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Mental Illness in the Enlightenment

I’m suspicious of histories that attribute 21st Century DSM 5 diagnoses to characters who lived long before such conditions were ever identified.  But then again, manic depression certainly existed before it was named by Emil Kraepelin in the late 19th century, and major depression, once called melancholia, has always been with us.

I also have a fascination with explanations in literature of mental illness written before Freud.  Freud left such an indelible mark on the treatment of diseases of the mind, and the language used to describe them, that it’s almost unthinkable that these diseases were both described and treated without his influence.

The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, a book by Leo Damrosch, is full of such stories.

The Club tells of a group of key figures of the enlightenment who met weekly in a pub in late 18th century London to discuss and debate issues and ideas.  The book’s main characters, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, were troubled by what we would certainly call mental illness today.

Johnson wrote criticism and poetry, but is best known for compiling what became the most complete dictionary of the English language, first published in 1755.  Boswell, a landed lawyer from Scotland, was Johnson’s friend and  biographer.

Johnson led a life worth writing about.  In and out of poverty, he lived with cast-offs from London society but remained a frequent dinner guest of influential members of parliament and ground-breaking lights in the arts.  He suffered from terrible bouts of depression that kept him sick physically and mentally and kept his literary output low.  He even ended up addicted to opium.

Through all of this he cultivated great friendships with people ranging from Adam Smith and Edmund Burke to George III, and he influenced some of the greatest minds of the west.

Johnson’s trials with what was called melancholy were documented by Boswell in what is considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, The Life of Johnson.   Boswell himself had periods of melancholy interspersed with times of high-energy and irresponsibility filled with trysts with prostitutes, lost money and drunken stupors.

Boswell’s grandiosity and impetuousness mixed with dark periods of guilt into behavior that would surely be called manic depression if he lived 100 years later.

Damrosch fills The Club with excerpts from the men’s and their friend’s writing about flights of the mind and how personality and character are both developed and dismantled.  While not ostensibly about mental illness, enough of the men and women featured in The Club suffered from poor mental health that the book serves as a great introduction to how psychiatry was first developed (much like the book Rush, which I reviewed here).

The 18th century was a time when diseases of the mind were still treated exclusively as physical diseases.  Then science and philosophy set a very bright light on the notion and definition of the self.  This is the point when mind/body unity was just beginning to break apart in western medicine and philosophy, and mental illness was soon seen as having causes and treatments that were not entirely physical.

Reading the thoughts and practices of the period covered in The Club tips us off to the fact that Freud and his theories were inevitable.

Damrosch has written an intellectual history of the sort that makes clearer where we are today, and how we got here.  As the enlightenment elevated the individual and argued for rights independent of any state or church, the individual was left, in the case of morals and agency, to fend for themselves.

A new class of illness, that of the psyche separate from the body, was borne.  As we place more emphasis today on mind/body medicine and seek to rejoin the individual mind to its physical space, it’s crucial to know how we got here, and what we learned along the way.

A history as well researched and written as The Club enables us to do just that.

Mental Illness in the Enlightenment

George Hofmann

George is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, from Changemakers Books. Visit George's site or join the Facebook group Practicing Mental Illness

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APA Reference
Hofmann, G. (2020). Mental Illness in the Enlightenment. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jan 2020
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