On January 3, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche, an unknown, eccentric and disillusioned German philologist, throws himself on the neck of a horse to save him from being flogged. The philosopher collapses on the ground. Thus started eleven years of dementia; a last phase, a severe and ultimate punishment, for Nietzsche’s already agitated existence. Nearly one century later, Nietzsche’s name being finally associated with its due praise, French philosopher Georges Bataille could dare exploring the connection: “Man incarnate must also go mad.” Madness and philosophy, disorders and breakthroughs: the paradoxes of human’s most remarkable ideas contrasted with its most incomprehensible behaviors. Often, in one and the same persons. There is perhaps more than a diametrically opposed connection between mental health and philosophy – something more organic, more biological, more constituent. It probably takes a bit of folly to undertake the philosophical life, and at this game, Nietzsche is lost among a crowd of bearded and shorthaired thinkers.
A philosopher, an artist, a madman all have in common to ‘live in their world’. It is not that their delusion reaches the heights of making them believe that they are worth having their own universe, distinct and superior to that of humanity. Instead, these are individuals who decide to respond to an initial intuition, which invited them to believe there is more than what all around them keep repeating.
What is the place of madness in philosophy? Or rather: what part of philosophy seems to dangerously flirt with madness? No need to return to the remote past of the Greek forum: modern days philosophers, and students of philosophy, regularly face the perplexed assumptions of their near and dear. “What is the point of doing philosophy?,” “Don’t you think there are things more urgent to do in this world? Fighting poverty, the evil kapital… or even better: getting a job and making some money?” “Why, after all, do you care about all these pointless questions?” Indeed, it takes one to address ‘pointless’ questions to undertake the philosophical project. The very goal of philosophy is to question the granted, to go beyond the borders of the accepted, of the conventional, of the familiar. The philosopher sacrifices what many would call ‘a normal life’ to dedicate his life to seemingly less urgent matters, but matters which, to him, appear as much more fundamental. How many artists would recognize their destiny in this sort of definition? A philosopher, an artist, a madman all have in common to ‘live in their world’. It is not that their delusion reaches the heights of making them believe that they are worth having their own universe, distinct and superior to that of humanity. Instead, these are individuals who decide to respond to an initial intuition, which invited them to believe there is more than what all around them keep repeating. The inner world of a philosopher, an artist or a madman is portrayed as the sign of the outcaste, of the marginal, of the abnormal, but these are the individuals who help us make sense of the chaos and complexity of life when us, proudly normal, realize the shortcomings of our conformism. The madman-philosopher sacrifices himself on the alter of society to channel humanity’s need of models able to truly look at their inner reality in the eyes. The madman-philosopher is a scapegoat. We burn him because we need him.
Can the madman ever become doctor? Should we believe the philosopher when he attempts to enlighten us on matters of health and well-being? Since day one, philosophy was undertaken and conceived, in Greece and elsewhere, as a medium towards the attainment of a better life. Philosophy was not the intellectual chess-game that it is too often today, but a project relying basically on the love of life, the love of a happy existence, and the love of the wisdom that arise from it. The philosopher, a (figurative?) madman, is paradoxically someone who also has a sharp intuitive understanding of what it means to be alive, and to be alive in a comfortable and healthy state. It is in this condition that the philosopher may be allowed to broaden the original questions of his endeavor – at times narrowly abstract – to the more concrete concerns of the constitution of a healthy life, and the means to reach it. But this is not a straight path. It rests to the philosopher, ultimately, to subvert all that he may have said to the uninitiated audience, so to avoid the dichotomist scission between the sane human, symbolized by the healthy thinker, and the mad person, reduced to the dirty and retarded individual. If the philosopher is a human who intends to describe life for humans and from a human perspective, he must also remind himself permanently that the madman’s very existence must, too, be incorporated in this ambitious and large scheme. It is, at the end, the philosopher’s skill to respectfully and elegantly address the existence of the madman, which determines the success of his enterprise.
Image courtesy: Jules Bastien-Lepage