Philanthropic Mania: Its Diagnosis and Treatment

Philanthropic Mania: Its Diagnosis and Treatment


In spite of the great progress recently made in the pathology of madness, there is one class of mania which has not received the attention it deserves at the hands of medical men in particular and the public in general. Philanthropic mania (for so, in the absence of any specific title, I will venture to designate it) is not only much more common than is usually supposed, but is largely on the increase in the present age; and as the malady is the cause of much suffering and discomfort both to the individuals affected and to the families and societies in which they reside, it is obvious that a determined effort ought to be made to remedy and counteract it.

The symptoms of this deplorable and, as there is reason to fear, contagious malady, are fortunately not difficult to detect. The patient betrays a meddling restlessness, and discontent with the existing order of society; he is haunted by an insane idea that this or that person, or class of persons, is the victim of some old-established grievance which needs abatement or redress; and acting under this hallucination he declares himself the enemy of all kinds of privilege and monopoly, recklessly espousing the cause of the masses against that of the classes, and calling for a system of strict impartial justice without the slightest consideration for the higher interests and more delicate susceptibilities at stake. When a man or woman is observed to be affected in the manner described, a careful watch should be kept by the relatives of the patient; and if the symptoms do not presently pass off, it may be concluded that it is a case of philanthropic mania which must be treated without delay. It has been noticed by those physicians who have specially studied the various phases of this insidious disease, that it is very partial and unequal in its manifestations; men of a thoughtful or emotional temperament being far more liable to attack than those of a contrary nature, while in a similar manner some professions suffer more severely than others. Thus it is found that students, artists, poets, philosophers, and literary men in general are accountable for a large proportion of the ascertained cases of philanthropic mania, while for some reason at present inscrutable, but perhaps hereafter to be discovered by fuller scientific inquiry lawyers, economists, stock-jobbers, statisticians, landlords, country gentlemen, and government officials are happily and conspicuously exempt.

The remedies and course of treatment for cases of philanthropic mania must vary according to the age, character, and constitution of the person affected. If he be a young man, and the disease show itself only in a slight form, it is generally sufficient to trust to the beneficent and recuperative power of nature, which, after a short period of mental aberration, will often bring the disillusioned wanderer back to the fold of comfort and propriety. But if the attack be a sharp one, an attempt should at once be made to draw away the sufferer’s mind from the painful subjects that engross it, and to occupy it in various kinds of social recreations and personal indulgences, giving him at the same time as generous a diet as possible. If the patient is young, a course of wild oats is often found to be a most efficacious remedy, and if, after the acute crisis is over, it be thought desirable to find a convalescent home where the air is bracing and salubrious, the well-known establishment at Vanity Fair may be confidently recommended. In dangerous cases, where the feverishness (often mis-named “enthusiasm”) is virulent and inveterate, it is sometimes necessary to adopt more stringent remedies, both for the sake of insuring the patient’s recovery and in order to protect the interests of those persons or classes to which he may, if unchecked, do some deplorable and irreparable injury. The complete isolation of the sufferer is the first important point; this effected, it will be well to snub and ridicule him as much as possible, with the object of expelling from his mind the perilous conceits with which it is preoccupied. The wet blanket is a valuable auxiliary in this method of treatment; and in desperate cases, when the patient’s sanity is despaired of, there is nothing better than the old-fashioned prescription of a Saturday application of caustic and a quarterly bleeding. But it should be our endeavour not to allow matters to arrive at so serious a state as this, but to arrest the malady in its early stages by tack and delicate handling. Mental alleviations should by no means be overlooked, and there are some books which have been found especially useful in giving a more wholesome direction to the patient’s thoughts and meditations. Among the writings specially worthy of commendation are those of the German pessimists and the political economists, who have done much service in checking which is invaluable in cases where the mania takes a political turn; and such admirable works as Lord Chesterfield’s ‘Letters to his Son,’ Malthus’s ‘Treatise on Population,’ and Giffen’s ‘Tables of Statistics,’ all of which have a cooling and moderating effect when the mischief is caused by a sentimental excitement concerning the sufferings of the poor and the unequal distribution of social comforts.

The antiquity of the malady, to which I have given the name of philanthropic mania, is proved by the fact that St. Paul was discovered by Festus to have a slight touch of it in the year 61 A.D. There have been many other notable victims in succeeding ages down to the present time, when we see sad instances of the malignant energy of the disease in Mr. Ruskin’s demented protest against our nineteenth century civilisation, in the madness of the Socialist propaganda, and in the extraordinary hallucination regarding the right of Ireland to manage its own affairs. But, apart from these salient examples, there is no doubt that many people are suffering in various degrees from the same form of insanity; and it is for their sake, or perhaps I should say for the sake of the polite society whose interests they endanger, that it seems advisable to draw attention to the subject.

H. S. S.

The Commonweal, October 8, 1887, p. 322