Reid and Insanity (1800)

Letter to the Editor, Monthly Magazine 9 (July 1800), 523-24.1 


"Remarks on Dr. Reid on Insanity."


Sir,

    Impressed by the humanity and independent thinking displayed in the Essay on Insanity in your magazine for May and June, and encouraged by the general liberality of sentiment by which it is characterized, I am induced to offer a few reflections suggested to me by the tendency of Dr. Reid's remarks. The objection to the rigorous and coercive measures adopted the treatment of unfortunate maniacs does credit to the discernment and feelings of the writer. Darkness, solitude, confinement and severity, appear assuredly but little calculated to vary the fixed idea, to divert the gloom of intense meditation, or sooth the throbbing of despair. Morbid feeling will probably be exaggerated in the absence, or by the monotony of external impression, and images of horror assume shapings more palpable and vivid.

    But waving the medical propriety of Dr. Reid's observations, on which I presume not to dwell, allow me to advert for a few moments to their moral application. To insist on the necessity of utility of the passions, those springs of the mind, the sources of its attention, vigor and energy, or to declaim on the consequence of their intemperance and abuse, would be equally trite and unnecessary. Two remedies only have been hitherto pointed out by moralists to abate their fervour and oppose to their excess. By ancient sages, the efficacy of reason as an antidote to passion has been strongly urged. Modern inquirers have, with greater acuteness and more sagacity, considered passion as a despot, in possession of power, dear to the claims of justice, and blind to the splendor of truth: or, as possessing means of corruption but too abundant, and arts of perversion but too insidious, for converting into an auxiliary its most formidable opponent. To wage an equal war, to repel force with force, and passion by passion, to combat the enemy with his own weapons, carries with it a more [specious?] prospect of success; and it is against this hypothesis that the remarks of your correspondent are leveled.

    Objecting, he urges, and not without a foundation in truth, the danger lest the new passion, in its failure, should give additional force to that by which it is absorbed. This, in melancholy temperaments, in dispositions of peculiar tenacity, and in singular circumstances, is but too probable. Yet, if strong passions are, to a certain extent, increased by struggles; to be exhausted by the continued application of stimuli, seems to be in the nature of the human machine. Passion rarely acquires this fatal omnipotence till aided by habit, by those mysterious power the wretched victim is compelled to extract, even from agony, a gloomy and horrid species of gratification. By opposing passion to passion, in its earlier progress, the force of either is weakened; by their alternations, as by the motion of the antagonist muscles, the mind loses the sense of fatigue and experiences relief. In proportion to the absence of others, is the strength and permanence of a single impressions. In striking one billiard-ball against another, the force communicated to the second is deducted from the first. If men of the world, on whose senses a thousand varied objects impress themselves, become the votaries of ambition or avarice, it is only as these passions seem to include in them the gratification of every other. Attention divided is necessarily weakened. From the torrent sluiced into many channels, there is little dread of devastation. 

    In the opposition of passions to each other, it is not always necessary, nor possible, to contrast them. Natural face are not established by poetical flights, nor does hatred seem to be the apropriate [sic] cure for successes love. The illiberal quotation of the "fury of woman scorned," can apply only to a grosser sentiment, or to wounded vanity, feelings which belong not exclusively to woman. Neither by unkindness, injury nor insult, can genuine affection be robbed of its characteristic meekness. It would encroach on the limits allowed me, to detail the various methods by which the minds overwhelmed by the pressure of a single sentiment, might roused by ingenuity and address, softened by patient benevolence, diverted to the exercise of a liberal [524] curiosity, subdued by kindness, or stimulated by dignified emotion. The remarks of Dr. Red respecting the effects of vigilance are illustrative of the preceding observations:

    "Constant vigilance will be likely to produce insanity, by subjecting the mind habitually to that increased violence of feeling, which we must have observed to tae place during the darkness, the silence, and the solitude of the night. Really it is astonishing, in how much more lively a manner we are apt in these circumstances to be impressed by ideas that present themselves, than when the attention of the mind is dissipated, and its sensibility in a considerable degree absorbed by the action of light, sound, and that variety of objects which, during the day, operate upon our external senses."

    To the opposing of passion by reason, and the setting passions array against passion, a third method of cure is suggested, impressive by its novelty, and alluring by its apparent facility -- The complete gratification of the absorbing feeling. To wave the real impracticability with which this must frequently be attended, or the license which it seems to allow, and against which your correspondent has not sufficiently guarded, I would recall to his attention some remarks in the former part of his paper:

    "The habitual indulgence of any propensity in opposition to the dictate of reason, tends gradually to weaken, and at length to destroy altogether, the influence of that faculty."

    The sensibility constantly goaded by excessive stimuli cannot fail in time to be thrown into a morbid state."

    "Most actions, however pleasurable at first, by a frequent repetition of them become indifferent. That is, the pleasure connected with the performance of them become indifferent. That is, the pleasure connected with the performance of them diminishes, whilst the pain of abstaining increases in the same proportion. So that the relinquishment of a habit is then found to be most difficult and painful, when it has arrived at that pitch of inveteracy, as even to be unattended with consciousness."

    "In those persons who carry intoxication daily to such a pitch as induces a temporary madness, it seems likely that this state should from the force of habit become permanent."

    "Although a state strictly deserving the name of mania frequently does not follow as the immediate consequence from a transgression of sobriety; yet, as such transgression in every instance diminishes the power of reason, as well as gives an unnatural strength to all the passions, and to that in particular to which the constitution is peculiarly prone, its tendency to produce at length a complete and obstinate disorder of the mental faculties must be too evident to stand in need of any farther proof or elucidation."

    If the madness of an angry man is eased by the blow inflicted on the object of his resentment, will not the facility of gratifying this passion smooth the way, both morally and medically, to its more frequent recurrence? If sorrow finds a relief in tears, will not sorrow be rendered permanent by habits of repining? If the sensualist quenches his fire in intemperate gratification, are habits of purity and self-control to be expected from this indulgence? Let us beware, while we confess our imbecility, ow we sanction our errors. The death of passion succeeds, says Dr. Reid, to its complete gratification. To a position so loosely stated, where are we to assign limits? How many passions are continually progress, how many attend us to the grave, and even look beyond it, how many by indulgence are rendered perpetually craving? This indeed appears to be of the nature and essence of strong passion, -- I speak not of transient appetite. When may a passion be said to be completely gratified? If only when it is extinguished, the position resolves itself into vain repetition, or a self-evident axiom. Upon this principle, how would individuals exist in society, how would the rights of others be respected, what would become of prudence and propriety, of fortitude, of temperance, of self-control?

    In proof of that observation of Dr. Cullen, that the passions are rendered more violent by the indulgence of the motions which they produce, the contagions and sympathetic effect of these motions (or gestures) may be alleged; passion by its gestures and expressions is communicated from mind to mind with electric rapidity. Passion, whether morbid or mental, is checked and diverted even by the efforts used for its restraint; reiteration ad habit are its grand auxiliaries; no indulgence becomes dangerous till fixed by repetition the mind: neither, as is justly observed by Dr. Reid, is there any mental emotion, indulged to excess, which may not induce maniacal derangement.

    

June 10, 1800.                                               Mary Hays. 

 

    

    

1 Hays had not made any contributions to the pages of the Monthly Magazine since October 1797. Now she enters as a respondent to her friend, Dr. John Reid (1773-1822), brother of her friend and correspondent, Mary Reid (1769-1839), both formerly of Leicester but in London since John Reid's arrival in 1795. The Reids knew Crabb Robinson and many of the young Romantics who lived at times in London between 1796 and 1800, including Lamb, Southey, Coleridge, Lloyd, and Stephen Weaver Browne. Reid became a regular contributor to the Monthly Magazine at this time, writing on matters of medicine and his essays were widely read across England at that time. He had contributed his first essay on "Insanity" in  the December issue  (876-77), followed by further discussions of the subject in April (286-88), May (342-45), and June (427), the latter signed "J. Reid" from 63 Hatton Garden, not far from Mary Hays at 22 Hatton Garden.  

    In the August issue (33-34), Reid responded to Hays. In her letter, Hays had argued that reason might be used to combat excessive passion (madness), but Reid says such a solution is “absurd ... in a disease the very essence of which consists in not admitting the operation of that faculty” (33). Her main thrust was to pit passion against passion, and this Reid takes issue with as well, even though she acknowledged, as he did, that in many cases of insanity it would only aggravate the situation, not improve it (34). He says they both agree that in some cases, the cure lies in an effort to “exhaust” the passion through increased stimulation (34). She believed it might be useful early on in a case, he believed best in a more advanced stage, “when it has actually produced, or begins to threaten, insanity, that my remarks bear any allusion” (34).  Reid defines passion “as an inflammation of the mind” (34). In early stages it might be resolved, but in later stages only by its “suppuration” (34). 

He also disagrees with her notion that by the absence of stimuli a single impression is much stronger and more permanent, which he says would make a shoemaker or pinmaker less likely to fall to enthusiasm than a poet, politician, or philosopher, since the former would have fewer ideas (they would do the same thing over and over). He thinks that is not very good reasoning (34).  He has several other quotations from her that he disagrees with. She was also critical that his position would have moral consequences. He had used the word “lover” as one of his examples of satiating insanity by exhausting the passion. She wonders if, in such a case, would it lead to “habits of purity and self-controul?” He does not believe the word “lover” and “sensualist” are the same, and thus her point fails (34). “Surely this lady is not incapable of perceiving a distinction [35] between the two characters; and that love is not more opposite even to hatred, than it is to a brutal sensuality” (34-35). He believes Hays “confounds the indulgence of a passion with its gratification. This distinction may seem to be a nice one, but it is really very important. A lover may properly be said to indulge his passion, by musing continually on the amiable qualities of his mistress; but it is not gratified, until he acquires the actual possession of her person” (35). “It is the indulgence, without the gratification, of a feeling, that alone has a tendency to give to it a morbid degree of violence and tenacity” (35).