I am pretty sure that I read in an interview in the Paris Review that is now locked that Harold Bloom contends that Shakespeare was a brilliant original genius who anticipated Freud when he had the doctor in Macbeth declare that “the [psychiatric] patient must minister to himself.” I wonder whether the idea that healing from psychopathology needs to come from within was really an original idea of Shakespeare’s, though. In the Consolation of Philosophy–a work to which Shakespeare refers many times throughout his plays–Boethius’s mind is sick, and Boethius is cured by a woman named Philosophy, who explains to him why his unhappiness is irrational. Part of Philosophy’s teaching is that true happiness consists in self-sufficiency. Contrary to what modern leftist writers would have us believe, the value of self-sufficiency (in healing as in any other endeavor) used to be just as dear to the ancient and medieval West as it still is to those who adhere to Eastern philosophical traditions–the independent spirit of modern materialists and capitalists is a mere shadow of the systematic beliefs about the value of independence held by their fathers. It seems natural to assume that when Shakespeare wrote about healing from mental illness, his thoughts automatically reverted back to Boethius, and that the doctor’s demurral in Macbeth is a commonplace bit of contemporary wisdom, not some startling new insight.

Although Freud’s belief that psychiatric patients must heal themselves may not have been particularly original, he did, of course, articulate ideas about human psychology which were not widely recognized beforehand, and which have been backed up by modern empirical science (if not in the particulars, then at least in the generalities). However, it is interesting that clinical psychologists nowadays are leaving the practice of insight-based psychotherapy in droves. While they may accept Freud’s theories about the origins of neurosis, or the findings of developmental psychologists about the crucial role that attachment plays in the development of the healthy personality, they do not think that it is particularly important for patients to recognize the causes behind unhealthy patterns of behavior and thought. Rather, they choose to employ “new,” evidence-based methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focus exclusively on identifying irrational or unhelpful patterns of thought and correcting them. The developers of these methods say that they were inspired by the wisdom of the East, so unlike that of the unphilosophical West.

The fact that psychotherapists are circling back to Boethius does not make the discoveries of Freud and the developmentalists irrelevant. John Bowlby concludes his trilogy on attachment with the wish that

despite all its deficiencies, our present knowledge may be sound enough to guide us in our efforts to help those already beset by difficulty and above all to prevent others becoming so. 

(Italics mine.) I don’t think it is coincidental that the deep unconscious was not a serious subject of study (at least in the West) until relatively recently. It has become a much more pressing concern in the past century and a half than it used to be–Boethius’s contemporaries would not have had the option of, for example, hospitalizing very young children for months without visiting them. While the most effective therapy for unhappy adults may be that which engages directly with the conscious mind, some knowledge of the workings of the dark side of the soul is invaluable for parents of children in a disorienting and rapidly changing society. We are very blessed to now have access to both kinds of psychological knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s