As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become. – Sartre
The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi), the habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to recognise the multitude of other choices that are available to him, a person places himself at the mercy of the circumstances in which he happens to find himself. Thus, the person is more akin to an object than to a conscious human being, or, in Sartrean terminology, more akin to a ‘being–in–itself’ than to a ‘being–for–itself’. People may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices by pursuing pragmatic concerns and adopting social roles and value systems that are alien to their nature as conscious human beings. However, to do so is in itself to make a choice, and thereby to acknowledge their freedom as conscious human beings.
One example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a waiter who does his best to conform to everything that a waiter should be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. However, in order to play-act at being a waiter, the waiter must at some level be aware that he is not in fact a waiter, but a conscious human being who is deceiving himself that he is a waiter. Another example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a young woman on a first date. The young woman’s date compliments her on her physical appearance, but she ignores the obvious sexual connotations of his compliment and chooses instead to direct the compliment at herself as a conscious human being. He then takes her hand, but she neither takes it nor rejects it. Instead, she lets her hand rest indifferently in his so as to buy time and delay having to make a choice about accepting or rejecting his advances. Whereas she chooses to treat his compliment as being unrelated to her body, she chooses to treat her hand (which is a part of her body) as an object, thereby acknowledging her freedom to make choices.
For Sartre, people may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices, but they cannot pretend to themselves that they are not themselves, that is, conscious human beings who actually have little or nothing to do with their pragmatic concerns, social roles, and value systems. In pursuing such and such pragmatic concerns or adopting such and such social roles and such and such value systems, a person may pretend to himself that he does not have the freedom to make choices, but to do so is in itself to make a choice, namely, the choice of pretending to himself that he does not have the freedom to make choices. Man, Sartre concludes, is condemned to be free.
This crayon drawing by a hospital in-patient with severe depression alludes to her temporary withdrawal from mainstream society. The months that she spent in hospital gave her the time and the solitude to think over her life, and the motivation to make difficult but necessary changes to it. She went on to make a full recovery.
Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows not that it brings abundance to drive away the hunger. – St Basil the Great
Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind. – Marcel Proust
Depression around the world
There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!
In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.
Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.
Problems with diagnosis
All this is not to say that the concept of depression as a mental disorder is bogus, but only that the diagnosis of depression may have been over-extended to include far more than just depression the mental disorder. If, like the majority of medical conditions, depression could be defined and diagnosed according to its aetiology or pathology, such a state of affairs could not have arisen. Unfortunately, depression cannot as yet be defined according to its aetiology or pathology, but only according to its clinical manifestations and symptoms. For this reason, a doctor cannot base a diagnosis of depression on any objective criterion such as a blood test or a brain scan, but only on his subjective interpretation of the nature and severity of the patient’s symptoms. If some of these symptoms appear to tally with the diagnostic criteria for depression, then the doctor is able to justify making a diagnosis of depression.
One important problem here is that the definition of ‘depression’ is circular: the concept of depression is defined according to the symptoms of depression, which are in turn defined according to the concept of depression. Thus, it is impossible to be certain that the concept of depression maps onto any distinct disease entity, particularly since a diagnosis of depression can apply to anything from mild depression to depressive psychosis and depressive stupor, and overlap with several other categories of mental disorder including dysthymia, adjustment disorders, and anxiety disorders. Indeed, one of the consequences of the ‘menu of symptoms’ approach to diagnosing depression is that two people with absolutely no symptoms in common can both end up with the same diagnosis of depression. For this reason especially, the concept of depression has been charged with being little more than a socially constructed dustbin for all manner of human suffering.
An adaptive role?
Every person inherits a certain complement of genes that make her more or less vulnerable to developing depression during her lifetime. A person suffers from depression if the amount of stress that she comes under is greater than the amount of stress that she can tolerate, given her vulnerability to developing depression. Genes for potentially debilitating disorders such as depression usually pass out of a population over time because affected people have, on average, fewer children than non-affected people. The fact that this has not happened for depression suggests that the responsible genes are being maintained despite their potentially debilitating effects on a significant proportion of the population, and thus that they are lending an important adaptive or evolutionary advantage.
There are other instances of genes that both predispose to an illness and lend an important adaptive advantage. In sickle cell disease, for example, red blood cells assume a rigid sickle shape that restricts their passage through tiny blood vessels. This leads to a number of serious physical complications and, in traditional societies, to a radically shortened life expectancy. At the same time, carrying just one allele of the sickle cell gene (‘sickle cell trait’) makes it impossible for malarial parasites to reproduce inside red blood cells, and so confers immunity to malaria. The fact that the gene for sickle cell anaemia is particularly common in populations from malarial regions suggests that, in evolutionary terms, a debilitating illness in the few can be a price worth paying for an important adaptive advantage in the many.
What important adaptive advantage could depression have? Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and to prevent further injury, so depression may have evolved to remove us from distressing, damaging, or futile situations. The time and space and solitude that depression affords prevents us from making rash decisions, enables us to see the bigger picture, and – in the context of being a social animal – to reassess our social relationships, think about those who are significant to us, and relate to them more meaningfully and with greater understanding. Thus, depression may have evolved as a signal that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing or, at least, understanding. Sometimes people can become so immersed in the humdrum of their everyday lives that they no longer have the time to think and feel about themselves, and so lose sight of their bigger picture. The experience of depression can force them to stand back at a distance, re-evaluate and prioritise their needs, and formulate a modest but realistic plan for fulfilling them.
Although the experience of depression can serve such a mundane purpose, it can also enable a person to develop a more refined perspective and deeper understanding of her life and of life in general. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges the person to become aware of her mortality and freedom, and challenges her to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this difficult challenge, the person is able to break out of the mould that has been imposed upon her, discover who she truly is, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to her life. Indeed, many of the most creative and most insightful people in society suffer or suffered from depression. They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln; the poets Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, John Stuart Mill, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams, and many, many others.
The curse of the strong
People with depression are often stigmatised as ‘failures’ or ‘losers’. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the sorts of people who are most vulnerable to developing depression are all the opposite of failures or losers. If they are suffering from depression, it is most probably because they have tried too hard or taken on too much, so hard and so much that they have made themselves ill with depression. In other words, if they are suffering from depression, it is because their world was simply not good enough for them. They wanted more, they wanted better, and they wanted different, not just for themselves, but for all those around them. So if they are failures or losers, this is only because they set the bar far too high. They could have swept everything under the carpet and pretended, as many people do, that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. However, unlike many people, they had the honesty and the strength to admit that something was amiss, that something was not quite right. So rather than being failures or losers, they are just the opposite: they are ambitious, truthful, and courageous. And that is precisely why they got ill. Getting ill is never a good thing, but in the case of depression it can present a precious opportunity to identify and to address some very challenging life problems, and to develop a deeper and more refined understanding and appreciation of one’s life and of life in general.
A note of caution
Depression should not be romanticised, sought out, or left unattended simply because it may or may not predispose to problem-solving, personal development, or creativity. The most severe forms of depression have a strong biological basis and are not related to a person’s life circumstances or aspirations. All forms of depression are drab and intensely painful, and most people who suffer from depression would never wish it on anyone, least of all themselves. In some cases, depression can lead to serious injury or even to death through accident, self-neglect, or self-harm. Even highly successful people who suffered from depression such as Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath ended up committing suicide in the end, and most people who attempt suicide do so because they are suffering with some form of depression.
All men by nature desire to know. Thus, the senses are loved not only for their usefulness but also for themselves. Sight is loved best of all, for, of all the senses, it is the one that brings the most knowledge. Animals are by nature sensing, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, which are thereby more intelligent and apt at learning than those which cannot remember. Those that have both memory and the sense of hearing can be taught, but the others cannot. Animals other than man live by appearances and memories and have but little of connected experience, but man lives also by art and reasoning. From several memories of the same thing man produces a single experience, and it is through this single experience that come science and art. With a view to action, experience (knowledge of individuals) is not inferior to art (knowledge of universals), and men of experience succeed better than those with theory but no experience, for actions are concerned not with the universal but with the individual. And yet people suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience because artists know the ‘why’ and the cause, and can therefore teach, whereas men of experience cannot teach. Again, none of the senses are regarded as Wisdom because, although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they do not reveal the ‘why’ of anything. At first all the arts were admired, but as more arts were invented, the recreational arts (those that pertain to Wisdom) were admired more than the practical arts.
What are the causes and principles of Wisdom? As far as possible, the wise man knows all things, even though he may not have detailed knowledge of them, and he can learn things that are difficult and farthest from mere sense perception. He is more exact, more capable of teaching, and more suited to ordering than to obeying. The most exact of the sciences are those that deal most with first principles, for the sciences that involve fewer principles are more exact than those that involve additional principles. First principles are most truly knowledge, and most knowable; from these all other things come to be known, but not vice versa. The science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative, and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in nature. As the good is one of the causes, this science must be the same as that which investigates the first principles and causes. That it is not a science of production is obvious even from the earliest philosophers, owing to whose wonder men first began to philosophise. A man who wonders and who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant, and philosophises to escape ignorance and accede to knowledge, not for the sake of something else but for its own sake. Such a free science only God can have, or God above all others; and God himself is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle.
Evidently, then, we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes, and causes are spoken of in four senses (see the Physics). In one sense, a cause is the substance or essence, in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the purpose or the good that it serves. Of the first philosophers, most think that the principles of matter are the only principles of all things. They argue that that of which all things consist, that from which they come to be, and that into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing its modification) is the element and the principle of things; thus, nothing is either generated or destroyed in the sense that the substratum (or substrata) remains. Yet they do not agree as to the number and nature of these principles. Thales says the principle is water (a view that may have been shared by those who first framed accounts of the gods), Anaximenes and Diogenes that it is air, Hippasus and Heraclitus that it is fire, Empedocles that it is all four of the elements, and Anaxagoras that it is infinite in number. However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or several elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? The substratum does not make itself change, bronze does not manufacture a statue, but something else is the cause of the change, and to seek this is to seek the second cause, namely, that from which comes the beginning of movement. Some of the first philosophers who maintain that the substratum is one, as if defeated by the search for the second cause, say that the one and nature as a whole is unchangeable not only in respect of generation and destruction, but also of all other change. Those who allow for more elements are better able to account for the second cause; however, it is unlikely that fire or earth or any one element, or indeed spontaneity and chance, can explain why things manifest goodness and beauty both in their being and in their coming to be. When Anaxagoras and Hermotimus of Clazomenae first suggested that reason is present, as in animals, so throughout nature as the cause of order and movement, they must have seemed like sober men. Perhaps Hesiod is the first to look for such a thing, and Parmenides and some others also think of love or desire as the first principle. Certainly, Empedocles is the first to conceive not only of an aggregative first principle which he calls love or friendship, but also of a contrary segregative first principle which he calls strife. Empedocles is also the first to speak of four material elements, even though he only treats them as two, fire as one kind of thing, and earth, air, and water as another. Leucippus and Democritus say that the full and the empty are the elements, calling the one being and the other non-being, and making these the material causes of things. Those who make the underlying substance one generate all other things by its modifications; similarly, they make differences in the elements (namely, differences in shape, order, and position) the causes of all other qualities. All these thinkers evidently grasp, if only imprecisely, two of the causes which I distinguish in the Physics, namely, the matter and the source of movement.
For the Pythagoreans, all things seem to be modelled on numbers, and so they suppose the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things. Evidently, they also consider that number is the principle as matter for things and as both their modifications and their permanent states. According to them, the elements of number are the even and the odd, from which the One, which is both even and odd, proceeds, and number from the One. Other Pythagoreans say that there are ten principles, which they arrange into two columns of cognates, limit and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong. Alcmaeon of Croton also advances that the contraries are the principles of things, but how these principles can be brought together under the causes that I have named neither Alcmaeon nor the Pythagoreans can explain, although they do seem to range the elements under the head of matter. There are also those who speak of the universe as if it were one entity, but since they also maintain that change is impossible, the discussion of them is in no way appropriate to my present investigation of causes. In summary, then, of the earliest philosophers, there are on the one hand those who regard the first principle, whether single or plural, as corporeal, and on the other hand those who posit both this cause and also the source of movement, whether single or dual.
In most respects, Plato follows these thinkers. In this youth, Plato became familiar with Cratylus and with the teachings of Heraclitus that all sensible things are in a state of flux and that there can hence be no knowledge about them. Whereas Socrates seeks out the universal in ethical matters, Plato holds that the problem applies not to sensible things, which are always changing, but to the Ideas or Forms in which sensible things participate. For the Pythagoreans things exist by ‘imitation’ of numbers, whereas for Plato they exist by ‘participation’ in Forms, but what ‘imitation or ‘participation’ involve they do not say. Moreover, Plato maintains that, besides sensible things and Forms, there are the objects of mathematics, which occupy an intermediate position. Since the Forms are the causes of all other things, their elements are the elements of all things. As matter, the great and the small are principles; as essential reality, the One; for from the great and the small, by participation in the One, come the Numbers. Plato agrees with the Pythagoreans that the One is substance and not a predicate of something else, and that Numbers are the causes of the reality of other things. However, he constructs the infinite out of great and small instead of treating it as one, and conceives of the Numbers as existing apart from sensible things.
The essence, that is, the substantial reality, no one expresses distinctly. It is hinted at chiefly by Plato, who does not suppose either that the Forms are the matter of sensible things and the One the matter of the Forms, or that they are the source of movement. Instead, he advances that the Forms are the essence of every other thing, and that the One is the essence of the Forms. When the early philosophers speak of a cause, for instance, reason or friendship, they do not speak as if anything that exists came into being for the sake of it, but as if movements started from it. Thus, they both say and do not say that reason or friendship is a cause, in the sense that it is only an incidental cause.
Those who say that the universe is one and posit one kind of thing as matter, and as corporeal matter, only posit the elements of bodies and not of incorporeal things, though there are also incorporeal things. In giving a physical account of all things, they neglect the cause of movement. Furthermore, they do not posit the substance, that is, the essence, as the cause of anything, and call one of the simple bodies (water, fire, air) the first principle without asking how the simple bodies are produced out of each other, and so without considering their priority and posterity. Empedocles posits that all four bodies are the first principles, but he can be criticised on the same ground and also on grounds that are peculiar to his position. The Pythagoreans do not say how there can be movement if limited and unlimited and odd and even are the only things assumed. It appears that they have nothing to say about perceptible things, for if spatial magnitude does indeed consist of these elements, how, for instance, could some bodies be light and others heavy? Moreover, is the number that is each abstraction the same number that is exhibited in the material universe, or is it another than this? According to Plato, both bodies and their causes are numbers, but intelligible numbers are causes whereas the others are sensibles.
Unfortunately, to posit the Ideas as causes is, so to speak, to introduce an equal number of causes to the causes. Besides which, there is no convincing proof for the existence of the Forms: from some proofs no inference necessarily follows, and from other proofs there arise Forms even of things which are not thought of as having Forms. Of the more accurate arguments, some lead to Ideas of relations, and others introduce the ‘third man’. There are also other objections to the Ideas. Above all, one might ask what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, whether eternal or perishable, if they cause neither movement nor change in them.
The immortal Titan Prometheus (Ancient Greek, ‘forethought’), the champion of mankind, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortal man. Zeus punished him by having him bound to a rock in the Caucasus; every day an eagle ate out his liver, only for it to grow back overnight and to be re-eaten the next day. Years later, the hero Heracles (Hercules) slayed the eagle and delivered Prometheus from this Sisyphean ordeal.
According to Hesiod, Prometheus was the son of Iapetus by Clymene, and brother of Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoetius. In the Theogony, Hesiod says that Zeus punished Prometheus and mankind by sending Pandora, the first woman, who was fashioned out of clay and brought to life by the four winds. ‘…of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.’
In the Works and Days, Hesiod adds that Epimetheus accepted Pandora (‘all gifts’) despite a warning from Prometheus. Pandora carried with her a jar, from which she lifted the lid and released ‘evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which gave men death’. By the time she had returned the lid, only blind hope remained at the bottom of the jar.
Prometheus is also given significant treatment by Plato, Aeschylus, Sappho, Aesop, Ovid, and several others. In the Protagoras, Plato tells us that, once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals in the earth by blending together earth and fire. They then asked Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them each with their proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any of the animals, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts and hides. By the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them.
Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole for them from Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, for which reason they lived in scattered isolation and at the mercy of wild animals. They tried to come together for safety, but treated each other so badly that they once again dispersed. As they shared in the divine, they gave worship to the gods, and Zeus took pity on them and asked Hermes to send them reverence and justice.
Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?
‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.
1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites
2. Beat the yolks together with the sugar and gradually fold in the mascarpone and marsala wine
3. Beat the whites into stiff peaks and fold into the above mixture
4. Layer a dish with a small fraction of this combined mixture
5. Make expresso coffee, ideally in a cafetière
6. Dip the savoiardi and amaretti biscuits into the coffee and lay them out in the dish (see picture below)
7. Add a second layer of the combined mixture
8. Add a second layer of coffee-soaked biscuits
9. Add a third layer of the combined mixture
10. Dust with cocoa
11. Put in the fridge for at least 2 hours
Thanks to James Flewellen, author of the Oxford Wine Blog, for teaching me this wonderful recipe.