Plato and the origin of mental health

Kenneth Seeskin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


This essay examines the history of the concept of mental health. Its origin can be traced to Plato, who argued that immorality is to the soul what disease is to the body. The purpose of this argument was to answer those who thought that morality is a set of social conventions, and in that sense, is contrary to nature. Plato responded by turning to those who made a systematic study of nature - the medical writers of his day - and claiming that if proper balance is needed to maintain a healthy body, the same is true of the soul. Thus the natural state of the soul is one in which the various parts agree on which should rule. This does not mean that Plato sought to excuse immoral behavior by treating it as a medical condition, only that he regarded immoral behavior as contrary to nature and thus treatable. Although later attempts to define mental health are not as rigid as Plato's, it is remarkable how many of his insights are still applicable, in particular the claim that morality and mental health, though not identical, are nonetheless linked. A case in point is the experience of wanting something but not liking the fact that you want it. Plato regarded internal conflict of this sort as a paradigm case of psychic dysfunction. I argue that we can regard it as either a moral failing or a mental one.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)487-494
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Law and Psychiatry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2008


  • Mental Health
  • Morality
  • Plato
  • Psychic harmony

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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