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ARISTOCRATIC NOTIONS OF MELANCHOLIC TEMPERAMENT

Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile?

(Klibansky et al., 1964, p. 18)

Aristotle and those who belonged to his school of thought began recognizing a distinction between melancholia as an illness or disease and melancholia as it manifests itself characterologically. Today, this distinction is still present in modern-day conceptualizations of depression as a major depressive episode (with potential roots in biology) and a depressive personality, character, or outlook. This distinction is also evident in the different perspectives regarding the origins of depression as an internal and intrinsic aspect of a person or as an external entity that happens to an individual. It is important to note that biological and environmental elements often combine to cause both manifestations of depression.

Around the time of Aristotle, an excess of stable black bile was believed to lend itself to the development of a melancholic temperament. Since there were so many talented, respected, and well-known people with melancholic temperaments, this was believed to result in a predisposition toward being intellectually and creatively gifted (Molekamp, 2014; Woolfolk, 2002). Although melancholic states were believed to be natural aspects of daily life that could manifest as illness if a person experienced an overabundance of black bile, those with a melancholic temperament were believed to be “thoroughly penetrated” by such feelings and “had them as a permanent part of their nature” (Jackson, 1986, p. 32). This not only contributed to their talent and predisposed them toward creativity and intellect, but it also meant that they were more vulnerable to melancholia proper, a disease that compromised reason. These individuals were also believed to be predisposed to be much more severely affected should they fall subject to the disease.

Rufus of Ephesus, a highly influential Greek physician, took this one step further and suggested that intellectual activity in and of itself could cause melancholia, because to have a heightened awareness of existence also meant to become attuned with its inherent transitory and sometimes very painful nature. He states, “the tragic destiny of the man of genius (could become) merely the ‘spleen’ of an overworked scholar” (Jackson, 1986, p. 37). Caution was necessary to avoid becoming wrapped up in one’s emotions, as it could compromise one’s capacity to think, which was arguably the most prized quality in human beings. Aristotelians, therefore, regarded emotions as something that should be controlled and felt in moderation.

Although they were apprehensive about excessive emotion and feared the consequences of giving oneself over to untempered melancholia, the Aristotelians also had a tenuous respect, even a sense of reverence for those who were affected by such a temperament. Indeed, melancholia has also been used to denote

a range of esteemed thoughtful states and even certain mood colorations in landscapes or artworks. Many of these states, at least in Western cultural history, were often conceived as important means of reflection and articulation of what it meant to be a human being. (Varga, 2013, p. 141)

In this way, a balance was struck between recognizing the dangers of melancholia to its sufferers and appreciating the brilliance, creativity, and artistic splendor that such a condition could instill in those who were affected.

 
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