The Philosophical Powers of Melancholy
Before the end of the 19th century, depression was not a psychiatric category. Until then, the mental illness we now call depression was called melancholy or melancholia. Descriptions of its symptoms, though subject to alterations depending on the particular historical period, show a striking consistency over the past 2,000 years. In their works on melancholy, ancient Greek doctors such as Galen of Pergamum and Rufus of Ephesus already describe all the diagnostic criteria for depression that appear in the modern DSM. However, studies of melancholy did often include more than that.
Through my study of the history of melancholy (as part of my PhD-research) I have found that melancholy has often been associated not only with sadness, anxiety, debilitation, passivity and impairment of capacities, but also with the enhancement of certain other capacities. It has often been observed, for example, that the melancholic has a keen ability for critique. He or she is better able to see the arbitrariness of social conventions, to understand the idleness of daily affairs in light of a larger perspective, and to see through illusions or positive bias. This has made melancholy into a philosophical mood par excellence, and many philosophers in the Western tradition have associated melancholy with their thinking, both as cause and consequence.