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There was a 17th-century version of FOMO

A 1621 book about melancholy has a lot of helpful advice for our current malaise.

A portion of the frontispiece in the 1638 edition of Robert Burton's "The Anatomy of Melancholy."Wikimedia Commons

These days we believe we are living in exceptional times. Have we ever had this much crime? Actually, yes, we have. Have politics ever been this polarized? Most definitely. Have we ever been this depressed? Well ...

A Gallup poll in May revealed that the level of depression is the highest it’s been since the poll began tracking the problem in 2015, with women, young people, and Black and Hispanic adults showing the highest increases. Since 2017, the rate of depression among women ages 18-44 has spiked to 37 percent — almost double the rate of men’s depression, which is at 20 percent.


Recently psychologists such as Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt have blamed online life — especially social networking services like Instagram and TikTok. The idea is that measuring yourself constantly against the curated celebrities and cool kids of social media, while your own posts go unnoticed or get mercilessly roasted, is bad for psychological well-being.

But while this spike in depression is lamentable and needs remedy, it’s not unprecedented.

Like our current era, Europe in the 1600s suffered a widespread malaise. People felt they were living through an epidemic of depression. They didn’t have Instagram troubles, but they did have the Thirty Years War, the murder of the King of France, the trial of Galileo, the British Civil Wars, and a steady march of plagues and witch hunts. When Oxford librarian Robert Burton (1577-1640) published his encyclopedic book “The Anatomy of Melancholy” (1621), it became so valuable and popular that he successfully put out five revised and expanded editions. It influenced subsequent medical history and artists like John Keats, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Anthony Burgess, and Nick Cave.

A 1635 portrait of Robert Burton by Gilbert Jackson.Brasenose College, Oxford/Wikimedia Commons

The first part of “The Anatomy” explains the various causes of depression, while the second part details various cures. “The Anatomy” says there are supernatural and natural causes of depression, and no pharmaceutical compound can ameliorate spiritual depression (i.e., divine punishment). The only true curative for spiritual depression is prayer for mercy. God might want you depressed to pay for some sins, but other supernatural causes include demons, witches, ghosts, and genii. These nefarious forces operate more through obsession than through possession. They cause your imagination (your “fancy”) to become confused and obsessed with unrealities — making you suspicious, paranoid, anxious, and disheartened. The choleric humors within you expand and disrupt the harmony of your precious bodily fluids, creating psychological misery: No one loves me; people are against me; I have no friends; the world is ending; life is meaningless.


Some of this explanation may sound familiar, with social media today having replaced demons as the nefarious force that hijacks our imaginations and causes obsessive unease. But if you still would dismiss the 17th-century view of depression as outdated, prescientific, and irrelevant to our own “exceptional” era, I hasten to point out two things. First, “spiritual depression” (feeling alienated from God) is a very strong and pervasive belief. Understanding its belief structure and its amelioration is still vital. Second, most of Burton’s “Anatomy” details the natural rather than supernatural causes and cures of depression, including the inheritance of depression from parents and the role of social bonds, diet, alcohol, constipation, sleep, work, money, and exercise. In fact, reading this book from the 1600s gives one the forceful sense that we still don’t know much about the causes and cures of depression. Today we do know more about the neurotransmitters involved in depression (e.g., reduced serotonin, oxytocin, endogenous opioids, and dopamine) and this will help us find symptom alleviators, but the behavioral and human-sized conditions are not that different than they were hundreds of years ago.


Burton’s principal cure for melancholy sounds simple but remains difficult to achieve: “be not solitary, be not idle.” In other words, cultivate a social life of some kind, and do some kind of meaningful work or hobby — especially creative work. A famous Harvard study of happiness (eight decades of ongoing research) says basically the same thing. According to the study, people who cultivate strong bonds with friends and family are more likely to report overall happiness, and those with a demanding hobby or meaningful work are even more nearly immune to melancholy. Current digital life, especially among younger people, may be making those simple depression cures hard to achieve.

Burton was way ahead of Harvard, arguing that loneliness was a major cause of depression. Friends, he argued, had a duty to step in and uplift the struggling soul, with optimistic company and care. Music and mirth are listed as tools friends can use to help relieve one another. And when friends can’t be found, then reading and writing can be very therapeutic (psychologists now call this bibliotherapy and scriptotherapy).

As stressful as 17th-century Europe was — with its wars and plagues — it’s true that the average citizen did not have hourly reminders (indeed minute-by-minute reminders) of personal and global misery streaming into their head via smartphone. Then again, religious consciousness was strong and harassed everyone in a relentless manner with the fear of omniscient surveillance.


The kids today tell each other to “go outside and touch grass” when digital life has overwhelmed their judgment and perspective. The real world, particularly nature, still may have the power to clean out the digital cobwebs of screen brain. caused by passive watching of bite-sized clips of dancing, cooking, traffic accidents, Karen tantrums, and cat hijinks, which ultimately add up to a white-hot blank. Now, making social networking videos, instead of just watching them, is another matter altogether and probably answers well to Burton’s (and modern research’s) recommendation of creative work. It’s hard to find reliable stats, but apparently somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of TikTok users have created and uploaded content. That’s a good sign. Maybe social networking sites can be modified (e.g., more pro-creativity algorithms), becoming the new creative spaces to cure some of the melancholy they have caused.

Robert Burton said he wrote “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” which he worked on his whole adult life, as his own cure for depression. Ultimately, Burton is a pragmatist about curing melancholy, and we should be too. He endorses whatever works and does not stand on pious ceremony. When considering whether a person can use magic or dark forces to cure his melancholy, Burton agrees with the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus: “It matters not whether it be God or the devil, angels or unclean spirits that cure him, so long as he be eased.”


Stephen Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of 10 books and is the cohost with Paul Giamatti of the podcast Chinwag.