n Acta Classica : Proceedings of the Classical Association of South Africa - Mental illness in the Greco-Roman era

Supplement 3
  • ISSN : 0065-1141
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Mental illness was the subject of significant attention during the Greco-Roman era, but within two distinct groups : literary and philosophical texts on the one hand, and medical writings on the other. While there were many similarities in the descriptions of these two groups, the most prominent difference was that from the 5th century BC physicians ascribed illness almost exclusively to biological-organic causes, while literature consistently held it to be of supernatural origin and in particular a result of divine intervention.

From a modern medical perspective, the precise definition and classification of mental illness remain an extremely challenging problem, inextricably interwoven over the centuries with cultural, religious and educational views. Feder suggests that psychosis (the most advanced psychiatric disorder) should be defined as a condition in which uncontrollable processes overcome voluntary action to such an extent that logical thought, emotions and actions become confused and inappropriate as judged by normal, generally-accepted standards. Mental illness could then be seen as comprising a continuum of conditions ranging from such total disassociation from reality to a completely state, nevertheless marked by minor derangement(s).

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