In Sickness And In Power: An Amazing Study By David Owen

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Besides the good politicians who have worked in favor of humanity, history has also been shaped by malicious political actors. These leaders have often created their own ideologies to justify the logic of their policies. These leaders are often labeled as sick. David Owen, professor of social and political philosophy at the University of Southampton, was particulary interested in the following topic: how is illness (mainly mental illness) connected to the positions that confer authority and power? What is the nature of this relationship? Owen’s book offers some interesting research into this; it is called In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the Last 100 Years.

In the introduction to this great historical overview of powerful leaders and their psychological profiles, often affected by physical or mental illness, Owen explains what inspired him to write this book. He was personally fascinated by the interaction of politicians and doctors, and politics and medicine. Owen was intrigued by the way illness affects high authorities. Illness in this sense can be quite dangerous, given the fact that there are many people that suffer from it. So, it is not just about leaders, on the contrary: it is much more about the people, the ones who are being ruled. They are the ones who suffer the consequences. Owen plunged into his research after he became British foreign minister. He tried to figure out to what extent illness can influence important governmental processes and the decision making of high authorities. He was also fascinated by those who were not sick at all, but on the contrary calm and in possession of cognitive abilities that functioned well, but they had something he calls power intoxication. That phenomenon is more common than most people would assume, and it is often labeled as arrogance or madness, combined with ignorance.

If a person suffers from depression or some other mental illness, chances are he or she will be prevented from being considered as a political political candidate. That is considered to be a deal breaker, for obvious reasons: you cannot let an unstable person become your leader. Owen shares an interesting true story of how the qualities of a true leader can help in overcoming depression. It is a story about Abraham Lincoln:

There are very few people that lasted longer under that suffering than Lincoln, but he refused to give up. As a young man, he suffered from intensive mood changes, usually from good to bad; he even wrote an essay about suicide. In it, he says: “I can enjoy life when I’m in company. But when I’m alone, I get so depressed that I do not dare to carry a pocketknife with me.“ […] Nevertheless, Lincoln is, according to many, one of the greatest American presidents who managed to handle stress pretty well, and even during Civil war, he had indestructible faith in fighting for his country.

Owen mentions that it is possible that people expect or wish their leaders to be somewhat above average: to have more energy than others, to work longer or show extraordinary confidence. He was interested in finding a causal link between how great leaders behave and the personality types which make them act the way they do. Furthermore, Owen wanted to see how people who don’t have that particular type of leadership personality develop the syndrome he called the Hubris Syndrome. It is not yet a medical term, but Owen described the symptoms that should be considered when making a diagnosis: a narcissistic perspective, where the world is perceived as an arena where there are battles for fame, prestige and power, rather than a problematic space where one should find the best way to serve others; a ridiculous interest in self image and how others perceive them; identifying themselves with the state itself beyond any reasonable measure, so that their interests are equated with the state’s; the belief that they are higher than human law and that only History or God could judge them, etc.

In the first part of the book, you can read about the great leaders of the last 100 years, and how their illnesses affected their political decisions. It is an overview of great cases in history, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Margaret Thatcher, George H. W. Bush and of course – Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was known for his crazy outpourings of fury, but from a medical point of view, mental illness is diagnosed only when the patient is somehow incapable of normal living, which was not Hitler’s case. On the contrary, he was extremely capable of snatching up power, by using tactics that were as brilliant as they were wicked. By the end of 1941, Hitler had all the possible symptoms of Hubris syndrome. He did not suffer from any known illness. He wasn’t bipolar, and he didn’t express any visible signs of depression or mania. Hitler’s mental health was highly debated. There are two significant reports: one written by a CIA official, Dr. Henry Murray, in 1943; the other by a renowned psychoanalyst, Dr. Walter Langer. Murray came to the conclusion that Hitler suffered from hysteria, paranoia, schizophrenia, and philophobia – fear of emotional attachment. Langer concluded that Hitler was a neurotic psychopath, a borderline schizophrenic. He wasn’t mad in the conventional sense of that term. Besides that, Hitler suffered from hypochondria and insomnia; and by 1941, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease were observable. As Owen says, no matter what illness Hitler suffered from, we should see him for what he was: a personification of pure political evil. 

In the second part of the book, you can read about different case studies; the one about the health of President Kennedy might be the most illuminating. Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who listened to Kennedy’s inauguration speech, said that there is something weak and neurotic in that young man. Kennedy suffered from Edison’s disease and due to it was sentenced to lifelong hormone therapy. It is interesting to see how Kennedy’s charisma, amazing public speaking skills and political plans managed to take him to the presidency, despite being ill. The key here lies in the fact that he hid his illness for quite a long time.

In the third part of the book, Owen discusses power intoxication in the case of Bush and Blair and the political events that led to war in Iraq. He quotes Stephen Graubard:

Arrogance combined with ignorance led George W. Bush to engage in an adventure that hid far more serious problems outside his country. Those were the problems that he should have been more worried about.

Owen comments that Bush and Blair formed a specific tandem, a folie a deux. You could then see how the Hubris syndrome started to develop in both of these political figures and how different disease symptoms emerged with the increased power they both obtained.

In the fourth part of the book, Owen tries to offer some lessons for the future. How can we prevent the illnesses of high authorities (especially the destructive Hubris syndrome) and how can we prevent the major bad consequences of their actions? The awful decisions and incapacities of afflicted leaders can be devastating. Owen discusses affirmative measures that include the following: the importance of doctors getting involved; awareness of potential secrets and the attempts of leaders to hide their health condition, especially when it comes to mental illness; independent medical assessment – before and after a person comes to an important political position; and a call to the UN to react and get involved if necessary.

This extremely engaging book shows how complex the mechanisms of a society truly are. It shows how the human psyche can become something very dark when it gets in touch with power and authority. Two real life experiments have also explored this subject: the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment. The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most controversial of its kind. Although participants gave their initial approval, professor Philip G. Zimbardo (who conducted the experiment) was highly criticized for pushing things too far and pressuring the participants way too much. The experiment tested the question of how does the human psyche change if given a position of high power and authority. There were two different roles for the participants: guards and prisoners, and they all should have acted according to it. Although it was planned that the experiment would last for three weeks, it ended in just six days, because the prison guards became too sadistic and the prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. There were even three movies inspired by this experiment, one older, German movie and two American movies, one from 2001, the other from 2010.

The other experiment we mentioned is the Milgram Experiment, which tested a similar thesis: will people do anything if they are ordered to do it? Would they really, even if it interferes with what they believe is the right thing to do? What if they themselves are given the power of authority?

These are all great and complex questions to think about. Owen’s book In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the Last 100 Years is truly a book that will open your eyes and make you wonder about how you yourself would act if given a significant amount of power. It also raises interesting questions about democracy (as the most desirable political system) and how to save it from rulers who are not well. The reason why some people are more susceptible to Hubris syndrome than others remains a mystery.

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