Pre-modern people may have been less depressed than us
Hello friends, hope you had a good holiday season. I should probably start by noting that today is the release day for my third young adult novel, Just Happy To Be Here. It's a nuanced, thoughtful book about a trans girl who's really happy to be in her new school, loves old speeches and old academic stuff, and has a crush on another girl, and who is also being actively persecuted by the state. I think it'd be enjoyable for anyone, young or old, male or female, queer or straight, cis or trans, and there are really no other young adult novels written with this kind of nuance. But realistically speaking it's for women and trans people aged 15 to 30.
Over the break I read a few lighter books: Johann Hari's Lost Connections and a few Hard Case Crime books, the best of which was The Blackmailer, a hard-boiled story about a publisher who is offered the manuscript of a deceased Nobel Prize winner's unpublished final book. Decided that between my fantasy book and my YA release date my head wasn't in the place for serious reading.
Johann Hari makes the case in Lost Connections that depression is our body's natural reaction to loneliness, inactivity, artificial surroundings, and other stressors. He says, first of all, antidepressants don't work that well (although they do work somewhat!), and, secondly, we don't want them to work well, what we want is to remove the circumstances that are causing people to be depressed.
On the last score, the causes are societal--the book is unfortunately not a self-help book and has little to offer the depressed person. I did find the idea somewhat convincing. The first time I got really, really depressed it was over the realization that I would always be alone: I realized that I simply could not be happy without a life partner. I had given up on even the idea of dating at that point, but after that depression I got out there and within two years had met my wife! A very productive depression! Without that, I never would have expended all the effort and broken through my passivity.
The second worst depression I had was what convinced me to transition. I felt so terrible that the status quo was intolerable--something needed to change. I was on antidepressants during that time, which makes me inclined to believe that they don't work for long--most people who go on antidepressants will have other episodes of major depression in the future. But if they did work, I would worry about the sadness I ought to be feeling--what am I tolerating that I ought really to change? I am reminded of the story I read about a vet who treats zoo animals with creative cocktails of drugs to cure their depression and get them interested in mating. He was like, the only real cure for their condition is freedom, but barring that I do what I can.
And one of Hari's data points is that animals in the wild are rarely depressed, while animals in captivity frequently exhibit signs of depression.
Similarly, it's striking when we read pre-modern literature that there are relatively few accounts of depression, anxiety, or anything we might characterize as a modern psychological disorder. The only example that is coming immediately to mind right now, from my recent reading, is The Saga of Havard, about a man in medieval Iceland who can't get justice for his murdered son and sinks into a three year depression during which he is bedridden (he finally gets revenge and lives a long and happy life).
It's mostly in the early modern period that we begin to see accounts of depression and anxiety: for instance in Hamlet or in Anatomy of Melancholy.
Obviously this means nothing--people may certainly have experienced mental states that are similar to what modern people call depression and anxiety. But there is at least a chance that they simply did not get depressed as often. After all, their work was much more meaningful than ours: they worked directly with the land, producing sustenance directly for their families. They lived in smaller communities, faced less loneliness. Hari gives the example of the Amish, who have relatively low rates of depression--their lives perhaps approximate the way that early modern and pre-modern Europeans lived.
On the other hand, ancient writing still resonates with us. I spent a year a while back reading an Old English version of Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy. This is an early medieval manuscript that is purportedly by Boethius, a courtier who has been sentenced to death by Theodoric, the King of the Goths. In the book, Boethius's speaks to incarnations of Wisdom and Philosophy, who try and convince him that earthly suffering (worldsaeða, in the Old English) is meaningless.
But the mere fact that he needs convincing shows us that: a) he wasn't totally convinced of this idea; and b) he wanted to feel subjectively better. Much of Stoic philosophy (a heavy influence on Boethius) concerns controlling subjective, internal feelings of angst or suffering.
On the other hand, the sort of person who read Stoic philosophy was much closer to a modern person than the average pre-modern was. Merely by being able to read and having the money to read (or to listen to a lecturing philosopher), you know they had some ability to direct the course of their own life, and the introduction of that choice--and of the desire to use that choice well--is at the heart of modernity.
One modern phenomenon that seems vanishingly rare in pre-modern times is shell-shock. I recently read two books about battle: Dave Grossman’s On Killing and Charles Moran’s Anatomy of Courage. They are both concerned with the psychological effects of modern warfare, although they have different hypotheses about what causes soldiers to deteriorate. In Grossman’s opinion, people simply do not want to kill. They have a horror of killing, and the more close and personal the killing is, the more they hate it. He documents that soldiers in particular hate to stab, and even in rare cases in WWI when there was hand to hand combat, they would instinctively use the rifle’s butt to club people instead of using the bayonet to stab them. He attributes this to a visceral, animal instinct: we simply hate to take a life. It’s from this book that you get those famous statistics that, for instance, the majority of guns at Waterloo were never discharged, or that 75 percent of soldiers in WWI purposefully aimed above the opposite trenches instead of shooting to kill.
Moran wrote in the 1940s, during the height of WWII, and he was concerned with describing shell shock. He is careful to call it a psychological illness, rather than cowardice—indeed, making that distinction is at the heart of his book.
Both writers are interested in whether or not this psychological distintegration as a result of battle is a new phenomenon or not. The fact is, battle in ancient times was quite sporadic: you might be in battle for a day, you would never be in a battle for months upon end, as soldiers were at the Somme or in Stalingrad. And pre-modern battle could be, at certain times and places, not particularly dangerous (compared to modern warfare). The battles of Greek phalanxes, for instance, were characterized by the push of the pike: two shield walls coming together, pushing at each other, and battles were often inconclusive. When they were determined, it was frequently by retreat: the line started to crumble and one side would flee. Most casualties were also incurred during flight. Of course, the false flight was also a famed tactic, used to great effect by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings: persuade the enemy that you are fleeing, then turn and face them.
A pre-modern soldier in their entire career, the theory goes, might face less battle than most soldiers faced in a month of trench warfare.
We do see instances of this reluctance to kill that Dave Grossman writes about: the one coming to mind right now is Zulu warfare before Shaka Zulu. Generally the opposing armies lined up, threw their javelins ineffectually and often didn’t close to close range. Shaka made it a crime punishable by death to: a) throw your spear: and b) to refuse to stab at the enemy. In battle, stabbing is much more effective than slashing, but soldiers are loathe to stab, so Shaka overcame that aversion and conquered a vast swathe of South-East Africa. If you could find a way to make your soldiers actually fight, then a small force could defeat a larger one in pre-modern times.
I don’t know whether they had PTSD. I would be willing to believe that they did, but that rates were much rarer. Similarly, I am certain that they mourned their children, and that the subjective feelings of sadness they experienced were as intense as our own, but they might not have been accompanied as often by the maladaptive coping (suicide, alcoholism, impulsive behavior, listlessness, etc) that characterize modern depression.
But there is simply no way to know.
If in fact people were less depressed in pre-modern times, it certainly would be a blow struck at the heart of modernity. After all, modernity’s appeal lies precisely in its ability to deliver plenty, and the appeal of plenty is that it satisfies us and renders us content. If the latter half of this equation is broken, then modernity is having difficulty. It has certainly occurred to me that the reason for the rise of the right-wing is that so many people, for whatever reason, do not consider their lives worth living. Maybe they would indeed be happier if people told them what to do!
On a similar note, I’ve been thinking a lot about Carl Schmitt, the Nazi legal philosopher, and his notion that politics is, at its core, about the friend-enemy distinction. A friend and I share a subscription to the reactionary periodical, Compact, and it’s rather funny to read its articles, which tend to be rather sober-minded and centrist and cautious in their outlook. I’ll frequently forward one of them to a friend and be like…so Biden’s economic policy is better than Trump’s? Why don’t they just vote for him them?
The answer is that they know who they hate, and it’s us: non-white people, queers, and the managerial-professional class. I’ve been impressed by the ability of the Trump coalition to craft policies that very narrowly target the people they hate, for instance, the repeal of the State and Local Tax exemption, which made blue state finances so much worse. But even when their policies hurt their own people (as with abortion bans or lack of Medicaid expansion), they are content so long as they hurt the other side more. And that’s not something you can really argue with. They just want to win. It’s the exercise of what Shmitt (drawing I think on Hobbes) called the sovereign authority: the ability to determine right and wrong. In actual, concrete fact, might does make right. And if you can muster enough force to bring a reality into existence, then that is the new reality now. It’s not a thing that you can truly argue with on the basis of some shared principle, as we’ve seen with, for instance, trans care bans that interfere with the conservative principle that parents ought to determine their own kid’s medical care.
The idea that to someone else you might be The Enemy is a little frightening, but we are all someone’s enemy, I suppose. Liberalism isn’t, as so many people seem to think, a call for us to be civil or for us to all be friends—it’s merely the recognition that no one side has enough force to truly impose their will upon the other.
Which leads us back to the Hari book. Even if pre-modern peoples were less depressed than we are, that doesn’t mean we can go back to a rigidly ordered society, because who would be in charge? Who would make the rules? There is no way to settle that question, except with violence or liberalism. Violence might succeed in some times and places, but in most Western societies no one side has enough firepower, so what’s left? Liberalism. Which is to say, freedom of choice, freedom to determine how you live. Which, per se, undercuts the notion of a rigidly ordered society. So even if we knew for an absolute fact that people would be happier living in a more rigidly ordered society, it is a thing that is impossible to achieve.