I (Ben) picked up Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First-Rate Madness after reading his op-ed in the New York Times last week. The premise is straightforward: Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, argues that mental illness may actually benefit leaders in times of crisis. In his op-ed, Ghaemi posits an “inverse law of sanity,” observing that
mentally healthy leaders, successful in quiet and prosperous times, often fail in times of crisis; in contrast, our greatest crisis leaders frequently are mentally abnormal, even mentally ill.
A First-Rate Madness ranges across the 19th and 20th century (with a quick toe dip in the 21st) to identify historical figures (all men, it turns out) whom Ghaemi believes illustrate this inverse law. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, FDR, JFK, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are all examples of leaders with mental illness — usually depression, but also mania or other disorders. Ghaemi’s examples of sane leaders (he defines them as “homoclites”) are less numerous and more ambiguous: he contrasts Neville Chamberlain with Churchill, then lumps Richard Nixon, Tony Blair and George W. Bush into one chapter at the very end of the book. (If there is one thing Richard Nixon was not, it was a mentally stable individual.)
If Ghaemi’s thesis is a bit broad and his history a bit selective (I’ve only read about a third of the book so far), it is nonetheless one I find very compelling. There’s always a fine line between romanticizing mental illness and highlighting its benefits alongside its handicaps, something we’ve talked about here before. I do share Ghaemi’s belief that, for those afflicted with mental illness, whether leaders or not, “their weakness is, in short, the secret of their strength.”
Ghaemi notes that Aristotle was the first thinker to speculate about the connection between genius and madness. Ghaemi doesn’t look back farther than the Civil War for his historical examples, but I found myself applying his theory to a much earlier crowd. The Bible, for whatever you think about it, is at the least a historical document about some generally pretty crazy people. Almost all the central figures in the drama of Christianity are not sane or balanced. That’s one of the reasons I find them compelling. Ghaemi’s observation that weakness can be a source of strength is simply an echo of what Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “The Lord said to me, ‘My power is made perfect in weakness.’ That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”