Sunday, October 10, 2010

Madness and Sanity 7

Going beyond Demonic Possession

The Spanish Inquisition - Burning at the stake
Humankind has always been wont to be afraid of what it does not know.  When we study the history of human beliefs and thoughts we immediately see that the role of reason and commonsense must, of necessity, be a guiding one in all things, and especially in the question of mental health and mental illness.  Why?  Quite simply because the wilder imaginings of religious minds have led to the greatest of crimes.  The witch craze which gathered momentum across Europe from the late fifteenth century, and which peaked roughly around 1650 managed to notch up some 200,000 executions, and needless to say, this number was made up of mainly women.  This says a lot about men and power!  Here, then, is one stark lesson of the more "crazed" notions of religion.  Bryan Magee, to my mind, puts the dangers of religion into context in his wonderfully enlightened The Story Of Philosophy when he discusses the contribution of one of the greatest early philosophers, namely, St Augustine of Hippo:

The doctrine of St Augustine's that was never officially accepted by the church but had long-term and in many ways tragic consequences was his doctrine of predestination.  This rested on his view that we cannot be saved through the exercise of our own wills independently of God, but that God's intervention and grace are necessary for our salvation.  Souls who go to hell are souls for whom God does not intervene.  Thus the damned are damned by God's choice.  This doctrine was used over future centuries to justify the burning and torture of many heretics - treating them, in other words, as if they were damned souls in hell - and untold thousands died appalling deaths in its name.  This is one example - Marxism provides others, and there are more elsewhere - of theories produced by a philosopher being used to justify mass murder.  It demonstates, if demonstration were needed, the immense practical consequences that can flow from an abstract idea.  More than a thousand years later this same idea of Augustine's was still exerting a powerful influence on leading religious thinkers, not Catholics only but only key Protestant church reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Jansen. (Magee, op.cit., p. 52)
Epilepsy, which we know as a physical illness of the brain today, and a host of other physical and mental illnesses, which in earlier times were seen to be evidences of demonic possession, continued in more rational/commonsense religious circles to be illnesses still in need of religious intervention in the form of exorcisms (especially in Roman Catholic circles), blessings from priests and of other religious interventions like masses, penances and pilgrimages.  Burnings at the stake were seen as far too extreme, especially after 1650.

As I have already stated the Anglicans showed a more balanced approach to mental illnesses than did either the Roman Catholic Church or the more fundamentalist and evangelical wings of ProtestantismThomas Willis (1621 – 1675), a staunch Anglican believer was an English doctor who played an important part in the history of anatomy, neurology and psychiatry. He was a founding member of the Royal Society. In fact, he was the coiner of the term "neurologie" - which thus excluded the Devil as so-called possession was now all a matter of defects of the nerves and brain.  Porter continues the tale thus:

Especially after 1650, elites thus washed their hands of witchcraft: it was not a satanic plot but individual sickness or collective hysteria; eighteenth-century magistrates similarly deemed converts who shrieked and swooned at Methodist meetings fit for Bedlam - John Wesley himself, by contrast, upheld belief both in witchcraft and in demonic possession. (Porter, op.cit., p. 29)
Porter goes on to delineate the gradual retreat - quite a slow one at that - of the attribution of demonic causes to mental illnesses.  In the 1630s a learned medical doctor still gave evidence backing the reality of witchcraft.  However, around 1700 most knowledgeable medical doctors were of the opinion that "spectres are fictitious representations, against the laws of nature." (Quoted ibid., p. 30) Our author mentions many eminent physicians by name who argued against the folly of demonic attribution for mental illnesses.  They had to argue their cases for many years against the persisting fundamentalist beliefs of many religionists.  For several hundred years more enlightened medical personnel and scientists had to argue against the persistence of the survival of popular belief in the workings of the Devil or Satan and his influence on mental equilibrium.

Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles
Porter concludes this enlightening chapter by quoting from the works of that great English Enlightenment Doctor and scientist, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's almost equally famous grandfather.  Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) was an English physician, a natural philosopher, physiologist, abolitionist, inventor and poet.  In his Zoomania book and elsewhere Erasmus blamed the Wesleyans for preaching hellfire and damnation and maintained that their influence left some poor ignorant hearers with their madness uncured, if not so whipped up that they went on to commit suicide. (See ibid., p. 31)  For Darwin and other more enlightened scholars all belief in the existence of supernatural intervention in human affairs was then turned into psychopathology which we shall discuss in the next post.

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