Search Menu

Madness and Civilization

Michel Foucault


Important quotations

At the end of the Middle Ages, leprosy disappeared from the Western world. In the margins of the community, at the gates of cities, there stretched wastelands which sickness had ceased to haunt but had left sterile and long uninhabitable.

This quotation comes from the very beginning of Madness and Civilization, and shows an important social and cultural shift in the status of madness. Leprosy played a particular role in European consciousness, and its disappearance is a physical and mental phenomenon. The leper was excluded from "normal" society; and, by excluding him, society defined itself. The abnormal and frightening was excluded, and the healthy and safe was accepted. Leprosy existed in a particular "space" within society. This space was both real and imaginary; buildings were created to house the excluded lepers, but they also existed in a certain cultural space on the edge of the normal community. The "wastelands" that Foucault describes are partly a creation of the mind; they were eventually repopulated by madmen, who replaced the lepers as an excluded class. Madness does not resemble leprosy, but in a way Foucault believes that it occupies the same place in society.

By a strange act of force, the classical age was to reduce to silence the madness whose voice the Renaissance had just liberated, but whose violence it had already tamed.

In Foucault's conception, the classical period represented a major shift in attitudes to madness. It silenced madness by confining it within special buildings, using special techniques of control. When he was confined, the madman was unable to speak, or to be spoken about. In the process of confinement, madness was not only silenced, but also reclassified. It became part of a broader category of social deviance that was defined by a negative attitude to work. When madness was linked to criminal behavior and laziness, it lost the special status it had previously enjoyed. This situation contrasted sharply with Renaissance attitudes to madness. Foucault believes that the Renaissance allowed madness to speak freely, both in everyday life and in the works of writers such as Shakespeare and Cervantes. Renaissance madness was not confined or restricted, but the fear it had previously evoked was neutralized. The measures that ended this situation were "strange," Foucault believes, because they were so varied and so successful.

The possibility of madness is therefore implicit in the very phenomenon of passion.

This quotation reveals Foucault's radical interpretation of seventeenth-century theories of the passions. Traditionally, the passions were seen by writers like Descartes and Hobbes as feelings or movements within the mind that produced a bodily action. Lust, envy, fear and desire were all passions. The passions were usually opposed to reason, and seen as having dangerous effects. Because they began in the mind and ended with a physical action, they represented a way of uniting mind and body. They were also associated with a temporary kind of madness by many ancient writers. Foucault takes this idea one step further by arguing that any phenomenon which links mind and body allows a disease like madness to affect mind and body. In doing so, he relates the passions to another important seventeenth-century concern: the relationship between mind and body. Although this is an interesting idea that links philosophical approaches to the mind with madness and medicine, not all authors who discussed the passions made the same connections as Foucault.

And now, if we try to assign a value, in and of itself, outside its relations to the dream and with error, to classical unreason, we must understand it not as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled.

Unreason is an important presence in Madness and Civilization, but this is the only real definition that of it Foucault offers. Unreason in the classical period is not exactly the opposite of rational thought, but has a complicated relationship to reason. The madman, who is seen as a representative of unreason, is in many ways like a blind man. He sees the same "light" of reason as the sane man, but is confused and dazzled by it. Foucault is clear that unreason is not a disease or deformation of reason, but merely a different attitude towards it. Understanding how this attitude develops, or how reason becomes "dazzled" is no simple matter, as Foucault demonstrates.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, unreason no longer manifests itself except in the lightning flash of works such as those of Hoederlin, of Nerval, of Nietzsche, or of Artaud…

This quotation illustrates a central theme of the work: the idea of madness and art. Confinement in the classical period silences both madness and unreason, so that the only way they can speak is through the work of certain writers. For Foucault, these writers represent the only way to experience or understand unreason in the modern world; unreason is a hidden undercurrent that only breaks through to the surface at certain points. Although the madness of Nietzsche and Artaud has a complex and destructive relationship to their work, their writing offers a rare chance to hear the unreasonable speak. It is the closest the modern world can get to the experience of the Renaissance, when unreason and madness were fully integrated into the world.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!