European Association of Psychoanalysis
Bertrand Russell, C. S. Lewis, and the Existential Identity Thief
and the truth comes limping after;
so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late:
the jest is over and the tale has had its effect.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
One of the basic functions of living organisms is avoiding danger. In human beings, the emotion of fear serves that function. Because feeling fear is unpleasant, we try to escape it by seeking protection from danger, typically by looking to a Protector to protect us. Tragically, this longing -- be it for a deity, demagogue, dictator, or doctor -- is, itself, a source of danger.
"Necessity," William Pitt (1759-1806) famously remarked, "is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." (Pitt was British Prime Minister, 1783-1801 and 1804-1806.)
Fear of the insane and the psychiatrist's role as society's protector from the risk he allegedly poses is what has made the mere ascription of the label "insane" a justification for depriving the bearer of liberty. Although the idea of "the dangerous madman" is a bugaboo or a tautology (because we redefine bad as mad, deviant as deranged), it has captivated the contemporary mind -- secular and religious alike -- and has entrapped some of the most admired modern intellectuals.
In A History
of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the great atheist
skeptic, tried to refute David Hume's sceptical empiricism and concluded that
he was unequal to the task:
It is therefore important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume within the framework of a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority, or rather -- since we must not assume democracy -- on the ground that the government does not agree with him. This is a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped that there is some way of escaping from it (Russell, 1945: 673).
Russell's "desperation" was inconsistent with his scepticism, expressed earlier in his Sceptical Essays, where he had stated: "I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine ... that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true" (Russell, 1928: 1). Russell was sceptical about religion, but not about psychiatry. Positing the existence of a lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is a perfect example of believing "a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it to be true."
Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), the celebrated Christian apologist, believed in religion but disbelieved in psychiatry. Nevertheless, in his famous "trilemma," he too used the imaginary poached-egg man to support his reason for believing in the divinity of Jesus:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say.
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You
must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and
God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us (Lewis, 1952: 40-41).
The model lunatic as a person who believes himself to be a poached egg evidently was fashionable among twentieth-century English academics, at least at Cambridge. Let us scrutinize this modern psychiatric miracle.
In a debate unrelated to matters psychiatric, Russell, the hard-headed empiricist, would emphasize that we have no way of knowing what a person believes himself to be. We can know only what he tells us about who or what he is and have no grounds for treating his claim as, a priori, true.
English as well as in the idiom of psychiatry, we call a person's claim that
he is a poached egg a "delusion." I have seen many persons with so-called
delusions and have read about many more, but have never seen or read of a
poached-egg-man. In nineteenth-century European asylums, the most popular
delusion was being Napoleon. In modern American mental hospitals, it is being
Jesus. Whether or not the speaker believes his delusion to be true is
irrelevant. The simplest, most parsimonious explanation for his speech act is
that he is lying. In his Sceptical Essays, Russell himself suggested this
interpretation. He wrote:
A man who has suffered some humiliation invents a theory that he is King of England, and develops all kinds of ingenious explanations of the fact that he is not treated with that respect which his exalted position demands. In this case, his delusion is one with which his neighbors do not sympathize, so they lock him up. But if, instead of asserting only his own greatness, he asserts the greatness of his nation or his class or his creed, he wins hosts of
adherents, and becomes a political or religious leader (Russell, 1928: 1).
People often claim or pretend to be someone they are not. When a person does this on the stage, we call his behavior "acting." When he impersonates another for economic gain, defrauding others in the process, we call his behavior
"identity theft." We treat him as a criminal, guilty of committing fraud, not as a lunatic harboring false beliefs. When, however, an individual impersonates say, Jesus, we refuse to see the self-evident method in his madness, the
desire to gain existential rather economic advantage, and dismiss his conduct as "meaningless delusion." I submit that we ought to view such behavior as a type of "existential identity theft," a phenomenon that presents no particular challenge to either philosophy or theology. Yet, Russell and Lewis both regarded the existential identity thief as presenting the grandest of philosophical and theological problems. Russell spoke of it "a desperate point of view, and it must be hoped that there is some way of escaping from it." There is, as I just showed. Lewis declared, "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse." There is an obvious third choice.
The man who says he is a poached egg is a liar, and that ought to be the end of the matter, for theology, philosophy, and psychiatry alike. If we prefer to cast Lewis's riddle in softer terms, we might say that the man in Nazareth 2000 years ago who said he is the Son of God was a god-obsessed Jew, using a figurative language fashionable at the time, expressing and conveying a meaning to himself and others the exact signification of which we have no way of
recapturing. Much as I admire Lewis the man and his many memorable books, his assertion that -- "You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us" -- is simplistic and foolish. Lewis said that his aim was to show us why we ought to believe in the divinity of Jesus. Accepting his own postulate, he asserted that this hypothetical man-god had forbidden us to say "patronising nonsense" about him and that we must obey his prohibition. In short, Lewis treated his premise as proof of itself.
For the man who says he is Jesus, his identity thievery is an existential coup. For psychiatry, such as man -- Jesus or poached egg -- is an existential and economic gold mine. The fact that modern societies choose to value the products of this "salted mine" more highly than gold, indeed that they revere it as the science and practice of psychiatry, is another issue.
Finally, both Russell and Lewis compounded their mistaken reasoning about the nature of Existential Identity Theft by assuming that individuals or society need to sanction the Thief. Russell declared: "The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority, ... etc." Lewis agreed: "You can shut Him [Jesus as liar] up for a fool... " These are non sequiturs. There is no need for individuals or society to condemn and punish the Existential Identity Thief. Severing relations with him suffices for our self-protection.
I thank Professor Robert Spillane, Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, for calling my attention to this passage.
Lewis, C. S. (1952) Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan).
Russell, B. (1928) Skeptical Essays (London: Allen & Unwin).
Russell, B. (1945) A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster).
[Thomas Szasz, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus,
Upstate Medical University, State University of New York, Syracuse, New York.
Home address: 4739 Limberlost Lane, Manlius, NY 13104-1405. Tel.: 315-637-8918. e-mail: TSZASZ@aol.com]
Free Inquiry, 26: 51-52 (August / September), 2006.