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Thrift, I.E. (1926). Religion and Madness (the Case of William Cowper). Psychoanal. Rev., 13(3):312-317.

(1926). Psychoanalytic Review, 13(3):312-317

Religion and Madness (the Case of William Cowper)

Inez Esther Thrift

In the Narrative of the Life of William Cowper, Esq., Written by Himself, we have a strange human document; its author was still suffering from an attack of madness. But for its piercing eloquence it might be a case study from a modern journal of abnormal psychology—The Case of William Cowper, Written by Himself.

No one would wish to subject Cowper to the ordeals of a postmortem psychoanalysis; nothing is further from my mind. His soul was tormented enough in life; may it rest forever in peace. But it is difficult to pass him by without some slight inquiry into his “malady” from the standpoint of modern theories. The relation of religion to his madness is particularly interesting, the more so since his biographers have disagreed concerning it.

Confusing and conflicting reasons have been given for Cowper's mental derangement. It has been attributed to inheritance, although I have been unable to find any ground for this assertion; religion has been called both the cause and the result of his madness, as well as the “sole alleviation” of his distressed mind. It seems to me that none of these is the solution. Religion was neither the cause nor the result of his madness. The cause was a series of events which, combined, served to unbalance a nature of unusually delicate equilibrium, but one which under different circumstances might have retained sufficient sanity to pass unremarked to the end. Nor was his religion the result of his madness. It was, because of certain other circumstances, the particular form which his derangement assumed. As to religion being his sole alleviation, we have his own words concerning that. He names several alleviations, but religion is not among them.

The events which had such a profound influence on Cowper's life were three: the death of his mother, his attendance at boarding school immediately thereafter, and the failure of his first love affair. No one of these in itself is an event to cause mental disorder; even their combined effects could be borne by a normal person.

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