Saturday, October 02, 2010

Madness and Sanity 3


Evening Sky, June 2009, Phoenix Park, Dublin
I have never been too quick to jump to conclusions about anyone.  Everyone is worth the benefit of the doubt as they say.  Where the demarcation lines between sanity and madness lie I am not too sure.  Psychiatrists today do not use the substantives "madness" or "insanity" or the related adjectives "mad" or "insane" respectively.  Neither do they use the term "sanity" nor its related adjective "sane."  They prefer to use more clinical, and consequently more definable terms like "mental illness" such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. When discussing mental illness in general terms, "psychopathology" is considered a preferred descriptor.

In English, the word "sane" derives from the Latin adjective "sanus" meaning "healthy". The phrase "mens sana in corpore sano" is often translated to mean a "healthy mind in a healthy body". From this perspective, insanity can be considered as poor health of the mind, not necessarily of the brain as an organ (although that can affect mental health), but rather refers to defective function of mental processes such as reasoning. Another Latin phrase for "sane" is "compos mentis" (lit. "of composed mind"), and a euphemistic term for insanity is "non compos mentis". In law, "mens rea" means having had criminal intent, or a guilty mind, when the act ("actus reus") was committed.

Another view of the evening sky, Phoenix Park, June 2007
In a previous post on madness and sanity I discussed at some length references to madness in Shakespeare's famous tragedy Hamlet.  There were other references to madness in the English literature we read at school.  Here is one we learned off by heart from the great Alexander Pope (1631-1700) :

Great wits are sure to madness near allied -
And thin partitions do their bounds divide. 
Pope was quite insightful in this remark which he confined to the thin line of demarcation between geniuses and mad persons.  He definitely could have gone further by saying that the partitions were equally thin between the normal person and the not so normal person.

With these thoughts long established in my mind I began reading the short but incisive history of madness by the late great scholar and historian of psychiatry Dr. Roy Porter.  This short wee book is entitled Madness: A Brief History (OUP, 2002).

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