Augustine and Insanity Discourse

Every time there’s a new interview with Donald Trump, my social media feeds pop with people speculating about the president’s mental condition. For example:

Here’s a great essay I’ve been meaning to share by Jessica Wright in Eidolon on “Crazy Talk,” the rhetoric of mental illness.

What is the effect of the “crazy” talk that permeates our public forums and our political discourse? We have a very long history of using words such as “crazy” and “mad” in casual polemic. The Greek orator Demosthenes used the word mania sixteen times in his extant speeches, and never to offer a “medical” diagnosis. Some two-and-a-half centuries later, Cicero employed the Latin word insania and its related verb insanire on over seventy occasions.

Authors such as these were the models of polite speech and rhetoric throughout the Roman Empire, and were enormously influential in literary culture and education in modern Europe and its imperial reach. As Caroline Winterer has shown, Greek and Latin models were fundamental to political oratory in antebellum America. Frederick Douglass, as David W. Blight has described, studied rhetoric from a book called The Columbian Orator, which included extracts (translated and imagined) from Greco-Roman oratory.

It is perhaps unsurprising that similar rhetorical moves structure our own polemic, their figural quality all but invisible. That is not to say that we are unaware of the effects of our words. Disability rights activists and disability theorists have long highlighted the normative and “ableist” assumptions that underwrite discourses of “crazy” in contemporary culture. Using mental disorders as insults shapes our way of thinking about mental disorders and our mode of engagement with people who experience them.


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