Creativity and Criminality: The Two Faces of Responsibility
Do the Mentally Ill Lack Self-Control?
NOVEMBER 01, 2000 by THOMAS S. SZASZ
“No productiveness of the highest kind, no remarkable discovery, no great thought which bears fruit and has results is in the power of anyone . . . . Man must consider them as unexpected gifts from above, as pure children of God . . . . The process savors of the demonic element which irresistibly does with a man what it pleases and to which he surrenders himself unconsciously while believing that he is acting on his own impulses.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What makes “creative geniuses” different from “crazy criminals,” and both different from ordinary people?
Plato regarded creativity as a form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source. The modern view is the same, except that it identifies the madness as a specific disease, manic-depression, and attributes its source to the brain. In the absence of objective evidence for this interpretation, its “truth” is demonstrated by the volunteering of public figures—such as writer William Styron, television journalist Mike Wallace, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison—as poster children for madness, their malady controlled or cured by chemistry.
Alongside the image of manic-depression as a cause of creativity that does not detract from the subject’s responsibility for his good deeds stands the image of schizophrenia as a cause of criminality annulling the subject’s responsibility for his bad deeds. This interpretation, too, lacks objective proof. Instead, its “truth” is enshrined in the criminal law—in the practice of the insanity defense, allowing society to incarcerate some persons who break secular laws and are deemed mad in prisons called “hospitals.” And it is enshrined as well in religion—in the practice of the insanity excuse, allowing clergymen to bury in consecrated ground all persons who break the religious law against suicide, and are deemed automatically non compos mentis at the precise moment of their sinful deed.
The successful creator and the successful destroyer resemble one another in their single-minded determination to achieve their goals. Nineteenth-century French alienists medicalized single-mindedness by calling it “monomania.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term, first used in 1823, refers to “A form of insanity in which the patient is irrational on one subject only”; it is also used to identify “An exaggerated enthusiasm for or devotion to one subject; a craze.” Because in different times (or places) people value devotion to a particular subject differently, certain persons dishonored as mad at one time are hailed as geniuses later, and vice versa. While he was alive, the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis—who discovered the microbial causation of puerperal fever before the discovery of microbes as pathogens—was considered to be wedded to an erroneous belief, which he defended irrationally. Diagnosed insane, he was incarcerated and died in a madhouse. Today, the medical school at the University of Budapest is named after him. Conversely, while he was alive, Adolf Hitler was hailed, especially in Germany, as a political genius. Today, he is loathed as a lunatic.
“There is no great genius without a touch of madness,” declared Seneca. The image of a person seized by a great force, often called a “fire”—seemingly outside of himself—is a figure of speech for a powerful motive propelling him toward certain kinds of actions. Misinterpreted, the metaphor implies that the subject has lost control over himself, is under the control of alien powers—“muses” in antiquity, “madness” today. Accordingly, we view the mad person as having a disease (insanity) that deprives him of moral agency and hence responsibility. The evidence? That mad persons (mental patients) disavow choosing their actions and attribute their (illegal, destructive) actions to other agents, typically God or “voices”; and that psychiatrists eagerly validate this misinterpretation by accepting the patients’ claims as valid, attributing their “symptoms” to irresistible impulses lodged in the chemistry of their brains, and excusing their crimes as the products of “sick brains.”
I maintain that the “mental states” of the creative genius and of the destructive genius are essentially similar. We view both as inspired or “monomaniacal,” but while we regard the former as intentionality incarnate, we regard the latter as devoid of intentionality. In other words, we perceive the good genius (artist) as possessing moral agency and personal responsibility, and the bad genius (mad criminal) as bereft of these quintessentially human qualities. These constructions suit our needs for dealing with exceptional persons and their exceptional conduct. They are not scientifically valid accounts of the good and bad genius’s ability to control his behavior. Regardless of whether a person is called “creative” or “crazy,” he is capable of self-control; each yields to his inclinations (“frenzy”), whose consequences others judge as good (“creative”) or bad (“crazy”).
Sane or insane, persons possess more self-control than we are willing to accord them. The idea that mentally ill persons lack self-control is a modern view, alien to people in less advanced civilizations. The doctrine that the so-called insane person cannot control his (“psychotic”) behavior, rather than that he does not want to control it, is, in my view, a postulate parading as a factual proposition. The evidence points decisively in the opposite direction. Under extreme threats to life—as in a concentration camp—mad persons suddenly “recover” and cease to display symptoms of their “disease.”
The idea of the irresistible impulse and the problems it generates—epitomized by the insanity defense and claims for victimization by voluntary behavior, such as smoking—are artifacts generated by the belief in mental illness as a cause of diminished or annulled responsibility.
The behavior of every person—regardless of whether we regard him as creative, criminal, or normal—is intentional. Hence, he is responsible for it. Nevertheless, we believe it is scientific to divide people into three groups: individuals with exceptionally large amounts of intentionality—creative geniuses; individuals with little or no intentionality—insane criminals; and individuals with an average amount of intentionality—ordinary persons:
- We see the genius as full of intentionality and his creative act as the embodiment of self-disciplined self-expression, equating the actor with his act (“It is a Renoir.”).
- We see the madman as lacking intentionality and his destructive act as the embodiment of alienated impulsivity, separating the actor from his act (“He is not himself.”).
The answer to questions such as “Was van Gogh or Hitler a genius or a mad person?” depends on whether we perceive the person’s act as creative or destructive, good or bad, rather than on the nature of his “mind.” Thus, it tells us more about the speaker’s mind than the mind of van Gogh or Hitler.