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Knoff, W.F. (1975). Depression: A Historical overview. Am. J. Psychoanal., 35(1):41-46.

(1975). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 35(1):41-46

Depression: A Historical overview

William F. Knoff, M.D.

Depression is a ubiquitous human experience. In recent years, much psychiatric interest has been focused on it. Long ago, Aristotle commented on the prevalence of melancholia. Curiously, however, we know more about the history of hysteria than we do about the history of depression.1 Some lack of historical interest may be due to the fact that depression — the term was introduced into American nosology by Adolf Meyer — is commonplace. Depressive communications lack the sign-using, symbolic elements of hysteria and the strange poetry of schizophrenia. In fact, as Gaylin has noted, the symptoms of depression tend to be “nonsymptoms”: passivity, inactivity, resignation, and despair.2 But these may disguise other more active motivations described by Bonime: manipulativeness, aversion to influence, unwillingness to give gratification, hostility, and anxiety.3 The depressed person acts not only like a grieving person but like a person aggrieved. Complaining of both loss and lack, he seems to live the negative of life, the inverse of happiness. Our pursuit of the history of depression will show that the phenomena of depression have been expressed in multiple idioms - magical, physical, psychological, social, and ethical - creating ambiguities which remain unresolved today.

The history of depression in the Western world is the history of melancholia. Zilboorg noted: “The only authentic manifestations … of human ills by which Hippocrates might have been guided at the beginning of his career were probably … the complaints which had been written on the walls of Aesculapian temples. His earliest writings… were apparently compilations of such complaints, and among these are … the earliest symptoms of depression….”4

The history of depression requires that we consult ancient and modern authors. Actually, the first behavioral scientists were epic poets, like Homer, theologians like the Old Testament authors, playwrights, jurists, and philosophers. An appropriate introduction to the history of depression can be found among nonmedical authors. A good place to start is with the Old Testament.

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