Skip over navigation

Madness and Civilization

Michel Foucault

The Insane

The Great Confinement

The Insane, page 2

page 1 of 2


The age of reason confined all sorts of irregular and abnormal people. In doing so, it created its own profile of the experience of unreason. Confinement was primarily concerned with scandal; it imposed secrecy in order to avoid scandal. A change occurred in the consciousness of evil, from the earlier idea of making evil publicly known to confinement, which was based on shame. All forms of unreason that were close to evil had to be hidden away. But there was an exception to this rule: the public exhibition of madmen. This practice occurred in lunatic hospitals such as Bethlehem in London. Confinement hid away unreason but drew attention to madness in order to organize it. The eighteenth century organized exhibition of madmen was not the same as the situation in the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, madness was public and present everywhere, not exhibited behind bars.

The imagery of animals haunted hospitals of this period. Madmen were similar to beasts, and were treated as such. The animality of madness takes away what is human. In the classical period, the madman was not a sick man. Animality protected the madman from whatever was fragile in man. It made him oblivious to cold, hunger or pain. Madness was not linked to medicine or to correction. The only way to master animality was through discipline and brutalizing. When the madman becomes a beast, in a way he is cured because man himself is abolished. An obsession with animality seen as a natural place of madness created the imagery responsible for confinement. The animal was part of anti-nature, the negativity that endangers the order and reason of nature. Classical practices concerning the insane show that madness was still related to anti-natural animality.

Confinement glorified the animality of madness but tried to avoid the immorality of the unreasonable. If madness was allowed to speak while the rest of unreason was silent, what did it have to say that was so important? At the beginning of the seventeenth century, unreason was no longer so instructive. The great theme of the madness of Jesus began to disappear in the seventeenth century. Christian unreason was marginalized. As Christianity got rid of unreason, the madman became important. The church's concern for madness reveals that it found an important but difficult lesson in it: the guilty innocence of the animal in man.

Madness had a strange relationship with unreason. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only recognized madness against a background of unreason, which was an absolute freedom. Classical rationalism was on guard against the danger of unreason, a threatening space of absolute freedom


Foucault explores the changing relationship between madness and unreason. Irregular and abnormal people were the lazy, wife-beaters, tramps, the work-shy and the mad. Foucault says that that these people were defined as abnormal by their society. They were not inherently odd, but were seen as such by society. Foucault uses the example of these people to show how a split emerged between madness and unreason. Evil unreason, such as those who committed terrible crimes, or pornographers and libertines such as the Marquis de Sade, were hidden away out of shame, and to protect society.

Madness, however, had to be revealed. This was partly to separate it from other forms, but more importantly so that it could be observed. The idea that observation is a form of control and organization is important to Foucault, and is repeated in his later work. The public who paid to see madmen helped to set them in their place, and by being observed the insane could be placed in a particular social space within unreason. An important distinction is drawn between this situation of observation, and the Renaissance experience. Foucault's image of the Renaissance has madness present as a force in society. It was part of everyday experience, not observed in particular situations. Experiencing madness in this way did not involve controlling it.

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!

Follow Us