Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.14

Robinson, Daniel N., Wild Beasts & Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Pp. 299. ISBN 0-674-95289-8.

Reviewed by Kevin Crotty

The plea of insanity to exculpate the criminal defendant is one of the most sensational and troubling features of the criminal justice system. In 1982, for example, John W. Hinckley, Jr. was acquitted of thirteen criminal counts arising from his attempted assassination of the then president Ronald Reagan. The outcome shocked many, as though something were fundamentally amiss with the criminal legal system. More recently, Lyle and Eric Menendez, charged with murdering their parents, defended on the grounds that they had been the victims of prolonged parental abuse. Two juries were hopelessly deadlocked. Their inability to reach a decision suggested some deep confusion about the nature of responsibility in general, the scope of legal responsibility in particular, and the pertinence of psychological "expertise" in assessing legal guilt.

In Wild Beasts & Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, Daniel Robinson, a professor or psychology at Georgetown University, seeks to situate the insanity defense within its historical framework, and in the course of doing so, "to trace the major terms of an ongoing dialogue between legal and extralegal conceptions of human nature" (3). He argues, essentially, that the insanity defense should come into play only where there is reason to think that the accused is simply incapable of understanding what law is about, and, in particular, unable to appreciate that what he was doing was wrong.

Robinson's position is close to the well known "M'Naghten Rule," promulgated in 1843 by the British House of Lords, and the prevailing standard used in courts up to this day. Its tendency is to make the legal issue of insanity less a clinical question for mental health experts, and more a rough-and-ready determination for lay juries whether it is fair to hold this or that particular defendant responsible. For that reason, the M'Naghten Rule has sometimes seemed antiquated and crude, failing to keep abreast of the vaunted "advances" by psychiatry in identifying the springs of human conduct.

Robinson's book amounts to a defense of the M'Naghten Rule. The province of the law courts should be kept separate from psychiatry, he argues: criminal law is not improved by trying to trace the "causes" of any given act. The legal determination of insanity, he writes, has less to do with etiology--the effective causes of a defendant's acts--than with such non-technical, essentially ethical matters as intention and accountability. Robinson pleas for less reliance on experts in criminal trials, and less concern with establishing the ultimate sources or springs of human conduct.

Wild Beasts & Idle Humours will not be of particular interest to classicists. Despite its sub-title (The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present), Robinson has next to nothing to say about the insanity defense in antiquity. This is hardly surprising, since the defense makes only a fitful appearance in ancient literature--as for example in the ninth book of Plato's Laws, where he writes that insanity should be exculpatory to a certain degree. To be sure, insanity was a factor in testamentary law, but there it was used more as a sword (to throw out an apparently valid will), than as a shield (to defend against criminal charges). Robinson, in fact is not offering a history of the insanity defense in antiquity; rather, he uses the ancients as part of his brief against the excessive reliance on experts in modern insanity defense cases.

In his first chapter, entitled "Furiosi," Robinson cites some of the Hippocratic writings as evidence that Greek medicine had achieved notable progress in a scientific understanding of madness. Yet such progress did not result in the use of medical experts in criminal trials to testify concerning the accused's mental state and its etiology. The ancients' interest in insanity, rather, was confined to deciding whether the individual in question was capable of making those discriminations between right and wrong on which any legal system is premised. Athenian and Roman legal systems alike, Robinson writes, confined themselves to a non-technical, layperson's determination of whether it was fair to hold particular persons to that accountability that law itself seems to presuppose.

The ability of fellow citizens to make this determination without guidance from experts stemmed in part, Robinson argues, from a pervasive sense of "fitness" or harmonia in the ancient world, and, in particular, a sense of the individual's inclusion within an orderly whole--indeed, several orderly wholes, the household, the clan, the city. A determination of insanity, then, was tantamount to adjudging an individual's lack of "fitness"-- specifically, his unsuitability for civic and legal responsibility.

Robinson seems to be advocating that modern courts adapt something like the untechnical approach used in ancient ones. It is surprising, therefore, that he does not address the serious injustices marring those ancient conceptions of the social order which, on his argument, enabled courts to determine insanity in a nontheoretical way. Robinson alludes to the lack of legal standing of women and slaves, but writes, rather blandly, that "[i]t was more important to preserve the hierarchic organization--even in the face of injustices--than to tamper with the natural order of things merely to serve the narrow interests of this or that woman, this or that slave, this or that infant." (43)

Robinson fails to ask whether the background conditions that made it possible for ancient courts to do without medical expertise exist nowadays. American law, for example, tends to construe the person as an autonomous individual. Legally speaking, we are nowadays all in the situation that Homer once described: "clanless, lawless, hearthless" (Il. 9.6)--uprooted from containing wholes, and skeptical concerning them. Although Homer saw this state as accursed, excellent reasons exist for construing individuals this way, at least for legal purposes. Moderns can perhaps better appreciate the injustice of the clans and hearths that denied the autonomy of women and those unfortunates who had been reduced to slavery. Robinson's failure to explore this problem in any detail must weaken his implicit argument that ancient practice may serve as a guide to modern courts.

In this regard, it is unfortunate that Robinson does not cite Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity, which offers a rich and nuanced discussion of Greek (especially archaic Greek) conceptions of responsibility, and their suggestiveness for modern understandings of the self. Robinson nowhere cites Dodds' Greeks and the Irrational, and Bennett Simon's Mind and Madness in Ancient Greece receives only the most fleeting notice. Thus, he scarcely does justice to the mythic, poetic, and philosophical aspects of madness in Greek thought.

More important, Robinson has an uncertain grasp on ancient views of responsibility. He opens his discussion, for example, by asserting that Agamemnon's apology in Iliad 19 is the first appearance of the insanity defense. This is misleading, for, as Dodds long ago pointed out, Agamemnon is not attempting to exculpate himself. "It was not I who was the cause [aitios]," Agamemnon says, "but Zeus and Fate and Erinys that roams in the mists who sent wild ate= on me in the forum." (Il. 19.86--88). the view of self reflected in Agamemnon's apology is subtly different from modern views, and, in particular, views the self as far more "permeable"--more open to outside influences--without any sense, however, that this permeability exonerates the one who has injured another. Had Robinson gotten a better hold of the complexities in Agamemnon's apology, he might have found it a useful corrective for modern legal views of the self. As Robinson points out, modern courts sometimes lose the notion of individual responsibility in tracing out the multiple influences that condition individual conduct. The conception of the self reflected in Agamemnon's apology is attractive partly because it acknowledges the individual's open-ness to circumstances, without diminishing the sense of responsibility for one's acts.

Robinson is on firmer ground when dealing with the period from 1800 to the present. Those interested in a brief and readable account of the history of the insanity defense over the last two hundred years may find the last two chapters of Robinson's book engaging and stimulating.

Return to reviews index
Return to main page