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Szasz as a Heretic

Szasz is a heretic. He can be considered so because he contests many generally accepted assumptions regarding mental illness, mental health, and the implications of these concepts. He is also a heretic in the sense that he looks for controversial issues in contacts between people and between individuals and groups. He attempts to throw an extraordinary light on those contacts. Szasz sees himself as a heretic, named one of his books Heresies, and indeed he wants to be a heretic. “Heresy” is being right when the right thing to do is to be wrong.” (Heresies, p. 1)

In The Manufacture of Madness he points out that an ideology such as that of mental illness and mental health, which is upheld both by psychiatrists and the general public, can hardly be criticized without the critic himself risking being called crazy. From a strategic standpoint it is wise for the critic to anticipate such by pointing out the risk. As far as I know, Szasz has never been called crazy. He was threatened with being fired after publishing The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961. (See Chapter I, 1) He was not fired. He has, however, been called incompetent, irritating, unscientific, obstinate, someone who undermines faith in medicine, and someone whose theories threaten the happiness of countless people. So he is also a heretic inasmuch as heresy can be inferred from the reactions to someone’s behavior.

Szasz is a man who is constantly looking for morally objectionable elements in the attitudes and behavior of those people who have authority and power over others. “The fundamental conflicts are not between competing ideas, one ‘true’ and the other ‘false’ – but rather between those who hold power and use it to oppress others, and those who are oppressed by power and seek to free themselves of it.” (The Manufacture of Madness, p. 63) Practically all of his publications, save several studies from before 1957, are controversial. Also his constant seeking of and involvement with issues that are both controversial and anchored in ideology mark Szasz as a heretic. On the one hand he is aware of the heretical, even revolutionary nature of his positions, as implied for instance by the following excerpt from the preface of the revised edition of The Myth of Mental Illness, in which he says about this book, “…a work which…must have seemed to fly in the face of nearly everything that was known about psychiatry and psychoanalysis.” On the other hand, he says about heretics, “Their heresy all too often lies in their conservatism, that is, in their insistence on the validity of ideas and values long established and honored.” (The Manufacture of Madness, p. 112) Considering his frequent references to the United States Constitution and his frequent quotations of the United States’ Founding Fathers, this is a statement that is very much applicable to himself as well. Finally, Szasz compares himself to Martin Luther in several ways. (The Myth of Psychotherapy, pp. 34-38) This is not incidental, as Szasz interrupts his postulation to stress the similarity.

From the above we can assume that Szasz is confident and aware of himself. Other statements demonstrate this too, such as that the antipsychiatry movement was significantly influenced by The Myth of Mental Illness. (Schizophrenia, p. 48)

In The Myth of Psychotherapy Szasz wonders what might have motivated Mesmer, literate and moneyed as he was, to choose the road that he followed, and that would bring him both fame and infamy. Szasz expresses Mesmer’s choice thus, “He could embrace a life of gambling, hunting, womanizing, and the pursuit of similar tangible pleasures, or he could pursue the spiritual pleasures of trying to satisfy his thirst for knowledge – and fame.” (p. 47) The same way one can wonder what motivated Szasz, a brilliant man who had a dazzling career as prominent psychoanalyst waiting for him, yet chose the controversial path that he took. My hypothesis is that Szasz, aside from his growing insight in the differences between what he and other people hold to be true and right, was enthralled by that which is controversial. This by no means is to suggest that Szasz holds his controversial positions “for the fun of it.” It is apparent to anyone who takes his books and other writings seriously that he wholeheartedly believes in the issues he raises and has a clear message. At the same time he is convinced that humanism means “the right to disagree and reject authority.” (The Theology of Medicine, p. 162) His language and the way he attacks the representatives of conventional psychiatry are provocatively polemic. He paints the contrasts as colorfully and sharply as at all possible, increasingly so as the years pass by. When discussing how the enormous power of the common ideology in society can be countered, Szasz opines that “the task of social criticism must remain forever in the hands of individuals.” (The Manufacture of Madness, p. 134) He has applied this statement to himself in his work, and has done so extremely evocatively.
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