The Demon of Melancholy

Melancholy is too painful, reaches too deeply into the roots of human existence to permit us to leave it to the psychiatrists.

If we inquire here into its meaning, that already implies that we are treating not a psychological or psychiatric situation, but a spiritual problem. We believe there is question here of something closely related to the depths of human nature.

We are speaking of melancholy. Etymologically the word means “black bile”; it conveys the idea of heaviness of spirit. It rests like a weight upon man and presses him down. He almost collapses; the members and organs lose their elasticity; the senses, urges, concepts, and ideas become languid; the will grows flaccid; incentive, joy in work, and desire weaken.

By reason of this disposition an inner fetter binds everything that otherwise acts freely, that otherwise moves and produces results. The firmness of decision, the power of clear and sharp conception, the courageous facing of a situation—all these turn turgid and indifferent. Man no longer can master his life. He lags behind in the pressing struggle. Events heap up around him, and he no longer sees his way clearly. He dawdles with a single task. Meanwhile his problem mounts before him like a mountain that cannot be scaled.

As the result of such an experience Nietzsche characterized the spirit of melancholy as a demon. Out of it grew his image of yearning for the person “who can dance.” For such an individual, feelings, enthusiasm, the power to rise and to fly—these appear as the supreme values.

Such a life is extremely vulnerable. This vulnerability does not stem essentially from a defective constitution or a lack of inner power—though this sort of thing may be a complicating factor—but from a sensibility of man’s being as conditioned by the existing multiplicity of situations. In my opinion, simple people do not become melancholy. “Simplicity” in this connection does not imply lack of education or modest social conditions. A person may be highly educated, capable, play a role in varied economic affairs and rewarding activities, and still be simple in this sense. Complicated, on the other hand, signifies inner opposition, contrary tendencies of life, tension between motives, a crisscrossing of urges, contradictions in attitudes toward persons and things, in the claims of the world and one’s own person, in the criteria used in judgment.

Such sensibility makes the person vulnerable by reason of the harshness of existence. The damage is done precisely by the things that cannot be avoided: universal suffering, the woes of the weak and the defenseless, the sufferings of animals, the dumb creatures. Basically, of course, the individual cannot change these things. They are inevitable. That is the situation, and so it will remain. And yet it proves an intolerable burden. The wretchedness of existence strikes wounds—the fact that so often it is ugly, and so very dull.

And the emptiness of it; one might almost say, the metaphysical emptiness. At this point melancholy teams up with tedium, and a particular kind of tedium, as certain persons experience it. Not that the individual abstains from serious work, that he goes idle. Tedium of this kind can color a very active life. It implies that the person seeks something, seeks it everywhere and passionately—something that he cannot find. With a painful incompetence he seeks that which in the truest sense can be called bourgeois, a compromise with the possible and a sense of well-being. Tedium looks for that. It tries to see things as it would like them to be, to find in them that significance, that earnestness, that ardor and power of fulfillment for which it longs. But it does not succeed. Things are finite. But all finiteness is a defect. And this defect is a disappointment for the heart that longs for the absolute. This disappointment spreads till it creates the feeling of a great void. Nothing worthwhile exists. Nothing merits a claim on one’s attention.

Ethical deficiencies of others cause wounds. Deficiencies of standards particularly, of ideals, of character. And, of course, the base, the ordinary, strikes especially deep wounds.

We have used the word “vulnerability,” and in fact the accent falls on it. This word expresses the characteristic coloring of melancholic suffering, which is more than simple disgust or vexation or pain. These indeed can be agonizing and vehement, exciting to passionate resistance. They may, however, always contain something luminous that goads the assertive powers to a decisive defense. In melancholy, on the other hand, we find something different, proper to itself, which touches the nerves. The suffering it produces has a special subjective character, a special depth; it is something unprotected, exposed. Missing is the will to resist, so that the cause of the wound unites itself with an element in man’s interior being. This proximity of the pain—to which might be added an obvious lack of proportion between what might be called the normal pain-effect of the cause and its profound effect in the melancholy person—makes it clear that we are dealing with something constitutive. Its proper element does not reside in external causes and impulses, but in man’s interior—a kind of attraction to anything that can injure.

This may become so extreme that the melancholy person experiences pain from any and every happening, no matter what its nature. Existence by and in itself becomes a source of pain to him.

Such a person lacks self-confidence. He is convinced that he is less than others, that he is nothing, that he knows nothing. And this is not because he is insufficiently gifted or has suffered failures. The conviction exists a priori; it cannot even be conclusively overcome by successful undertakings. On the other hand, every failure confirms the conviction beyond all reasonable limits. Furthermore, it is precisely this lack of self-confidence which occasions the failures. It makes the person insecure, confuses and hinders decision and action, and makes the person painfully sensitive to external difficulties.

This lack of self-confidence makes itself felt particularly in relations with others—in conversation, in social contacts, in public affairs. Perhaps here a particularly sensitive need of acceptance also plays an important role.

Curiously, such a person at the same time may be vain or proud; he may seek acclaim or recognition. Possibly even his thoughts and fantasies are filled with dreams in which he sees himself honored, powerful, engaged in enterprises that call forth admiration. Similarly, the vulnerability referred to above does not prevent him from being extremely sensitive to the abundance of meaning, the wealth of values and the beauty inherent in the world.

The fact that the melancholy person is under this pressure, that existence so easily wounds him, that his power of self-evaluation and self-assertion leaves so much to be desired—all this is for him something active that turns on him like an enemy. The new psychology has advanced the view that what we call “life” is not something univocal. Instead, it allegedly is governed by a pair of basic urges that are diametrically opposed to one another: the one, to exist, to assert self, to develop, to progress; the other, to destroy self, to perish. This analysis seems to be correct. Does not such a view offer the only solution for the enigmatic manner in which we act? If something threatens us, we defend ourselves. But we do not simply defend ourselves; the danger, also evokes a reply from us. The threatening object may indeed inspire fear, but it also entices. In the face of danger, of death, we go on the defensive. At the same time, however, we feel curiously attracted, because something in us urges us on.

From this vantage point we catch a glimpse of the ultimate metaphysical synthesis: here is the impulse for something spiritual, for the “great renunciation” of self, for the will to die in order that something more noble may arise.

All this ought to create a vital tension. Melancholy, however, tends to go off the deep end. The urge to self-destruction threatens to gain mastery. Pain and death become dangerously attractive. There is a violent temptation to let go of oneself.

Indeed, this will becomes active and turns upon the individual’s own life. The urge to self-torture is connected with a melancholy disposition. In the selection of an environment with powers of wounding we already perceive a subconscious desire. This desire works by way of suggestion: the person considers himself sick, and thus he creates sickness for himself.

It manifests itself in self-induced distress of soul. Everything available serves this end—everything, even the noblest, which by nature ought to elevate and fulfill. Here we touch the most muddled element of human existence: even values can become instruments of pain. A “value” signifies something that is worthy of existence; it is justified in being; it is precious, noble, exalted. “Value” expresses the fact that something is positive, capable of fulfilling a person, that it elevates, is meaningful. As soon as we contemplate a value in itself, for example the good, the just, the beautiful, it shows itself unequivocally as worthwhile, beneficent. But as soon as this value appears in real life, is experienced by real persons, carried out in practice, its effect can be multiple: to elevate, to fulfill, and at the same time to threaten, to cause anxiety. If we abstract from God, who is Good personified, we find a sure, unidirectional basis of action only in the realm of the pure idea, pure thought—and that solely in the field of pure nature with its regulated course. But if the value exists in the life of a person, borne along by the multiplicity of his inner powers, subject to his free desires, then the execution of something univocal can take on various forms. The more exalted the value, the more numerous the possibilities of its execution. The more exalted the value, the greater the possibility of its producing disturbing effects. It is wrong to conclude from the dangerous effect produced by a worthwhile value that it is counterfeit. Paradoxically, the most exalted values are the most dangerous. The great prizes are never won by a simple manner of life. They are paid for with the coin of anxiety and danger.

In the field of melancholy, a movement contrary to action makes itself strongly felt. The melancholy nature is conscious of values to a high degree. But the self-destructive tendency in it employs the value as the most dangerous weapon against itself. I think, for example, of the feeling of inferiority—an inferiority not at all justified—experienced by many artistic natures with regard to their own creations. The value of achievement, in itself very exalted, here becomes a disturbing factor. Or the inner impossibility experienced by many social types in facing the demands of justice; a priori the social value is so conceived that there is no prospect of its being realized, and for that reason it depresses. I think of the frightful destruction that can proceed from, the two values, moral and religious, which determine the person’s inner destiny; it is difficult to picture anything sadder than the profound confusion of a melancholy conscience. For its every duty becomes an intolerable burden; the desire for purity and perfection takes on an impossible form, unrelated to actual powers and circumstances. This conscience sees guilt where for everyone else there is none; it perceives responsibility where all its prerequisites are wanting. It sees moral criteria where only natural processes are involved. Possibly the threat posed by religious values can go even deeper. Dedication to what is holy, the desire to receive the divine into one’s life, the striving to realize God’s kingdom—all these impulses ought ordinarily to produce a liberative, expansive, elevating influence. In the case of the melancholy person, however, they can induce all sorts of fears and despair, driving him to the limits of fanaticism or to the delusion that he is lost or to revolt against what is holy. It seems as if a hidden will to destroy turns these highest of all values against the person’s life, deprives them of positive meaning and brings to the fore only what is disturbing and threatening.

All that has been said describes the critical points in the melancholic’s life. More important, because more fundamental, is gaining the higher plane on which the whole of existence can be mastered. This means coming to grips with reality.

The mistake of the melancholic relationship to reality comes to the fore principally in two situations, in a twofold temptation that comes to every man but with special force to the melancholic: the temptation to yield to the call of nature and the senses and to yield to the call of the religious element.

The first temptation demonstrates a false relationship to things and to oneself. Everything, including one’s own self, is considered as an intimate part of nature in which the self must live out its days; as one great whole, a single stream, a great passing from one thing to another, with no definite limits anywhere. Everything is one—one existence, one life, one birth and effort, one sensation and suffering. All multiplicity is but the expression of the one, which manifests itself in a thousand forms. From this feeling arises the tremendous temptation to plunge in, to let oneself sink according to disposition—either in sense pleasures, in experiences of all kinds, in activity or in resigned dolce far niente, in yielding to what appear to be invincible powers. The temptation may take the form of engaging in harried activity, in the genius of continuous production in which man feels himself an organ of nature, the place of emergence of unnamable powers, or the instrument of a vagrant spirit not confined to space. Or again, it may appear—while seemingly abandoning these connections with nature by going to the opposite extreme—as a form of titanism of spirit, of unsatisfied seeking, of an all-destroying question, of a doubt that undermines everything.

The other temptation sets up a false relationship to the absolute. That too is grasped directly, as limitlessness to be attained without further ado, as a fullness to be immediately imbibed, as a mystery into which the person continuously enters by thinking, seeing, feeling, seeking himself, as a distant goal to which a straight path leads, and, however else he may envisage the absolute with which he stands in immediate contact, as something to be taken hold of immediately, in piety or impiety, in revolt or in submission.

In both cases the decisive element—the limit, that which is purely human—is jettisoned. Not to be the world, but more than the world. Not to be part of nature, but different from it. Not to be a wave in a stream, an atom in a conglomerate, an organ with its connections, but spirit. To be a person, a self-sufficient, responsible person; God’s likeness, subject to his summons, and from that standpoint free in this world. On the other hand, the purely human does not aspire to be God or a part of God or an organ of his pulsating spirit or anything else that would obliterate the essential difference between God and man, but to be “absolutely less” than he—his creature.

Man is God’s creature. Hence it becomes impossible for man without further ado to break into God, as it were; and the attempt is forbidden. Every path to God passes through the consciousness of the infinite difference, through reverence, through “fear and trembling” on the part of the creature.

Man is God’s likeness—in spirit and reason. As a result it becomes impossible to be a part of nature, and the attempt to become such is not permissible. On the contrary, man’s innermost being stands outside the world, before God, capable and destined to hear his appeal and to answer it.

All this means that it is man’s lot to be a living limit, to recognize the fact and to live his circumscribed life. That sets him in the realm of reality. As a result he is free of the fascination of a false, direct oneness with God as well as a direct identification with nature. A chasm, a two-sided cleft, surrounds him. Thus man’s way to nature is broken by a sense of responsibility to God. Thereby his whole attitude toward nature comes under the purview of the spirit, under the obligation of dignity as the content of this responsibility. His way to God is interrupted by the realization that he is only a creature, that basically he must come to God by an act which simultaneously signifies separation and union, adoration and obedience. Every utterance about God that cannot be assimilated into adoration is false, just as all behavior toward God which cannot be assimilated into obedience is false.

Man’s proper attitude is manifested precisely in this disposition—the observance of his limits, which at the same time are those of reality.

It is veracity, courage, and patience. Patience above all. The solution, properly speaking, comes only from faith, from the love of God.

Only the mystery of Gethsemane—and behind it the mystery of sin with all its consequences—can supply an adequate answer: Our Lord “was sorrowful unto death”; he carried his heavy burden to the end in fulfillment of the Father’s will. Only in the Cross of Christ do we find the solution for the distress caused by melancholy. Time does not allow further discussion of this point; and now, at the end, the imperfections and the piecemeal character of my presentation strike me forcibly. But I shall let it stand, because I personally am not in a position to do better and because I believe that some benefit will accrue from having presented these matters as I have.

Further, it is impossible to demonstrate how profoundly questions regarding melancholy are posed, and how Christian replies to those questions are given, in the letters of St. Paul. He does so in trenchant phrases, in exclamations, in the underlying tone of his entire discussion, in the color and sound of his language. Here exists an entire theology of melancholy, pervious, of course, only to him “who has experienced.”

Here, too, we can find the reply to that element of melancholy for which no solution exists on earth.

Editorial Note: Today marks the 51st anniversary of Romano Guardini's death. This essay is an excerpt from his The Human Experience, courtesy of Cluny Media.

Featured Image: Edvard Munch, Evening Melancholy, 1891; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Romano Guardini

Romano Guardini (1885–1968) was a Catholic priest, professor, and author. He taught theology and philosophy at the University of Berlin, University of Tübingen, and University of Munich. Included among his intellectual disciples are Josef Pieper, Luigi Giussani, and Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

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