|Hansel and Gretel|
It would be a great thing to find a cure for depression and anxiety states. The anguish involved is immeasurable, and it is afflicting people who might be our best and brightest. And by multiple accounts, the toll is growing. It would be a bigger thing than finding a cure for cancer.
But if there is a cure, where are we likely to find the cure?
Conventional wisdom holds that this sort of thing, “mental illness,” is the preserve of psychiatry and psychology.
This is a critic mistake. We have wandered into the dark woods, and taken the wrong turning.
Psychiatry as a distinct discipline emerged in the nineteenth century, with the idea of extending medical practice into spiritual affairs.
Was this a good idea? Pretty obviously not.
After all, medical doctors are “physicians,” experts on the human body. Does that qualify them to understand or treat the mind? There seems to be a categorization error involved here, along the line of the classic “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
And not just the single error of conflating mind and body, either. Making melancholic mental states the business of physicians also involves another, separate, and dubious assumption: that it is an illness.
Merriam–Webster defines “ïllness” as “a specific condition that prevents your body or mind from working normally.”
This implies some sort of deficit. After all, we do not consider Olympic athletes’ bodies ill, although they are not working normally. Illness means something is currently not up to code. At best, you might be “high-functioning”; but you are still not capable of what a normal person might be able to do.
This assumption does not really apply to depressives, or indeed for most of the rest of what we call “mental illness.” Since Aristotle, it has been fairly generally understood, and modern studies confirm, that people of outstanding accomplishment in many fields are depressives or “mentally ill” in other ways. For any given “mental illness,” some study has been able to demonstrate an associated mental benefit: people who are inclined towards “obsessive compulsive disorder,” for example, are also likely to have exceptional memories. People with “attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder” turn out to be unusually creative. People inclined towards schizophrenia are also inclined to have exceptional math talents. Bipolar patients seem to be unusually good with words and exceptionally quick-thinking. And on and on. On this point, the comparison with physical illness seems to fall down: are professional hockey players usually classed as disabled?
Actually, in a sense they probably are. Even high athletic achievement is apparently associated with the diagnosis of “Tourette’s syndrome.” It seems to involve heightened attention and reflexes.
Given this consistent association with high as well as low accomplishment, it seems arbitrary and misleading, not to say stigmatizing and discouraging, to class these things as “illnesses.” This is focusing only on the negative. It is as though we stumbled upon some new drug which improves brain functioning in some way, and put only its side effects on the label.
Granted that depressives and the “mentally ill” suffer terribly. Granted that most would probably prefer not to be “mentally ill.” Still, this is a more complex matter than what we think of when we use words like disease or illness. It seems, instead, to be a good example of what Catholic call “redemptive suffering”: this awful suffering has some spiritual (mental, if you prefer) value. Put plainly, suffering builds soul.
Since the idea of an “illness” is too simplistic, is it also too simplistic to speak of a “cure”? Is it desirable or even possible to return the afflicted to the status quo ante, the “normal” state? Can soul, once created, be erased? It might be like seeking a cure to growing up.
Accordingly, it might be more useful instead to speak not of a cure, but of a calling.
There is a parable told of Herakles by Xenophon: that, as a young man, he was accosted at once by two beautiful women. One promised him a good, easy, comfortable life. The other promised him a life of suffering and hard work, but of honour. Herakles chose the second bride, and the second life. Why? Because it was the good, the right.
The name of the first woman was Vice. The name of the second was Virtue.
In fact, this is the same choice St. Dymphna is faced with in her legend: either accept an immoral union, and live like a queen, or insist on virtue, and be martyred.
This is perhaps the choice the depressive, or the “mentally ill” are called to make.
And we are unlikely to get our guide to that from psychiatry.
As traditionally practiced, by Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, or Alice Miller, psychiatry collects its data and draws its conclusions from clinical case studies. By its nature, psychiatric clinical evidence is at best third hand: the doctor must rely on the veracity of the patient in describing their symptoms, their thoughts and feelings, which are not visible to him; and then we must rely on the veracity of the doctor. This is classic hearsay evidence; it could not be admitted in a court of law. There is too much subjectivity to be able to draw general conclusions.
Psychology is no better, being founded on the same categorization error. The idea behind modern psychology, simply, was to apply the techniques of empirical science, so useful for understanding the natural world, to the psyche. It is a “social science.”
The techniques of empirical science are designed to tell us more about the world apparent to our senses. Instead of consulting books and reason and appeal to first principles, one looks and listens attentively. One measures and weighs. Do the same techniques make sense if trying instead to understand the human soul? Not on the face of it: it sounds more like trying to drive nails with a screwdriver, or studying microbes through a telescope.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, give or take an autumn day, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus observed:
“One would never discover the limits of psyche, should one traverse every road--so deep a logos does it possess.”
The psyche is both different in kind and several levels more complex than is the physical universe. The human psyche is both infinite and incomprehensible in principle. To begin with, it already includes the physical universe as a whole. For we experience the entire physical universe only as thoughts, as the impressions our senses evoke in our minds. As Bishop Berkeley showed centuries ago, there is no good reason to suppose there is any independent external physical place to which these perceptions correspond. If there is, there is no way of telling how they correspond. So each new datum apparent to our senses is in fact a psychic element. Jupiter and Alpha Centauri are parts of our mind.
Accordingly, were we to fully understand the physical universe and how it works, all its laws and all its individual objects, we would still have only entered the vestibule of the psyche. And not yet taken our coats off.
Next, the psyche includes not just these perceptions, but the perceiver who perceives them, and the act of perception. And it includes the perceiver’s reactions to these perceptions: emotions, imaginings, memories, hopes, dreams, anticipations, abstractions, logical and rational deductions; and a set of abstract principles which help form these reactions, such as number, logic, fundamental concepts like justice, truth, meaning, value, beauty, balance, good and evil; and mathematical operations. Not to mention all the perceiver’s deeds. As it includes imaginings, it also includes, potentially, an infinite number of imagined physical universes, each existing over an infinite extension of time. And it must include the perceiver who perceives the existence of the perceiver, and then the perceiver who perceives the existence of the perceiver of the perceiver, and so on to another potential infinity.
Does it not sound rather silly then to attempt, as psychology does, to pin this living butterfly to a piece of cardstock for scientific observation? And how to do so, since the cardstock and the pin and we ourselves must all be part of the butterfly?
William Labov, the sociolinguist, sketched in one slender arm of the problem of trying to “scientifically” study human beings, when he formulated the “observer paradox”: “the aim of linguistic research in the community must be to find out how people talk when they are not being systematically observed; yet we can only obtain this data by systematic observation.” Psychological observations, like those of social science generally, and unlike those of physical science, are of humans, not objects. The “objects” of the study are also independent “subjects,” and in principle as conscious of what is happening and as apt to be controlling it as the supposed scientific observer. They are certain to adjust their behaviour, or their survey responses, based on what they think the person in the white smock wants. Meaning the results apply meaningfully only to this survey or experiment, not to “real life.”
Immanual Kant immediately pointed out the practical impossibility of a “scientific” psychology back in the 18th century, when it was first proposed:
The empirical doctrine of the soul can also never approach chemistry even as a systematic art of analysis or experimental doctrine, for in it the manifold of inner observation can be separated only by mere division in thought, and cannot then be held separate and recombined at will (but still less does another thinking subject suffer himself to be experimented upon to suit our purpose), and even observation by itself already changes and displaces the state of the observed object.
Nailing imaginary jelly to the wall would be, in principle, far simpler.
And this does not even touch the ethical objections to such research, to treating fellow humans as “objects.” This, as Kant could have pointed out, is the most basic violation of the categorical imperative on which all morality is based.
Empirical science also deliberately strips away the matters that are most central to the psyche. It is founded in part on the premise of being value-neutral or value-free; one is supposed to merely observe what is without making any judgments. Everything must emerge from the data. This cannot work with the soul (note that the terms “psyche,” “soul, and “mind” are cognates, and can be used interchangeably). The soul needs meaning and a sense of worth. One might say, in particular the soul of one who is depressed needs meaning and a sense of worth. Psychology or psychiatry are constitutionally incapable of offering this, and even point in the opposite direction.
Empirical science strips out any thought of moral right or wrong. They are irrelevant, after all, to the understanding of nature, which lacks consciousness and free will. Unfortunately, consciousness and free will are a vital part of the psyche; and so are moral considerations.
Now imagine if the depressive is in fact facing the life choice Xenophon gave to Herakles. Psychiatry has only one proposition on offer, and it is the wrong one for the depressive: it offers the life of easy vice. Given that there is no good or evil, why would one choose anything else?
Classically, but arbitrarily, psychology substitutes for any concept of value or ethics the ideal of “normalcy.” Which is to say, the goal and Holy Grail is simply being “average.” That is underwhelming. To see the normal as ideal is, if not a flat contradiction in terms, a logical error: mistaking an “is” for an “ought.”
And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said.
The mathematician Stanlislaw Ulam once challenged anyone to name a single discovery produced by the social sciences that is both true and of value. If true, the insights of social science seem to be trivial: for example, a study showing that most men prefer younger women. Didn’t we all know that? If new and interesting, like the Keynesian idea that we can spend our way to prosperity, they turn out to be wrong.
One proposed rebuttal advanced years ago was Noam Chomsky’s concept of a “universal grammar” behind all languages. That seemed exciting. For a couple of decades, that was the Big Idea in the social sciences. At last we had something to build on.
Chomsky has now been pretty definitively shown to be wrong; just like Marx, Freud, Skinner, and everyone else before him.
The other rebuttal that I have sometimes heard is the economic theory of competitive advantage. If I am especially good at making shoes, but lousy at baking bread, and you are good at baking bread, but bad at making shoes, we both do better if I make shoes for both of us, and you make bread for both of us, than if we both tried to make our own shoes and bake our own bread.
Very well; if it continues to hold up, and we can agree that this is not just common sense, we have one interesting thing we have thus far learned from social science. Not bad for only two centuries or so of strenuous intellectual work by millions of our best-educated minds.
But I don’t think we should be holding our breath for a “cure” to depression or mental illness from this quarter.
It seems a better idea to retrace our steps, to go back to where we were before we started down this forest path, of applying empirical science to the soul. Before we had Freud, or Mesmer, we might have had something better than we have now. At least we had our basic concepts right.
So what did we have for those spiritually afflicted before Dr. Freud and his associates?
Put that starkly, the question almost answers itself. And if it did not, the Dymphna legend reminds us.
We had, in the first place, and not to scare you away right at the outset, art; we had legends like that of St. Dymphna, and artists and entertainers like her supporter, the court jester. The chief role of a court jester, after all, was to salve the anxieties of the king amidst all the troubles of being king, and keep his feet firmly rooted in reality, his view of the world level-headed and non-delusional. To prevent mental illness, in other words. Dr. Punch Jester did this through various arts: comedy, acting, music, juggling, dancing, acrobatics.
Aristotle argues that the effect proper to all art is therapeutic. He called it “catharsis.” Literally, a purging: as physicians might purge a sour stomach. It emptied us of excess emotions, like the excess anxiety or sorrow of a depressive, and put our psyches back in balance.
For every feeling that affects some souls violently affects all souls more or less; the difference is only one of degree. Take pity and fear, for example, or again enthusiasm. Some people are liable to become possessed by the latter emotion, but we see that, when they have made use of the melodies which fill the soul with orgiastic feeling, they are brought back by these sacred melodies to a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge [catharsis]. Those who are subject to the emotions of pity and fear and the feelings generally will necessarily be affected in the same way; and so will other men in exact proportion to their susceptibility to such emotions. All experience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men.
The Bible reveals the same understanding of art:
Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.
Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”
... Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. (1 Samuel 16: 14-23, NIV)
David here serves as court jester.
We might say that art is the product of one insightful person plumbing the depths of his or her own psyche. Shelley said poetry is “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” Leaving aside the tangled knot of what constitutes “happiness,” the best thoughts of the best minds ought to be some sort of guide to mind. Art that has attracted wide public response, and stood the test of time, has then proven to resonate with countless other psyches. Any art, therefore, that has permeated the culture, that has been passed on widely for many years, we can take to have known therapeutic value for the treatment of spiritual malaise. This is a true psychology.
And then there is Dymphna’s second, and better-remembered, companion. Not to mention her own status as a saint.
There is religion.
“Psyche” means soul. Any religion is, in its core, both a “theology” or “cosmology” and a “psychology.” It is on the one hand a repository of knowledge about ultimate things, about what is and what ought, and on the other a deposit of wisdom regarding the proper care and development of a soul.
This is more apparent in Buddhism than in Christianity. Buddhism largely leaves theology or cosmology alone, and concentrates on psychology. It works with what it calls “upaya,” “skillful means”—spiritual techniques which have been tested and shown by long experience to achieve “enlightenment.” Meditation techniques, most obviously. Leonard Cohen, a devout Jew, felt comfortable being ordained as a Buddhist monk. Jack Kerouac, a devout Catholic, translated Buddhist sutras. The one tradition provided the theology, the other provided various “skillful means” for spiritual insight, without any conflicting truth claims.
Buddhism specializes in this. But all religions, to a greater or lesser extent, use “upaya”: disciplines that foster a healthy soul. That is what “religion” means: spiritual discipline. The word is from the Latin, “to be bound.” Catholicism is full of them: sacraments, sacramentals, observations, novenas, liturgies, spiritual retreats, statues, chants, “bells and smells,” fasts and feasts, prayers, rituals, and so on. Not to mention pilgrimages to the shrines of saints.
This too is plainly, and yet more plainly, the path that Dymphna calls us to.
Artists, for all the wonders they offer us, are arguably often still half crazy. In all the world of man, only a saint is wholly sane.
There was always a reason for all this scary religious stuff. Even leaving aside philosophical considerations, the fact that a religious practice has survived for a great length of time, and has been widely practiced, is warrant that it is effective in sustaining the soul.
Nor should we leave aside philosophical considerations. Depression can be succinctly defined as a sense of loss of meaning in life. Insanity can be succinctly defined as a loss of truth, of a sense of what is and is not real.
What else, then, is the medicine required, but a consistent and well-established cosmology and theology?
Nor should we forget the value of religion as an ethical guide. If, as we here seem to see, depression and perhaps mental illness in general is often the product of a personal injustice, what is called for is a reference in the first place to a clear ethical standard.
It is remarkably foolish for us to ignore this vast body of knowledge; that steeple we see before us is the visible pinnacle of the greatest and most important accomplishment of humankind. It is the rock upon which everything else has been built—not just at the level of our civilization, but at the level of each individual psyche, which is to say, soul.
 Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.1.30-3.
 William Labov, Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1972, p. 209
 Politics VIII:7; 1341b 35-1342a 8, J. Burnet trans.