Thomas Szasz

Hungarian psychiatrist (1920-2012)

Thomas Szasz (April 15, 1920 – September 8, 2012) was a Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York, and a noted critic of the moral and scientific foundations of psychiatry.

The great shift … is the movement away from the value-laden languages of … the “humanities,” and toward the ostensibly value-neutral languages of the “sciences.” This attempt to escape from, or to deny, valuation is … especially important in psychology … and the so-called social sciences. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purpose than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and therefore nonvaluational semantic screen.
Psychiatrists look for twisted molecules and defective genes as the causes of schizophrenia, because schizophrenia is the name of a disease. If Christianity or Communism were called diseases, would they then look for the chemical and genetic “causes” of these “conditions”?
The Nazis spoke of having a Jewish problem. We now speak of having a drug-abuse problem. Actually, “Jewish problem” was the name the Germans gave to their persecution of the Jews; “drug-abuse problem” is the name we give to the persecution of people who use certain drugs.

Quotes edit

  • Mental illness, of course, is not literally a "thing" — or physical object — and hence it can "exist" only in the same sort of way in which other theoretical concepts exist. Yet, familiar theories are in the habit of posing, sooner or later — at least to those who come to believe in them — as "objective truths" (or "facts"). During certain historical periods, explanatory conceptions such as deities, witches, and microorganisms appeared not only as theories but as self-evident causes of a vast number of events. I submit that today mental illness is widely regarded in a somewhat similar fashion, that is, as the cause of innumerable diverse happenings. As an antidote to the complacent use of the notion of mental illness — whether as a self-evident phenomenon, theory, or cause — let us ask this question: What is meant when it is asserted that someone is mentally ill?
    In what follows I shall describe briefly the main uses to which the concept of mental illness has been put. I shall argue that this notion has outlived whatever usefulness it might have had and that it now functions merely as a convenient myth.
  • Our adversaries are not demons, witches, fate, or mental illness. We have no enemy whom we can fight, exorcise, or dispel by "cure." What we do have are problems in living — whether these be biologic, economic, political, or sociopsychological. In this essay I was concerned only with problems belonging in the last mentioned category, and within this group mainly with those pertaining to moral values. The field to which modern psychiatry addresses itself is vast, and I made no effort to encompass it all. My argument was limited to the proposition that mental illness is a myth, whose function it is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflicts in human relations.
    • "The Myth of Mental Illness" in American Psycholigist, Vol. 15 (1960), p. 115.
  • Religious and medical propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, I hold some simple truths to be self-evident. One of these truths is that just as the dead do not rise from the grave, so drugs do not commit crimes. The dead remain dead. Drugs are inert chemicals that have no effect on human beings who choose not to use them. No one has to smoke cigarettes, and no one has to shoot heroin. People smoke cigarettes because they want to, and they shoot heroin because they want to.
  • For millennia, the dialectic of vilification and deification and, more generally, of invalidation and validation—excluding the individual from the group as an evil outsider or including him in it as a member in good standing—was cast in the imagery and rhetoric of magic and religion. ... With the decline of the religious world view and the ascent of the scientific method during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the religious rhetoric of validation and invalidation was gradually replaced by the scientific. One of the most dramatic results of this transformation is the lexicon of psychiatric diagnoses functioning as a powerful, but largely unacknowledged, rhetoric of rejection and stigmatization.
    • "The Sane Slave: Social Control and Legal Psychiatry," American Criminal Law Review, vol. 10 (1971), p. 333.
  • What had been drapetomania became depression. ... Modern man runs away from a life that seems to him a kind of slavery.
    • "The Sane Slave: Social Control and Legal Psychiatry," American Criminal Law Review, vol. 10 (1971), p. 346.

The Second Sin (1973) edit

  • In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.
    • p. 20.
  • Boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity, that nothing is.
    • "Emotions", p. 36.
  • Happiness is an imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and by children to adults.
    • "Emotions", p. 36.
  • Anxiety is the unwillingness to play even when you know the odds are for you.
    Courage is the willingness to play even when you know the odds are against you.
    • "Emotions", p. 36.
  • Judges and prosecutors, lawyers and psychiatrists, all protest their passionate desire to know why a person accused of a crime did what he did. But their actions completely belie their words: their efforts are now directed toward letting everyone speak in court but the defendant himself -- especially if he is accused of a political or psychiatric crime.
    • "Law", p. 40.
  • Prostitution is said to be the world’s oldest profession. It is, indeed, a model of all professional work: the worker relinquishes control over himself … in exchange for money. Because of the passivity it entails, this is a difficult and, for many, a distasteful role.
    • p. 45.
  • People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.
    • p. 49.
  • Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make a good excuse.
    • P. 49.
  • The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.
  • The wise treat self-respect as non-negotiable, and will not trade it for health or wealth or anything else.
    • p. 56.
  • Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people. In the United States today, opiates are the religion of the people.
    • "Drugs", p. 63.
  • The Nazis spoke of having a Jewish problem. We now speak of having a drug-abuse problem. Actually, “Jewish problem” was the name the Germans gave to their persecution of the Jews; “drug-abuse problem” is the name we give to the persecution of people who use certain drugs.
    • p. 64.
  • Since this is the age of science, not religion, psychiatrists are our rabbis, heroin is our pork, and the addict is the unclean person.
    • p. 64.
  • We speak of a person being “under the influence” of alcohol, or heroin, or amphetamine, and believe that these substances affect him so profoundly as to render him utterly helpless in their grip. We thus consider it scientifically justified to take the most stringent precautions against these things and often prohibit their nonmedical, or even their medical, use. But a person may be under the influence not only of material substances but also of spiritual ideas and sentiments, such as patriotism, Catholicism, or Communism. But we are not afraid of these influences, and believe that each person is, or ought to be, capable of fending for himself.
    • pp. 65-66.
  • If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.
    • "Schizophrenia", p. 101.
  • Psychiatrists look for twisted molecules and defective genes as the causes of schizophrenia, because schizophrenia is the name of a disease. If Christianity or Communism were called diseases, would they then look for the chemical and genetic “causes” of these “conditions”?
    • p. 102.
  • Although both the natural and moral sciences seek to understand the objects of their observation, in natural science the purpose of this is to be able to control them better, whereas in moral science it is, or ought to be, to be better able to leave them alone. The morally proper aim of psychology, then, is self-control.
  • Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.
    • "Science and Scientism", p. 115.
  • Psychiatry is institutionalized scientism: it is the systematic imitation, impersonation, counterfeiting, and deception. This is the formula: every adult smokes (drinks, engages in sexual activity, etc.); hence, to prove that he is an adult, the adolescent smokes (drinks, engages in sexual activity, etc). Mutatis mutandis: every science consists of classification, control, and prediction; hence to prove psychiatry is a science, the psychiatrist classifies, controls, predicts. The result is that he classifies people as mad; that he confines them as dangerous (to themselves or others); and that he predicts people's behavior, robbing them of their free will and hence of their very humanity.
    • "Science and Scientism", p. 115.
  • For Jews, the Messiah has never come; for Christians, He has come but once; for modern man, He appears and disappears with increasing rapidity. The saviors of modern man, the "scientists" who promise salvation through the "discoveries" of ethology and sociology, psychology and psychiatry, and all the other bogus religions, issue forth periodically, as if selected by some Messiah-of-the-Month Club.
    • "Science and Scientism", p. 116.
  • A child becomes an adult when he realizes that he has a right not only to be right but also to be wrong.
    • Childhood

The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct (1961) edit

  • I became interested in writing this book approximately ten years ago when, having become established as a psychiatrist, I became increasingly impressed by the vague, capricious and generally unsatisfactory character of the widely used concept of mental illness and its corollaries, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.
    Although (mental illness) might have been a useful concept in the nineteenth century, today it is scientifically worthless and socially harmful.
    In non-psychiatric circles mental illness all too often is considered to be whatever psychiatrists say it is. The answer to the question, Who is mentally ill? thus becomes: Those who are confined in mental hospitals or who consult psychiatrists in their private offices.
    • Preface to the First Edition.
  • It becomes logical to ask where the idea originates that the rules of the game of life ought to be such that those who are weak, disabled or ill should be helped?
    One answer is obvious: this is the game typically played in childhood. Every one of us was, at one time, a weak and helpless child, cared for by adults: without such help we would not have survived and become adults.
    Another, almost equally obvious answer is that the prescription of a help-giving attitude toward the weak is embodied in the dominant religions of Western man.
    Judaism, and especially Christianity, teach these rules by means of parable and prohibition, example and exhortation, and by every other means available to their representatives.
    • Chapter 10: The Ethics of Helplessness and Helpfulness.
  • It is customary to define psychiatry as a medical specialty concerned with the study, diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. This is a worthless and misleading definition. Mental illness is a myth. Psychiatrists are not concerned with mental illnesses and their treatments. In actual practice they deal with personal, social and ethical problems in living.
    I have argued that, today, the notion of a person "having a mental illness" is scientifically crippling. It provides professional assent to a popular rationalization — namely that problems in living experienced and expressed in terms of so-called psychiatric symptoms are basically similar to bodily diseases.
    Moreover, the concept of mental illness also undermines the principle of personal responsibility, the ground on which all free political institutions rest.
    • Conclusions.
  • I started to work on this book in 1954, when, having been called to active duty in the Navy, I was relieved of the burdens of a full-time psychoanalytic practice... Within a year of its publication, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene demanded, in a letter citing specifically 'The Myth Of Mental Illness', that I be dismissed from my university position because I did not "believe" in mental illness.
    • Preface to the Second Edition.

Ceremonial Chemistry (1974) edit

  • If, nevertheless, textbooks of pharmacology legitimately contain a chapter on drug abuse and drug addiction, then, by the same token, textbooks of gynecology and urology should contain a chapter on prostitution; textbooks of physiology, a chapter on perversion; textbooks of genetics, a chapter on the racial inferiority of Jews and Negroes.
    • p. 11.
  • Why is self-control, autonomy, such a threat to authority? Because the person who controls himself, who is his own master, has no need for an authority to be his master. This, then, renders authority unemployed. What is he to do if he cannot control others? To be sure, he could mind his own business. But this is a fatuous answer, for those who are satisfied to mind their own business do not aspire to become authorities.
    • Revised edition, 1985. p. 175.

Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (1979) edit

  • The gist of my argument is that men like Kraepelin, Bleuler and Freud were not what they claimed or seem to be—namely, physicians or medical investigators; they were, in fact, religious-political leaders and conquerors. Instead of discovering new diseases, they extended, through psychiatry, the imagery, vocabulary, jurisdiction, and hence the territory of medicine to what they were not, and are not, diseases in the original Virchowian sense.

The Untamed Tongue: A Dissenting Dictionary (1990) edit

  • Parents teach children discipline for two different, indeed diametrically opposed, reasons: to render the child submissive to them and to make him independent of them. Only a self-disciplined person can be obedient; and only such a person can be autonomous.
  • The concept of disease is fast replacing the concept of responsibility. With increasing zeal Americans use and interpret the assertion "I am sick" as equivalent to the assertion "I am not responsible": Smokers say they are not responsible for smoking, drinkers that they are not responsible for drinking, gamblers that they are not responsible for gambling, and mothers who murder their infants that they are not responsible for killing. To prove their point — and to capitalize on their self-destructive and destructive behavior — smokers, drinkers, gamblers, and insanity acquitees are suing tobacco companies, liquor companies, gambling casinos, and physicians.
    Can American society survive this legal-psychiatric assault on its moral and political foundations?
  • People, especially liberals and psychiatrists, say that the two main causes of crime are mental illness and poverty. Insanity is therefore a defense in the criminal law. If we really believed that poverty caused crime, we would have a "poverty defense" as well, attorneys calling professors of economics to testify in court whether a particular defendant is guilty of theft or not by reason of poverty.
  • The Greeks distinguished between good and bad behavior, language that enhanced or diminished persons. Being intoxicated with scientism, we fail to recognize that the seemingly technical terms used to identify psychiatric illnesses and interventions are simply dyphemisms and euphemisms.
  • In the natural sciences, language (mathematics) is a useful tool: like the microscope or telescope, it enables us to see what is otherwise invisible. In the social sciences, language (literalized metaphor) is an impediment: like a distorting mirror, it prevents us from seeing the obvious.
    That is why in the natural sciences, knowledge can be gained only with the mastery of their special languages; whereas in human affairs, knowledge can be gained only by rejecting the pretentious jargons of the social sciences.

Anti-Freud (1990) edit

  • The great shift … is the movement away from the value-laden languages of … the “humanities,” and toward the ostensibly value-neutral languages of the “sciences.” This attempt to escape from, or to deny, valuation is … especially important in psychology … and the so-called social sciences. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purpose than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and therefore nonvaluational semantic screen.
    • p. 44.
  • The language of science—and especially of a science of man—is, necessarily, anti-individualistic, and hence a threat to human freedom and dignity.
    • p. 44.
  • As the base rhetorician uses language to increase his own power, to produce converts to his own cause, and to create loyal followers of his own person—so the noble rhetorician uses language to wean men away from their inclination to depend on authority, to encourage them to think and speak clearly, and to teach them to be their own masters.
    • p. 55.
  • Since it seems to be the nature of man that he wants to go to hell as quickly as possible, it is not surprising that effective base rhetoricians can greatly accelerate this process for millions. … Many individuals try to drive men into slavery, as if they were cattle, but only a few succeed. These we hail as “great historical figures.” I submit that we cannot judge the noble rhetorician by this standard. Since he urges men to be better than they are, the noble rhetorician cannot possibly succeed in changing those who prefer to remain as they are or become evil. Indeed, because his task is to bring men to themselves, not to him, the noble rhetorician ought not to be judged by his manifest effect on others at all. Rather, he ought to be judged by the clarity and steadfastness with which he proclaims his counsel. Should not a single person heed his advice, the noble rhetorician would still have to be judged successful in proportion as he succeeds in perfecting his own language. … In the final analysis, what Karl Kraus sought was to purify himself by purifying his own language. He achieved his goal. He dies a semantic saint in a semantically satanic society.
    • pp. 56-57.
  • Like Karl Kraus, [Wittgenstein] was seldom pleased by what he saw of the institutions of men, and the idiom of the passerby mostly offended his ear—particularly when they happened to speak philosophically; and like Karl Kraus, he suspected that the institutions could not but be corrupt if the idiom of the race was confused, presumptuous, and vacuous, a fabric of nonsense, untruth, deception, and self-deception.
    • p. 67.

Our Right to Drugs (1992) edit

  • As Justice Olive Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it, censorship rests on the idea that “every idea is an incitement.” Perhaps he should have specified “every interesting idea,” for a dull idea is not. By the same token, every interesting drug is an incitement. And so is everything else that people find interesting.
    • p. 35.

The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement (1997) edit

  • Over the past thirty years, we have replaced the medical-political persecution of illegal sex users ("perverts" and "psychopaths") with the even more ferocious medical-political persecution of illegal drug users.
    • p. xi.
  • As the dominant social ethic changed from a religious to a secular one, the problem of heresy disappeared, and the problem of madness arose and became of great social significance. In the next chapter I shall examine the creation of social deviants, and shall show that as formerly priests had manufactured heretics, so physicians, as the new guardians of social conduct and morality, began to manufacture madmen.
    • p. 160.
  • We shall therefore compare the concept of homosexuality as heresy, prevalent in the days of the witch-hunts, with the concept of homosexuality as mental illness, prevalent today.
    • p. 161.
  • The Christian ethic did not raise the worth of female life much above the Jewish: nor did the clinical ethic raise it much above the clerical. This is why most of those identified as witches by male inquisitors were women; and why most of those diagnosed as hysterics by male psychiatrists were also women.
    • p. 162.
  • The episode in Sodom is undoubtedly the earliest account in human history of the entrapment of homosexuals, a strategy widely practiced by the law enforcement agencies of modern Western countries, especially those of the United States. In effect, the men of Sodom were entrapped by two strangers, who in truth were not travelers but angels, that is to say, God’s plain-clothesmen. These agents of the Biblical vice-squad wasted no time punishing the offenders.
    • p. 162.
  • The crime [homosexuality] was subject to punishment by both secular and ecclesiastical courts—just as now it is subject to punishment by both penal and psychiatric sanctions.
    • p. 164.
  • In English-speaking countries, the connection between heresy and homosexuality is expressed through the use of a single word to denote both concepts: buggery. … Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (Third Edition) defines “buggery” as “heresy, sodomy.”
    • p. 165.
  • This connection, at once semantic and conceptual, between unorthodoxy and sodomy, was firmly established during the late Middle Ages, and has never been severed. It is as strong today as it was six hundred years ago. To be stigmatized as a heretic or bugger in the fourteenth century was to cast out of society. Since the dominant ideology was theological, religious deviance was considered so grave an offense as to render the individual a nonperson. Whatever redeeming qualities he might have had counted for naught. The sin of heresy eclipsed all contradictory, personal characteristics, just as the teachings of God and the Church eclipsed all contradictory empirical observations. The disease called “mental illness”—and its subspecies “homosexuality”—plays the same role today.
    • p. 166.
  • By pretending that convention is Nature, that disobeying a personal prohibition is a medical illness, they establish themselves as agents of social control and at the same time disguise their punitive interventions in the semantic and social trappings of medical practice.
    • p. 167.
  • The disease concept of homosexuality—as with the disease concept of all so-called mental illnesses, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or suicide—conceals the fact that homosexuals are a group of medically stigmatized and socially persecuted individuals. … Their anguished cries of protest are drowned out by the rhetoric of therapy—just as the rhetoric of salvation drowned out the [cries] of heretics.
    • p. 168.
  • The homosexual is a scapegoat who evokes no sympathy. Hence, he can only be a victim, never a martyr.
    • p. 169.
  • So long as men denounce each other as mentally sick (homosexual, addicted, insane, and so forth)—so that the madman can always be considered the Other, never the Self—mental illness will remain an easily exploitable concept, and Coercive Psychiatry a flourishing institution.
    • p. 170.
  • My contention is that the psychiatric perspective on homosexuality is but a thinly disguised replica of the religious perspective which it displaced, and that efforts to “treat” this kind of conduct medically are but thinly disguised methods for suppressing it.
    • pp. 170-171.
  • The “treatment” can have only one goal: to convert the heretic to the true faith, to transform the homosexual into a heterosexual.
    • p. 172.
  • Like the devout theologian seeing the Devil lurking everywhere, Menninger, the devout Freudian, sees aggression.
    • p. 172.
  • The passion to interpret as madness that with which we disagree seems to have infected the best of contemporary minds.
    • p. 203.
  • There is a fundamental similarity between the persecution of individuals who engage in consenting homosexual activity in private, or who ingest, inject, or smoke various substances that alter their feelings and thoughts—and the traditional persecution of men for their religion. … What all of these persecutions have in common is that the victims are harassed by the majority not because they engage in overtly aggressive or destructive acts, … but because their conduct or appearance offends a group intolerant to and threatened by human differences.
    • pp. 208-209.

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