I usually avoid writing about things with a personal character on these pages. Don’t get me wrong: I am way too pleased with myself to do this from the pretension that my private perspective and observations are extraneous to the thoughts I want to share with the reader. It rather lies in the choice of form. If I want to uphold the idea that anything can be learned from my reflections that is applicable beyond my immediate time and location, I had better strive for a level of universality that exceeds my most personal experience.
The same applies for the slightly presumptuous connotation of the name I gave my blog overall. Though nobody would dare deny that our world today is the product of history, or even that history has many lessons in store for us now, it is a tough challenge not to acknowledge that – even if there must be some choice examples that we generally feel we can recite at some level of consciousness – we fail to get to the essence of the lessons of the past, even if we cannot avoid the visceral impression bobbing downstream; it seems we can feel where we are going, but how we got here remains an intractable mystery. So there I was, last year, in the first wave of our pandemic age, when themes both personal and historical started to coincide. As I saw myself appear on the pages of an early-18th century text, I perceived those pages through the window I still had on the world outside, and I sensed today reenacting itself in a world so far removed from us through time. My studies had become a mise en abyme, a Droste effect, that impressed the same, repetitive theme on now, on then, on me, on them.
Though this personal search started about a year and a half ago, it became more urgent as I became familiar with the theories of Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet, who hypothesizes that the real foundation of our current healthcare crisis can be found in the state of our mental health – not now, post factum, but in the years culminating in our present situation. Which may be a good point to stop bothering you with these meta-thoughts and introduce you to my actual studies which will take us back two decades and a half in time.
I graduated in the history of ideas in those days with a thesis on Bernard Mandeville, and though I had no doubt then that the studies I had engaged in were interesting enough to result in a printed product, the time was not right for me, and I moved on to different things. As I was sitting down to open an unknown work of his last year, it was against this personal background as well. Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who became the infamous writer of provocative verse and dialogue in Augustan England, was hailed as the prime and primary theorist of commercial society by Marx, and not so much by Adam Smith. His most famous work, The Fable of the Bees, that eternalized the dictum private vices, public benefits, postulated that a thriving society is the product of crafty politicians who – manipulating our pride, out of pride, of course – bring about an order that is not moral, but materially successful. The work I sat down to read at last, however, did not address such matters directly, but harkened back to his training and experience as a medical doctor.
The book I am referring to is A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1711), written as a dialogue between – mainly – the alter ego of Doctor Mandeville and his literary patient. The pathology his patient seeks treatment for is – as the title clearly evinces – hypochondria, while his wife makes an appearance later on to talk about her lapses into hysteria. Both were ‘fashionable disorders’ in the day, though of course this may mark rather an interest among those leaving on paper their ideas concerning the matter, than actual incidence among the population. What makes it particularly hard to interpret the text is that we are logically inclined to understand either diagnosis from a perspective based on a psychological revolution that was not to arrive until two centuries later. Mandeville, in fact, was one of the first to surmise a role for the mind in the development of the hypo (as hypochondria was popularly called), though even my using of the term mind requires a proviso of a paragraph or two. Mandeville was the fruit of a philosophical revolution that was initiated in his country of birth in the 1640s – not coincidentally – preponderantly by thinkers with a formal or less formal training in medicine.
The philosophical revolution of the Dutch Golden Age has not always been identified as such. There are several reasons why the intellectual production of that time and place was, in the public eye, reduced to the excellence of local painting. One reason is, of course, that while painting speaks with universal visual imagery, the Dutch language then, as now, cut off much of the debate from an international audience. While intellectual exchange was still preponderantly conducted in Latin – and French started to take over the role of lingua franca under the dominance of French culture at this stage of European history – we can discern a certain historical irony in the deliberate choice for the vernacular by a number of the local intellectuals. On the one hand, this choice expressed the wish to sustain the building of the new Republic as a nation, by reinforcing a language that until then had been little more than a German dialect. On the other, the choice reflected the burgher character of the society they were exponents of generally, and of their political interest in maintaining the republican order that had become their lot more by accident than by careful plotting or theorizing.
Another factor in our relative blindness to the role the Netherlands Republic played in the burgeoning of what we may call the pre-enlightenment is the fact that the figures who have acquired prominence in our memory were outsiders, if not foreigners altogether. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), René Descartes (1596-1650), and Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) were traditionally seen as profiting rather from the tolerant censors and the liberal printing regime, than from the intellectual climate at large. Leaving these questions of historiography aside, however, we can try to identify how all these factors combined in a development that comprised nothing less than the emancipation of the mind from the Church. While the Reformation had shattered the image of a single, uncontested authority in matters regarding man and morality, debate had remained confined to the clergy, with the odd aristocrat out. When we see burghers engage in intellectual pursuits in the Republic, therefore, and read their pleas for the emancipation of philosophy from the yoke of theology, we witness the birth of secular intellectual life itself, resisting both the power of the (Reformed) Church to decide which ideas were to be tolerated as well as the monopoly it wished to retain over the received views on man. Coincidentally, it was publishing in the vernacular that was considered most pernicious by the Church, as it would reach greater, and different circles of burghers.
Probably the most sensitive issue regarded the redefinition of man’s position vis-a-vis creation, the Creator, and how this relationship was reflected in the nature of man himself. The medieval view represented man as a composition of flesh and soul, but a series of thinkers from Descartes onward attempted to acquire a more physical – if not mechanical, or even geometrical – understanding of man, at least of his body. The fervor with which Descartes dissected bodies, both animal and human, testified to his ambition to scientifically understand the ‘miracle of life’ in general, and most specifically the magical connection between his soul – the province of his Creator – and a body, which more easily lent itself to mechanical explanations. Descartes believed he had found this connection in the pineal gland, but while for him the overriding purpose seemed to be the salvation of the soul from the scientists’ onslaught, many of those who came after him increasingly challenged the conception of man as mirror image of God—a conception which escaped physical explanations, and so represented the very essence of a faith-based worldview.
Spinoza crowned this development by deciding he did not need a duality of substances to explain the world around him. Spinoza’s system did not necessarily make matters simpler, as he postulated the existence of a single substance, the modifications whereof, however, included both thought and extension (i.e., material objects). With these modifications, he had explained either aspect of man in a manner that allowed him to apply a mechanical model and identify the law of cause and effect in either realm of human experience. With physical laws comes determinism, however, and determinism entails the elimination of free will. For God, this meant relinquishing his tool of choice – the miracle – while the prospect for man seemed to suggest a completely amoral world. Zooming in on the theories that were meant to describe the inner workings of man, however, it meant that his soul was substituted by his mind, and that morality opened the door to medicine.
Both the charges that were fervently slung against Spinoza – that of atheism and that of immoralism – were just as passionately denied by the philosopher. What requires mention in any event is that his declared path to a moral and happy life involved reaching ‘adequate’ ideas that brought us closer to the essence of God (or Nature) himself, that is, perfect and eternal ideas. The alternative was to take life as a ship on a thunderous sea, subject to the impact of external forces that could only lead to our misery. The ideal was not unlike that of the Stoics, who through the humanist tradition had offered a (secular) alternative to the morality of the Christian Church.
Leiden University was a hotbed for Cartesian philosophy from the 1640s onwards, and at the medical faculty the impact lasted much longer. Spinoza likely attended lessons there in the 1650s, Mandeville certainly did in the 1680s, graduating in 1690 in a subject related to the still elusive subject of digestion. It is the digestive system that the hypo was generally thought to derive from. Mandeville was not allowed to practice medicine in England – though he probably did so in a community of other Dutch immigrants – but found an alternative career in publishing provocative verses, essays, and dialogues. It is the latter form he chose for his Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases and it shows us directly that a considerable part of his treatment was psychiatric. Patient Misomedon feels much relieved after the sessions, and the concoctions Mandeville does prescribe hardly involve advanced chemistry, and at times his ‘recipes’ are simple nutritional tips. To give an idea of the underlying physiological theory – as well as why this is a theme we will not pursue with any specificity – we can note that the passage and absorption of the coarser (‘animal’) and the finer spirits was a process thought to impact on the humor. The exhaustion of the animal spirits brought about by the wrong type of activities could lead to the hypo. And this is where our story becomes pertinent.
The grumbling hive is used as a symbol in the Fable of the Bees, in a manner that evokes the grumbling stomach in the Treatise. Whereas received interpretation has it that the grumbling of the beehive is a sign of content and vitality, it is hard to make the same assumption in the individual case of Mandeville’s patient. We may want to note that the Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases originally was called the Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions. It was the passions that had come to represent the mechanical forces – the appetites – that impact on us, leaving us nothing but a slim chance to act morally, or even deliberately. While for Descartes this played out in a moral and benevolent direction, the origins of this discourse of the passions in French moralists such as Charron and Montaigne tended in a more traditionally Christian direction. So many of us have moral pretensions, but how few of those survive our close scrutiny? The resulting unveiling of human hypocrisy, in fact, is a theme present in Spinoza’s Stoicism, as it is in Mandeville’s reminders to know thyself. It is from this perspective, in hindsight, that we can try to evaluate the significance of Mandeville’s supposed affiliation with the Whigs, with the party of Credit, and of received opinion declaring him the first apologist of commercial society. Perhaps his description of psychological mechanisms did not imply his moral endorsement thereof, as commonly believed.
But what are the activities that make the stomach grumble? Are these related – though negatively and not positively as is generally supposed – to the nascent burgher, even to commercial society? Again, hindsight is a treacherous assistant here, as the terms we would be tempted to use are anachronistic and may well project our own preoccupations on the past. There were concepts, however, that were a part of the humanist, and Stoic, toolbox that may serve our purpose. These concepts are luxury and otium. While we use luxury mostly to describe objects that do not fall in the category of actual necessity, in the classical tradition it denoted more generally any striving outside one’s station, which would inevitably lead to the corruption of the citizens and the republic comprised by them. Otium, on the other hand – plural negative form negotia – represented the spare time that one could dedicate to all the noble activities, in brief to anything but work. This concept was harder to transmit to early modern times, as it belonged to an era where citizenship (or one’s socio-political role) was tied to aristocratic values, as a landowner had his slaves to work the land, and anything reeking of trade was anathema to his status. But what could these concepts mean to a society hurling itself into the age of business?
Mandeville was quite clear about the function of luxury in employing the masses, as he was in his prescriptive ethics. (Any confusion derives from interpreting him a moral apologist for commerce.) According to Mandeville, the masses should stay what they were, where they were. He wrote an essay against the nation-wide project for charity schools, a project that was meant to lift the lower class from ignorance and vice. Nothing could have been more misguided, he said. What the laborers needed, said Mandeville, was to toil from dawn until dusk, so they’d earn their stomach’s fill and fall asleep content. On his view, one would find more wickedness in the higher, more educated professions anyway.
We encounter this idea of keeping to one’s station frequently in Mandeville; it is implicit in his admonishment not to judge on the inner workings of politics from the outside in his Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church and National Happiness, as it is inherent in his call in the same book “not to make more […] than common custom, decency, and the laws of the land allow of.” As a matter of fact, it is in this work that he explicitly extends his diagnosis from the unfortunate Misomedon to the entire country:
“Should any state physician behold our goodly countenance, and, having felt our low dispirited pulse, examine into the real cause of all our grievances, he must infallibly pronounce the nation hypp’d. No woman in the height of vapours is more whimsical in her complaints than some of us, and melancholy madmen have not more dismal apprehensions of things in the blackest fits of the spleen, than our state hypochondriacks are daily buzzing in our ears. In distempers, where the imagination is chiefly affected, men, without any other remedies, may often reason themselves into health.”
So what were the patterns and activities that had plunged society in this state of illness?
What Doctor Mandeville pries from his patient is the lifestyle that engenders his disorder. Interestingly, what we discover is that an important part of that lifestyle consisted of studies. The hypo, as notes the doctor, as a matter of fact is known as ‘the learned disease’ in German. One of the fields of interest of his studies is his own ailment. His business activities are inconsistent and shifting; after an inheritance he returns to pursuits that in our age we would refer to as ‘soul-searching’. Mandeville’s treatment of this subject, nevertheless, marks the liberating of the psyche of man from the soul that, traditionally understood, was in the likeness of God. Its earthly functioning finally was under scrutiny, and its condition to be treated. The condition Mandeville describes is that of a new class, the birth of which he had witnessed and been part of in his country of birth. In his country of adoption, this class found itself, unprepared and suddenly, with an inordinate amount of otium. And it consumed the spirits.
Which is where I am back at the Droste effect, spotting myself in the picture just painted. Now maybe I am just trying to Oedipally kill my father, the psychiatrist – this proviso I feel I am obliged to offer – but to what extent has commercial society been the victim of its own success at creating excess, at realizing luxury, at providing free time to let our mind wander? As our power over our physical environment has grown to a level unbelievable to any individual in the time of Mandeville, Franklin, or Freud, our intolerance of frustration at our continued powerlessness vis-a-vis our animal, mortal condition has ballooned correspondingly. We respond by invoking our means of power – ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘institutions’ – to enchant the world and relieve us of our very insecurity. It is a phenomenon that I have called ‘mental obesity‘, as it harnesses a trait that made sense evolutionarily – c.q., the hoarding of calories to prepare for a period of scarcity that always was around the corner – towards a self-destructive end. Our minds, optimized to ensure our material survival and always keen to detect our vulnerability to insecurity, without a real object to focus on – i.e., survival – become the incubator for existential worries. What I believe Mandeville identified was the nascence of welfare disease. If we call Freud’s arrival a victory of bourgeois society, this is with the double entendre of having acquired the luxury as a society of letting our mind roam where it may not be prepared to focus without suffering. This is not to say that weakness, or vulnerability is ‘wrong’, just that it is an expression of the otium formerly reserved to the aristocracy, and other slavedrivers. There do not seem to be sufficient material luxuries in the world to make this belated introduction to ourselves less heart-felt. If only we can keep our minds meaningfully employed.
Today many recognize there are hints of totalitarianism in the air, but few are able to pinpoint what triggers the phenomenon, or even what it consists of. I suggest we ask what role fear plays in rendering us susceptible to authoritarian solutions. It is under conditions of fear and anxiety that we become willing to relinquish some of our autonomy for the increased security we imagine it will give to us. I cannot help but wonder how this issue is connected with our development under the aegis of information provided to us by our parents. I grew up a curious child in an environment with rules that were as rigid as they were inexplicable. Whereas I believe pretty much all children go through their ‘why’ phase, when the reason behind anything must be sought and found, it is a matter of cursory investigation of society to realize this habit shrivels up at some stage. Now one simple assumption would be to assume the child passes to a next stage, or that an exasperated parent closes down the avenue of investigation with one non sequitur or another. What I became aware of as a child was that asking certain questions entailed moral condemnation or social sanctions. I also developed the belief – one that is more common – that adulthood was a stage one would reach as if passing over a threshold to a realm of unquestioning certainty. As a teacher, later in life, I became aware of what a huge impediment to learning the curbing of our questioning self becomes. Both the dependency on approval from the teacher, and the pernicious conviction that in life we are modeled to play the role of knowing everything, were most frustrating to the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Our valor as an adult becomes encapsulated in the crossing of this threshold, beyond which everything would be clear; a neat, adult answer filled out for every infantile question in your book. What do we do when we realize it was all a pretense? Do we take up our position in the hierarchy, feigning to be someone’s final authority, while deferring to that of someone else? Or do we embrace the child we once were and never stop to question, anything?