Physician heal thyself

Philosophers seem to be a high-risk group for severe mental breakdown. Or perhaps it is the experience of coming through a crisis that creates such a strong motivation to search for deeper questions about the nature of reality and the human condition. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, for instance, underwent a psychological crisis in his early twenties after four years of intensive study. But he survived and went on to create a radical empiricist philosophy that Kant claimed woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers”.

Another example is the twelfth-century philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. After his younger brother David was drowned at sea on a voyage to India, Maimonides spent an entire year “prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and numbness of heart, and well-nigh perished.” The Maimonides scholar Joel E. Kraemer has suggested that Maimonides was suffering the kind of severe depression caused by traumatic separation that would make him susceptible to recurrent episodes of the malady throughout his life [1].

Eight years later, Maimonides wrote :

How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security…Were it not for the Torah, which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget his sorrow, I would have perished in my affliction.

Maimonides achieved fame as a court physician in Egypt, possibly to Saladin, among other royal patients. He wrote a large number of treatises covering different aspects of medicine including the treatment of melancholia. His  philosophical work The Guide of the Perplexed had a lasting effect, not only on subsequent Jewish thought, but on the whole of Western philosophy, influencing Aquinas, Spinoza and Leibniz.

 

[1] “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait” in Seeskin, Kenneth. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  The quotation is taken from this essay.


 

I am leading a study session on Spinoza and the Intellectual Love of God for Beit Klal Yisrael on Saturday 24 May, during which we will look at Maimonides’ view on the love and knowledge of God and exploring how this may shine a light on Spinoza’s ideal. Details at www.bky.org.uk

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