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Self-Knowledge: Melancholy


Are Intelligent People More Melancholic?

Early on in the history of melancholy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was said to have raised a question which it’s hard to answer without sounding self-serving – or smug: ‘Why is it that so many of those who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts have been melancholic?’ As evidence, Aristotle cited Plato, Socrates, Hercules and Ajax. The association stuck: in the Medieval period, melancholic people were said to have been born ‘under the sign of Saturn,’ the then furthest known planet from the earth, associated with cold, shadow and death – but also with the power to inspire extraordinary feats of understanding and imagination. There developed a pride and glamour in being melancholic, it came to seem like a sign that one could discern things that the more cheerful and robust would miss. A sunny mood might be more pleasant, but it was also liable to be founded on illusion and denial: the melancholic were sad because they knew and had the courage to hold on to the tragedy of their insights.

To buttress their identities as ambassadors of sadness, young English aristocrats commissioned portraits of themselves in melancholy poses, wearing melancholy’s characteristic colour – black – and gazing forlornly into the middle distance, sighing at an imperfection and loneliness they were brave enough not to overlook.

Isaac Oliver, Edward Herbert, First Baron Herbert of Cherbury, 1610 

Nicholas  Hilliard – The Young Man among Roses, 1587

In 1513, Albrecht Dürer depicted the figure of Melancholy as a dejected and very clever angel, surrounded by a range of neglected scientific and mathematical instruments. To one side of the angel, he placed a polyhedron, one of the most complicated but technically perfect of geometric forms. The angel had fallen into dejection – the suggestion ran – at the contrast between an intelligent and elevated longing for rationality, precision, beauty and order – and the actual conditions of a world mired in squalor and illogicality.

              Albrecht Dürer, Melancholy, 1514

If we are to take Aristotle’s question seriously, what is it that intelligent melancholy people might notice that other, lesser minds may miss? What do we stand to realise when our minds are above-averagely prone to gloom and despondency? How insincere most social occasions are; the gap between what others say and what they mean; the bluster and deceit within the promises of politicians and corporations; the ultimate futility of all efforts to become famous or well thought of; the loneliness that dogs us even within the most intimate relationships; the disappointments of parenting; the compromises of friendship; the ugliness of cities and the brevity of our own lives. 

But it would be too simple to say that dark insights alone can make a person clever – or that harbouring any vestige of hope condemns one to idiocy. In so far as we can fairly associate melancholy with intelligence, it is because the melancholy person skirts two characteristic errors of weaker minds: rage on the one hand, naivety on the other. Like many an angry person, the melancholy soul knows that things are not as they should be but at the same time, they resist the temptation to respond to provocations with fury or vindictiveness. They can seek justice, but they are all the while steadied by a ballast of realism. They will not suddenly be surprised by events and lash back at them with viciousness, they have known the broad dimensions of reality from the outset. Their melancholy renders them something far more beneficial than upset or outraged: it gifts them a power to be effective.

At the same time, melancholy positions a person ideally in relation to hope. They do not, like the naive, place their faith in grand schemes for flawless lives. They don’t play the lottery of romantic love or of professional success. They know the odds they would be beating with even a half-way tolerable relationship and an only sometimes-maddening job. But this doesn’t have to mean that they can never smile or appreciate what is beautiful or tender. Arguably, it’s their awareness of a fundamental and ultimately victorious darkness that lends them the energy to pay particular attention to the brighter moments that will at points streak across a pitchblack firmament. They can be intensely grateful and sometimes giddily joyful because they know grief so well – not because they have never suffered at all. They can be very keen to dance (badly) and to make a great deal out of a sunny day or a perfect piece of fruit. A child will laugh because something is funny; a melancholy adult will laugh with greater depth still because they know that so many things are not.

Being disappointed isn’t any sort of intellectual achievement; and nor is being merry. The real feat of character is to keep one’s fury in check even though one is sad and maintain hope even though so much is self-evidently wretched. In so far as the melancholy person can lay claim to any form of superior intelligence, it isn’t because they have read a lot of books or dress fetchingly in black, it’s because they have succeeded at finding the best possible kind of accommodation between the infinite disappointments and occasional wonders of life.

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