The psychopath in history
From "The Mask of Sanity" by Hervey M. Cleckley
Over a period of many decades psychiatrists, and sometimes other writers, have made attempts to classify prominent historical figures-rulers, military leaders, famous artists and writers-as cases of psychiatric disorder or as people showing some of the manifestations associated with various psychiatric disorders. Many professional and lay observers in recent years have commented on the sadistic and paranoid conduct and attitudes reported in Adolf Hitler and in some of the other wartime leaders in Nazi Germany. Walter Langer, the author of a fairly recent psychiatric study, arrives at the conclusion that Hitler was "probably a neurotic psychopath bordering on schizophrenia," that "he was not insane but was emotionally sick and lacked normal inhibitions against antisocial behavior."177 A reviewer of this study in Time feels that Hitler is presented as "a desperately unhappy man … beset by fears, doubts, loneliness and guilt [who] spent his whole life in an unsuccessful attempt to compensate for feelings of helplessness and inferiority."281
Though the term psychopath is used for Hitler in this quotation it seems to be used in a broader sense than in this volume. Hitler, despite all the unusual, unpleasant, and abnormal features reported to be characteristic of him, could not, in my opinion, be identified with the picture I am trying to present. Many people whose conduct has been permanently recorded in history are described as extremely abnormal in various ways. Good examples familiar to all include Nero and Heliogabalus, Gilles de Rais, the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and, of course, the Marquis de Sade. I cannot find in these characters a truly convincing resemblance that identifies them with the picture that emerges from the actual patients I have studied and regarded as true psychopaths.203
In the lives of many painters, sculptors, poets and other writers who have gained a place in history we find reports of inconsistency and irresponsibility that sometimes do suggest the typical psychopath. Benvenuto Cellini, whose story has been recorded in such detail by his own hand, seems in more respects, perhaps, than any other creative artist who gained lasting renown to have followed a pattern similar to that of my patients. Nevertheless he worked consistently enough to produce masterpieces that centuries later are still cherished.41,120
The more I read about him and wondered about him, the more he arrested my attention and challenged my imagination. All reports agreed that he was one of the chief military and political leaders of Athens in her period of supreme greatness and classic splendor during the fifth century B.G. This man led me to ponder at a very early age on many questions for which I have not yet found satisfactory answers. According to my high school history book,26
The result of this alliance led Athens into defeat and disaster, but Alcibiades on many occasions showed outstanding talent and succeeded brilliantly in many important affairs. Apparently he had great personal charm and easily aroused strong feelings of admiration and affection in others.
Though usually able to accomplish with ease any aim he might choose, he seemed capriciously to court disaster and, perhaps at the behest of some trivial impulse, to go out of his way to bring down defeat upon his own projects. Plutarch refers to him thus:242
In the Symposium,241 one of his most celebrated dialogues, Plato introduces Alcibiades by having him appear with a group of intoxicated revelers and burst in upon those at the banquet who are engaged in philosophical discussion. Alcibiades, as presented here by Plato, appears at times to advocate as well as symbolize external beauty and ephemeral satisfactions as opposed to the eternal verities. Nevertheless, Plato gives Alcibiades the role of recognizing and expounding upon the inner virtue and spiritual worth of Socrates and of acclaiming this as far surpassing the readily discerned attainments of more obviously attractive and superficially impressive men. Plato devotes almost all of the last quarter of the Symposium to Alcibiades and his conversation with Socrates. His great charm and physical beauty are emphasized repeatedly here.
The personal attractiveness of Alcibiades is also dwelt upon by Plutarch:242
Early in his career he played a crucial role in gaining important victories for Athens. Later, after fighting against his native city and contributing substantially to her final disaster, he returned to favor, won important victories again for her and was honored with her highest offices. In the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1949) I read:
Alcibiades possessed great charm and brilliant abilities but was absolutely unprincipled. His advice whether to Athens or to Sparta, oligarchs or democrats, was dictated by selfish motives, and the Athenians could never trust him sufficiently to take advantage of his talents.
And Thucydides Says:280
Plutarch repeatedly emphasizes the positive and impressive qualities of Alcibiades:242
The same writer also cites many examples of unattractive behavior, in which Alcibiades is shown responding with unprovoked and arbitrary insolence to those who sought to do him honor. Let us note one of these incidents:242
Despite his talents and many attractive features some incidents appear even in his very early life that suggest instability, a disregard for accepted rules or commitments and a reckless tendency to seize arbitrarily what may appeal to him at the moment. Plutarch tells us:242
On another occasion it is reported that Alcibiades with other boys was playing with dice in the street. A loaded cart which had been approaching drew near just as it was his turn to throw. To quote again from Plutarch:242
Alcibiades, one of the most prominent figures in Athens, an extremely influential leader with important successes to his credit, became the chief advocate for the memorable expedition against Sicily. He entered enthusiastically into this venture urging it upon the Athenians partly from policy, it seems, and partly from his private ambition. Though this expedition resulted in catastrophe and played a major role in the end of Athenian power and glory, many have felt that if Alcibiades had been left in Sicily in his position of command he might have led the great armada to victory. If so, this might well have insured for Athens indefinitely the supreme power of the ancient world. The brilliant ability often demonstrated by Alcibiades lends credence to such an opinion. On the other hand, his inconsistency and capriciousness make it difficult, indeed, to feel confident that his presence would necessarily have brought success to the Athenian cause. The magnitude of its failure has recently drawn this comment from Peter Green in Armada From Athens:100
If Athens had succeeded in the expedition against Syracuse the history of Greece and perhaps even the history of all Europe might have been substantially different.
Shortly before the great Athenian fleet and army sailed on the Sicilian expedition an incident occurred that has never been satisfactorily explained. Now when Athens was staking her future on a monumental and dangerous venture there was imperative need for solidarity of opinion and for confidence in the three leaders to whom so much had been entrusted. At this tense and exquisitely inopportune time the sacred statues of Hermes throughout the city were mutilated in a wholesale desecration.
This unprovoked act of folly and outrage disturbed the entire populace and aroused superstitious qualms and fears that support of the gods would be withdrawn at a time of crucial need. Alcibiades was strongly suspected of the senseless sacrilege. Though proof was not established that he had committed this deed which demoralized the Athenians, the possibility that Alcibiades, their brilliant leader, might be guilty of such an idle and irresponsible outrage shook profoundly the confidence of the expeditionary force and of the government. Many who knew him apparently felt that such an act might have been carried out by Alcibiades impulsively and without any adequate reason but merely as an idle gesture of bravado, a prank that might demonstrate what he could get away with if it should suit his fancy. Definite evidence emerged at this time to show that he had been profaning the Eleusinian mysteries by imitating them or caricaturing them for the amusement of his friends. This no doubt strengthened suspicion against him as having played a part in mutilating the sacred statues.
On a number of other occasions his bad judgment and his self-centered whims played a major role in bringing disasters upon Athens and upon himself. Though this brilliant leader often appeared as a zealous and incorruptible patriot, numerous incidents strongly indicate that at other times he put self-interest first and that sometimes even the feeble lure of some minor objective or the mere prompting of caprice caused him to ignore the welfare and safety of his native land and to abandon lightly all standards of loyalty and honor.
No substantial evidence has ever emerged to indicate that Alcibiades was guilty of the sacrilegious mutilation of the statues. He asked for an immediate trial, but it was decided not to delay the sailing of the fleet for this. After he reached Syracuse, Alcibiades was summoned to return to Athens to face these charges. On the way back he deserted the Athenian cause, escaped to Sparta, and joined the enemy to fight against his native city.
It has been argued that Alcibiades could not have been guilty of the mutilation since, as a leader of the expedition and its chief advocate, he would have so much to lose by a senseless and impious act that might jeopardize its success. On the other hand his career shows many incidents of unprovoked and, potentially, self-damaging folly carried out more or less as a whim, perhaps in defiance of authority, or as an arrogant gesture to show his immunity to ordinary rules or restrictions. It sometimes looked as though the very danger of a useless and uninviting deed might, in itself, tempt him to flaunt a cavalier defiance of rules that bind other men. If Alcibiades did play a part in this piece of egregious folly it greatly augments his resemblance to the patients described in this book. Indeed it is difficult to see how anyone but a psychopath might, in his position, participate in such an act.
In Sparta Alcibiades made many changes to identify himself with the ways and styles of the enemy. In Athens he had been notable for his fine raiment and for worldly splendor and extravagance. On these characteristics Plutarch comments thus:242
In contrast to his appearance and his habits in the old environment we find this comment by Plutarch on Alcibiades after he had deserted the Athenian cause and come to live in Sparta and throw all his brilliant talents into the war against his native land: 242
At Sparta Alcibiades seemed to strive in every way to help the enemy defeat and destroy Athens. He induced them to send military aid promptly to the Syracusans and also aroused them to renew the war directly against Athens. He made them aware of the great importance of fortifying Decelea, a place very near Athens, from which she was extremely vulnerable to attack. The Spartans followed his counsel in these matters and, by taking the steps he advised, wrought serious damage to the Athenian cause. The vindictive and persistent efforts of this brilliant traitor may have played a substantial part in the eventual downfall of Athens. Even before he left Sicily for Sparta Alcibiades had begun to work against his native land in taking steps to prevent Messina from falling into the hands of the Athenians.
It became increasingly unpleasant for Alcibiades in Sparta despite his great successes and the admiration he still evoked in many. Plutarch say:242
Alcibiades, however, learned of this, and fled to Asia Minor for security with the satrap of the king of Persia, Tisaphernes. Here he found security and again displayed his great abilities and his extraordinary charm. According to Plutarch:242
It is not remarkable to learn that Alcibiades left the service of the Persians. It does seem to me remarkable, however, after his long exile from Athens, his allegiance to her enemies and the grievous damage he had done her, that he was enthusiastically welcomed back to Athens, that he again led Athenian forces to brilliant victories, and that he was, indeed, given supreme command of the Athenian military and naval forces. His welcome back to Athens was enthusiastic. According to Plutarch, 242 "The people crowned him with crowns of gold, and created him general, both by land and by sea." He is described as "coming home from so long an exile, and such variety of misfortune, in the style of revelers breaking up from a drinking party." Despite this, many of the Athenians did not fully trust him, and apparently without due cause, this time, he was dismissed from his high position of command. He later retired to Asia Minor where he was murdered at 46 years of age, according to some reports for "having debauched a young lady of a noble house."
Despite the widespread admiration that Alcibiades could so easily arouse, skeptical comments were made about him even before his chief failures occurred. According to Plutarch, "It was not said amiss by Archestratus, that Greece could not support a second Alcidiabes." Plutarch also quotes Tinton as saying, "Go on boldly, my son, and increase in credit with the people, for thou wilt one day bring them calamities enough." Of the Athenians attitude toward Alcibiades, Aristophanes wrote: "They love and hate and cannot do without him."242
The character of Alcibiades looms in the early dawn of history as an enigmatic paradox. He undoubtedly disconcerted and puzzled his contemporaries, and his conduct seems to have brought upon him widely differing judgments. During the many centuries since his death historians have seemed fascinated by his career but never quite able to interpret his personality. Brilliant and persuasive, he was able to succeed in anything he wished to accomplish. After spectacular achievement he often seemed, carelessly or almost deliberately, to throw away all that he had gained, through foolish decisions or unworthy conduct for which adequate motivation cannot be demonstrated and, indeed, can scarcely be imagined. Senseless pranks or mere nose-thumbing gestures of derision seemed at times to draw him from serious responsibilities and cause him to abandon major goals as well as the commitments of loyalty and honor. Apparently his brilliance, charm, and promise captivated Socrates, generally held to be the greatest teacher and the wisest man of antiquity. Though Alcibiades is reported to have been the favorite disciple and most cherished friend of the master it can hardly be said that Socrates succeeded in teaching him to apply even ordinary wisdom consistently in the conduct of his life or to avoid follies that would have been shunned even by the stupid.
When we look back upon what has been recorded of Alcibiades we are led to suspect that he had the gift of every talent except that of using them consistently to achieve any sensible aim or in behalf of any discernible cause. Though it would hardly be convincing to claim that we can establish a medical diagnosis, or a full psychiatric explanation, of this public figure who lived almost two and a half thousand years ago, there are many points in the incomplete records of his life available to us that strongly suggest Alcibiades may have been a spectacular example of what during recent decades we have, in bewilderment and amazement, come to designate as the psychopath.
During this brief period Greece, and Athens especially, produced architecture, sculpture, drama, and poetry that have seldom if ever been surpassed. Perhaps Greece also produced in Alcibiades the most impressive and brilliant, the most truly classic example of this still inexplicable pattern of human life.
Cleckley, Hervey Milton, 1903-1984
Scanned facsimile produced for non-profit educational use by Quantum Future Group, Inc.