A Source Book in Greek Science

Author: Aristotle


Aberrations of the Senses

Aristotle, On Dreams 2. Translation of J. I. Beare

We are easily deceived respecting the operations of sense-perception when we are excited by emotions, and different persons according to their different emotions; for example, the coward when excited by fear, the amorous person by amorous desire; so that, with but little resemblance to go upon, the former thinks he sees his foes approaching, the latter, that he sees the object of his desire; and the more deeply one is under the influence of the emotion, the less similarity is required to give rise to these illusory impressions. Thus too, both in fits of anger, and also in all states of appetite, all men become easily deceived, and more so the more their emotions are excited. This is the reason too why persons in the delirium of fever sometimes think they see animals on their chamber walls, an illusion arising from the faint resemblance to animals of the markings thereon when put together in patterns; and this sometimes corresponds with the emotional states of the sufferers, in such a way that, if the latter be not very ill, they know well enough that it is an illusion; but if the illness is more severe they actually move according to the appearances. The cause of these occurrences is that the faculty in virtue of which the controlling sense judges is not identical with that in virtue of which presentations come before the mind. A proof of this is that the sun presents itself as only a foot in diameter, though often something else gainsays the presentation.1 Again, when the fingers are crossed, the one object [placed between them] is felt [by the touch] as two;2 but yet we deny that it is two; for sight is more authoritative than touch. Yet, if touch stood alone, we should actually have pronounced the one object to be two. The ground of such false judgments is that any appearances whatever present themselves, not only when its object stimulates a sense, but also when the sense by itself alone is stimulated, provided only it be stimulated in the same manner as it is by the object.


Plato, Timaeus 86 B–87 A. Translation of R. G. Bury

Such is the manner in which diseases of the body come about; and those of the soul which are due to the condition of the body arise in the following way. We must agree that folly is a disease of the soul; and of folly there are two kinds, the one of which is madness, the other ignorance. Whatever affection a man suffers from, if it involves either of these conditions it must be termed "disease"; and we must maintain that pleasures and pains in excess are the greatest of the soul’s diseases. For when a man is overjoyed or contrariwise suffering excessively from pain, being in haste to seize on the one and avoid the other beyond measure, he is unable either to see or to hear anything correctly, and he is at such a time distraught and wholly incapable of exercising reason. . . . And again, in respect of pains likewise the soul acquires much evil because of the body.

For whenever the humours which arise from acid and saline phlegms, and all humours that are bitter and bilious wander through the body and find no external vent but are confined within, and mingle their vapour with the movement of the soul and are blended therewith, they implant diseases of the soul of all kinds, varying in intensity and in extent; and as these humours penetrate to the three regions of the soul,4 according to the region which they severally attack, they give rise to all varieties of bad temper and bad spirits, and they give rise to all manner of rashness and cowardice, and of forgetfulness also, as well as of stupidity.1

Aretaeus, On the Causes and Symptoms of Chronic Diseases I.5. Translation of Francis Adams


But if it [black bile] be determined upwards to the stomach and diaphragm, it forms melancholy;2 for it produced flatulence and eructations of a fetid and fishy nature, and it sends rumbling wind downwards, and disturbs the understanding. On this account, in former days, they were called melancholics and flatulent persons. And yet, in certain of these cases there is neither flatulence nor black bile, but mere anger and grief, and sad dejection of mind. . . .

It is a lowness of spirits from a single phantasy, without fever; and it appears to me that melancholy is the commencement and a part of mania. For in those who are mad, the understanding is turned sometimes to anger and sometimes to joy, but in the melancholics to sorrow and despondency only. But they who are mad are so for the greater part of life, becoming silly, and doing dreadful and disgraceful things; but those affected with melancholy are not every one of them affected according to one particular form; but they are either suspicious of poisoning, or flee to the desert from misanthropy, or turn superstitious, or contract a hatred of life. Or if at any time a relaxation takes place, in most cases hilarity supervenes, but these persons go mad. . . .

But if it also affects the head from sympathy, and the abnormal irritability of temper change to laughter and joy for the greater part of their life, these become mad rather from the increase of the disease than from change of the affection.

Dryness is the cause of both. Adult men, therefore, are subject to mania and melancholy, or persons of less age than adults. Women are worse affected with mania than men. As to age, towards manhood, and those actually in the prime of life. The seasons of summer and of autumn engender, and spring brings it to a crisis.

The characteristic appearances, then, are not obscure; for the patients are dull or stern, dejected or unreasonably torpid, without any manifest cause: such is the commencement of melancholy. And they also become peevish, dispirited, sleepless, and start up from a disturbed sleep.

Unreasonable fear also seizes them, if the disease tend to increase, when their dreams are true, terrifying, and clear: for whatever, when awake, they have an aversion to, as being an evil, rushes upon their visions in sleep. They are prone to change their mind readily; to become base, mean-spirited, illiberal, and in a little time, perhaps, simple, extravagant, munificent, not from any virtue of the soul, but from the changeableness of the disease. But if the illness become more urgent, hatred, avoidance of the haunts of men, vain lamentations; they complain of life, and desire to die. In many, the understanding so leads to insensibility and fatuousness, that they become ignorant of all things, or forgetful of themselves, and live the life of the inferior animals. The habit of the body also becomes perverted. . . . Therefore the bowels are dried up, and discharge nothing; or, if they do, the dejections are dried, round, with a black and bilious fluid, in which they float; urine scanty, acrid, tinged with bile. They are flatulent about the hypochondriac region; the eructations fetid, virulent, like brine from salt; and sometimes an acrid fluid, mixed with bile, floats in the stomach. Pulse for the most part small, torpid, feeble, dense, like that from cold.

A story is told, that a certain person, incurably affected, fell in love with a girl; and when the physicians could bring him no relief, love cured him. But I think that he was originally in love, and that he was dejected and spiritless from being unsuccessful with the girl, and appeared to the common people to be melancholic.1 He then did not know that it was love; but when he imparted the love to the girl, he ceased from his dejection, and dispelled his passion and sorrow; and with joy he awoke from his lowness of spirits, and he became restored to understanding, love being his physician.

1 The Epicureans, it will be recalled, maintained that the sun and moon were actually about a foot in diameter. [Edd.]

2 This experiment of crossing the fingers is often referred to by Aristotle. [Edd.]

3 Numerous passages in biological, medical, philosophical, and purely literary works illustrate this topic, and in this connection we may note references to the effect of age on character (e.g., Aristotle, Rhetoric II. 12–14), the effect of drugs on the mind (e.g., Theophrastus, History of Plants IX. 19), and the effect of music (Plato Republic 398–400, Aristotle, Politics VIII. 7, Theophrastus, Fragments 87, 88). [Edd.]

4 I.e., the brain, the heart, and the liver, which are the centers, respectively, of the rational, "spirited," and appetitive aspects of soul. [Edd.]

1 The connection here alluded to between the humors and psychological states has persisted in language and in folklore, as when we speak of sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, and choleric types. There is a classic discussion of the melancholic type in [Aristotle], Problemata XXX. 1. [Edd.]

2 Cf. pp. 488–490. [Edd.]

1 Lovesickness is found to be the cause of insomnia in a case described by Galen, XIV. 631 (Kühn). The quickening of the pulse at the mention of the name of the beloved gives the clue. [Edd.]


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Chicago: Aristotle, "Melancholy," A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. Francis Adams in A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 555–558. Original Sources, accessed February 25, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8DLRNBPE6VSANYK.

MLA: Aristotle. "Melancholy." A Source Book in Greek Science, translted by Francis Adams, Vol. I, in A Source Book in Greek Science, edited by Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 555–558. Original Sources. 25 Feb. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8DLRNBPE6VSANYK.

Harvard: Aristotle, 'Melancholy' in A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. . cited in 1948, A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.555–558. Original Sources, retrieved 25 February 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8DLRNBPE6VSANYK.