If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Sunday 2 December 2012
Read gnomica 1-200 here!
The neurotic is nailed to the cross of his fiction.
Alfred Adler(7 Feb 1870 – 28 May 1937)
One of the apices of the scalene triangle that was Freud, Jung and Adler, this Viennese physician who turned from ophthalmology to psychiatry and the study of human personality, here uses a terminology that was central to the era of pre-pharmacological psychology: neurotic. Truly, when was the last time you heard that term used, especially by any therapist, whether medically trained or not? Today the etiological talk would much more likely be about defective aspects somewhere along the metabolic pathways involving monoamine neurotransmitters like serotonin and its friends – in spite of my interest in biochemistry as such, I am not a biochemist and here obviously do not know or understand the functional complexity of the biochemistry involved (but the web is crawling with papers on the subject).
And my concerns here are not with the biochemistry of human behavior or even with Adler himself, for that matter, but his comment set me to thinking – and I just wanted to wander about a bit among the diachronic fluctuations in fashion when it comes to the effort to hit upon some kind of ultimate understanding about why we humans do what we do – in spite of ourselves.
In antiquity the general notion was that the gods and goddesses — or divine hypostatizations of one sort or another — were at work. As an example of the latter, take what the Greeks called ἄτη atē variously translated as ‘impulse, infatuation, bewilderment, recklessness, blindness’. She was not a major member of that great pantheon headed by Zeus but she was very ‘real’ and very much operational in the lives of not only humans but the (major) deities themselves – as were her co-operators ὕβρις hubris ‘arrogance, insolence, violence’ and νἐμεσις nemesis ‘vengeance, payback’. Agamemnon, for example, lamenting in book 19 of the Iliad that he had caused so many problems by dishonoring Achilles back in book 1, ‘explains’ his folly by saying [19.86] that “I’m not responsible” (ἐγὼ δ’ οὐκ αἴτιός εἰμι) for this action but that the gods [19.88] … μοι εἰν ἀγορῇ φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην “at that assembly threw into my heart savage blindness [ἄτην]” … and made me do such a dumb thing.
This is probably as far as you can get from today’s psychopharmacological paradigm for the etiology of all those afflictions of mind and soul that currently still bedevil our unhappy tribe – but it was an explanation.
But how distant is that very ancient one from the Salem Witch trials where women clearly driven to evil by the devil had to be burned to death, or from the Freudian operations of the lurking id overwhelming our better natures? Are not these too fictional hypostatizations created by human agency to ‘explain’ the inexplicable?
Indeed, how different really is the exculpatory deflection of responsibility that even today argues “the devil (or minor demon – like ἄτη?) made me do it” (cf. here) from what Agamemnon proposed? It seems to me that the underlying belief – or con, if you will – in these modern examples is really not all that different from what Agamemnon proposed three millennia ago.
And, in my view, not very compelling as argument.
But … today’s neurobiochemical accounts and understandings of what is going on and drives people to do what they do – for good or ill — would seem to me to be of a truly different explanatory order and not just one more recycled variant of a long familiar theme – there is no mystical or divine causality here but only the molecular interactions of chemicals. One might, however, be excused for wondering if this too shall eventually pass as it is overtaken by explanations today as unimagined and unimaginable as serotonin and reuptake inhibitors surely would have been to Agamemnon with his unshakable certainties about a divine etiology for his madness.