30 January 2009


School is starting to settle down. I'm getting used to getting up early and having a schedule and showing up on time and sleeping at night. I still haven't gotten over the way everything feels different. There I am, same campus, same people, often the same classrooms and I'm not filled with rage and I can see clearly and the air is breathable and people are friendly. Too strange. The difference between my memory and the current reality is startling.

This isn't going to be too much of a post but I don't want to get out of the habit, so here goes. I'm doing frantic research to put together a paper for a conference and I want to write about madness in ancient society. I've found one good source, which should lead to others and then thirty minutes on JStor should furnish a few appropriate articles but I cannot decide what the focus of the paper should be.

I have decided to concentrate on Hellenistic philosophers (Cynics/Stoics) because they have the more easily accessible views on madness. They divide it into several kinds. There's melancholia, where a person is mad in emotions but still able to reason; mania, where a person is mad in emotions and cannot reason; bestial insanity, where the capability to reason and feel appropriate emotions (the Hellenistics are fixated on appropriate emotion) is entirely lost on account of continual emotional stress; temporary madness, which is the result of wine or drugs and temporary madness that is the result of strong emotions such as love or anger. For all that their main tenet of virtue is to have, indeed, to chose the correct emotions and desires, they make no moral matter of madness. A person overcome by melancholia is not giving in to a vice but suffering from the bodily ill of too much black bile. (black=melan, choler=bile)

Those suffering from bestial madness are seen as being outside the bounds of vice, that is, their actions are so far removed from reasonable and are so violent that they constitute something more like an illness than a vice because they cannot be said to choose their behavior or emotions. They cannot reason and thus they cannot be said to be vicious because they are unable to choose virtue. This is why it is called bestial, by the way; because they can no more reason than a beast can.

I cannot, though, decide what it is that the paper should be about. Should it be the links between Hellenistic theoretical models of madness and modern theoretical models of madness? Should I contrast them with some other philosophical school? If so, who? Should I drag Hellenistic medicine into it?

I do really hope that someone out there is actually reading these posts. No one comments, even if I ask. Despite that, I'm going to ask again: any ideas? Anything from the brief explication pique your interest? Please suggest me a thesis statement!


  1. Hi Katherine,
    I will make a note to try and get back to you on this post. I wrote a paper - about 15 years ago! - on melacncholia and madness 1550's - 1770s - the first chapter being largely about Hellenistic medicine, the Hippocaratic-Galenic tradition, the humoural model etc. since it was this model that influenced Rennaisance thought on 'madness'. and altered states and which reapperared in the 18th century.
    I think it would be necessary to bring hellenistic medicine into it since their model of 'madness' was essentially a naturalist one, approached and treated in in moreorless the same way as any other illness or 'inbalance'.
    The main rennaisance debate was over the concept of 'genial melacncholy' and a text by pseudo-Aristotle (Theothrastus, I think?)which links the black-bile to divine inspiration and prophecy.
    By contrast, the Wittenburg tradition in 16th Europe reconnects the concept of melancholia with medievel 'acedia', in so far as the devil 'exploits' melancholia for his own evil ends and therefore the 'treatmemt' accorded with contemporary Christian (specifically Lutherian)ideas of sola-fida. Madness as sucumbing to temptation, recovery through faith and good works etc.
    I continued through Robert Burton and the 'religious enthusiats'of the 17th century (so on up towards the 'rationalist' shift in the 18th century here humoral ideas were replaced by mechanical models of the nervous system.
    Again in 18th century - humoral ideas and treatments are revived - the complaint of 'the spleen' for example.
    I'm sorry - I'm not really answering your questions. I probably haven't helped. As I said, it's been 15 years since I researched this subject (I was an anthropologist rather than a classicist so my theseis was coming more from a anthropological/socio-historical perpsective). But I figure if I could dig out my thesis and have a browse over it, I might be able to locate some more specific pointers.
    I know most of my research material will be out of date. I remember an interesting book by ER Dodds 'The Greeks and the Irrational' tracing the threads and continuities from the earlier 'Homeric' culture into Hellenistic ideas on the self and madness.
    Also Michael Foucault 'The care of the self' (in the History of sexuality series) I seem to remember being alot of use.
    Like I said - I'll try and think on this a bit more and get back to you. I'm not much use at the moment as I'm struggling with winter hypos, agitation and insomnia. My brain is like scrambled egg!!
    Well - all the best. It's a fascinating subject and I hope you enjoy your research.

  2. Ah, Foucault. He is always with us, is he not?
    What a fantastic answer and thank you for it. I will look for the Dodds book: that could really give me something to go on. What a great thesis topic; it sounds so fascinating. I love reading anthropology even though it isn't my area.
    It's a pleasure to know that I have a reader who has an intersection of interests.