Are Intelligent People More Depressed?
With Commentary on the George Floyd Protests and Medieval Goths
[This article was originally published here.]
Melancholy as a word can be traced back from our English version to the French one, melancholie, and further back still to the Greek word: μελαγχολία or melánkholos — meaning ‘black bile’.
Given the origin of this word, Ancient Greece seems like a good place to start our search behind the idea that intelligent people are, more generally speaking, depressive. Aristotle is given credit as the first person to ask the question that many ask today about intelligent people, though in a bit of a less self-righteous way:
‘Why is it that people who seem to be so gifted in philosophy or the arts seem to be melancholic?’
When Aristotle asked this question, he made references to Plato, Socrates, Hercules, and Ajax. Plato and Socrates being his predecessors and mentors. While Hercules and Ajax were fictional, they represented men who didn’t fit into normal society and struggled more than the average man at trying to fit in. Ajax eventually committed suicide.
This idea of intelligent people being a bit gloomier than most didn’t just start and die in Ancient Greece with concern and curiosity. It stuck around for the Medieval Age too.
During Medieval times, melancholic people were said to be born under Saturn. Which at that time was the furthest known planet and was therefore associated with the ideas of cold, shadow, and death. Yet, it was also said to give the power of great understanding and imagination.
And hence you can start to see where pride started to form around being melancholic. Where there was a special type of glamor that came with seeing what the more happy crowd missed. Being happy was great, but it also meant you were living in denial about the world.
The melancholics of the world were sad, yet they knew things, and they weren’t afraid to hold on to the tragedy that their insightfulness brought.
Though this may be true for some, many saw this as an opportunity to be special and unique. Sadness became a sort of fashion. Staring into the distance became a thing. And flicking hair back with a sigh as one pondered imperfection and loneliness became an idea that aristocrats would have painted of themselves. Even black was in.
Though it may be stylish (for some) to dress in black and walk around all mopey holding yourself up and your broken heart together, I feel that is the more Medieval approach to what Aristotle had originally had in mind.
I like Albrecht Dürer’s idea that the intelligent depressive was more like a very clever and dejected angel. An intelligent depressive was someone that wanted to see the logic and care and charm and brotherhood in the world, but was well, all too aware of the chaos and illogic of it all. Much like Camus and his Absurdism.
This isn’t to say that all people that dress in black and look depressed haven’t actually convinced themselves that they are depressed, or that they aren’t depressed. But it’s still trying to wag the dog with the tail.
Yet, everybody has a right to dress how they want and carry themselves as they want. Some do make it look pretty stylish. Some even make it look pretty sexy.
Right, enough having a laugh for now. Let’s get past the people that use their depressive fashion as a backward way of telling the world how intelligent and insightful they are. Let’s get back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle’s original question:
‘What is it that intelligent melancholy people might see, that other ‘lesser’ minds might not?’
‘What might we realize if we ourselves were above average in intelligence and therefore a bit more despondent?’ If you are one of these people or have read people like Camus or Socrates or stories of Hercules, you might see:
- How ‘fake’ most get-togethers are
- The disturbing gap between what people say versus what they mean
- The obvious deception of promises made by politicians and businessmen
- The hollowness of becoming famous or well-thought-of
- The loneliness we feel even when we have the best of relationships
- How disappointing it can be to take care of someone else
- The compromises that must be made in order to hang on to friends or family
- How ugly cities can be
- How surely short all of our lives really are without the delusion we will somehow live forever as we know ourselves
Yet, once again, this sounds like the general motto of any average artist or goth character. That doesn’t really make a person clever. That isn’t that insightful, is it? Whatsmore, does that mean anybody with hope is an idiot?
People are currently screaming a battle cry of Martin Luther’s King’s words that ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’ while ignorantly (ignorant means to ignore) overstepping the sentence literally just before,
‘Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.’
Martin Luther King was an intelligent man that saw what others could not in a way that others could not. Yet, he knew the answer was not through violence, anger, and hate. Sadly, people use his words today to justify those exact ends.
This is a good time though to have a look at what makes the difference between the insightful, intelligent, yet melancholic person versus the average person.
What divides the intelligent depressive from the average melancholic person is two errors of a weaker mind:
An angry person knows that things aren’t the way they should be. It doesn’t take a smart person to see that. What makes the difference is the ability to resist the temptation to respond to these affronts with rage, violence, and spitefulness.
They seek justice, but they do so in a steady way with realism being its counterweight.
Can we really believe the riots shown above will lead to the change wanted? We should do MLK the honor of reading his words before screaming one cherry-picked ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ motto to justify our rage and violence.
MLK knew it as well as any person capable of thinking for themselves that life is unfair and a bit absurd. This knowledge doesn’t turn the thinking man into a justified monster. This knowledge doesn’t allow him or her to be surprised by things that they feel they need to fight back with hatred and malevolence.
The intelligent mind has a pretty good idea of reality and isn’t thrown into a temper tantrum so easily. Their intelligence and melancholy may not be as spectacular as burning down cities. Yet, in the name of fighting for real change, it is much more powerful and effective.
Another benefit of the melancholic person is how they deal with hope. It isn’t like the naive who has big plans for living a perfect life. They don’t play the lottery and they don’t think they are entitled to an easy romantic love or a lucrative successful profession.
They know the odds. They know having a relationship that isn’t a complete nightmare with a job that doesn’t have them jump out the window by 35 is a pretty big win.
Does all of this sound demoralizing and depressing? Congratulations, you’re now in the mind of an intelligent depressive.
This isn’t to say that the intelligent and melancholic person can’t smile or appreciate the beauty and gentleness of what he or she sees. It is actually their awareness of the darkness that allows them to be so aware of the energy that makes life worth living.
An intelligent depressive can seem overly grateful for the small things in life that most people feel entitled to. They can get giddy and silly because they are all too familiar with grief. It is the fact that they can see the bad that they so envelop themselves in the good when it shows up. They have suffered and now appreciate not suffering.
Unlike the goth who looks for the misery to paint himself or herself with or the reactionary who naively believes he will stop violence against innocent people by hurting innocent people, the intelligent and melancholic person sees all this without needing to read the news or see the same memes that anger an entire nation.
‘Misery loves company’ unless that company is intelligent. The intelligent and melancholic people feel the pain of the world, but they don’t allow it to turn them into another reason for pain in the world.
The world is coming to its end every day. We know this, but it doesn’t stop us from dancing badly or sitting in the sun at the park or quietly enjoying lunch with our partner in silence. A child can laugh when something is funny, but the depth of laugh that a melancholic adult has will be much greater because he or she always knows in the back of her mind that so many things in life are not funny.
Look. Being sad or depressed or melancholic isn’t some sort of intellectual achievement. Yes, we can find 1001 click-bait articles to feed an ego that wants to believe that is so, but it may be more fun to paint a picture of a Medieval English aristocrat.
One of the true signs of intelligence and achievement is to keep one’s rage in check even when we feel bombarded by the injustices and sadness given to us.
Being melancholic and intelligent has nothing to do with reading books or dressing in black or burning down stores. It has everything to do with succeeding at being the best one can be in a world filled with constant, large defeats and small, wondrous victories.