Thomas Szasz Born 100 Years Ago Today

Thomas Szasz, the great Hungarian-American champion of freedom, was born 100 years ago today. Tom was one of the great heroes of liberty of the modern era. Scholar Sheldon Richman aptly labeled Szasz “the most underappreciated libertarian.” His work had severed the chains on vast numbers of people wrongfully incarcerated because officialdom did not approve of their views or (peaceful) behavior. His most famous book is The Myth of Mental Illness. In the 50 years after its publication in 1961, Szasz battered the quacks and the bureaucrats and the politicians courageously season in and season out, without a pause.  As he noted in the preface to the 50th anniversary edition, “Formerly, when Church and State were allied, people accepted theological justifications for state-sanctioned coercion. Today, when Medicine and the State are allied, people accept therapeutic justifications for state-sanctioned coercion. This is how, some two hundred years ago, psychiatry became an arm of the coercive apparatus of the state. And this is why today all of medicine threatens to become transformed from personal therapy into political tyranny.”

He was not daunted by the fierce opposition by the psychiatry profession.  As I commented in a letter to him on his 85th birthday, “As the ancient Romans said, one eagle can put to rout 10,000 sparrows. There was no welcoming wind for your heresies and yet you have been hammering them home since before I was knee high to a grasshopper.”

Tom was one libertarian who did not cast half his principles overboard after 9/11.  I had the chance to get to know him while on the Szasz Civil Liberties Award Committee.  (Ron Paul won that award in 2002 thanks in part to his heroic opposition to the pending Iraq War as well as his path-breaking opposition to the drug war.) Tom saw through a lot of hokum that other people missed.  He had a rare decency that should not be forgotten.

Though Szasz was a native Hungarian, his English was more graceful than the writing of at least 99% of Ivy League English professors.  He wrote punchier, more penetrating epigrams than almost anyone else out there commenting on modern life. As I commented in that letter on his 85th birthday, “All the effort you have put into carving your thought into epigrams and aphorisms should help your ideas thrive for many many more years.” Here are some of my favorite Szasz lines:

*People dream of making the virtuous powerful, so they can depend on them. Since they cannot do that, people choose to make the powerful virtuous, glorifying in becoming victimized by them.

*Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.

*The self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.

*The greatest analgesic, soporific, stimulant, tranquilizer, narcotic, and to some extent even antibiotic –in short, the closest thing to a genuine panacea –known to medical science is work

*In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.

*Men often treat others worse than they treat themselves, but they rarely treat anyone better. It is the height of folly to expect consideration and decency from a person who mistreats himself.

*The stupid neither forgive or forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.

*Punishment is now unfashionable… because it creates moral distinctions among men, which, to the democratic mind, are odious. We prefer a meaningless collective guilt to a meaningful individual responsibility.

Here is a link to more great Szasz quotes.

FWIW, here’s a caustic piece I wrote in 1986 that paralleled Szasz’s line of criticism of psychiatry.

Pure Madness from Psychiatrists, Detroit News, June 5, 1986

by James Bovard

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recently met in Washington, D.C., to concoct some new mental illnesses. The meeting was a big success – there was a booming market for freshly brewed psychoses. But If the APA succeeds in adding millions more to the legions of officially crazy, it could be bad news for all Americans.

The first of 1986’s new “mental illness” is “premenstrual dysphoric disorder.” The APA says symptoms of this “mental illness” include “irritability,” “marked fatigue,” and “negative evaluation of self.” According to the APA’s definition, a third of all women go crazy once a month.

The second newly ordained mental illness is “self-defeating personality type,” previously known as common or garden-variety masochism. The symptoms for this grade disorder include, “complaints, directly or indirectly, about being unappreciated,” “repeatedly turns down opportunities for pleasure,” and “remains in relationships in which others… take advantage of him or her.” Bring on the Valium!

The third “discovery” is a humdinger – guaranteed to raise the APA’s popularity with trial lawyers.

The APA has tentatively decided that anyone who persistently fantasizes about or actively forces a non-consenting person to have sex suffers from “paraphilic rapism.” In other words, a person would have to be nuts to rape somebody. As one protester at the APA’s meeting declared, “Sexual assault is a crime – not a mental disorder.” The Committee of Women of the APA said the new category would “provide an instant insanity plea for anyone charged with rape.”

The redefinition of rape epitomizes psychiatry’s view of crime: no one is responsible for anything and psychiatrists should have supervision over everything. The big hero at the APA’s convention was Jack Hinckley, father of John Hinckley, who announced he was launching a campaign to increase public support for psychiatry. (His son was seeing a psychiatrist before he shot President Reagan, but APA members would rather not talk about that.) The psychiatrist introducing Hinckley, Sr., spoke movingly about the “tragedy that struck the Hinckley family” – with no thought of a nation that was almost robbed of its elected leader.

The APA’s new mental illnesses will provide shrinks with lucrative new court “expert witness” opportunities. One woman already successfully used premenstrual syndrome as an “insanity” defense for murdering her husband, and PMS is now being used as a defense in child abuse cases. This is progress?

Many psychiatrists seem to view the human mind largely as a means to pad their pockets. Though doctors decided more than a hundred years ago that bleeding per se was not good for the human body, psychiatrists still seem to feel that financially bleeding a patient is good for his mind.

If shrinks only cleaned out people’s wallets, then they would be no more harmful than your average politician. But psychiatrists nowadays routinely rely on mind-numbering drugs and mind-shattering electric shock treatments. Some mental patients are developing Parkinson’s disease symptoms as a result of years of heavy medication. Electric shock “therapy” – aside from being a terrifying experience – sometimes causes permanent memory loss, thus making it harder for a patient to handle reality.

If shrinks can succeed in defining masochism as a mental illness, then it is only a matter of time until they add hay fever, the Monday blahs, and voting Republican to the list. And with the cost of electricity these days, it would be a shame to waste all those electric shocks on people who might not really need them.

We have new mental illnesses not because of new breakthroughs in understanding the mind, but because psychiatrists want more money and more power over the rest of us. Shrinks generally have a poor batting average for curing known mental problems – but that has not stopped them from creating new “illnesses” that supposedly they alone can treat.

A con artist with an M.D. is still a con artist. The human mind was not created to provide full employment for psychiatrists.

Tagline: James Bovard’s therapist thought writing this column would do him some good.


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4 Responses to Thomas Szasz Born 100 Years Ago Today

  1. N. Joseph Potts April 15, 2020 at 4:01 pm #

    Szasz’s truths are so profound, it is just as hard to get people to believe that I believe them as it is to get them to believe them.

  2. Nelson Borelli April 15, 2020 at 9:14 pm #

    Thank you for your good words about Tom. Nelson Borelli, MD

  3. Bill April 18, 2020 at 3:20 am #

    Love this. Long live Thomas Szasz. There will never be another.


  1. Dr. Thomas Szasz Born 100 Years Ago Today | Liberty Is Peace - April 15, 2020

    […] today is Dr. Szasz’s 100th birthday. (He died in 2012.) Author James Bovard has a good post with comments on Dr. Szasz, with some enlightening Szasz quotes, and he reprints an article he wrote in 1986 on […]