Farewell Babel


The Second Sin, by Thomas S. Szasz, Garden City: Doubleday, 1973, 144 pp. $2.95 (paperback).

The Age of Madness, by Thomas S. Szasz, Garden City: Doubleday, 1973, 400 pp., $2.95 (pb).

Given the experience the world has had of injustice and brutality since 1914—Stalin, Hitler, wars involving the systematic killing of noncombatants, any number of oppressive political regimes—astonishment has often been expressed at the punctilious regard for justice sometimes shown by wide circles in Western countries before the First World War. The classic instance of this is the case of Alfred Dreyfus, which almost tore French society apart in the years around the turn of the century. When one considers what was involved—the unjust imprisonment of a single individual—one wonders how the sort of conscience that could not rest until that legal crime was undone would deal with the ubiquitous suppression of individual rights of our own time.

It is within this context that one must appreciate the work of Thomas Szasz. No one in the world has done as much to combat the form of naked aggression against and systematic degradation of persons known as "involuntary mental hospitalization"; here, he is our Voltaire, he is our Zola. When we combine with this deadly-serious commitment to human dignity what is, in my view, one of the very best minds currently being applied to social questions in the United States, and when, to top it all, Szasz turns out to be a libertarian, strongly influenced by Mises, Hayek and Popper, we clearly have a phenomenon on the intellectual scene of the first magnitude of importance.


There is no space here to summarize for the reader who may be unfamiliar with it Szasz's pioneer work in demolishing the medical model of emotional problems ("neurosis") and of madness ("psychosis"); in this connection, the reader is advised to refer to Szasz's earlier works, particularly THE MYTH OF MENTAL ILLNESS, THE MANUFACTURE OF MADNESS and IDEOLOGY AND INSANITY (all available in paperback). For my part, I find at this point that a good deal of what Szasz asserts in this regard is simply self-evident. Consider a few contrasting pairs of claims: (a) that wanting to kill off one's family is a sign of mental illness, but wanting to kill off the American capitalist class of maybe ten million people is not; (b) that homosexuality is a mental disorder, but celibacy is not; (c) that the notion that God has made you infallible is an indication of mental illness, but the notion that He has made a certain Italian infallible is not. Isn't it obvious that in these cases the distinction between the first and second of these pairs has nothing to do with "illness" or "health," but rather with values judged to be desirable or undesirable, acceptable or unacceptable? (If you are a libertarian and a rationalist, must you believe that anyone who closes his mind to obvious truths about socialism vs. capitalism, or anyone who believes in the real existence of angels, miracles, etc., is "sick"?) But that means that the medical model permits psychiatrists—of all people!—to set themselves up as judges of values, under the guise of being medical men who are merely dealing with human health and disease. This is the theoretical aspect of the problem, the practical application of which consists in imprisoning tens of thousands of "diseased" individuals in mental hospitals.

But, as indicated, for the reader to whom this perspective is altogether new, the best thing to do would be to acquaint himself with Szasz's more systematic earlier books. The purpose of this review is rather to consider two spin-offs of Szasz's main work: the first, a collection of thoughts and apothegms, a kind of PHILOSOPHICAL DICTIONARY, a la Voltaire, THE SECOND SIN; the second, an anthology of texts on the growth of psychiatric power in modern society, THE AGE OF MADNESS.

THE AGE OF MADNESS consists of a selection of fictional and nonfictional treatments of psychiatric cases, ranging from Defoe in the seventeenth century to very recent times. It includes a somewhat abridged version of Chekhov's masterful story, "Ward No. 6," itself almost enough to clarify fully the whole business whereby certain individuals fall victim to social definitions of insanity and pay the penalty of having their lives torn to pieces. Other selections illustrate how, at various times, the stigma of "mental illness" has been applied to denigrate believers in democracy (unsurprisingly, it was in a thesis at the University of Berlin in the middle of the nineteenth century), free blacks in pre-Civil War days (they turned out to be much more frequently diagnosed as mentally ill than enslaved Negroes), and, in a celebrated case, a certain Austrian lady at the turn of the century, who manifested her mental illness by preferring a lover to her husband, who had been certified as utterly devoted and without reproach by the Viennese psychiatric establishment (this is presented in selections from the famous Austrian maverick journalist Karl Kraus). Not the least illuminating are the four or five contributions by writers who either had themselves been subjected to psychiatric tortures such as electro-shock or who have imaginatively recreated such situations. To be made to understand what it means to live in fear of "the Machine," how it demeans a person—how every detail and every little action on the part of the authority-figures involved becomes a problem to cope with, a possible source of terror—is a revelation, not only in connection with psychiatric prisoners, but also with all those who fall into the hands of the various institutions which are permitted to use force against human beings.


The transgression referred to in the title of THE SECOND SIN is, simply, speaking clearly. (Szasz is alluding to the stories in Genesis, where the first, Garden-of-Eden sin was the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. The next time the wrath of God exploded it was upon the builders of the Tower of Babel, whom He caused to speak in confused tongues.) Correct reasoning on questions of human interrelationships is rendered almost impossible by the grotesque vocabulary and rhetoric—the sort of thing that might be produced by a not-very-bright and hopelessly pedantic robot—prevalent in the "social sciences." As a replacement, Szasz suggests a "fresh commitment to the conventional, disciplined and artistic use of the language of the educated layman" in dealing with these problems. The whole book is an illustration of how this can be done.

The substitution of ordinary language for scientistic jargon in treating of human affairs is one part of the process of rejecting positivism which, while more or less latent in Szasz's earlier works, finds its culmination here. There are well-directed barbs at intelligence and projective personality tests; and the author finally pronounces the judgment that has been implicit in much of his previous thinking: "There is no psychology; there is only biography and autobiography." If, perchance, the reader finds himself or herself in the position of this reviewer, of practically having been weaned on "psychological" ways of looking on oneself and on others; if he or she finds a tissue of pseudo-explanatory concepts and notions again and again obscuring perceptions of one's own self and of others; if he or she has fallen into the habit of seeing reality through the value-loaded categories invented by certain very bright intellectuals in Vienna, Zurich and Budapest in the earlier part of this century—then my guess is that such a judgment as Szasz's, with the reasoning behind it, will be experienced as genuinely liberating.

With a book like THE SECOND SIN the temptation is very great to end a review by citing a few of the reviewer's favorites from among the thoughts that make it up. A stern self-discipline leads me to limit these to the following three, which will serve to give a taste of what is to be found in this very fine book:

In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.

When a man has sexual relations with many women, psychoanalysts say he has a Don Juan complex which signifies latent homosexuality. But when a man has sexual relations with many men, psychoanalysts do not say he has an Oscar Wilde complex which signifies latent heterosexuality. In short, the psychoanalytic vocabulary is rich in images and terms that demean and invalidate, and poor in those that dignify and validate.

Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.

Ralph Raico is a professor of history at the State University College in Buffalo, NY, and an associate editor of REASON PAPERS.