The Untamed Tongue: A Dissenting Dictionary

Thomas Szasz’s book of witty aphorisms, The Untamed Tongue: A Dissenting Dictionary, is both insightful and hilarious. If you are just starting out with Szasz, and want to understand his views, I suggest one of his books of aphorisms, such as The Untamed Tongue as a place to start.

The book is divided by categories of thought such as: Children and Parents; Drugs; The Myth of Mental Illness, and Personal Conduct.

Reading Szasz’s aphorisms is an exercise in clear thinking, commonsense, and laughter. The Untamed Tongue is just one of several of Szasz’s books of aphorisms. It is a follow up to his previous aphorisms in The Second Sin and Heresies.

Szasz quotes Voltaire in his introduction:

“I look on solemnity as a disease! It seems to me that morality, study, and gaiety are three sisters which should never be separated.”

Szasz saw laughter and poking fun at psychiatry as one of the best weapons to show the stupidity and lies in the profession of psychiatry.

The Untamed Tongue is a book that I continue to come back on a regular basis. Szasz offers solace and timeless wisdom in these pages. I never had a chance to meet or talk with Szasz, but imagine that this is a close second best.

Below are some notable aphorisms from the The Untamed Tongue.

Children and Parents

As a parent, perhaps the most important message you must convey to your daughter or son is: ‘Listen to your inner voice and trust it. Listen to and learn from others but never let them undermine your confidence in your own judgment.’ Of course you won’t be able to do so unless you yourself believe it and act accordingly.


It is senseless to debate whether alcoholism or kleptomania are or are not diseases. The fact that we called drinking too often or ‘too much’ alcoholism, and stealing things the thief ‘does not need’ kleptomania are symptoms that they are diseases and of our desire to treat them as such. If we wanted to seriously consider how we ought to classify, understand, and respond to such behaviors we would have to name them in ways that do not prejudge their medical or moral character–which is virtually impossible.


The FDA calls certain substances ‘controlled’. But there are no controlled substances; there are only controlled persons.


Drugs are our dietary laws: Doctors are our rabbis; heroin, our pork; addicts, our unclean persons.


A teacher should have maximal authority, and minimal power.


A glossary:

Bad: Obsolete; superseded by insane, mentally ill, sick.

Good: Obsolete; superseded by sane, mentally healthy, healthy.

Ethics: Obsolete; superseded by the diagnosis and treatment of disease.


The Liberal–scientific ethic: if it’s bad for you, it should be prohibited, if it’s good for you it should be required.

Insanity Defense

Obesity is the name we give to the bodily condition of being overweight. When a person overeats, he becomes, or we say he is, obese. Accordingly it would be absurd to say that obesity causes overeating.


Gastroenterologist cannot ascertain what was in another person’s stomach days, weeks or months ago; but psychiatrists can certify what was in his mind days, weeks, months or even years ago.


Aphorism is to description as caricature is too portrait.


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


Masturbation – that is, satisfying the sexual urge alone, by an for oneself– was long considered to be both the cause and the consequence of the severest forms of insanity (a belief that persisted well into the first half of this century). Verbal masturbation– that is, satisfying the urge for semantic intimacy alone, by and for oneself – is still so regarded.

Psychiatrist, as well as laypersons, firmly believe that hearing voices is the manifestation of a malignant mental disease and that this mental symptom is itself so dangerous to mental health that it ought to be suppressed by whatever means necessary– such as lobotomy, electric shock, or neuroleptic drugs.

It took medical science and public opinion the better part of 200 years to realize and recognize that sexual self-satisfaction was not an illness and did not cause illness. Perhaps it will take even longer for medical science and public opinion to realize and recognize that semantic self-satisfaction is similarly either a symptom of a disease nor a justification for (involuntary) treatment.


Biological psychiatrist claim that mental diseases are caused by, or are the manifestations of, underlying bodily diseases – as yet undiscovered but waiting to be discovered by progress in medical science. If this proved to be true for some or all mental diseases, it would only add more items to the existing list of organic diseases who’s treatment patients are free to reject. Hence, evidence supporting the organic etiology of so-called mental illness would display rather than dispel the moral and political dilemmas of course of psychiatry.


Declaring that one does not like Jones is much weaker than diagnosing him as mentally sick. If we describe our adversary in plain English–as hostile or threatening–we continue to recognize him as fully human; but if we diagnose him in defamatory rhetoric of psychiatry or anti-psychiatry– As mad or mentally ill–then we no longer recognize him as fully human. Herein lies the appeal of madness-mongering imagery and language of both psychiatry and anti-psychiatry: each renders the speaker effortlessly superior to his adversary.


Men love liberty because it protects them from control and humiliation by others, thus affording them the possibility of dignity; they loathe liberty because it throws them back on their own abilities and resources, thus confronting them with the possibility of insignificance.


The greatest joy in life is loving one’s children; the next greatest, being loved by them. It follows that the greatest pain in life must be not loving one’s children, and the next greatest, being unloved by them.


In the past parents and children love each other; now they bond. That’s progress?


Marriages are said to be made in heaven, which may be why they don’t work here on earth.


Young love rest largely on loneliness and lust. This is why it is so poor a basis for marriage, which must rest largely on affection and respect.


Women marry hoping their husbands will change; men, hoping their wives won’t. Bad enough, but couples can make it much worse by going to a psychiatrist to fix the problem.


By becoming one body in marriage, wives can injure their husbands by eating too much and husbands can injure their wives by drinking too much. What psychiatrist in the public now accepts as self-destructive behavior is thus often the exact opposite: and attempt to preserve oneself by destroying what one regards as one’s parasite.


Traditional arranged marriage was a fine institution for legitimizing men and women as adults and for raising children; it could be ruined, and was ruined, by one thing only: the expectation that the participants enjoy each other as sexual partners.

Modern domestic marriage is a fine institution for legitimizing men and women as adults and for friendship and sex; it can be ruined, and was ruined, buy one thing only: the expectation that the participants have children whom they love and protect.


Medicine cannot give meaning to life, but religion can. The modern tendency to theologizing health is a pathetic attempt to clean simultaneously to the practices and promises of both religion and science. Often, the result is that people reap the bitterest is fruits of both harvests.


Today everyone claims to be working for the patients best interest. No wonder the patient is in deep trouble.

Mental Hospital

Medical hospitals are repair shops: mental hospitals, parking places.

Mental Illness

A person is sent to get a cold, or come down with the flu, or develop cancer; but he goes mad. The verb go again suggest that madness isn’t doing, not happening.


Delusion of grandeur: Inflating one’s self-esteem by self-created fictions; existential masturbation.

Delusion of worthlessness: The same as above; attributing cosmic significance to one’s petty sinfulness.

In each case, real existential impotency is replaced by fake existential super-potency.


When a person fails to follow normal rules of conduct – that is, the rules most people follow – we say he is mentally ill, and when he does not respond to conventional rewards and punishment as we want him to respond – we say he is seriously mentally ill. It is true, of course, that one cannot treat many mentally ill persons ‘normally’. But it is equally true that one cannot treat children, foreigners, very old, the disabled, or the religious fanatic normally either. The reason is simply that insofar as people live by different rules, have different expectations, respond to different rewards and punishments, they will consider each other immature, strange, bizarre, or cray – and difficult or impossible to live with.


Psychiatric diagnoses are stigmatizing labels phrased to resemble medical diagnoses, applied to persons whose behavior annoys or offends others. Those who suffer from and complain of their own behavior are usually classified as ‘neurotic’; those whose behavior makes others suffer, and about whom others complain are usually classified as ‘psychotic’.


The most basic human need in for relationships with other human beings. This need has been met primarily by and within the family (or clan), stabilized by religion and tradition. As conventional family ties have loosened and persons have become individuals, family relationships – as a source of human contact – have been replaced, in large part, by what we now call ‘chronic mental illness’. We see – and congenitally are only supposed to see – the disutility of mental illness. Its utility – because of our unquestioned belief in the value of individualism – lies in binding together family members no linger bound by parental, marital, or filial ties.


Sarte says that hysteria is a lie without a liar. One could also say that the hysteric is a liar who does not admit or recognize his lies.


If a person doesn’t listen to his inner voice when young, he may, before long, find himself ‘hearing voices’ which he’ll think come from without.


Two proverbs that say nearly everything that needs to be said about money:

He who pays the piper, calls the tune.

People value what they pay for, and pay for what they value.

Myth of Mental Illness

Bodily illness is to mental illness as literal meaning is to metaphorical meaning.


Cancer and diabetes are literal diseases: no one in his right and would claim they are not bodily diseases and ignore their somatic basis in the material structure of the human body.

Lovesickness and homesickness are metaphorical diseases: no one in his right mind would claim they are brain diseases and look for their somatic basis in the chemistry of nerve cells.

In which class do mental illnesses belong? Are they literal or metaphorical illnesses? It seems remarkable that simply because they are called ‘mental illnesses’ – or, more specifically, ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘bipolar illness’ – psychiatrists are certain that these are brain diseases and look for their somatic basis in the chemistry of nerve cells.


Looking for the organic etiology of mental illness is like looking for the caloric content of food for thought.


When we say that someone has ‘no guts’ we mean that he is a coward; we would consider it absurd to treat him with an intestinal transplant. When we say that someone has a ‘nervous breakdown’ we again mean that he is something like a coward, that he does not accept responsibility for the consequences of his ill-chosen or unlucky actions; but in this case we consider it eminently reasonable to treat him with hospitalization and drugs.


Mental illness is a myth whose function is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflicts in human relations. In asserting that there is no such thing as mental illness I do not deny that people have problems coping with life and each other.

Personal Conduct

Boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity, that nothing is.


Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.


If you don’t listen to yourself, you won’t hear what others say.


Every option is a risk, every risk is an option.


As the price of liberty is vigilance, so the price of independence is self-determination, the price of dignity, self-assertion, and the price of respect, self-respect.


The desire to control others and self-esteem vary inversely: The less self-esteem a person has, the greater, as a rule, is his desire, and ability, to control others.


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.


There would be less mental illness if fewer people believed in the sanctity of marriage and more believed in the sanctity of parenthood – specifically, in the parent’s duty to take care of his children, especially when their welfare requires protecting them from a destructive mother (wife) or father (husband).


Life is potentially a big empty hole and there are few more satisfying ways of filling it than by striving for and achieving excellence.


“It is error alone,” wrote Jefferson, “which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” One could invert this and assert that it is error alone which can support government. Because truth can stand by itself, it has no need for government; and because it has no need for government, truth is fundamentally inimical to government.


The plague of mankind is the fear and rejection of diversity: monotheism, monarchy, monogamy – and in our age, mono medicine. The belief that there is only one right way to live – only one right way to regulate religious, political, sexual, medical affairs – is the root cause of the greatest threat to man: members of his own species, bent on ensuring his salvation, security, and sanity.


There are two kinds of psychiatry: voluntary and involuntary, contractual and institutional. To confuse them is like confusing ally and adversary, freedom and slavery.


To the psychiatrist, the patient’s lies are delusions. In abolishing the lie, he abolishes language and in abolishing language, he abolishes man – as C.S. Lewis warned that he would.


Formerly, priests burned men’s bodies to save their souls. Today, psychiatrists imprison men’s bodies to save their minds.


Doctors control disease, not persons; psychiatrists control persons, not diseases.


The business of psychiatry is to provide society with excuses disguised as diagnoses, and with coercions justified as treatments.


Psychoanalysis is an attempt to examine a person’s self-justifications. Hence, it can be undertaken only with the patient’s co-operation and can succeed only when the patient has something to gain by abandoning or modifying his system of self-justification.


The analyst should be a catalyst, facilitation the patient’s communication and confrontation with himself: he should mediate between the patient’s acknowledged and unacknowledged desires and decisions. The analyst does not change the patient, but helps the patient to change himself. This is one of the reasons why and outsider to the psychoanalytic situation can never know why a patient has not changed as a result of analysis: the analyst might have failed to give the patient the proper kind of help, or the patient might have preferred to remain as he was.


There is no psychology; there is only biography and autobiography.


As one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so one man’s psychotherapy is another man’s psychopathology.


People seeking help from psychotherapists can be divided into two groups: those who with to confront their problems and change their lives by changing themselves; and those who wish to avoid the inevitable consequences of their life strategies through ‘therapy’. The former are likely to benefit from therapy in a short time; the latter are likely to mark time for years or even decades and sink deeper into their self-created existential morass.


Success in psychotherapy – that is, the ability to change oneself in a direction in which one wants to change – requires courage rather than insight.


Crime is illegal behavior; mental illness is illegitimate behavior. Since illegal behavior is, by definition, illegitimate, it is not surprising that crime is increasingly viewed as mental illness, and that psychiatric sanctions increasingly replace criminal penalties.


Religion: 1. Boundless conceit concealed as utmost modesty. 2. Justification for regulating one’s own behavior and coercing others to regulate theirs. 3. An inexhaustible mine of meaning for the mentally lazy.


If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.


When a man says he is Jesus, he is not complaining; he is boasting. We consider his claim a symptom of illness; he considers it a stamp of greatness.


Schizophrenia is: 1. The cancer of conceit. 2. Early retirement from life. 3. Being never available to anyone. 4. The psychiatrist’s professionally legitimized lies about the patient.


A glossary:

Infatuation: The name an observer gives to the condition of a man intensely attracted to a woman (or vice versa) when, according to the observer, the only thing the couple has in common is the sexual difference.

Masturbation: 1. Taking matters into one’s own hands; which is why authorities either prohibit or prescribe it (in an effort to maintain control over the individual). 2. The primary sexual activity of mankind: in the nineteenth century, a disease; in the twentieth, a cure.


Perversion: Sexual practice disapproved of by the speaker.


Love: The desire to merge lives — yielding, at best, companionship.

Lust: The desire to merge bodies — yielding, at best, copulation.

Marriage: 1. The desire to merge both bodies and lives — yielding, as a rule, the sacrifice of copulation for companionship or vice versa. 2. The state or condition of a community consisting of a husband, a wife, and two victims, making in all two.

Social Relations

A person cannot make another happy, but he can make him unhappy. This is the main reason why there is more unhappiness than happiness in the world.


Mysticism joins and unites; reason divides and separates. People crave belonging more than understanding. Hence the prominent role of mysticism, and the limited role of reason, in human affairs.


Suicide: The only (literal) escape from a life sentence. (Death by accident or illness is not willed and hence doesn’t count)


He who does not accept and respect the choice to reject life does not truly accept and respect life itself.

Therapeutic State

Americans now expect physicians (or their surrogates) to bring them into the world; teach them how to live in it; cure them when they fall ill; prevent them from harming themselves or others (and prevent others from harming them); and kill them when they are old (an act which they mistakenly conceptualize as ‘euthanasia’). The more physicians fulfill these expectations, the unhappier people, as patients, become with the medical profession. Why? Because, not surprisingly, the patient’s expectations are fulfilled on terms set by physicians and the State, not by the patient.


Epitaph for the Therapeutic State:

Well then, maybe it would be worth mentioning the three periods of history. When man believed that happiness was dependent on God, he killed for religious reasons. When he believed that happiness was dependent upon the form of government, he killed for political reasons…
After dreams that were too long, true nightmares… we arrived at the present period of history. Man woke up, discovered that which he always knew, that happiness is dependent upon health, and began to kill for therapeutic reasons…
When no one believed any longer in the politicians, it was medicine, with its amazing discoveries, that captured the imagination of the human race. It is medicine that has come to replace both religion and politics in our time. 1

  1. Adolfo Bioy Casares, ‘Plan for an Escape to Carmelo’, New York Review of Books, April 10, 1986, p. 7. ↩︎

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