Category Archives: Modernity

The Modern Mental Disease

By Liah Greenfeld

Modern humans—that is, people who live in societies such as ours, democratic, prosperous, relatively secure, and offering its members numerous life-choices, people like you and me, in other words—are different from humans who lived or live in other types of societies. We experience life differently from them: perceive reality differently and feel emotions that other humans did not have.

Human experience was revolutionized in the 16th century England. In the previous posts we have already discussed such new emotions as ambition, love, happiness, and their connection to the new form of consciousness, which came to be called “nationalism” and formed the cultural framework of modernity. Nationalism implied a special image of society as a sovereign community of equal members (a “nation”) and of reality in general. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere. Considering a living community sovereign (the source of all laws), it implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God and, even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, which happened often, was to all intents and purposes secular. It was dramatically different, in other words, from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness which it replaced, and it shaped the way we live today. Among other things, the new consciousness made the human individual one’s own maker: it implied we had the choice to decide what we want to be; it dramatically increased the value of human life, encouraging us to realize it to the fullest extent—in other words, it gave us dignity and freedom. The society built on its premises of equality and popular sovereignty was an open society, in which the individual had the right to define one’s own identity, a society which made one’s identity one’s own business.  It is not coincidental that the new emotions discussed in previous posts, which emerged when the English society was redefined as a “nation,” were in some way connected to the individual’s ability to define oneself and that the two great modern passions—ambition and love—in fact answered a new need which this ability created: the need for help in identity-formation.

Unfortunately all these benefits of nationalism—the dignity, freedom, and equality, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be – did not come unaccompanied by costs, and for all the enrichment of our life experience contributed by love and happiness, these costs would be impossible to disregard.  The liberty to define oneself has made the formation of the individual identity problematic. A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself.  Modern culture cannot provide individuals within it with consistent guidance, with which other cultures provide its members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), it in fact actively disorients us. Such cultural insufficiency is called anomie. Already over a century ago, it was recognized as the most dangerous problem of modernity. For many people, the necessity to construct one’s identity, to choose what to make of oneself, became an unbearable burden.

At the same time as the English society was redefined as a nation, and ambition, happiness, and love made their first appearances among our emotions, a special variety of mental illness, different from a multitude of mental illnesses known since antiquity, was first observed. It expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, the common symptoms of which were social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and megalomania and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying experience of a complete loss of self. Some of the signs of the new disorder were similar to the symptoms of familiar mental abnormalities. In particular, the new illness, like some previously known conditions, would express itself in abnormal affect—extreme excitement and paralyzing sadness. But, in distinction to the known conditions in which these symptoms were temporary, in the new ailment they were chronic and recurrent. The essence of the new disorder, however, was its delusionary quality, that is the inability to distinguish between the inner world and the outside, which specifically disturbed the experience of self, confusing one regarding one’s identity, making one dissatisfied with, and/or insecure it, it, splitting one’s self in an inner conflict, even dissolving it altogether into the environment. Sixteenth-century English phrases such as “losing one’s mind,” “going out of one’s mind,” and “not being oneself” captured this disturbed experience, which expressed itself in out-of-control behaviors (that is, behaviors out of one’s control, out of the control of the self), and, as a result, in maladjustment and functional incapacitation.

None of the terms in the extensive medical vocabulary of the time (which included numerous categories of mental diseases) applied to the new mental illness; neither could it be treated with the means with which the previously known mental illnesses were treated. It required a new term—and was called “madness.” It also called into being the first hospital in the sense in which we understand the word (the famous Bedlam), the first medical specialization, eventually named “psychiatry,” and special legislation regarding the “mad.”  It is this clearly bipolar and delusional disease which would be three centuries later classified as distinct syndromes of schizophrenia and affective (depressive and manic-depressive) disorders.

We shall follow the history of this modern disease and analyze it in the following posts.

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

Can Sexless Love Be Fulfilling?

By Liah Greenfeld

In Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex, I argued that the modern concept of love as an identity-affirming emotion, the way to one’s true self, and the supreme expression of the self, changed the cultural significance (that is, our attitude to) of sex, elevating it far above the base drive, legitimate only in marriage for the purpose of procreation and even then considered sinful within the framework of Christian morality which was dominant in our, Western, civilization throughout the last fifteen centuries of its pre-modern existence. Love became the greatest modern passion, it was presented from the outset–in Romeo and Juliet–as sexual love between a man and a woman, and the involvement of sex in it purified sex and added to it an important spiritual dimension. The essence of the modern ideal of love, and of love-relationship, however, has always remained its identity-affirming power, the fact that it offered the most direct route to finding oneself and, therefore, to  meaning in life and happiness [see Modern Emotions: Happiness].

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Random Acts of Violence: A Common Psychological Profile?

Bryan Bender, “US officials seek lessons in bombing catastrophe,” The Boston Globe

Government studies of previous large-scale attacks perpetrated by religious extremists, antigovernment groups, and the mentally disturbed have highlighted certain shared patterns, officials say. “When you take motivation out of it,” said one US official involved in reviewing the homeland security implications of the Boston attack, “the indicators that are apparent to people are in many cases common across the board. “In all of these cases there are opportunities for intervention. It may not be law enforcement at all times that is best suited to do it. It may be a teacher. It may be a faith leader,” the official said.

Liah Greenfeld:

Random criminality, especially in the last few weeks, has been on the mind of many Americans. What drives an individual to commit a violent crime against unsuspecting strangers? Why did James Holmes shoot up the Aurora theater? Was Adam Lanza acting out of childhood resentment? Were the Tsarnaev brothers religiously motivated?  Is mental instability behind all violent acts?

Whether the explicit motive is political, religious, or personal, today’s random violent crimes have an overarching societal connection. Uncomfortable in their own skin and maladjusted, the individuals committing them are naturally discontented with their society and blame their deep personal unhappiness on it. Blaming one’s existential discomfort on factors unrelated to it is a kind of self-therapy. A story is constructed (usually borrowed from ongoing public discussions), which rationalizes one’s discomfort as reflecting an awareness of some general evil: corruption, injustice, imperialism, uncaring environment, what not. In cases of more severe distress, such rationalization alone does not sufficiently assuage it and must be acted upon.  The individual may join an organization or movement dedicated to fighting a particular evil or be impelled, called, to act on one’s own – and led to murder. The thinking behind such acts bears the most distinctive mark of (schizophrenic) delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human social reality and the confusion between symbols and their referents. People are killed because of what they represent, rather than because of what they do.

It is the randomness of such crimes that shocks us, making us eager to find a rational motive behind them.  The only way to prevent them, however, is to understand how very widespread in our society the mental condition behind them is, and to be ready to intervene whenever the common psychological discomfort threatens to turn into a real disease. Such vigilance might save many more lives than have ever been taken by sick criminals, because it is essential to remember that this kind of violence is extremely rare and that the characteristic violence of the mentally ill is suicide.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

 

Are Human Emotions Universal?

By Liah Greenfeld

It is widely believed that human emotions, from love to ambition to pride or desire for freedom, for instance, are hardwired into our brain and that, therefore, both their range and their nature are universal, shared by humanity as a whole. This belief is wrong and itself reflects the fundamental universalism of modern Western, particularly American, thought and its tendency to consider all human consciousness and behavior as a function of biology. Both comparative zoology and comparative history  show that, above the limited range of emotions we share, as animals, with other animal species, what moves human beings and makes them suffer in one culture or society may be dramatically different from the emotions shaping the living experiences in another one.

Emotions, or feelings, as the name suggests, are experienced through physical sensations. In this they differ from other mental experiences, usually called “cognitive.” The part of sensations in an emotion allows us to place it into one of three categories: primary emotions, secondary emotions, and tertiary emotions. Primary emotions are experienced through specific sensations and represent the direct reaction of the organism to the stimuli of its physical environment. They include such experiences as pain and pleasure, fear, positive and negative excitement (joy and anxiety), hunger and satiation, and their biological function is to increase the individual organism’s survival. It is clear that these primary emotions are common to humans and other animals.

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Love, Madness, Terrorism: Connected?

By Liah Greenfeld

In the 16th century, in England, several remarkable things happened:

Social mobility, inconceivable before, became legitimate and common;

The ideal of Romantic love between a man and a woman emerged and “true love,” as we understand it today, was added to the human emotional range;

The word “people,” which earlier referred to the lower classes, became synonymous with “nation,” which at the time had the meaning of “an elite”;

Numerous new words appeared, among them “aspiration,” “happiness,” and “madness”;

The English society, previously a society of hierarchically arranged orders of nobility, clergy, and laborers under the sovereignty of God and his Vicar in Rome, was redefined as a sovereign community of equals;

The nature of violent crime, personal and political, changed, with crime that was not rational in the sense of self-interested becoming much more common;

The attitude to pets, especially dogs and cats, changed, transforming these animals in many cases from living multi-purpose tools to our friends and soul-mates;

The pursuit of growth — rather than survival, as was the case before – became the goal of the economy;

Mental diseases which were later to be named “schizophrenia,” “manic-depressive illness,” and “depression” were first observed, shifting the interest of the medical profession, in particular, from other, numerous, mental diseases that were known since the times of antiquity.

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