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The Psychopath In History: Excerpts From “The Mask of Sanity” by Hervey M. Cleckley

Over a period of many decades psychiatrists, and sometimes other writers, have made attempts to classify prominent historical figures-rulers, military leaders, famous artists and writers-as cases of psychiatric disorder or as people showing some of the manifestations associated with various psychiatric disorders.  Many professional and lay observers in recent years have commented on the sadistic and paranoid conduct and attitudes reported in Adolf Hitler and in some of the other wartime leaders in Nazi Germany.  Walter Langer, the author of a fairly recent psychiatric study, arrives at the conclusion that Hitler was “probably a neurotic psychopath bordering on schizophrenia,” that “he was not insane but was emotionally sick and lacked normal inhibitions against antisocial behavior.”177 A reviewer of this study in Time feels that Hitler is presented as “a desperately unhappy man … beset by fears, doubts, loneliness and guilt [who] spent his whole life in an unsuccessful attempt to compensate for feelings of helplessness and inferiority.”281

Though the term psychopath is used for Hitler in this quotation it seems to be used in a broader sense than in this volume.  Hitler, despite all the unusual, unpleasant, and abnormal features reported to be characteristic of him, could not, in my opinion, be identified with the picture I am trying to present.  Many people whose conduct has been permanently recorded in history are described as extremely abnormal in various ways.  Good examples familiar to all include Nero and Heliogabalus, Gilles de Rais, the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and, of course, the Marquis de Sade.  I cannot find in these characters a truly convincing resemblance that identifies them with the picture that emerges from the actual patients I have studied and regarded as true psychopaths.203

In the lives of many painters, sculptors, poets and other writers who have gained a place in history we find reports of inconsistency and irresponsibility that sometimes do suggest the typical psychopath.  Benvenuto Cellini, whose story has been recorded in such detail by his own hand, seems in more respects, perhaps, than any other creative artist who gained lasting renown to have followed a pattern similar to that of my patients.  Nevertheless he worked consistently enough to produce masterpieces that centuries later are still cherished.41,120
Let us turn now to a much earlier historical figure, a military leader and statesman who is not likely to be forgotten while civilization as we know it remains on earth.  I first encountered him during a course in ancient history when I was in high school.  I had not at that time heard of a psychopath.  The teacher did not try to classify him medically or explain his paradoxical career in psychological terms.  I felt, however, that this gifted teacher shared my interest and some of my bewilderment as the brilliant, charming, capricious, and irresponsible figure of Alcibiades unfolded in the classroom against the background of Periclean Athens.  None of my immature concepts of classification (good man, bad man, wise man, foolish man) seemed to define Alcibiades adequately, or even to afford a reliable clue to his enigmatic image.

The more I read about him and wondered about him, the more he arrested my attention and challenged my imagination.  All reports agreed that he was one of the chief military and political leaders of Athens in her period of supreme greatness and classic splendor during the fifth century B.G.  This man led me to ponder at a very early age on many questions for which I have not yet found satisfactory answers.  According to my high school history book,26

He belonged to one of the noblest families of Athens, and was a near kinsman of Pericles.  Though still young, he was influential because of his high birth and his fascinating personality.  His talents were brilliant in all directions; but he was lawless and violent, and followed no motive but self-interest and self-indulgence.  Through his influence Athens allied herself with Argos, Elis, and Mantinea against the Lacedaemonians and their allies.  [p.  224]

The result of this alliance led Athens into defeat and disaster, but Alcibiades on many occasions showed outstanding talent and succeeded brilliantly in many important affairs.  Apparently he had great personal charm and easily aroused strong feelings of admiration and affection in others.

Though usually able to accomplish with ease any aim he might choose, he seemed capriciously to court disaster and, perhaps at the behest of some trivial impulse, to go out of his way to bring down defeat upon his own projects.  Plutarch refers to him thus:242

It has been said not untruly that the friendship which Socrates felt for him has much contributed to his fame, and certain it is, that, though we have no account from any writer concerning the mother of Nicias or Demosthenes, of Lamachus or Phormion, of Thrasybulus or Theratnenes, notwithstanding these were all illustrious men of the same period, yet we know even the nurse of Alcibiades, that her country was Lacedaemon, and her name Amycla; and that Zopyrus was his teacher and attendant; the one being recorded by Antistheries, and the othei by Plato.  (p.  149)

In the Symposium,241 one of his most celebrated dialogues, Plato introduces Alcibiades by having him appear with a group of intoxicated revelers and burst in upon those at the banquet who are engaged in philosophical discussion.  Alcibiades, as presented here by Plato, appears at times to advocate as well as symbolize external beauty and ephemeral satisfactions as opposed to the eternal verities.  Nevertheless, Plato gives Alcibiades the role of recognizing and expounding upon the inner virtue and spiritual worth of Socrates and of acclaiming this as far surpassing the readily discerned attainments of more obviously attractive and superficially impressive men.  Plato devotes almost all of the last quarter of the Symposium to Alcibiades and his conversation with Socrates.  His great charm and physical beauty are emphasized repeatedly here.

The personal attractiveness of Alcibiades is also dwelt upon by Plutarch:242

It is not, perhaps, material to say anything of the beauty of Alcibiades, only that it bloomed with him at all stages of his life, in his infancy, in his youth, and in his manhood; and, in the peculiar character belonging to each of these periods, gave him in everyone of them, a grace and charm.  What Euripides says: “of all fair things the autumn, too, is fair” … is by no means universally true.  But it happened so with Alcibiades amongst few others. …[pp149-150]

Early in his career he played a crucial role in gaining important victories for Athens.  Later, after fighting against his native city and contributing substantially to her final disaster, he returned to favor, won important victories again for her and was honored with her highest offices.  In the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1949) I read:

Alcibiades possessed great charm and brilliant abilities but was absolutely unprincipled.  His advice whether to Athens or to Sparta, oligarchs or democrats, was dictated by selfish motives, and the Athenians could never trust him sufficiently to take advantage of his talents.

And Thucydides Says:280

They feared the extremes to which he carried his lawless self-indulgence, and … though his talents as a military commander were unrivalled, they entrusted the administration of the war to Others; and so they speedily shipwrecked the state.

Plutarch repeatedly emphasizes the positive and impressive qualities of Alcibiades:242

It was manifest that the many wellborn persons who were continually seeking his company, and making their court to him, were attracted and captivated by his brilliant and extraordinary beauty only.  But the affection which Socrates entertained for him is a great evidence of the natural noble qualities and good disposition of the boy, which Socrates, indeed, detected both in and under his personal beauty; and, fearing that his wealth and station, and the great number both of strangers and Athenians who flattered and caressed him, might at last corrupt him, resolved, if possible, to interpose, and preserve so hopeful a plant from perishing in the flower, before its fruit came to perfection.  [p.  151]

The same writer also cites many examples of unattractive behavior, in which Alcibiades is shown responding with unprovoked and arbitrary insolence to those who sought to do him honor.  Let us note one of these incidents:242

As in particular to Anitas, the son of Anthernion, who was very fond of him and invited him to an entertainment which he had prepared for some strangers.  Alcibiades refused the invitation, but having drunk to excess in his own house with some of his companions, went thither with them to play some frolic, and standing at the door of the room where the guests were enjoying themselves and seeing the tables covered with gold and silver cups, he commanded his servants to take away the one-half of them and carry them to his own house.  And, then, disdaining so much as to enter into the room himself, as soon as he had done this, went away.  The company was indignant, and exclaimed at this rude and insulting conduct; Anitas, however, said, on the contrary, that Alcibiades had shown great consideration and tenderness in taking only a part when he might have taken all.  [p.  152]

Despite his talents and many attractive features some incidents appear even in his very early life that suggest instability, a disregard for accepted rules or commitments and a reckless tendency to seize arbitrarily what may appeal to him at the moment.  Plutarch tells us:242

Once being hard pressed in wrestling, and fearing to be thrown, he got the hand of his antagonist to his mouth, and bit it with all his force; when the other loosed his hold presently, and said, “You bite, Alcibiades, like a woman “No,” replied be, “like a lion.” [p.  150]

On another occasion it is reported that Alcibiades with other boys was playing with dice in the street.  A loaded cart which had been approaching drew near just as it was his turn to throw.  To quote again from Plutarch:242

At first he called to the driver to stop, because he was to throw in the way over which the cart was to pass; but the man giving him no attention and driving on, when the rest of the boys divided and gave way, Alcibiades threw himself on his face before the cart and, stretching himself out, bade the carter pass on now if he would; which so startled the man, that he put back his horses, while all that saw it were terrified, and, crying out, ran to assist Alcibiades.  [p.  150]

Alcibiades, one of the most prominent figures in Athens, an extremely influential leader with important successes to his credit, became the chief advocate for the memorable expedition against Sicily.  He entered enthusiastically into this venture urging it upon the Athenians partly from policy, it seems, and partly from his private ambition.  Though this expedition resulted in catastrophe and played a major role in the end of Athenian power and glory, many have felt that if Alcibiades had been left in Sicily in his position of command he might have led the great armada to victory.  If so, this might well have insured for Athens indefinitely the supreme power of the ancient world.  The brilliant ability often demonstrated by Alcibiades lends credence to such an opinion.  On the other hand, his inconsistency and capriciousness make it difficult, indeed, to feel confident that his presence would necessarily have brought success to the Athenian cause.  The magnitude of its failure has recently drawn this comment from Peter Green in Armada From Athens:100

It was more than a defeat; it was a defilement.  There, mindless, brutish, and terrified, dying like animals, without dignity or pride, were Pericles’ countrymen, citizens of the greatest imperial power Greece had ever known.  In that … destruction … Athens lost her imperial pride forever.  The shell of splendid self-confidence was shattered: something more than an army died in Sicily.  [p.  336]  Athens’ imperial pride had been destroyed and her easy self-assertion with it.  Aegospotami merely confirmed the ineluctable sentence imposed on the banks of the Assinarus.  Pindar’s violet-crowned city had been cut down to size and an ugly tarnish now dulled the bright Periclean charisma.  The great experiment in democratic imperialism that strangest of all paradoxes-was finally discredited.  [p.  353]

If Athens had succeeded in the expedition against Syracuse the history of Greece and perhaps even the history of all Europe might have been substantially different.

Shortly before the great Athenian fleet and army sailed on the Sicilian expedition an incident occurred that has never been satisfactorily explained.  Now when Athens was staking her future on a monumental and dangerous venture there was imperative need for solidarity of opinion and for confidence in the three leaders to whom so much had been entrusted.  At this tense and exquisitely inopportune time the sacred statues of Hermes throughout the city were mutilated in a wholesale desecration.

This unprovoked act of folly and outrage disturbed the entire populace and aroused superstitious qualms and fears that support of the gods would be withdrawn at a time of crucial need.  Alcibiades was strongly suspected of the senseless sacrilege.  Though proof was not established that he had committed this deed which demoralized the Athenians, the possibility that Alcibiades, their brilliant leader, might be guilty of such an idle and irresponsible outrage shook profoundly the confidence of the expeditionary force and of the government.  Many who knew him apparently felt that such an act might have been carried out by Alcibiades impulsively and without any adequate reason but merely as an idle gesture of bravado, a prank that might demonstrate what he could get away with if it should suit his fancy.  Definite evidence emerged at this time to show that he had been profaning the Eleusinian mysteries by imitating them or caricaturing them for the amusement of his friends.  This no doubt strengthened suspicion against him as having played a part in mutilating the sacred statues.

On a number of other occasions his bad judgment and his self-centered whims played a major role in bringing disasters upon Athens and upon himself.  Though this brilliant leader often appeared as a zealous and incorruptible patriot, numerous incidents strongly indicate that at other times he put self-interest first and that sometimes even the feeble lure of some minor objective or the mere prompting of caprice caused him to ignore the welfare and safety of his native land and to abandon lightly all standards of loyalty and honor.

No substantial evidence has ever emerged to indicate that Alcibiades was guilty of the sacrilegious mutilation of the statues.  He asked for an immediate trial, but it was decided not to delay the sailing of the fleet for this.  After he reached Syracuse, Alcibiades was summoned to return to Athens to face these charges.  On the way back he deserted the Athenian cause, escaped to Sparta, and joined the enemy to fight against his native city.

It has been argued that Alcibiades could not have been guilty of the mutilation since, as a leader of the expedition and its chief advocate, he would have so much to lose by a senseless and impious act that might jeopardize its success.  On the other hand his career shows many incidents of unprovoked and, potentially, self-damaging folly carried out more or less as a whim, perhaps in defiance of authority, or as an arrogant gesture to show his immunity to ordinary rules or restrictions.  It sometimes looked as though the very danger of a useless and uninviting deed might, in itself, tempt him to flaunt a cavalier defiance of rules that bind other men.   If Alcibiades did play a part in this piece of egregious folly it greatly augments his resemblance to the patients described in this book.  Indeed it is difficult to see how anyone but a psychopath might, in his position, participate in such an act.

In Sparta Alcibiades made many changes to identify himself with the ways and styles of the enemy.  In Athens he had been notable for his fine raiment and for worldly  splendor and extravagance.  On these characteristics Plutarch comments thus:242

But with all these words and deeds and with all this sagacity and eloquence, he mingled the exorbitant luxury and wantonness in his eating and drinking and dissolute living; owre long, purple robes like a woman, which dragged after him as he went through the marketplace, caused the planks of his galley to be cut away, that he might lie the softer, his bed not being placed on the boards but hanging upon girths.  His shield, again, which was richly gilded had not the usual ensigns of the Athenians, but a Cupid holding a thunderbolt in his hand, was painted upon it.  The sight of all this made the people of good repute in the city feel disgust and abhorrence and apprehension also, at his free living and his contempt of law as things monstrous in themselves and indicating designs of usurpation.[pp. 161-162]

In contrast to his appearance and his habits in the old environment we find this comment by Plutarch on Alcibiades after he had deserted the Athenian cause and come to live in Sparta and throw all his brilliant talents into the war against his native land: 242

The renown which he earned by these public services, not to Athens, but to Sparta, was equaled by the admiraton he attracted to his private life.  He captivated and won over everybody by his conformity to Spartan habits.   People who saw him wearing his hair cut close and bathing in cold water, eating coarse meal and dining on black broth, doubted, or rather could not believe that he had ever had a cook in his house or had ever seen a perfumer or had ever worn a mantle of Milesian purple.  For he had, as it was observed, this peculiar talent and artifice of gaining men’s affection, that he could at once comply with and really embrace and enter into the habits and ways of life, and change faster than the chameleon; one color, indeed, they say, the chameleon cannot assume; he cannot himself appear white.  But, Alcibiades, whether with good men or with bad, could adapt himself to his company and equally wear the appearances of virtue or vice.  At Sparta, he was devoted to athletic exercises, was frugal and reserved: in Ionia, luxurious, gay and indolent; in Thrace, always drinking; in Thessaly, ever on horseback; and when he lived with Tisaphernes, the king of Persia’s satrap he exceeded the Persians themselves in magnificence and pomp.  Not that his natural disposition changed so easily, nor that his real character was so variable, but whether he was sensible that by pursuing his own inclinations he might give offense to those with whom he had occasion to converse, he transformed himself into any shape and adopted any fashion that he observed to be agreeable to them.  [pp.  169-170]

At Sparta Alcibiades seemed to strive in every way to help the enemy defeat and destroy Athens.  He induced them to send military aid promptly to the Syracusans and also aroused them to renew the war directly against Athens.  He made them aware of the great importance of fortifying Decelea, a place very near Athens, from which she was extremely vulnerable to attack.  The Spartans followed his counsel in these matters and, by taking the steps he advised, wrought serious damage to the Athenian cause.  The vindictive and persistent efforts of this brilliant traitor may have played a substantial part in the eventual downfall of Athens.  Even before he left Sicily for Sparta Alcibiades had begun to work against his native land in taking steps to prevent Messina from falling into the hands of the Athenians.
Eventually a good many of the Spartans began to distrust Alcibiades.  Among this group was the king, Agis.  According to Plutarch:242

… While Agis was absent and abroad with the army, [Alcibiades] corrupted his wife, Timea, and had a child born by her.  Nor did she even deny it, but when she was brought to bed of a son, called him in public, Leotychides, but amongst her confidants and attendants, would whisper that his name was Alcibiades, to such a degree was she transported by her passion for him.  He, on the other side, would say in his valiant way, he had not done this thing out of mere wantonness of insult, nor to gratify a passion, but that his race might one day be kings over the Lacedaemonians.  [p.  170]

It became increasingly unpleasant for Alcibiades in Sparta despite his great successes and the admiration he still evoked in many.  Plutarch say:242

But Agis was his enemy, hating him for having dishonored his wife, but also impatient of his glory, as almost every success was ascribed to Alcibiades.  Others, also, of the more powerful and ambitious among the Spartans were possessed with jealousy of him and prevailed with the magistrates in the city to send orders …  that he should be killed.  [p.  171]

Alcibiades, however, learned of this, and fled to Asia Minor for security with the satrap of the king of Persia, Tisaphernes.  Here he found security and again displayed his great abilities and his extraordinary charm.  According to Plutarch:242

[He] immediately became the most influential person about him; for this barbarian [Tisaphernes], not being himself sincere, but a lover of guile and wickedness, admired his address and wonderful subtlety.  And, indeed, the charm of daily intercourse with him was more than any character could resist or any disposition escape.  Even those who feared and envied him, could not but take delight and have a sort of kindness for him when they saw him and were in his company, so that Tisaphernes, otherwise a cruel character, and above all other Persians, a hater of the Greeks, was yet so won by the flatteries of Alcibiades that he set himself even to exceed him in responding to them.  The most beautiful of his parks containing salubrious streams and meadows where he had built pavilions and places of retirement, royally and exquisitely adorned, received by his direction the name of Alcibiades and was always so called and so spoken of.

Thus, Alcibiades, quitting the interest of the Spartans, whom he could no longer trust because he stood in fear of Agis, the king, endeavored to do them ill offices and render them odious to Tisaphernes, who, by his means, was hindered from assisting them vigorously and from finally ruining the Athenians.  For his advice was to furnish them but sparingly with money and so wear them out, and consume them insensibly; when they had wasted their strength upon one another, they would both become ready to submit to the king.  [p.  171]

It is not remarkable to learn that Alcibiades left the service of the Persians.  It does seem to me remarkable, however, after his long exile from Athens, his allegiance to her enemies and the grievous damage he had done her, that he was enthusiastically welcomed back to Athens, that he again led Athenian forces to brilliant victories, and that he was, indeed, given supreme command of the Athenian military and naval forces.  His welcome back to Athens was enthusiastic.  According to Plutarch, 242 “The people crowned him with crowns of gold, and created him general, both by land and by sea.”  He is described as “coming home from so long an exile, and such variety of misfortune, in the style of revelers breaking up from a drinking party.”  Despite this, many of the Athenians did not fully trust him, and apparently without due cause, this time, he was dismissed from his high position of command.  He later retired to Asia Minor where he was murdered at 46 years of age, according to some reports for “having debauched a young lady of a noble house.”

Despite the widespread admiration that Alcibiades could so easily arouse, skeptical comments were made about him even before his chief failures occurred.  According to Plutarch, “It was not said amiss by Archestratus, that Greece could not support a second Alcidiabes.”  Plutarch also quotes Tinton as saying, “Go on boldly, my son, and increase in credit with the people, for thou wilt one day bring them calamities enough.”  Of the Athenians attitude toward Alcibiades, Aristophanes wrote: “They love and hate and cannot do without him.”242

The character of Alcibiades looms in the early dawn of history as an enigmatic paradox.  He undoubtedly disconcerted and puzzled his contemporaries, and his conduct seems to have brought upon him widely differing judgments.  During the many centuries since his death historians have seemed fascinated by his career but never quite able to interpret his personality.  Brilliant and persuasive, he was able to succeed in anything he wished to accomplish.  After spectacular achievement he often seemed, carelessly or almost deliberately, to throw away all that he had gained, through foolish decisions or unworthy conduct for which adequate motivation cannot be demonstrated and, indeed, can scarcely be imagined.  Senseless pranks or mere nose-thumbing gestures of derision seemed at times to draw him from serious responsibilities and cause him to abandon major goals as well as the commitments of loyalty and honor.  Apparently his brilliance, charm, and promise captivated Socrates, generally held to be the greatest teacher and the wisest man of antiquity.  Though Alcibiades is reported to have been the favorite disciple and most cherished friend of the master it can hardly be said that Socrates succeeded in teaching him to apply even ordinary wisdom consistently in the conduct of his life or to avoid follies that would have been shunned even by the stupid.
According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1949), “He was an admirer of Socrates, who saved his life at Potidaea (432), a service which Alcibiades repaid at Delium; but he could not practice his master’s virtues, and there is no doubt that the example of Alcidiabes strengthened the charges brought against Socrates of corrupting the youth.”

When we look back upon what has been recorded of Alcibiades we are led to suspect that he had the gift of every talent except that of using them consistently to achieve any sensible aim or in behalf of any discernible cause.  Though it would hardly be convincing to claim that we can establish a medical diagnosis, or a full psychiatric explanation, of this public figure who lived almost two and a half thousand years ago, there are many points in the incomplete records of his life available to us that strongly suggest Alcibiades may have been a spectacular example of what during recent decades we have, in bewilderment and amazement, come to designate as the psychopath.

During this brief period Greece, and Athens especially, produced architecture, sculpture, drama, and poetry that have seldom if ever been surpassed.  Perhaps Greece also produced in Alcibiades the most impressive and brilliant, the most truly classic example of this still inexplicable pattern of human life.

Fifth Edition
Copyright 1988 Emily S. Cleckley
Previous edition copyrighted 1941, 1950, 1955, 1964, 1976 by the C.V. Mosby Co.

Cleckley, Hervey Milton, 1903-1984
The Mask of Sanity

ISBN 0-9621519-0-4

Scanned facsimile produced for non-profit educational use by Quantum Future School