Thursday, April 5, 2012

From Melancholia: Aristotle

WHY is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious [ill-tempered and melancholic] temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile, as is said to have happened to Heracles among the heroes? – Aristotle, Problemata XXX.1
As with the writings of Hippocrates, we now realize that some works attributed to Aristotle may have been written by his disciples. Problemata – a collection of questions and answers on topics ranging from the nature of sweat to legal issues – is considered by many to be a "pseudo-Aristotelean" work. Law professor and Aristotle scholar Steve Wexler has suggested a middle view. He believes the answers were written by a student at Aristotle's academy, while the questions were the work of the great philosopher himself. Regardless of the provenance of this work, it is noteworthy for being the first recorded instance of the question "Why do so many brilliant people suffer from melancholy?"

This question raises other important issues. According to the Hippocratic corpus, ideal health came when the humors were in equal proportions. But the eminent men Aristotle was describing – great poets, artists, politicians and philosophers – had a noteworthy excess of black bile.  Given the Greek love of the harmonious mean, how could this overabundance sometimes lead not to illness but to genius? And how is it that depression and even frenzied madness so often go hand-in-hand with superior gifts?

The answer to Problemata XXX.1 compares melas kholē to wine, noting that it affects different people in different ways. Too much wine makes some people friendly and others aggressive: some become giddy and joyful while others are moved to tears. From here Aristotle (or his student) suggests that black bile, like wine, can be of both a hot and cold nature. An abundance of cold melas kholē produces the despondency and torpor commonly associated with clinical depression. But should the excess black bile become heated, the person may become frenzied or clever or erotic or easily moved to anger and desire, while some become more loquacious. Many too, if this heat approaches the region of the intellect, are affected by diseases of frenzy and possession; and this is the origin of Sibyls and soothsayers and all inspired persons, when they are affected not by disease but by natural temperament.

Contemporary readers may note that this condition of "heated black bile" greatly resembles the manic phase of what we today call Bipolar Disorder. The commenter also notes that while suffering from cold black bile  (a depressive phase) the melancholic suffers "groundless despondency" and may be inclined to "suicide by hanging," especially after drinking. (This is not surprising, given that alcohol is a notorious depressant that can simultaneously attenuate sadness while reducing impulse control). But there are some who are able to maintain a tenuous balance between these two states: they are able to channel the frenzy associated with hot black bile and the deep torpor associated with cold black bile. As a result,
Those in whom the excessive heat dies down to a mean temperature (to meson) are atrabilious, but they have more practical wisdom and are less eccentric (ektopoi< and in many respects superior to others either in education or in the arts or in public life…
And since it is possible for a variable state to be well tempered (eukraton) and in a sense a favourable condition, and since it is possible for the condition to be hotter and then again cold, when it should be so, or to change to the contrary owing to excess, the result is that all atrabilious persons have remarkable gifts, not owing to disease but from natural causes.

The word translated as "remarkable gifts," περιττοι (perittoi) has several meanings in the original. It means "exceptional" but can also mean "exaggerated," "superfluous" and "uneven." The gifts of which the commenter speaks are fragile, balanced precariously between brilliance and madness. Should their surplus of melas kholē overflow their efforts at restraint, they will fall headlong into despair or frenzy. The condition that makes them great also causes a tendency toward epilepsy, ecstatic states, extreme fear of people and suicidal ideation.

It is also important to note that Probelmata XXX.1 explains the genius of poets and artists not as a gift of the Gods but as the product of a chemical imbalance. The Problemata's remarkable melancholic is explained in material terms: both his genius and his instability are the product of imbalanced humors, not divine inspiration. While lacking our contemporary knowledge of brain chemistry, Problemata XXX.1's view of black bile is remarkably similar to our understanding of dopamine and serotonin levels. And its treatment of the role of humors in specific personality types would become increasingly important as the various Greek city-states fell under the control of their Roman neighbors to the west.