Hippocrates’ follower wrote a paper “On The Sacred Disease” in which he suggested that epilepsy is in fact a biological disorder, not some demonic possession.  

Ancient Greeks were mostly concerned with psychosis rather than neurosis, with significant focus on hallucinations. Most of the common people believed that gods were somehow involved in the phenomenon. However, Hippocratic physicians already acknowledged that hallucinations have biological basis in reality. This does not necessarily mean that hallucinations were more prevalent in the society as compared to today. They were, however, less stigmatized. Quite interestingly, Socrates himself had persistent hallucinations where a voice told him not to do certain things, and his disciples actually liked him for that.

 

The ultimate question is can we apply the contemporary concepts of madness to ancient Greeks, or vice versa? The answer in either case is NO!

Firstly because we don’t know the way these people actually behaved. Secondly there are a lot of things that we might see now to be the acts of madness but to them they were just as normal as they could be, pederasty for instance.

Many of these notions may seem pretty mad themselves in this modern world but here’s a piece of ancient Greek advice. As far as neuroses are concerned, the Greeks believed, and as should we, that we must train our characters in a way that we are ready for this disaster of a life and face our problems (or demons and gods in the case of the Greeks) like the bad-ass species we are!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. The ultimate question is can we apply the contemporary concepts of madness to ancient Greeks, or vice versa? The answer in either case is NO!

    Well, let us have a cup of tea to discuss it in detail. By the way it is well written with thought provoking lines but the thought requires more coherence. Keep writing 🙂 Cheers Zauraiz 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zauraiz Lone says:

      @Sarmad Salar Looking forward to it. By the way, you’re buying me the cup of tea 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sarmad Salar says:

        Sure, I always do 😛

        Liked by 1 person

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