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Review of "The Nature of Melancholy"

By Jennifer Radden
Oxford University Press, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 30th 2004
The Nature of Melancholy

In The Nature of Melancholy, Jennifer Radden collects some of the most important writings on the condition often referred these days to as "depression" from the last 2500 years.  Her own Introduction, "From Melancholic States to Clinical Depression," is a wonderful history of the ideas including pictorial representations.  In her Preface, she makes clear that melancholy and depression are not necessary the same thing, and it may not be helpful to think of the "black bile" as the same thing as what is often described as abnormal levels of neurotransmitters. 

For most readers, including academics, clinicians and psychiatric researchers, the readings included will be unfamiliar.  It is possible that some will have read the work of the famous physician Galen from the second century BCE, or something from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621.  It is likely that many will have read Freud, Seligman and Beck.  However, how many have read anything by the monk Cassian from the fifth century, Avicenna from Persia who lived around the end of the first millennium, or the English poet, Anne Finch, who wrote her poem "The Spleen" in 1701?  So for those who want to investigate the history of our concept of depression and relate it to wider medical and cultural themes, this collection is an excellent resource. 

This collection of primary sources serves as an excellent companion to Stanley Jackson's definitive Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times, which provides a very detailed history of the different theories of depression and melancholy through the ages.  However, Radden's collection has a broader range, including as it does drawings, paintings, poems, and religious works.  One might profitably read her book in conjunction with Roy Porter's excellent Madness: A Brief History, which shares the breadth of Radden's vision and fills in some gaps of the chronology of theories and ideas about madness and melancholy.  The Nature of Melancholy contributes to the medical humanities in placing modern psychiatry in historical context and helps philosophers and theoretically-inclined medical historians construct a history of the central concepts of psychiatry.  As our society rushes to embrace a medical model of depression with ever-increasing enthusiasm, it is work such as this that will help to provide a perspective from which to assess the wisdom of this trend and how it changes our understanding of life's troubles.





Table of Contents.


© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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