According to The Parable of the Poisoned Well, there once lived a king who ruled over a great city. He was loved for his wisdom and feared for his power. At the heart of the city was a well, the waters of which were clean and pure and from where the king and all the inhabitants drank. But one evening an enemy entered the city and poisoned the well with a strange liquid. Henceforth, all who drank from it went mad.
All the people drank the water, but not the king, for he had been warned by a watchman who had observed the contamination. The people began to say, “The king is mad and has lost his reason. Look how strangely he behaves. We cannot be ruled by a madman, so he must be dethroned”.
The king sensed his subjects were preparing to rise against him and grew fearful of revolution. One evening he ordered a royal goblet to be filled from the well and drank from it deeply. The next day there was great rejoicing among the people, for their beloved king had finally regained his wisdom and sanity.
In his 1955 book The Sane Society, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggests nothing is more common than the assumption that we, people living in the advanced industrial economies, are eminently sane. Nevertheless, Australia’s Department of Health reports that almost half of Australians aged 16 to 85 will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives.
According to Fromm, we are inclined to see incidents of mental illness as individual and isolated disturbances, while acknowledging — with some discomfort, perhaps — that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture that is supposedly sane. Fromm haunts our self-image even today, attempting to unsettle these assumptions of sanity:
Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.
In an age now widely described as the Anthropocene, the conventionally held distinction between sanity and insanity is at risk of collapsing … and taking our civilisation with it.