Have Mad People Shaped Our History?

Mike Brooks, PhD
Independent Practice

A review of Ferguson, C. J. (2020). How Madness Shaped History: An Eccentric Array of Maniacal Rulers, Raving Narcissists, and Psychotic Visionaries. Prometheus Books, 309 pages, $21.66 (Hardcover), $17.99 (Kindle)

In How Madness Shaped History, Christopher J. Ferguson explores a topic that is timelier than he probably originally intended. Indeed, over the past several years, it seems like we are increasingly living in a mad world. America has probably become more polarized than it has been in the last 100 years. A contentious 2020 election culminated in what was once unthinkable—the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, by loyalists of President Donald Trump with his encouragement.

Many Americans and people from around the world stood aghast as the very foundations of American democracy were under attack. How much was President Trump to blame for what many call an insurrection attempt? Was he a patriot and visionary trying to uphold American ideals or was he a psychopath willing to do and say anything to maintain the reins of power? Has he been fomenting madness in America or merely channeling or reflecting a madness that was already there? Such questions can naturally lead us to ask more overarching questions about madness itself. Just what is madness anyway, and how is it that some individuals fall prey to it and leave their indelible mark upon history?

Let’s admit that most of us have a morbid fascination with the darker side of human nature. Perhaps we can blame it on our negativity bias and the “power of bad,” but we do not have to look far to see this evidence for this attraction. From the news headlines of murders, mass shootings, and cruelty (i.e., “If it bleeds, it leads”) to popular movies (e.g., Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, Misery, American Psycho) and TV shows (Game of Thrones, The Wire, Crime Scene Investigators, Fargo, True Detective), we feel compelled to examine this dark side.

The unfortunate reality is that we do not have to look to movies and television shows to see the madness of which humans are capable. Ferguson takes us on a colorful romp through history as he explores many of the noteworthy figures who were affected by some form of madness, mental health, or medical condition. He readily admits distinctions between “madness,” mental health, and medical conditions are difficult to make and that he cannot definitively diagnose individuals discussed in the book. This is especially true because we often have very limited information about many historical figures and what information we do have is selective and/or biased. Still, examining the distinctive characteristics of these individuals can provide a framework for understanding what might be inspiring their eccentric, erratic, and sometimes destructive behavior. The exploration of what makes these people tick makes for fascinating reading and Ferguson displays a playful and often irreverent sense of humor on this journey. As a bonus, we can learn some important history along the way that we probably didn’t learn in our history classes.

Ferguson covers a wide range of noteworthy figures from ancient history as Caligula and Alexander the Great to more recent political figures such as Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. He, of course, spends a good portion of the book discussing the background and atrocities of some of the most cruel and destructive individuals throughout history such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. He also explores such figures as Vincent Van Gogh and Catherine of Sienna whose behaviors were considered eccentric, erratic, or zealous.  

As Ferguson notes, most people with mental health issues do not inflict suffering on others. However, most individuals who do inflict widespread suffering on others, either out of callousness or enjoyment, are likely to be suffering from some form of mental illness or medical condition. Still, it must be noted that we are trying to understand the past through the lens of (Western) modernity. Historically, different cultures would explain erratic or cruel behavior or what we now consider “mental illness” to imbalanced humors, spirits, or demonic possession.

As Ferguson explains, the destructive power of mad individuals does not occur in a vacuum. It is usually the case that certain societal conditions must also exist for despots, extremists, and mad individuals to rise to positions of influence and power. Thus, as he observes, Adolf Hitler might not have become “Der Führer” and wreaked cruelty and destruction upon the world had Germany not been psychologically vulnerable to his rise to power after their humiliating defeat in World War I.

While How Madness Shaped History is timeless, it is more relevant and timelier than ever. As the adage goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. While societies in ways have evolved much over the centuries, an uncomfortable truth is that we are still susceptible to madness. Many see Donald Trump as in the throws of some form of madness; yet, perhaps more alarmingly, many of us also see madness possess American citizens as we become more polarized and hateful toward one another.

While many of us might be tempted to despair, Ferguson remains optimistic overall and ends on a positive note. While we think things are bad these days, as he reminds us throughout the book, human history used to be exponentially more brutal and cruel. Life, in general, is much better than in centuries, or even decades, past. However, it is often difficult to tell this from the news headlines. Yes, there is madness in this world but, thankfully, there is less of it. There is hope for humanity, and Ferguson provides some advice so that might help us be a little saner as we move forward.

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