JUST HOW CRAZY do you have to be to be crazy? Do you actually have to be barking mad, unable to tell right from wrong or up from down? The Romans thought so, and excused children under the age of seven and madmen from responsibility for their actions. But their test was a strict one: you had to be completely divorced from reality. Their many names for insanity-demens, furiosis, fatuus-signified different kinds of complete deprivation of reason, but did not enjoy differing legal treatment. The insane person had no intelligent will, and was thus incapable of consent or voluntary action, and could acquire no right and incur no responsibility through his own acts. His person and property were placed by a magistrate under the control of a curator, who was empowered and bound to manage the property of the madman on his own behalf. In criminal law the plea of insanity was unavailing except in extreme cases. The legal concept, which persisted well into the 19th century, maintained that "a prisoner, in order to acquitted on the grounds of insanity, must be a man that is totally deprived of his understanding and memory, and doth not know what he is doing, no more than an infant, than a brute or wild beast."*
Orwell maintained that "sanity is not statistical," and allowed that just because you are out of step-even gravely out of step-with the majority of your fellows does not mean that you are crazy. Sometimes, he believed, everybody else was crazy, and this made the isolated sane man seem crazy by comparison. Henry David Thoreau plainly agreed: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
If a person is obsessed, but otherwise a harmless crank, he's a crackpot. If harmless but odd, an eccentric. If you want to be considered eccentric, it helps if you have money or are British. If you pose a grave danger to yourself or others, you're probably either genuinely crazy or work for the government.
March 15, 1995
* Mr. Justice Tracy, speaking to the jury in the 1723 trial of Edward Arnold for firing at and wounding Lord Onslow. Source: 11th Edition, Encyclopedia Brittanica, article "Insanity."
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