History of Psychiatry and Medical Psychology

pp 175-197

Mind and Madness in Classical Antiquity

  • Bennett SimonAffiliated withPsychiatry, Harvard University


The history of psychiatry in Greek and Roman antiquity is the frame story for the history of psychiatry in the Western world as well as the history of that topic in a particular era and in particular places. That is, it is not only one current in the stream that becomes modern psychiatry, but it is also the caput Nili, “the head of the Nile.” The terminology, categories, and core ways of thinking about mind and its derangements that evolved in ancient Greece have left an indelible stamp on all subsequent thinking about these topics. The distinction between rational and irrational, the notion of an internal mental life, and the notion of psychic conflict and that psychic conflicts can be categorized, classified, studied, and systematically influenced are all legacies from classical Greece. The notion of the body as a system, as a balance, as a mechanism, as a hierarchy of organs, or as a parliament of organs—these underlie the medical models that arose from the fifth century B.C.E. onwards. Furthermore, the Greeks developed the idea that it is possible to understand how balances and imbalances among organs and body constituents influence mind and madness, how one central organ (at first believed to be the heart, but later the brain) is the organ of mental operations, and that that organ mediates influences from the outside world and from the internal world of the body. The articulation of a concept of body and a concept of mind and the realization that if the person is thus divided there is a need to find a way of conceptualizing the unity are Greek “discoveries” or presuppositions that have left a permanent mark on our thinking about thinking.1