Discovering Thomas Szasz with Scott McLain

I had a chance to ask a fan of Thomas Szasz, Scott McLain a few questions about Szasz. Scott is the author of a recent review of the movie, Joker, which he writes about from a Szaszian perspective. You can listen to an interview with Scott on the podcast Stories We Live By.

How did you discover Thomas Szasz’s ideas?

I first heard about Thomas Szasz and his ideas through Bryan Caplan on his blog, EconLog.

What did you think when you first learned about Szasz’s ideas on mental illness?

Shock and disbelief. In our culture experts, scientists, spiritual leaders, celebrities and laymen have all taken for granted that phenomena like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and the like are “diseases just like physical diseases”. The phrase “the myth of mental illness” sounded to me like “the myth of the round earth”.

How long did it take for you to understand what Szasz was saying?

Once I started reading Szasz’s books and listening to lectures and debates I gradually came to a greater understanding of his views. I then spent a year reading dozens of his books and articles as well as listening to every lecture he gave and debate he had with opponents and it was really in this period when I came to fully agree with him. Disease is an abnormality or malfunction of the human body. The mind is not an organ of the body and as such cannot be diseased except in a metaphorical sense. It’s not really that difficult to grasp.

What do you see as Szasz’s main idea?

Human suffering of the inner/emotional/existential/spiritual/religious kind as well as deeply disturbing behaviors are very real phenomena, but they are not properly located in the domain of medicine, and in medicalizing human problems in living we sacrifice not only our political freedoms but also our personal dignity

What do you find most compelling about Szasz’s ideas?

The idea that clear thinking requires courage, not intelligence. So intellectually easy to understand, yet so emotionally difficult in a society predicated on ignoring the elephant in the room.

Do Szasz’s ideas help you in everyday life? 

Absolutely. Szasz emphasized personal responsibility, the equal dignity and worth of all persons, and their ability and duty to courageously cope with their problems in living. These simple yet powerful ideas have provided a unique and necessary existential succor in a society constantly trying to find newer and more sophisticated ways to convince each other that they are victims and that their plight is due to forces completely outside their control.

What resources would you recommend to someone trying to understand Szasz? Books, Podcasts, or video?

Of his books, the one that best explains his position is Insanity: the Idea and its Consequences but for those with less time I would recommend the below interview with his longtime colleague Jeffrey Schaler, followed by the book The Medicalization of Everyday Life which is a compendium of some of Szasz’s greatest essays and articles intended for popular audiences (affiliate links).

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