Did Ancient Philosophers Understand Mental Health?

A deeper look into how ancient philosophers viewed mental illness.

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Unlike today, ancient civilizations didn’t have a term when it came to mental health. Yet, that’s not to say they didn’t recognize the fact that mental illness existed.

There are a number of examples in ancient medical writings which recognize symptoms that affect mood, memory, and judgement. Often, these references are discussing either human conscious or the human soul [1].

Ancient philosophers along with their respected societies were curious when it came to moods such as insanity or melancholy. They were so curious, in fact, they went as far as to provide people suffering from such illnesses with proper medical accommodations.

A bit of light on the stigma that stills seems plagues modern society.

In this article, we review various ancient philosophers and their beliefs in concerns to mental illness. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

“Doctors of the Soul”

Though ancient societies didn’t have psychiatrists, they did have philosophers who were claimed to be the very same. It’s true they didn’t have an office where people can be observed on an individual basis (though, there were always a select few). However, they preached a message to people which has – in their eyes – universal truth.

In many ways, philosophers were viewed as doctors in their own right. Instead of treating illnesses of the body, they sought to aid the illnesses of the soul. In short, these illnesses were all viewed as emotional temperaments and character traits associated with being harmful to human happiness [2].

In all of ancient philosophy, three different types of therapy had the most effect on people with mental illness. These include [3]:

  1. The Hellenistic Approach – the idea the Stoics tried to implant is “life according to nature”. Under this concept, it’s believed a person can take better control of their emotions by seeking out a purpose within the cosmos and giving that purpose a reason.
  2. The Epicurean Approach – the idea that people shouldn’t fear death and all that relates to it. In turn, there’s a strong goal to teach a person of the satisfaction which can be found in simple pleasures and fulfilling basic needs.
  3. The Pyrrhonian Approach – the idea that people should rid their consciousnesses of unnecessary beliefs and theories. In turn, people should feel a sense of people upon the realization that everyone around them is, likewise, uncertain. To an extent, uncertainty is a way of life.

Aristotle

Though praised for his ethical writings, Aristotle had strong opinions against those who were mentally ill. He felt that people were considered insane weren’t really people at all. This is due to the fact that people of mental illness go against what Aristotle constitutes are human nature.

For this reason, Aristotle’s views are worth looking into. As we once discussed, many psychiatrists and sociologists agree mental illness is a product of society. Therefore, without society, mental health wouldn’t appear.

This appears in Aristotle’s writings known as the Nicomachean Ethics. Within this text, it’s said that while human conduct and our personal characters are versatile, they’re always within limits. It’s when people cross these limits, as Aristotle sees it, when mentally illness becomes a factor [4].

Therefore, not everyone with mental illness – as it is defined today – struggles with the same mental illness Aristotle discusses.

For example, some people might feel anxiety on a daily basis, but if they’re still able to function within society, then they’re still within limits. Aristotle believes someone can only be considered mentally ill if s/he conducts in irrational behaviors, discussions, or thoughts.

“The Natural Slave”

Yet, to take things further, Aristotle also believed some people are meant to be irrational. These people are known as “natural slaves” [5].

In order to better comprehend where Aristotle is going, we must remember he comes from a much different time than we do. A time when masters and slaves were still socially acceptable.

Aristotle believed some people are born to use their rationality – or, their minds – for the bettering of humanity. While others are born to use their bodies for the sake of those who use their mind. In an example, a few minds came up with the concept of the pyramids while thousands upon thousands of bodies developed them.

Those who are “natural slaves”, born to use their bodies, may never develop rationality. In turn, they may end up developing irrationality or, as we call it today, mental illness.

Still, even through these ideas, Aristotle doesn’t offer any suggestions on how to work with mental illness. He only asserts its existence.

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Galen

Though a philosopher, Galen had major influence on ancient medicine as he was a Greek physician and surgeon. In effect, he also had some notable contributions to ancient understandings of mental health [6].

Of course, mental health wasn’t the term used at that time. Instead, conditions as such were seen as complications adjacent with the body.

Galen had a major impact on the Platonic tripartite model of the soul (see more below) and, through this, believed there were ways to nourish reason. In turn, this nourishment was meant to health the soul [7].

Most notably, Galen understood that mental illnesses were a physical phenomenon, occurring through changes in the brain. He understood the brain coordinated with the nervous system and, in turn, detrimental brain activity can have a depriving effect on movement and behavior.

Through Galen’s work, these ideas are understood as hēgemonikai energeiai, “functions of the ruling-faculty of the soul”.

Causes of Symptoms

Within Galen’s medical work known as the Causes of Symptoms, he notes three important functions of the brain and how they may appear in the physical [8]:

  1. Total loss or destruction of an ability or function – for example, one may lose their memory or abilities they once held, like reading and/or writing.
  2. Damage to an ability or function – this is similar to the above loss, but is only temporary rather than permanent.
  3. Distortions of an ability or function – symptoms such as derangement or erroneous movements.

The third cause of Galen’s observation on human psyche is most notable. For it discusses a state of mind which is actively distorted – meaning, this state can worsen.

As is suggested by modern understanding of mental illness, many who receive a disorder are in jeopardy of it developing into something more over time. For example, people with anxiety might run into attacks on a more frequent basis and at inconvenient times.

Furthermore, modern medicine is also discovering that people with mental illnesses are more at risk of certain physical complications. For example, those with anxiety can develop heart complications due to the amount of stress they feel on a day-to-day basis.

It’s precisely this correlation with the physical and mental that Galen was interested in. And though he was far ahead of his time, with the intuition of modern science, we can begin to see ways in which he was right.

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Plato

Plato, along with many other ancient philosophers, saw two distinct types of mental illness:

  1. Madness caused by illness.
  2. Madness from other causes, such as certain character traits (i.e. someone with an aggressive personality).

In order to understand just where Plato was going, we first need to understand a text known as the Laws.

The Laws; Social Construct of Ancient Civilization

Within the Laws, it’s observed that “diseases of the soul” by imagining something known as the ideal city. Of course, in this ideal city, mental illness wouldn’t exist. And if it were to exist, then the ideal city would do everything in its power to promote better health and offer attainable treatment to the public.

As is stated, there was one way to develop this ideal city; through punishment [10]. It’s important to note, the following ideas don’t juxtapose everyone with a mental illness. Rather, they’re written in terms of those whose mental illness has caused them to commit unnatural acts, such as murder or rape.

People of mental illness who need to be punished aren’t to be done so in traditional fashion. In fact, he went as far as to say they shouldn’t be held responsible for their conduct.

Under the Laws, it’s the responsibility of family members to take care of those without “salvable souls”. So much so, families were fined if they were to break regulations surrounding those mentally ill.

For example, a person of a mental disorder wasn’t allowed to go out into society. S/he had to be kept indoors at all times.

In the society which followed the Laws, people considered mentally ill weren’t always so. For example, those who were atheist were often considered mentally unstable. Furthermore, these people were often not recognized by society. In accordance with the Laws, it was important to leave these people alone [10a].

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Plato’s Views in Terms of the Laws

Given, Plato did not come up with any of the information from the section above. These were works before his time, but had high influence in the society he lived in.

Plato’s peer, philosopher Xenophon, was the first to mention that there should be a recognition of those who are mental ill. As he saw it, there were two types [11]:

  1. Those who were actually mad.
  2. Those who were simply ignorant and could be cured through education and reasoning.

It should be noted, Plato’s reference to the Laws isn’t distinctive. His discussion of mental illness is often open to interpretation.

Plato often refers to the diseases of the soul regarding three separate factors, also known as tripartite (as mentioned above):

  • Reason
  • Spirit
  • Appetite

Through the tripartite, Plato notes there are a number of “diseases of the soul” which can be caused by a number of different negative factors, including:

  • Bad temper
  • Cowardice
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of Spirit
  • Rashness
  • Stupidity

To better understand where Plato is going, it should be noted he’s out to understand human consciousness as a product of other functions within the body.

In an example he uses, a man is facing extreme sexual desires. This is caused by an his excess sperm which is formed by his marrow. Therefore, he’s considered insane and pursues unhealthy conduct, not necessarily due to his mind but products of his body.

The biggest issue with Plato’s mention of mental illness is he’s very vague in his writing. It seems as though Plato wants the reader to get this sense of vagueness. This is due to the fact he believes a person who is mentally ill isn’t so out of choice. Rather, s/he faces mental illness due to evil conditions of the body.

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The Connection Between Body and Mind

From the three philosophers we looked into, it’s obvious they all were fond of the way in which the mind reacts to factors of the body.

Some of these principles still apply today. Modern scientists have found people of mental illness often have physical differences in comparison to those who don’t – most notably, in the brain. Furthermore, some people develop a mental illness after a physical factor.

For example, if someone was in a major car crash, there’s a chance s/he will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A physical scenario having a deep mental effect (so much so, it can change brain structuring).

Unfortunately for ancient philosophers, there was no way to prove these ideas they had as medicine wasn’t up to par at the time. However, though their observations are limited when it comes to how expanse mental health is, they did have an understanding of mental illness which was ahead of their time.

Your Questions

Still have questions surrounding ancient philosophers and mental health?

Feel free to ask them in the comments section below. If you have more knowledge on these topics, we’d also love to hear from you. We respond to each comment in a prompt and personal manner.

References

[1] Thumiger C (2017) A History of the Mind and Mental Health in Classical Greek Medical Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] For Socrates, cf. the opening scene of Plato’s Charmides; for Democritus, see fragment 31 (Diels and Kranz, 1952). More generally, see Nussbaum, 1994.

[3] On ancient philosophical therapies, see e.g. Knuuttila, 2004; Nussbam, 1994; Sorabji, 2000.

[4] Nicomachean Ethics 8.5, 1148b15–1149a20.

[5] 17.On Aristotle and slavery, see: Brunt, 1993Heath, 2008Karbowski, 2013.

[6] PubMed: The Roman Empire legacy of Galen (129-200 AD).

[7] On Galen’s psychological theory, see: Donini, 2008Hankinson, 1991.

[8] Symp.Caus VII.200–204. All references to Galen are by Kühn volume and page numbers; English translation in Johnston, 2006: 203–301. For a slightly different version, see Differences of Symptoms (Symp.Diff.) VII.60–62; English translation in Johnston, 2006: 180–202.

[9] Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School: Anxiety and heart disease: A complex connection

[10] On the penal system in the Laws, see Saunders, 1991.

[10a] Cf. 908a–909d on the institution of sōphronistērion, ‘house of correction’.

[11] Memorabilia 1.2.49–50; Xenophon claims to be citing the teachings of Socrates.

Image References

[1] Aristotle Image Source

[2] Galen Image Source

[3] Ancient Greece Image Source

[4] Plato Image Source

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