Image via Wikipedia: Herakles as a boy strangling a snake. Marble, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE.

Contemporary psychiatry makes a distinction between neurosis and psychosis. In former times the latter was designated as madness.

But the distinction between sanity and madness isn’t always cut and dried. Madness usually is a matter of degree.

Psychiatry talks about “borderline” psychosis, a shadowy place where small triggers could send the disturbed and unstable toppling over the edge.

We also hear of the “temporary insanity” plea made by court defendants, indicating that madness could be impermanent.

The Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing suggests that unconscious family agendas and social hypocrisies could force individuals into a kind of madness or into adopting the role of the madperson. Laing claims that the current understanding of madness rests on biased interpretations of largely misunderstood behavior patterns.

Having said that, Laing as a psychiatrist does try to cure patients, which suggests that he sees his particular perspective as more ‘authentic’ than their own.

Not unlike Laing, the French postmodern thinker Michel Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization that the idea of madness is socially constructed. To say that something is socially constructed is a way for social thinkers to suggest that truths are relative to cultures, subcultures and history. And in Foucault’s analysis, social power plays a large role in the formation of these relative truths.

Foucault says the 18th century rise of insane asylums in Europe is linked to the ideological and political concerns of the day. Most notably, a new faith in medical science replaced superstition after a centuries long spell of repressive, imaginary thinking, which historian Daniel Boorstin blames on the medieval Catholic Church.

Interestingly, some contemporary Catholics see psychiatry as a toolbox for Satan because it tends to downplay the idea of spiritual powers, both good and evil. Other contemporary Catholics, however, uncritically accept the latest psychiatric claims and procedures, not really realizing that this represents just another belief system and its tangible expression.

Laing, as well as the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung and the Czech Stanislav Grof, suggest that madness, with proper professional guidance through crisis periods, could be a necessary stage leading toward a more comprehensive form of psychological health.

According to this perspective, psychological instability may be part of a natural process of healing, transformation and genuine becoming. Indeed, Laing says that psychiatric breakdown could be better seen in terms of a potential breakthrough.

Jung, himself, experienced a well-documented ‘creative illness’ that lasted five years. During this period of inner searching Jung minimized his official duties. He painted, made sandcastles by the water’s edge, engaged in a kind of creative visualization and explored the contents of what he understood as the collective unconscious. In contrast to Laing’s theory about scapegoating within families, Jung wrote that family ties helped to keep him sane during this period.

The history of religion and myth reveals different ways of distinguishing the mad and the sane.

The distinction is present throughout Jewish scripture and the Christian Bible. In keeping with the idea of a positive, therapeutic kind of madness, Daniel of the Old Testament, for instance, correctly interprets the tyrant King Nebuchadnnezzar’s dream as a sign of the dreamer’s impending madness. Daniel’s warning to repent and thereby ward off a curse of madness is ignored by the King who later wanders the land, eating grass like an ox for seven years. Afterward, however, Nebuchadnezzer repents and is reconciled with God (Daniel 4).

Some of the people at the time of Jesus thought he was mad (Mark 3:21; see also Deut. 28:28;  Hos. 9:7; Jer. 25:16).

Today some non-Christians hold the view that Jesus was an egomaniac. We must ask, however, whether a mere egomaniac devoid of authentic spiritual power could launch a Church that would endure cruel and frightening persecutions, expand and, indeed, thrive 2000 years after his death.

In ancient India, the book of Manu, primarily a law book influenced by caste-related beliefs, separates the mad from the sane.

In Greek mythology, Euripides’ play Heracles (416 BCE) personifies Madness as the daughter of Heaven and Night, sent to drive Heracles insane.

Madness has mounted her chariot
Groans and tears accompany her
She plies the lash, hell-bent for murder
rage gleaming from her eyes
A Gorgon of the night, and around her
Bristle the hissing heads of a hundred snakes¹

Image via Wikipedia: King Lycaon changed into wolf by Zeus, XVI century engraving

Considering the global reality of war, horrendous human rights violations, environmental destruction, crime and violence, it might seem that Madness, in all its dreary dementia, rules the world.

Along these lines, Satan of the New Testament is described as ‘the ruler of this world.’ Likewise, Shakespeare‘s three witches proclaim in the prologue of Macbeth, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

And the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) had this to say about possible connections among the idea of madness, hypocrisy and social power.

MUCH madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,-you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.²

¹ Euripides, cited in Eric Flaum and David Pandy, The Encyclopedia of Mythology: Gods, Heroes, and Legends of the Greeks and Romans, Philadelphia, Courage Books, 1993, p. 99.

² Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Part 1: Life (11), Boston: Little, Brown, 1924;, 2000.

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  1. Yes this is all very interesting to note that Jung himself struggled with his inner demons for five years and as a consequence he was able to utilize what he learned and heal other patients with the insight that he gained by actually confronting his own shadow. In our modern day medicalization of so called mental illness we have lost touch with the soul and have sought a reductionist/materialist solution that takes away the meaning of the illness ( if according to Dr. Szasz) is really a myth, then it would stand to reason that Jung took us to the unconscious and the collective unconscious where in man dwells that deep area of the psyche which contains all the myths and religions along with the mystical which he was definitely in contact as a physician. Today it is the materialist/medical-psychiatric treatment that has now become dominant and we have lost our
    real inheritance of what the meaning of therapy is and how the old masters where able to work without the drugs and other barbaric ways of treating the mind. There was a time when a deeper understanding of the mind was brought to light by such a genius who sought the truth about what he saw as a physician which included everything that many scientists would avoid and call pseudo science. I think our day and age wants to cut corners and find some short cut to healing so that the patient can remain functional and get back on the job. Who has time for self understanding or as he called it individuation? The post modern era is upon us and it remains a travesty in how we view madness.

    Peter Tarsio


  2. Thanks for your interesting comments.

    I agree that Jung was a pioneer and he certainly helped me along my journey. I think one of his most important ideas, which has roots in his mentor Freud, is the notion of projection. But synchronicity and numinosity also ring true with certain types of people who don’t connect with the more traditional expressions of these proposed phenomena.

    As for contemporary psychiatry, my view could be described as moderate. IMHO each patient is different and to say that psychiatry is bogus and ‘bad for all’ (as Szasz seems to) I think is somewhat extreme and removed from the realities of everyday life at this moment in history. Anti-psychiatry people seem to have an overall negative bias without really looking into the sensitive particulars of individual cases. They also overlook the fact that psychiatry is a developing science. Let’s not forget that Jung himself was a licensed psychiatrist.

    So I think a more positive outlook would be to hope for an increasingly integrated, holistic approach, as you seem to suggest.


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