Thomas Szasz: The Man and His Ideas

May God defend me from my friends: I can defend myself from my enemies. – Voltaire

The book, Thomas Szasz: The Man and His Ideas, is a collection of essays ostensibly put together in remembrance of the psychiatrist-philosopher, Thomas Szasz. Szasz was a fascinating man who wrote and lectured about personal responsibility, freedom, and the myth of mental illness.

Instead of illuminating ideas, the book attempts to point out ways in which Szasz’s ideas were flawed. It is not a book worthy of celebrating the critical thinking, social criticism, and categorical analysis of Thomas Szasz.

The only essay in this book that is worth reading is by Michael Fontaine. In it, Fontaine shows that even in the ancient Greco-Roman world, medicine masqueraded as social control. Fontaine is a loving critic of Szasz. The other essays in this volume are seriously flawed in their analysis of Szasz’s work.

An example of the flawed analysis is Jeffrey Schaler’s essay entitled: Szaszian Reflections on Cults. In his essay, Schaler looks at cults and how they might be harmful to an individual. This sort of reasoning is specifically un-Szaszian. For Szasz, the word “cult” is a thinly veiled negative judgment about a set of beliefs. Using the word “cult” is meant to devalue a set of beliefs.

In Szasz’s words:

Psychiatry considers membership in a conventional church as a manifestation of mental health, and membership in a so-called cult as a manifestation of mental illness. In this way, it functions as a government agency validating some systems of belief as religions, and invalidating others as dangers to mental health and public health.1

Curiously, when recalling memories of Szasz, Schaler writes that Szasz was “insecure” and became “curmudgeonly” in his old age. Why does Schaler think that Szasz was insecure and curmudgeonly? Schaler writes Szasz never praised his efforts to promote Szaszian ideas. It as if Schaler saw Szasz as a father figure, but Szasz did not accept this role. It seems that Szasz failed to praise Schaler as if he were his own son, and Schaler felt slighted by this. It was off-putting for Schaler to express such ideas in this book. I found it peculiar that Schaler would take the opportunity to ridicule Szasz in a book set on elucidating Szasz’s ideas.

Joanna Moncrieff offers her analysis of how Szasz misinterpreted the distinction between minds and brains. Moncrieff is the sort of psychiatrist whom Szasz wrote about in Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared. She calls herself a “critical psychiatrist”. She does not believe in the concept of mental illness per se but believes that we need to keep the myth alive because it serves the important purpose of controlling unwanted persons (mental patients).

David Ramsay Steele argues that Szasz’s analysis of mental illness leads to a non-sequitur. He says that even if mental illness is a myth, it does not follow that we must cease to use force to lock up unwanted persons (mental patients). For Szasz, the meaning of words are the social consequences of those words. Labeling a person as mentally ill allows society to lock someone up for their (mis)behavior. In the Anglo-American tradition of the rule of law, locking someone up because you do not like them is wrong.

In an essay by Richard Vatz, Vatz wonders why Szasz never conceded that schizophrenia could be a brain disease. But Szasz always conceded humility on this point. In Words to the Wise, Szasz writes:

Because “schizophrenia” is the name of a disease, psychiatrists look for defective genes, twisted molecules, and “chemical imbalances in the brain” as its cause. If Christianity were called a disease, would psychiatrists look for its biological causes? We will discover the chemical cause of schizophrenia when we discover the chemical cause of Christianity. No sooner and no later.2

One of the most ridiculous essays of this volume is entitled, False Truths About Addiction. Bruce Alexander argues that Szasz was right in that there is no such thing as a mental illness called “addiction” but wrong in that there are such things as “serious addictions”. “Serious addictions” are different than just your run-of-the-mill addictions, Alexander argues. In contrast, Szasz prefers old fashioned words such as “sin” instead of “sickness” to describe undesirable behavior. Szasz writes:

Actors and athletes, with superlative control over their bodies, are paraded as victims of an insidious illness—drug addiction—that robs them of their ability to control their craving for drugs. Most Americans prefer that illusion to the reality that such persons are guilty of the four deadly sins: lust, pride, gluttony, and greed.3

Finally, there is a poem by Ron Leifer about Szasz and his suicide. In it, Leifer wonders why Szasz took his own life at age 92 after falling and fracturing his spine. Anyone who has read Szasz’s corpus would understand why he took his own life. Szasz valued his independence and did not want to be cared for as a dependent. Szasz’s view of suicide was that of the ancient world – sometimes honorable, sometimes dishonorable. Szasz wrote:

Dying voluntarily is a choice intrinsic to human existence. It is our ultimate, fatal freedom. However, that is not how the right-thinking person today sees voluntary death: he believes that no one in his right mind kills himself, that suicide is a mental health problem. Behind that belief lies a transparent evasion: relying on physicians to prevent suicide, prescribe suicide, and provide suicide—and thus avoid the subject of suicide. It is an evasion fatal to freedom.4

Thomas Szasz: The Man and His Ideas is a bizarre compendium of essays that do not honor the work of this inspiring man and his ideas. If you are looking to learn more about Szasz, I suggest looking elsewhere. One of my favorites by Szasz is Words to the Wise: A Medical-Philosophical Dictionary.

  1. Szasz, Thomas. Words to the Wise: A Medical-Philosophical Dictionary (p. 191). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Szasz, Thomas. Words to the Wise: A Medical-Philosophical Dictionary (p. 196). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  3. Szasz, Thomas. Words to the Wise: A Medical-Philosophical Dictionary (p. 1). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  4. Szasz, Thomas. Words to the Wise: A Medical-Philosophical Dictionary (p. 217). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

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