At the beginning of the 14th century AD, a young poet, soldier and politician was condemned to exile from his beloved home in Florence, Italy. His crime? Fighting for greater freedom from the papal influence of Rome. While in exile, he began to compose an epic poem that is now considered the greatest literary work ever written in the Italian language. He called the poem La Commedia, meaning, The Comedy. A later Italian poet gave the poem another label, Divina, meaning Divine. This masterpiece of world literature can now be found under the title, La Divina Commedia, or, The Divine Comedy.
The author of this epic poem, a man who is now considered to be the father of the Italian language, was none other than Durante degli Alighieri, or simply, Dante. An aspiring politician, Dante enrolled in the Physicians’ and Apothecaries’ guild. He did not intend to practice pharmacy, but nobles who aspired to public office were required to join a commercial or artisan guild, and young Dante chose the medical guild. Perhaps not coincidentally, apothecary shops at the time also served as bookstores.
Why then, as a former apothecary, would Dante place certain alchemists in the tenth gulf of hell in his 29th Canto of the Inferno? The alchemists that Dante depicted as tormented and stricken with scabs and leprosy were among the charlatans and falsifiers of metals. In other words, Dante’s profession in the apothecary shop enjoyed a certain honor and prestige which contrasted sharply with the work of pseudo-scientific alchemists who were often known to be thieves and liars.
Both apothecaries and the practice of alchemy can be traced back to ancient Babylon and Egypt. Practitioners of alchemy often sought for power and wealth through the creation of a philosopher’s stone, the ability to transmutate (see chrysopoeia) base metals into noble metals, and the concoction of an elixir of life to provide sustained youth. Not all alchemists were motivated by power and gain, but it appears as though some of them had failed to learn from the lessons of King Midas in Greek Mythology, who, according to Aristotle, died of starvation as a result of his vain prayer for the golden touch. By Dante’s time, Griffolino d’Arezzo had been condemned as a fraud and falsifier of metals, guilty of the sin of alchemy: “Ma nell ‘ultima bolgia de le diece / me per l’alchìmia che nel mondo usai / dannò Minòs, a cui fallar non lece.” (“But unto the last Bolgia of the ten, / For alchemy, which in the world I practised, / Minos, who cannot err, has me condemned.”)
Alchemy and the work of apothecaries may also be considered as the proto-sciences or precursors to modern chemistry and medicine. In the early 16th century, an eccentric physician, alchemist and occultist named Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. Paracelsus was highly critical of scholastic methods in medicine and in other fields, favoring empirical methods and the observation of nature above reverence for ancient texts. Paracelsus is credited for founding the discipline of toxicology and for coining the word “alcohol” (a substance that he imbibed quite frequently). Paracelsus wrote that, “Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.” (Holmyard, Eric John. Alchemy. p. 170.) He was a controversial figure in the history of medicine whose speaking style was notoriously bombastic: “I am Theophrastus, and greater than those to whom you liken me; I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum and I can prove to you what you cannot prove…I need not don a coat of mail or a buckler against you, for you are not learned or experienced enough to refute even a word of mine…As for you, you can defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last?…Let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.” (Paracelsus, Selected Writings, ed. with an introduction by Jolande Jacobi, trans. Norbert Guterman, (New York: Pantheon, 1951), p. 79-80) Many centuries later, the father of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, latched onto the writings of Paracelsus and studied them intensely. The influence of Paracelsus on Jung, and the influence of Jung on modern psychiatry can hardly be understated.
Interestingly, Dr. Faust’s character in Goethe’s Faust can been traced back to Paracelsus. According to German legend, Faust was a dissatisfied scholar who made a pact with the devil to give his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Like Paracelsus, Faust was on a quest to discover the true essence of life, and through alchemical processes was able to convert base metal into gold. This was a sad bargain for Dr. Faust, a bargain like that of Simon Magus that could not pay, especially in light of Jesus Christ’s teaching: “For whosoever will save his life, must be willing to lose it for my sake; and whosoever will be willing to lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and yet he receive him not whom God hath ordained, and he lose his own soul, and he himself be a castaway?” (JST, Luke 9:24-25)
By the end of the 19th century, however, chemistry had gradually replaced alchemy and the pharmacy had already begun to replace the apothecary. But the modern versions of alchemy and the apothecary have proven to be no less dangerous and no less worthy of condemnation than Dante’s sinners or the foolish desires of Dr. Faust. In fact, one might be surprised to learn that the root of the word pharmacy comes from the Greek work pharmakeia, meaning the “use of drugs, medicines, potions, or spells; poisoning, witchcraft; remedy, cure.” In other words, one possible meaning of the word pharmacist is “a poisoner.” (see also pharmakos)
In his recent book Cracked, the Unhappy Truth about Psychiatry, author and psychiatrist James Davies exposes many of the nefarious secrets of modern psychiatry and the modern pharmaceutical industry. The interviews and the data that Davies has painstakingly collected and analyzed demonstrate that the current state of psychiatry is worse than King Midas, the alchemists, Dr. Faust and Simon Magus rolled up in one. One could argue that the preceding statement was hyperbolic, were it not for the fact that the pharmaceutical industry rakes in an inconceivably large amount of money at the expense of patients’ health, and often at the expense of patients’ lives.
With unrelenting effort and piercing precision, Davies reveals the early breakdown of psychiatry and the history behind the rise of the DSM, or The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Davies demonstrates that this manual of more than 800 pages is not only a work of fiction, but one that has helped the APA to accrue a hefty sum (the DSM-IV already pulls in a whopping $5 million per year). Davies reveals how psychiatry has succeeded in medicalizing misery, pushing placebo pills, and marketing both illness and toxic “remedies” to an unsuspecting public. Behind all the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry is the ever mighty dollar, and behind that mighty dollar is a myth so intricate that one can only begin to fathom it after reading Davies’ book. Not only this, but there is an intense effort to propagate this myth globally in an attempt to medicate the entire world. (Psychologist Dr. Timothy Scott has also written extensively on the truth about psychiatry, anti-depressants, and antipsychotics in books such as America Fooled.)
Keep in mind that the author of this book is himself a psychiatrist. Like Dante (who was an apothecary) depicting the alchemists in a leprous torment in hell, Davies exposes the treachery of a multi-billion dollar industry, and the rapidly spreading effects of that treachery upon millions of innocent people, some of whom have aptly named themselves “survivors“. Davies has both sickening science and staggering statistics to report. For example, in 2011 alone 254 million prescriptions of antidepressants were dispensed to the American public (p. x) These mind-altering substances have not only failed to produce any concrete results toward curing or improving the health of patients, but in some cases they have led to impairment and death. Some have sought to defend the peddling of drugs through a system of “Evidence-based medicine.” One caution that Davies raises is to thoroughly research the “evidence” that is being put forth, considering that much “evidence” is sponsored and promulgated by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in the sales of their products.
Of course, there are many good people, such as Davies, who are working in the field of psychiatry, who care deeply about helping their patients. One psychiatrist that Davies interviewed, Dr. Peter Breggin, emphasized the importance of considering contextual solutions before chemical intervention: “People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshaft. They are a signal of a severe family issue. And sometimes the one who is breaking down is being scapegoated; sometimes they are the most sensitive, creative member of the family, or sometimes they are the one person in the family with a really different personality.” (p.226) This sad pattern is a reflection of the practice of pharmakós in Ancient Greece, or in other words, the ritualistic sacrifice or exile by the sorcerers of a human scapegoat or victim. By this ritual, a slave, a cripple or a criminal was chosen by the pharmakon, or sorcerer, and “expelled from the community at times of disaster (famine, invasion or plague) or at times of calendrical crisis, after being given pharmakeus or drugs by the pharmakon or sorcerer who was a practitioner of pharmakeia or pharmaceutics. It was believed that this would bring about purification.” This may sound like an outdated pagan practice of a bygone era, a reminder of Dante’s exile, but what James Davies’ research reveals is that this practice has found a new and opprobrious expression in our modern society. Recall that the man who reluctantly sold poison to the young Romeo in Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet was an apothecary, and the man whose name has become a byword for treason or betrayal in America, Benedict Arnold, was also an apothecary. In other words, think twice before you casually accept a “professional” diagnosis along with a powerful, mind-altering prescription drug. Take caution not to become the human scapegoat of the modern pharmaceutical industry. If you or someone you know and love is currently taking anti-depressants or another type of pharmaceutical, consider well the research in this book. If you find yourself working in some arena of psychiatry or in health care, take caution not to become like the greedy Midas of ancient Greece or the falsifiers of metals in Dante’s Inferno. Furthermore, avoid like the plague anything that would lead you to the devil’s bargain of Dr. Faust or the priestcraft of Simon Magus. For what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?
Davies issues a final warning at the end of his book for those who are currently taking pharmaceuticals or those who know someone who is taking them: “While most psychiatric drugs have harmful side effects, they also can have powerful withdrawal effects. Therefore, any precipitous or sudden withdrawal is always dangerous. It is therefore crucial that anyone deciding to withdraw from any kind of psychiatric medication do so under the supervision of an experienced physician who is, of course, well-informed and thus able to respect fully any patient’s desire to explore non-medication alternatives.” (p. 249)