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Madness in Civilization

A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

By Andrew Scull
16-minute read
Audio available
Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine by Andrew Scull

Madness in Civilization (2015) examines the fascinating and often disturbing history of how people with mental illness were categorized as “mad” and pushed to the fringes of society. It traces the history of “madness” from the biblical story of King Saul to the modern classifications of mental illness and how it’s now categorized and treated.

  • History buffs
  • Students of medicine
  • People who want to understand the history of mental illness

Andrew Scull is a British sociologist who focuses on medicine and psychiatry. He is currently Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at University of California, San Diego. He also wrote Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine.

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Madness in Civilization

A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

By Andrew Scull
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine by Andrew Scull
Synopsis

Madness in Civilization (2015) examines the fascinating and often disturbing history of how people with mental illness were categorized as “mad” and pushed to the fringes of society. It traces the history of “madness” from the biblical story of King Saul to the modern classifications of mental illness and how it’s now categorized and treated.

Key idea 1 of 10

Madness has been thought to originate in the divine or in the human body itself.

How has madness been viewed and treated throughout history? In order to answer that broad question, we need to start with some definitions. What exactly is “madness”?

The author defines madness as “a lasting and massive disturbance of intellect, reason and emotion.” It’s a term that’s been used to characterize many different types of mental illnesses, conditions that include depression, mania or hallucinations.

Over the course of history, the causes of madness have been hotly debated. One of the central questions was whether it came from within or had an external origin.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, madness was seen as a God-induced punishment.

The Bible tells us the story of King Saul. He was punished by God for disobeying divine orders to eradicate the rival Amalekite tribe. God punished Saul by casting madness upon him.

There was, though, another aspect to Saul’s divinely-induced madness. It was said that he obtained prophetic qualities through it. In fact, his ravings were interpreted as prophecies from God.

He wasn’t the only prophet to have had a close association with madness. What might have been treated later in history was seen then in a different light. For instance, “mad” Jeremiah was said to have prophesied the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem.

The Greeks and Romans, conversely, saw madness as coming from within and had scientific theories about its causes.

The Hippocratic corpus of medical writings preferred to identify more naturalistic and physical causes for madness. The body was thought to consist of four “humors”: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. When these elements were balanced, a person was thought to be mentally and physically healthy.

However, when unbalanced in the body, these humors could lead to the onset of madness.

Greek and Roman doctors therefore treated mental illness by attempting to balance the humors. Exercise or a change of diet were thought to assist in achieving equilibrium.

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