Did Aristotle Have an Anxiety Disorder?

Indulge me for a moment. I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that Aristotle (384-322 BC) suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder. My suspicions were first raised when I encountered a short quotation from his work De Anima or On the Soul. 

Aristotle’s intention is to show that at least some mental states can be produced purely by our physiology. He wishes to show that mental states are “enmattered,” changing as the associated matter changes. To demonstrate that this was so, Aristotle gave the following example of a mental state having no obvious mental cause.

In the absence of any external cause of terror we find ourselves experiencing the feelings of a man in terror. (I.i)

It seems to me that Aristotle is clearly describing a panic attack here. And the fact that he says “we find ourselves” experiencing this irrational terror does not suggest that he is describing a state he has witnessed elsewhere. Aristotle is not walking us through a case study of some patient like an ambivalent psychologist, but rather it seems he is telling us about a state that he has personally felt overcome by.

Another clue is found in his discussion of human semen. The clue points to the fact that Aristotle may have been afflicted by post coital dysphoria: that feeling of acute depression which often follows orgasm, and which seems to be correlated in the medical literature with other depression and anxiety disorders (although, to be sure, there is very little research on this connection). The discussion can be found in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, where he writes:

the exhaustion consequent on the loss of even a very little of the semen is conspicuous because the body is deprived of the ultimate gain drawn from the nutriment … [so] as a general rule the result of intercourse is exhaustion and weakness rather than relief. (725b)

There are some other clues, but they are not independently compelling. In a chapter from the Nichomachean Ethics devoted to the philosophy of friendship, for example, Aristotle is often preoccupied with discussing the possible ulterior motives of friends. Conflicts among friends, he argues, are overwhelmingly caused by a misunderstanding about what currency the friendship should be paid in. Is the friend a true friend or merely feigning the intimacy associated with true friendship in order to reap some alternative reward? This preoccupation looks a little bit like the result of a mild paranoia when looked at in conjunction with the evidence of anxiety above. At one especially intriguing moment, Aristotle writes:

In the friendship of lovers sometimes the lover complains that his excess of love is not met by love in return (though perhaps there is nothing lovable about him).

It is a connection that is tenuous at best, but I cannot shake the feeling that the bracketed aside is no wry comment on the unlovable masses, but a quiet admission of personal insecurity.

It would not be surprising if Aristotle were an especially anxious man, given the situation he found himself in. Aristotle was the student of Plato, and Plato was the student of Socrates, who was famously tried and sentenced to death by the Athenian democracy in 399 BC. This event, and the threat of further action against trouble-making, rabble-rousing philosophers, no doubt cast a long shadow over Aristotle’s own career.

Another reason that Aristotle may have been particularly anxious relates to his tutoring the teenager, Alexander the Great, a Macedonian prince at the time. During Aristotle’s life, Anti-Macedonian sentiments were rife in Athens, and Aristotle’s own connections to Alexander made him a possible target, and presumably not very well liked even during his intellectually productive time at the Lyceum. Indeed, after the death of Alexander in 321 Aristotle fled from Athens to a quiet island off the Attic coast. Presumably, he worried that his loud opinions and his Macedonian ties would lead him to the same fate as Socrates’. “I will not permit Athens to sin twice against philosophy,” he remarked as he left Athens, or so the story goes.

He died the following year with stomach pains. His will advised that the bones of his late wife be exhumed and buried with him.

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