Book Review: Mental Epidemics

Mental Epidemics:  Two Lectures, by J. S. Gilmore

It should be remembered in times of great concern about physical health that humanity is not only prey to epidemics resulting from viruses and bacteria and the like, but also mental epidemics that spread through suggestibility and the morbid excitability that humanity is often subject to.  The author is a dryly humorous student of history who in this relatively short but deeply entertaining book manages to discuss at some length the ways in human history that people have been led to act insanely and how these share certain qualities that can be understood and learned by the wise observer as a way of avoiding such problems ourselves.  It is all the more impressive that the author manages to talk about mental epidemics and be very critical about certain elements of contagious and negative enthusiasms that our own age shares in many respects without condemning faith and belief itself, but only the manifestations of them that create problems, whether those problems be convulsions under the mistaken belief that one is in the spirit, or the spread of melancholies or the fear and panic about witchcraft or the mania that led to the children’s crusade in medieval Europe, or even the enthusiasms of Mormonism and mesmerism.

In terms of its contents, this book consists of two lectures that are about 30 pages or so apiece that make up a classic essay on the subject of social contagion.  The author’s discussion is brief and not very statistical, and so it would not appeal to contemporary readers who would insist more data.  That said, for those who are willing to appreciate a more qualitative approach to the subject of social epidemiology, there is a lot here to offer the reader.  This includes a discussion on various crazes and panics and manias that have been found throughout history.  Some of them are famous, such as the witch hunting of the 17th century, or the Children’s Crusade and its horrors to the children who refused their parents’ blandishments to stay home and avoid harm.  Other contagious are more obscure, like that relating to mesmerism and various religious movements of the early modern period.  The author manages to successfully critique both Pentecostals on the one hand as well as Hume and other skeptics in miracles on the other, and any time you can critique both of those sides simultaneously, you are doing something very well indeed.

As far as a work goes, this book appears to be a similar sort of work to The Madness Of Crowds, although it does not refer to that work specifically that I was able to see, in that it discusses the social contagions that result from mankind’s ability to be influenced by other people in ways that are often counterproductive to sound living and sanity and survival.  Indeed, the lack of reciprocity that exists between our understanding of others and our thoughts about ourselves hinders our ability to recognize when we are engaging in a mental epidemic.  And even in a time like this, one can see the effects of social contagions in such dangerous problems as Trump Derangement Syndrome as well as the way that people can be influenced to act according to various harmful propaganda and be unable and unwilling to see the truth even when they are presented it because it does not come from sources that they accept.  So long as we are troubled by both irrationality and hypocrisy, this book and its insights are likely to remain important in reminding us of the value of humility in helping us to avoid problems.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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