The meaning of Madness in ancient Greek culture from Homer to Hippocrates and Plato

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Mario Augusto Maieron


Folly or Madness, Homer, Hippocrates, Plato


The period of time from the Greek Middle Ages to that which has been defined as the Greek Enlightenment of the fifth century, to which both Hippocrates and Plato belong, already encompasses, as far as the meaning of madness is concerned, both the irrational aspects expressed in a variety of ways by the culture of that society, and from a general point of view, the assumptions and rational conclusions reached by today’s neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Regarding the irrational aspects, their attribution to the sacred and their narration in myths was the first of the solutions adopted, later evolving, as far as beliefs, evaluations, judgements, prejudices and behaviours were concerned, into a subsequent division between the sacred and the magical that still persists even today, with a distinction between positive madness which is that of the saints and clairvoyants and negative madness attributed instead to demons or evil. Regarding the rational aspects in the interpretation of madness, common to both yesterday and today, it is the reference to the more general problem of the mind (soul) – body relationship with dualism and monism that still has valid supporters. The examples quoted are texts from Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, Hippocrates’s On The Sacred Disease and Plato’s Phaedrus, Ion and Timaeus.

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