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Home arrow Psychology arrow Subjective Darkness: Depression as a Loss of Connection, Narrative, Meaning, and the Capacity for Self-Representation


Tristitia and acedia were terms used by the Christian church to describe symptoms commonly associated with melancholia and depression today. They encompassed feelings of sadness, indifference, neglect of work, a withdrawal of investments, discouragement, inertia, sleepiness, and laziness, and they were also associated with sloth (Azzone, 2012; Daly, 2007). These terms originated in the east within the context of describing monks who had difficulty concentrating on monastic duties and dedicating themselves to their work. Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 A.D.) and later John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) described acedia in their fellow monks who felt bored and disinterested in their work. For these men, time seemed to move interminably. They grew restless and felt compelled to seek happiness beyond the monastery. They became weary of monastic life and no longer dedicated themselves to their godly work. As this concept spread across the west and to the common folk, it began to include a wider range of meanings, including simply the love of sleep. In this way, it changed from “a difficulty concentrating to a deficit of the will, frankly overlapping with sloth, bordering with social parasitism” (Azzone, 2012, p. 23).

As many of these symptoms (lethargy, loss of interest, inability to work and focus, withdrawal from formerly enjoyable activities and people) are found in states of melancholy, the public began viewing melancholia through this moralistic lens. In addition, the emphasis on hard work created implications for the causes and treatment of melancholy. If a failure to pursue spiritual work led to acedia, and acedia resulted in a withdrawal from work or laziness, the resolution could be said to lie in the suffering individual’s harder investment in spiritual work. They could then be held accountable for their mental states as if they had the capacity to fix them through greater effort. Similarly, melancholia could be seen as punishment for moralistic failures. Thus, melancholia was linked with immorality and even possession by demons, as these were liable to distract one from a dedicated relationship with God (Azzone, 2012; Daly, 2007; Migliore, 1983). As Azzone (2012) says, “forms of expression of mental pain (i.e., acedia and tristitia) were considered to be mortal sins within Christian thought all through the Middle Ages” (p. 17).

During the 11th century in Europe, “People could easily implicate supernatural causes such as punishment from God, possession by the devil(s), witchcraft, or sorcery as alternative explanations” to the medical framework of the time in explaining illnesses (Migliore, 1983, p. 171). Mental illness was retribution for sins or the result of evil forces within the individual. As a result, many who suffered were viewed as inherently bad or as having been corrupted by their condition. This connection between melancholy and the devil(s) continued through to the 16th and early 17th centuries, and it can be linked with the rampant witch hunts of that time. Melancholia was believed to impair judgment, which made individuals who were compromised by the condition appealing targets to the devil, as they could be more easily manipulated. Migliore (1983) says, “The devil attempts to manipulate the victim’s humors and stimulate fantastic delusions in order to lead the individual to reject God, and thereby to suffer eternal damnation” (p. 173). The church endorsed and spread this belief throughout the community. As a result, it was believed that “it was necessary to identify and punish the person (presumably a witch) responsible for the possession” (Karp, 1984, p. 4). Emphasis was placed on seeking out these individuals so that they and their sinful, evil ways could be cleansed from society.

Johann Weyer was a physician practicing on the border of Belgium and Holland in the 16th century. He wrote the book De praestigiis daemonum (Of Deceiving Demons) between 1561 and 1562, in which he posited that witches were harmless but that they themselves believed they were responsible for all sorts of evil atrocities because of the demons who invaded their minds and caused distortions in their imagination (Radden, 2000, p. 95). Furthermore, Weyer made the argument that the voluntary confessions of women admitting to being witches were the “result of either a melancholic disposition, or the use of drugs” (Migliore, 1983, p. 171). He advocated for the medical treatment of such people instead of persecution, torture, and murder, because their alleged sinfulness was the result of mental illness beyond their control rather than the commitment of any evil acts in reality.

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