On MacCulloch’s “Christianity, The First 3000 Years”

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 17, 2017
Volume VII. No. 16/327


 A Special Book for Easter

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

Christianity, The First 3000 Years
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
1184 pages

Happy Easter and joyous reading!


Faithful readers recall the review of Paul Johnson’s Book History of Christianity, 600 pages long, which we presented previously. In that book, the author has favored Reformation, Martin Luther, and Protestantism. We now have another colossal work, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1184 pages, Christianity, The First 3,000 Years, in which one detects strong anti-Catholic bias.  However, undeniably, the book is a landmark in its field, astonishing in its range, compulsively readable, full of insight and points of interest for the general reader. It is not the over-illustrated coffee-table type book you might expect. The book is scholarly, dense, yet written in a readable and engaging style, but not as well written as Plato’s Republic or Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The impressive volume provides an excellent overview of Christianity. It is most appropriate reading for Easter.

The book begins with Judaism and Greek philosophy, giving the background to the remarkable historical phenomenology of Christendom.  It is prodigious, thrilling, and gives the reader a master class of a history without leaving one’s chair. MacCulloch is to be congratulated for his accessible handling of so much complex and difficult material. This is a book generous in detail and sound in judgment. It fills the gaps that heretofore existed in history of religion.

The content

The book consists of seven parts. The first part is about “A Millennium of Beginnings” (1000 BCE-100CE).  In this part the history of the Greek beginnings, Rome and the coming of the Roman Empire are discussed.

In the second part Israel (100-1000 CE) is examined. The second part, “One Church, One Faith, One Lord?”, examines the lives of Jesus, Paul, Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation, and the Jewish Revolt and the End of Jerusalem, and finally the Imperial Church, Constantine and Papacy.

In part three, “Vanishing Futures: East and South (451-1500)”, a close examination of Asia and Africa, church fathers such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, emergence of Islam in 620 CE, the Church of China, Mongols and Islam in Africa are scrutinized.

Part four, “The Unpredictable Rise of Rome” (300-1300), the making of Latin Christianity, Latin Christendom and “The church of All People” are painstakingly dissected.

Part five, “The Imperial Faith” (451-1800), the emergence of the new Rome, Orthodoxy and the Russian Church are examined.

Part six “Western Christianity Dismembered” (1300-1800), Martin Luther, Reformation, Papal monarchy, Wittenberg and Luther’s 95 questions/theses, and other reformers are discussed.

Part seven, “God in the Dock”, (1492-present), the author examines the Age of Enlightenment, Judaism, Skepticism, and Deism, crowning the section with a more precise dissection and deeper understanding of the roots of religion in America’s deep south. It also gives the reader an understanding of evangelical fervor and culture wars. The book has 67 illustrations, maps and paintings. The text is 1014 pages, the alphabetically arranged notes are 89 pages, and 49 pages of index, plus introduction, totaling 1185 pages

The title of the book, Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, is fascinating if not intellectually challenging. We know that Christianity is only 2000 years old. Where does the author get 3000 years of Christianity? At first glance, the reader knows not whether the author is going to address 1000 BC to today or from the beginning of Christianity until one thousand years from now. Well, in this review I will attempt to answer that very question. The title refers to the former, one thousand years before Christ until today. The author skillfully documents that there was Christianity before Christ. There was a Socrates whom many historians and theologians including Soren Kierkegaard call Saint Socrates. As a matter of fact, Soren wrote his PhD thesis “On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates”.  Soren was a Socrates “groupie”!  We know that Socrates is exalted because of his reverential devotion to teaching enlightenment to his young students for which he was accused, tried and executed. MacCulloch’s “alternative” religious history, favoring the Catholic Church, holds that Christianity really began 3000 years ago. He asserts that before Christ there was a Jewish God, Yahweh, and a Greek God. There were prophets such as the Persian prophet Zarathustra and there were other prophets of the Old Testament Bible such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, etc., all of whom he calls precursors to Christianity which came on the scene 2000 years ago.

MacCulloch devotes considerable space to examine how Christianity has spread throughout the globe. He follows this spread, starting with the origins of the Hebrew Bible, tracing the three main religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, filling in often neglected accounts, including conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. He also explains the Crusades. Further, Mr. MacCulloch looks at the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England to the southern plains of America. In his book, MacCulloch explains that Christianity, one of the world’s great religions, has had an incalculable impact on human history. In a systematic manner, the author devotes several chapters to the main ideas and personalities of Christian history. As cited above, other chapters are given to the organization and spirituality of the church, and how Christianity has changed politics, sex, and human society. The author’s range of discussion spans from Palestine in the first century to India in the third; from Damascus to China in the seventh century; and from San Francisco to Korea in the twentieth.

Global History of Christianity

In my view this huge volume is the first truly global history of Christianity. This formidable compendium is the most comprehensive and up to date single volume work in English that presents the development of Christian history differently from any of its predecessors. The author shows how, after a semblance of unity in its earliest centuries, the Christian Church divided during the next 1400 years into three increasingly distanced parts, of which the western Church was by no means always the most important. He observes that at the end of the first eight centuries of Christian history, Baghdad might have seemed a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome. He concludes that all in all, Christianity is a landmark in the history of the faith that continues to shape the world.

It is comforting to have MacCulloch’s complementary history of the Christian Church.  MacDiarmid MacCulloch is a better writer than Paul Johnson, and his book is a lively and entertaining effort. On the downside, unfortunately, there is a strong anti-Catholic bias throughout his work which is even more disturbing than Johnson’s pro-Catholic stance. In fact, there are several passages in the book that almost give you the impression that MacCulloch must have been writing them with a permanent sneer on his face. In summary, if you are English and Protestant and believe that the best thing that happened to England was the Reformation, then you will probably love this book. If not, the author’s multiple biases and prejudices will probably grate on you. I consider the book a triumphantly executed achievement.

Strengths and weaknesses of this very impressive and comprehensive text are many. I have read Edward Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” starting in my native tongue of Farsi then in French and finally in English, many times. Gibbon’s English syntax is delicious reminding the reader of lyrical poetic writings of Plato in Republic. Well, I found the use of language in this book to be dry and matter of fact. The syntactic enjoyment is lacking! On the other hand I learned more about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire by reading this book, than reading Gibbon’s work. Another weak or prejudicial point is that I found references are lacking or outright non-existent. The scholarly world knows that the father of Skepticism is Al-Ghazali, (1058-1111), the Persian poet, theologian and philosopher. Yet in Part seven of the book, discussion of Skepticism, there is no mention of either Al-Ghazali or Al-Farabi (870-950).

Finally, to the members of my family and close friends who received this review in advance, I wrote “If you want a delicious book, a feast of a book, a sumptuous and exciting intellectual and spiritual banquet for you and for your family, this book is it!—especially if you read it along with Paul Johnson’s book either back to back or simultaneously—“  Another attraction the book has for me is that it is about the Bible, a book which I truly enjoy and admire. In a recent interview for a national magazine, the interviewer’s last question was

“If you were forced to live on a deserted island and were allowed to bring one book, one selection of music, and one piece of artwork, what would they be?”

Book     That book has not been written. It would be a book containing the genomic display of all the biblical (Old and New Testaments) characters including Christ. If it is not written by the time I am assigned to a deserted island, I will take pen and paper to write it myself. Nobel Laureate, Craig Venter, whose book I have reviewed in this space, has given us a taste of that venture. Since I have not written that book and it is not yet available, I guess I will settle for the Bible, an amazingly comprehensive and complex book.  For example, there are 114 references to King Cyrus of Persia alone in the Bible (see Isaiah 45 where Cyrus the Great is called Messiah).

Music:   Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece of transcendent theology, musical genius, bringing the message of hope, promise, possibility and redemption to all humans. I have already devoted space to dissecting this truly miraculous opus magnum.

Art:  Pietà, by Michelangelo.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is the recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On Potpourri: Literary Concerns

Monday Musings for Monday April 10, 2017
Volume VII. No. 15/327\


Potpourri: Literary Concerns

By Assad Meymandi MD, PhD, ScD (Hon),  DLFAPA*


The Birth of Existentialism

I am delighted to know that many of our readers are pleased with our occasional philosophical discourse.  After all, philosophy means literally “love of wisdom.”  Wisdom is not information, it is not knowledge; yet it is both of those, and more.

It is gratifying to receive reader’s mail who ask for more discussion of people who have made a difference in this world.  People like Soren Kierkegaard, born 1813, died 1855, a brilliant sarcastic, humorous and incredibly prolific thinker theologian/philosopher.  He, along with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976—I once went to Berlin to meet and talk with him), Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1950) and Albert Camu (1913-1960) are the four horses of Existentialism, all of whom give credit to St Augustine of Hippo for their start and cutting their teeth in understanding the basic premises and principles of existentialism… Soren used to write books pseudonymously, and then critique them harshly, calling the writer of the books, meaning himself, a no good “oeuf”…

A writer asked about Manicheans.  The reader was stimulated by my review of James O’Donnell’s Book on the life of Saint Augustine which appeared in WCP in this space.  Yes, Saint Augustine of Hippo for 14 years of his life, between ages of 18 (372) and 32 (386, the year he converted to Christianity) was a Manichean.  Augustine was baptized by Bishop Ambrose of Milan on Easter morning 387.

Mani was a Persian. He was born and raised near today’s Basra which was a part of the Persian Empire.  The religion is heavily based on Zoroastrianism and Zoroaster (Zaratustra) dualistic approach to heaven and earth, good and evil, body and soul… He is purported to have gone to China and converted Turan Shah of China (Puccinin’s Turandot which is really Turan-dokht, the daughter of Turan) is based on this Emperor’s daughter.  Manicheans were sophisticated and learned.  They often ridiculed Christians and their ”faith.”  Manichians were highly educated, most master-rhetors, engaged in the art of persuasion, like today’s law professors. They believed in dualism, rationalism and materialism.  Augustine’s corpus of work contains19 volumes refuting Manicheans, Donatists, Palagirists and Arians. It makes for stimulating reading and ultimately giving reader a roadmap to true wisdom.

 Greed/Financial Dysfunction

I need help to understand a few things about our financial system. While stocks have lost about 50% of their value in one year, and many 401 K for the middle class American workers were wiped out, the salaries and compensations of the CEOs who caused this chaos went up. Let me quote some of these salaries from published statistics, US Department of Labor:

Lloyd Blankfein, Chair and CEO, Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. received $68.0 million dollars in compensation, and when the company failed the federal government pumped in $10 billion dollars to rescue it.  Similarly, James Dimon, Chair and CEO, J. P. Morgan Chase & Co., $30.4 million in compensation and $25 billion government bail out; Kenneth Lewis, Chair, CEO, Bank of America Corp., $16.4 million, $25 billion; John Mack, Chair & CEO, Morgan Stanley, $16 million, $10 billion; Vikram Pandit, CEO Citigroup, Inc, $5.7, with $25 billion bail out;  William McGuire, Chair and CEO, UnitedHealth $40.7 million; and another Merrill Lynch high flyer, Peter Kraus, head of strategy, $25 million, just to name a few.

What I don’t understand and would like for someone to explain to me is how could these people run their companies to the ground, cause millions of their shareholders to have their retirements wiped out and yet be rewarded and the government, without shame, bailed them out?  Please help.

Health care disaster in US

Your recent lead editorial was timely and thoughtful. But it failed to identify one of the most egregious and unwelcome causes of health care crisis and cost over-run. And that is the  “middle man”, such as the HMOs and the health insurance companies.  These huge  business enterprises with elaborate bureaucratic staffs and CEOs reward themselves  with millions of dollars a year compensation, bonuses, and fatten up their  pockets with back dating stock options, clearly an illegal and fraudulent  act, are the problem.

Just three weeks ago, United Health ex-CEO, William McGuire,  agreed to pay back 30 million in annual compensation he had received, and  forfeit 3.7 million dollars in stock option backdating. The dollars  that go to boost shareholder value and reward these huge billion dollar companies  should be re-routed to patient care. These Enron-type companies coming between patients and doctors  are many in number. They are poisonous to medical care. I submit  that all health care ”middle man” business entities and health insurance companies  ought to be reined in, if not eliminated, if there is any hope for the  critically ill US health care system. Unfortunately, neither Presidential  candidate’s plan offers much hope.

The Gift of Pistachio and a Pinch of Sufism

This is a personal note.  I know that it should be handwritten. But legibility becomes a problem.  I am writing to tell you how touched I was to receive your thoughtful card with your inserted personal note bearing syntactical elegance and rabbinical wisdom (Rabbi from Aramaic and later Hebrew roots means ‘My teacher’.)

Also thank you for the gift of pistachios, every individual kernel depicting the Hafez poem” Pesteh Khandan.” Pistachios were known to Sumerians.  There are records in cuneioform (spike or Mikhi) alphabet what scholars have interpreted to be pistachio associated with green color.  Sanskrit word PESTEH is the etymology of our word pistachio.  During Achamenid Dynasty, in Persia, Shiraz became the center for growing groves of pistachio trees.  And in the pre-Islamic world, they used to ferment and make a wine from pistachio.  There was and continues to be to this day, one species of pistachio that actually opens in the pod/shell on the tree before they are picked.  They are called “laughing or smiling pistachios.”  The Shiraz poets such as Mosleh-Din Saadi (1210-1290) and Khajeh Shams-Din-Hafez (1337-1406) have romanced this species of pistachio as the smiling or laughing(KHANDAN) fruit.  As one can see, a cracked pistachio looks like a smiling face.

Saadi and Hafez were Sufis.  Sufi philosophy has given birth to the discourse and science of “ontology.”   For the last 1200 years, it has evolved the beatific message“to be in the world but not of the world.”  Sufism invites, encourages, and teaches the art and skill of “being” as a contradistinction of “doing.”  We need to set aside time for introspection and reflection…All one’s “doings” should be in the ultimate service of “being” and “becoming”….

Rumi, one of the most eloquent and influential Masters of Sufi in relation to ontology and being said: “Blessed are those who are in a state of constant worship….for the very act of worship is the essence is self-awareness and self-knowledge…”.  I must assert that Rumi is very much exploited by literary charlatans and marketers who pose as Rumi authorities, yet do not know a word of Farsi language!)

May your faces like Hafez’ Pesteh be Khandan, smiling and happy forever.

 Etymology of the word “religion”,

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and John Calvin (1509-1564), two disparate theologians of the 13th and 16th centuries, along with Persian physician Abu Ali Sina, Avicenna (980-1037), the famed medical diagnostician and clinician of the eleventh century have written independent treatises on the “religion.”  Here is a summary of their work on the topic

The etymology of the word “religion”, re-ligion”; re: again, ligating: binding, connecting (surgeons ligate veins and tie up arteries); thus, re-connecting, re-binding, re-attaching…what to what is the question. Perhaps to the beatific vision of eternity and transcendence of love…

 A Euro for Asia

The wire services just unloaded a very heart warming and personal story: Robert Mundel, Ragan’s Chairman of Economic advisors, father of trickle down Rageanonomics (Ibn Khaldoun ‘1332-1406’ was the real father, Robert Mundel was a promulgator!), but he was the true father of the “Euro”, the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Economics, is now back in the news.  He wants to foster or father the equivalent currency of Euro for Asi Asia.  The name has not been conceived. The Sultan of Abu Dhabi, owner of the multi-trillion dollar “Sovereign Fund” which has been rescuing American Banks and Financial institutions (including Bank of America, UBS, CitiBank, and Washington Mutual) is behind the effort.

A personal note: We had the privilege of having lunch with Dr. Mundel in his Palladian villa in Italy on Friday June 25, 1992.  It was a memorable occasion.

Joy of Death: Is it an oxymoron?

 Many years ago, Randy Pausch’s name was being considered by some members of the National Humanities Center Nominating Committee for membership to the Board before we learned that he was dying. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he gave his “Last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon.  It was a fascinating experience.  He was a picture of health. He did summersaults and push ups during his lecture, and at the conclusion of his speech, carried his wife off the stage. It is very sad that he died. Yet, it is glorious the way he lived and the legacy he left for us.  I am reviewing his book which will appear in a future issue of WCP.

The Dope on Cannabis

In response to a reader’s question about cannabis and alcohol:

The scholarship on cannabis and data-driven research on this controversial drug show that cannabis may and does affect not only the higher cortical structures but also the subcortical parts of the brain, what is known as the Limbic system, causing bipolar disorder (radical mood swings and irrational and impulsive behaviour) but actual psychosis. Alcohol has the same adverse effects on the brain through different pathways.  So, I really condemn both. I am absolutely against legalizing cannabis. I would be happy to give you reference to these studies. A drunken parent should not hypocritically admonish a pothead child.  It does not work. This is one of the astonishing teachings of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the ultimate role model to humankind.  Although he was addicted to sex, after his conversion to Christianity and soon after becoming a Bishop, he had enough discipline to stop sex altogether. The same, I condemn tobacco and its ill effects on the body in general. However, I guess the reason tobacco is not banned is that it does NOT cause bipolar disorder and psychosis.  Some states are legalizing the use of cannabis because it is a cash cow and produces huge tax  revenues.

The ultimate answer to these problems is education which starts in utero.  Mamas must adopt Augustinian discipline to love themselves and their fetus(es), stop tobacco, alcohol and over-eating while they are pregnant, and continue to be role models to their children.

Hypocrisy and Greed of University Leaders

I am opposed to lowering drinking age in college as many, including 100 college and university leaders, promote. While prohibition is often counterproductive, I believe the answer to binging, abuse and unreasonable use of alcohol is education. The answer also lies in curtailing greed and hunger for money. The University leaders ought to cut out advertising of beer from all TV sports. It is sheer greed to have alcohol products sponsoring sports events, and it is sheer hypocrisy for the university leaders to tolerate this practice because it produces revenue for their institutions. Ban alcohol ads from all television sports.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On America and the English Language

Monday Musings for April 3, 2017
Volume VII, No. 14/326


Love affair with the English Language

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon),  DLFAPA*

Today’s Musings are imbued with personal memories. They have to do with my choosing to come to America and study medicine, among other things. You see, I was not born an American. I chose to be an American. I entered the US on April 7, 1955 knowing ten English words.

In order to go to college and prepare for a medical education, I knew that I had to learn English rather quickly.  In months between April and September, when college opened, I memorized the 285,000 words of the 1955 edition of the Oxford Dictionary. Later, I expanded this knowledge and learned the etymology of practically every one of those words.  Soon, I learned that Dr. Samuel Johnson, exactly 200 years before my date of entry, namely April 7, 1755, had compiled the first English Dictionary. The very first edition of the Oxford Dictionary was compiled in 1857 a la Dr. Johnson’s original compendium. I found a copy of that precious book through the Library of Congress. The edition contains 50,000 words. I enjoyed memorizing it, also, and forming an adoring relationship with the work of the late Dr. Johnson.  As an aside, the original Dr. Johnson’s 50,000 word dictionary was a part of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson sold to US Government, which became the germinating seed of our beloved US Library of Congress.

Three years were spent in college pre-medical education with majors in English and Chemistry. I entered medical school in 1958. In 1962, exactly seven years after coming to the US, I had earned Doctor of Medicine (MD).

My intense experience with the English language brought me close to much older and wiser linguists and university professors. Among them was the late Samuel Hayakawa, the then Chancellor of San Francisco State University, who in 1977 became A US Senator from California. He used to get a kick out of my referring to him as the semi-somnolent septuagenarian, Senator Samuel Hayakawa. I wrote a letter to Hayakawa, and to our own, then Senator, Jesse Helms, who also knew something about my love of the English language, suggesting that they sponsor a bill to make English the official language of America. I even sent some money to facilitate expenses associated with the authorship of the bill, etc…I believe it was 1979 when they invited me to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee. It never tool place and the bill never passed.

In my testimonies, instead of concentrating on the importance of the subject matter, the solons enjoyed my ability to close my eyes and recite page after page of the Oxford Dictionary, “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, etc…”

With all my emotional and intellectual resources, I believe making English the official language of America is the most important issue in today’s political discourse. As citizens of this great nation,  we must know about our flag, our Founding Fathers and the US Constitution. I believe that to be an American, one must know the English language, know the bare essentials of the US Constitution, our Republic, the Bill of Rights and the story of the birth of this nation. What are the requirements to be an American? In my view, the catechism of being an American should consist of a good knowledge, if not verbatim memorization, of four documents. They are the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Please feel free to call on me and use me as a reference to further this, what I consider to be a holy cause.

God Bless America!


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is the recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On March

“Monday Musings” for Monday March 27, 2017
Volume VII. No. 13/325

From left to right: Julius Caesar, Mozart, Bach, and Moses Maimonides

The Busy Month of March

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon.), DLFAPA*

March is a busy month. Many epoch-making occurrences took place in March including the back to back birthdays of Moses Maimonides of Cordoba on Mach 29, and birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach on March 30. We recently published a column reviewing Sherwin Nuland’s book on Moses Maimonides of Cordoba. It grieves me to report that the beloved brilliant Yale surgeon, scholar, author and chronically depressed Nuland died on March 3, 2014 at the age 83. Nuland, among his immense volume of writings, successfully demystified death. His illuminating and crisp writings covered many topics including the true meaning of being a Jew, chosen by God and all the burdens that goes with the privilege. Nuland, with whom I had the privilege of corresponding by e-mail, honored me by reading “Monday Musings” and commenting on some of them. He very much reminded me of another brilliant colleague, Pediatrician/author Walker Percy who was chronically depressed.

Perhaps the most significant date in March is March 15, the Ides of March. A word about the etymology of “Ides”- the word comes from the Aramaic and Farsi Eid meaning celebration, such as Eid –e-Fetr, the end of 30 days of prayer and fasting in the month of Ramadan. March 15 is Eid or celebration of approaching spring, having only one week to suffer the barbarity of the old and foreboding winter (March 21), vernal equinox on Julian calendar, the start of Persian New Year or here we go again Eid-e-Norooz (see last week’s, March 21, Monday Musings). There are some other significant historical events which took place on Ides of March. Roman Republic ended and Roman Empire started on March 15. Cesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC. Shakespeare’s reference to Caesar’s death “to beware of the ides of March” has given the ides of March black eyes…Perhaps this is the origin of modern day interpretation of “impending doom” that is superstitiously associated with March 15

March is the busiest month of the year admitting states to the Union: State of Ohio entered the Union on March1, 1803 (number 17), Nebraska on March 1, 1867 (number 37) Florida on March 3, 1845 (number 27), Vermont on March 4, 1791,(number 14), and Maine was admitted to the Union on the ides of March 1820 (number 23).

Happy Birthday, Maestro Bach

To understand music one must study Bach. Should you, your children and grandchildren be interested in understanding the fundamentals of architectural construct of classical music, you should read the magnificent writings of our good friend, the very talented journalist and dramaturge, Barrymore Lawrence Scherr. Bach (born March 30—some argue that he was born March 21, 1685; died July 28, 1750), has two seminal compositions, The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I, and The Well Tempered Clavier, Book II. Both books, 48 pieces altogether, give us the basics for minor and major notes, preludes, point and counterpoint, color, fugue, development, etc. Daniel Barenboim, Emeritus Conductor of the Chicago Symphony, plays all 48 pieces often in Carnegie Hall. Check online and enjoy these delightful academic performances of baroque music, wrapped in rich cosmic bouquets that only Bach can produce.

Music: Mankind’s Savior

The New York Metropolitan Opera performance of Mozart’s masterpiece, Idomeneo, was a good reminder that Mozart was an ordinary man with all the flaws and scars of alcoholism, syphilis (from Pamena of Magic Flute), kidney failure and periodic bankruptcy, with an extraordinary and truly God-like mind to produce and write music of such complexity, architectural soundness of structure, yet immense sublimity and transcendence that is beyond any mortal person’s comprehension. The gift of Mozart is available to all lovers of music. The Met’s performance was super-special, because the international cast involved countries of Australia, England, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zeeland, and France. Our own Maestro James Levine, veteran Met Opera Music Director, and now conductor of the Boston Symphony, born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, who conducted the feast, was America’s contribution. The virtuous performance of the star-studded cast and Levine’s skillful directing once again proved that music is the universal language of peace, understanding and love which may bring the message of brotherhood and connectedness to mankind.

*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is the recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On Norooz

“Monday Musings” for Monday March 20, 2017
Volume VII, No. 12/324

Norooz, Persian (Iranian) New Year

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*


Tomorrow, Tuesday March 21 is the Iranian New Year, Norooz. Yes, March 21, the first day of spring, vernal equinox, is also the first day of the Persian New Year. Today, Iranians celebrate year 5778.  My sources in Tehran tell me that most of the 70 plus million Iranians who were mostly pleased with the nuclear accord signed by Iran and US to lift the sanctions, two years ago, giving the Iranians the best New Year’s present they could get, are now fearfull of what thepresent administration might do. Iranians feel that the the nuclear accord was a good new year present (in Farsi, Eidee). However, nomatter what, theIranians are not going to let anything spoil thei festivities The Persian people are used to political vicissitudes and domestic extremes. After all, the Persian civilization (the Medes) was there before Moses (1590 BC-1470 BC, lived to be 120 years) wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (scholarship notwithstanding)……

The Persians were there before the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law code, was written in 1772 BC.

Persia, the Persian Empire and Zoroaster gave humanity monotheism, and issued the first declaration of human rights. Persia was there before the Old and the New Testaments….

Avesta, the Zoroastrian Bible, was there before the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation…. Monotheism was exhorted in Gatha and the Book of Gushtasb by Zarathustra before Moses wrote about Yahweh….

The Zoroastrian code of conduct: “Good thought, Good word, and Good deed” was there long before the Ten Commandments…

Cyrus the Great of Persia liberated the Jews 500 years BC (Babylonian Captivity). There are dozens of references made to him and to the Persian Empire in the Bible. In Isaiah 45 Cyrus is named Messiah. Additional references may be found in Chronicles, Ezra, Daniels, Hezekiah, Maccabees 1, Maccabees 2, Maccabees 3, Maccabees 4, Maccabees 5, Esdras, Sirach, and Esther.

The world’s first charter of human rights, Cyrus Cylinder, housed in the British Museum, completed its American tour two years ago. It was exhibited in Arthur M Sackler Gallery (the late Dr. Sackler was a psychiatrist) and J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angles, before returning back to the British Museum. The writing is elegant cuneiform (Mikhi) script (limage below).

America has a special historical link with Persia. When the founding fathers were contemplating the architectonics of the US Constitution and the relationship between the central/federal government and the 13 colonies, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin referred to the Persian Empire, and copied the form of Persian government, a Republic, where individual states are sovereign and autonomous. Also, Benjamin Franklin copied the ancient Persian postal service and adopted the Persian mail system (Peyk).

Persia’s contribution to music has been vast and innumerable. Let me illustrate one. No matter where in the world a symphony is playing when the concertmaster enters the symphony hall to tune the orchestra before the maestro takes over, it is the oboe, a pure Persian instrument that gives the first note to guide the concertmaster to tune the orchestra. It is universal and with no exception. It is the Persian instrument, the oboe, that set the tune for the entire orchestra.

In more modern history, the late President Truman often in his speeches referred to Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire’s achievements.

The Persian New Year, vernal equinox, when the day and night are equal and exactly 12 hours long, representing nature’s exquisite justice, was celebrated 5778 years ago, in the month of Edar yek (1) which followed the month of Shavat, as the Persian New Year or Norooz. Therefore, on March 21, vernal equinox, we celebrate Norooz, the first day of the Persian calendar 5778.

We are Persians; we are inheritors of such dazzling history and civilization….

And with humility and gratitude, we share this joyous occasion with all humanity.  Happy Norooz  (New Day, New Year) to all.

The Cyrus Cylinder
*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On Dealing With Anger

Monday Musings” for Monday March 13, 2017
Volume VII, No. 11/323

Preventing Anger From Erupting

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

 (Editor’s note:  This article ran in the op-ed page of the Sunday May 25, 1980 edition of the Fayetteville Observer, Fayetteville, NC.  In my practice, I see ever increasing level of anger on domestic, national and international scenes prompting me a  re-run of the essay)
The recent eruption of the Mount Saint Helen’s volcano reminded me of how some people deal with their anger. Anger exists. Everyone needs to recognize, understand, and channel this ever-present emotion so that it does not become destructive. The fellow, who went to the Texas clock tower and gunned down 42 people several years ago, is a good example of how a human volcano can erupt, and indeed cause more destruction than a true volcano.

It is a serious and damaging condition not to be able to express anger.  We either allow it to fester so when it is expressed it becomes explosive; we turn it inward so it turned into depression, ulcers and heart attacks; or we take it out on other people who did not cause it; or we learn to resolve it which is obviously the most reasonable and healthful way to deal with anger.

I am outlining four basic steps in resolution of anger.  They are:

The first step is to recognize the anger. People often speak of being disappointed, frustrated or let down, or hurt when they are actually repressing anger. Also the anger may be denied because we feel guilty about it, that it is not nice or we are afraid to express it.

The second step in the resolution of anger is to recognize the real source of your anger. This may require professional help.

After you recognize your anger and know where it is coming from; the third step is to try to understand the reason for your anger. Some people feel so guilty about their angry feelings that they try to over-compensate or deny them. An example is the saccharin sweet person who is not really sweet at all but a bitter individual, and, because we sense this, we find such people uncomfortable to be with.

The fourth step is to deal with the anger realistically. A confrontation with the person provoking the anger may be reasonable.

A word about confrontation: When you try confrontation you should say “I am angry at the way you’re treating me” rather than “you are no good, you are evil and I am angry at you” …by verbalizing how the behavior is affecting you, you are not “wiping out” the other person, but making them aware of your feelings and clearing the air so that the bad feelings do not fester and turn into depression and ulcers…

If confrontation is impractical or impossible, and you must put up with the situation, you should find other outlets for the energy. Some useful outlets are strenuous exercise, beating on a pillow, beating on a dummy or other inanimate objects, which does not affect damage. Whatever you do, don’t suppress your anger. It’ll turn into  depression, ulcers, heart attacks, stroke, etc. Ninety-five percent of all hospital beds are occupied by folks who don’t have the simple skills of resolving their anger as outlined above.

*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

“Monday Musings” for Monday February 27, 2017
Volume VII. No. 10/322

the white house

What is Good About America

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PHD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*


I grow intolerant of people who enjoy maligning America. It is now a rampant practice with the current administration. Most likely the put down is not out of malice but by putting down America the administration tries to elevate itself. The dynamics of  manufacturing heroes and dictators are at work here. And it is the hero and not the supremacy of the rule of law and rational debate that will save America. The need to elevate one’s self by demeaning America is a component of malignant narcissism. The psychological effect is devastating. Manufacturing heroes and worshiping heroes are not what our founding fathers recommended. Here is what is good about America. One episode stands out in my mind.

Consider the case of Zimbabwe, a nation of 12 million oppressed and unhappy people, with vast natural resources including oil, coal, copper, zinc and platinum. In March 2008, an election was held in Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai was elected over incumbent Robert Mugabe, president since 1980, when the country had become independent of British control, as Rhodesia. Mugabe, known for his brutality, did not accept the election results. Violence ensued, and according to the BBC many thousands of Tsvangirai supporters have been killed, imprisoned and tortured. There was a run-off election on June 27 of that year, which was named by many, including then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a “sham,” while Tsvangirai sought asylum in the Danish Embassy, and of course, Mugabi won.

Compare this to our 2008 electoral process in which Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, after 16 months of long and rigorous debates, came together in Unity, New Hampshire, for Hillary to declare her support of Obama. The occasion was a touching display of civility, cordiality and mutual respect. This was repeated recently by the election of the current administration, Clinton vs Trump, and the final electoral college vote count..

Observing our democracy at work is enough to stir up the highest instinct of patriotism and devotion to America. As Americans, we enjoy the supremacy of the rule of law, and not the whims of a person, to guarantee our freedom. Our Founding Fathers, especially George Washington, set the tone for leadership in America. After serving his country for eight years of presidency, like the Roman political figure, Lucuis Cincinnatus, Washington returned to his farm to let others to lead and govern the nation.

As one citizen, I take tremendous joy and honor in being an American and am happy to pay my taxes to sustain the system. But I discourage the banality of manufacturing phony heroes who will save America.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On Humanity

“Monday Musings” for Monday February 27, 2017
Volume VII. No. 9/321


Omnipotence or Ominous Impotence Of Humans and Humanity

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

Looking over the annals of human history, it is undeniable that we have made progress in industry, mechanization, discoveries, and advancement in health, technology and finance. After all, we put men on the moon with their safe return to earth more than 41 years ago. But one wonders if we have made any progress in civility, humanity and assertion of the necessity of love and charity in human relation. One wonders if we have succeeded in overcoming greed, if we have learned to stop manipulating, exploiting and using our fellow humans for our selfish gain.

1770 BC, a fellow by the name of Hammurabi, in Khuzestan, a part of Susa, Persian Empire, wrote a set of 282 rules or laws, each of which dealing with the rights of individual and the ultimate respect for one another. Over 50 of the 282 codes deal with equality of humans and specifically with the dignity and rights of women.

Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, to whom the Bible has more than 100 references, over 2500 years ago, rule his kingdom with dignity and beneficence. One of the Biblical references, for example, Isaiah 45, calls Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, the Messiah. Cyrus emancipated the Jews and established equal rights for men and women. In managing his vast empire, to be in touch with his emissary/rulers in distant parts of the kingdom, developed a formal service charged with sending and receiving communiqués to and from his lieutenants, thus the birth of the postal service which he called “Peyk”. The cabinet of Cyrus the Great consisted of twelve viziers (ministers or secretaries) several of whom were women. The first person in charge of the Royal mail service was a woman. Her name was Mithra (which in Zoroastrian parlance means, dignity). The father of the United States Postal Service (USPS), the polymath Benjamin Franklin, referred to Mithra in both official language, as well as amorous terms. After all, the gentleman was a lady’s man! No wonder he had special regards for Mithra…In 2010, in the same county, Persia, they are stoning women for as insignificant offense of showing their hair, or ankles or holding hands with a male in public. Is this progress in civility, humanity and human dignity?

Fast forward the clock of history. Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (24 February 1463 – 17 November 1494), the Italian Renaissance philosopher, at the age of 23, in 1483, in his equivalent to today’s PhD thesis proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers. The result was the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man. It has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”, and a key text of Renaissance humanism. In this essay, Pico invokes the writings and thoughts of all ancient wise men, going back to Moses, Zoroaster, Zerubbabel, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Platonic philosophers and neo-platonic philosophers such as Plotinus to conclude: “At last, the Supreme Maker spoke: we have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

So, where are we? Why we are not rising to the superior orders in advancing the cause of humanity, human dignity and enhance connectedness in human family?

Saadi Shirazi, the eloquent Persian poet (born 1210, died 1290) has a poem, the rough translation is Bani Adam, the progenies of Adam. That is to say, we humans are organs of one body…An organ separated from body cannot function…So, we humans without one another cannot function…” He goes on to say, “If one organ of the body is ill and aches, the rest of the body experiences pain and become restless…” I do not know of any more eloquent and descriptive simile that illustrates human being’s connectedness and brotherhood. Yet we have constant war, constant destruction and constant killing. In America we have a population of 300 million, or about 4.5 to 5% of the world’s roughly six billion, yet we consumed over 25% of the world reservoir of energy. We have over 2.5 million people in prison, more than any other developed nation. Reliable sources report that up to 80% of our prison and jail population have a diagnosable psychiatric illness and should be treated in rather than imprisoned. Certainly what International Affairs Committee is doing and has done since its inception in 1995 is helpful to bring these matters to the forefront of consciousness, and bring people together. Congratulations the NADE’s Board of Director and to host Jeffrey Price.

The title I have chosen for my talk today “Omnipotence or Ominous Impotence” draws on these historical facts. The life of Neolithic man on this earth is short, about ten thousand years. Looking back 8000 years ago with the emergence of Sumerians and invention of writing in Lydia, the world has witnessed rise and fall of many dynasties, empires and powerful nations. There was Mesopotamian kingdom, Accadians, Egyptians, and the mighty Roman Empire, Pax Romana, which was destroyed by Rome’s pre-occupation with the affairs of the Middle East. There was the Persian Empire now in shambles, and in modern day, the empires emerging in the developed world, British Empire and now America… Pax Americana…They have all experienced omnipotence, yet the ignominious ending has been nothing but impotence, destruction and reduction to a vague memory forgotten in the dustbin of human history. In England, there was Lady Matilda Maud (1102-1167) who first wrote a manifesto of human and women rights. Her activities led to emergence and development of King John’s Magna Carta in 1215. In America, Susan B Anthony (1820-1906) fashioned her activities after Lady Maud. In 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution signed by President Woodrow Wilson gave women right to vote.

With the historical decline and retrogression of human values and the humanities, I am offering some thoughts and suggestions. The history of humanity has offered us some brilliant role models who forcefully invite us to espouse the kind of altruism that promises the salvation of humanity

I want to invoke the names of three brilliant stars in the intellectual firmament whose teachings have influenced human behavior the most. The first is Saint Augustine of Hippo, born 345, died 430 AD. He was born a pagan, converted to Christianity at age 32, in 386, was baptized Easter Sunday April 4, 387. He wrote 49 volumes in theology, philosophy and other topics related to humanities, a total of 25 million words. Saint Augustine’s autobiography, 13 books of Confessions bravely talks about his stealing from his parents, fathering a son out of wedlock, stealing pears form neighbor’s yard, lying to his mother and finally sneaking off to Carthage, thence to Rome where he became a Manichean and finally met his intellectual superior in the person of St. Ambrose in Milan. St. Ambrose, one of four Latin Doctors (beside Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Pope Gregory) was instrumental in setting Augustine’s course to conversion and ultimately to priesthood and Sainthood.

Saint Augustine’s writing is replete with man’s dalliance with false omnipotence. He wrote extensively about narcissism, self-indulgence and greed. As a matter of fact, he called a newborn baby not a bundle of joy and innocence, but a bundle of sin, because the baby is wrapped up in self and survival and removed from consideration of others. This is what in psychoanalytic jargon is called “primary infantile autism” or “primary infantile narcissism”. As the child grows and the central nervous system matures, reality testing skills and learning to have consideration for and, deference to, others are developed. The opportunity to grow and become more altruistic, more giving, and less selfish and self centered is the gift of life. Saint Augustine was a proponent of the concept of grace and salvation. He espoused Pauline theology of grace which briefly is described as “an unearned and undeserved free gift”. He wrote more than a million words on grace.

The second brightest star of the intellectual firmament we are exploring is Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, born 1135, died 1204, a Jewish physician, colleague, theologian, philosopher, clinician and practitioner. He too wrote about 20 million words in his life time. He also was concerned about the issue of grace and salvation. Moses, in spite of being the Caliph’s personal physician in Cordoba, was pressed by anti-Semitic forces to flee to Egypt. There is a small statue of Moses (Rambam) in Cordoba. Emily and I take a single long stem rose and place it at his statue every time we are in Cordoba. We do the same when we visit the tomb of Claudio Monteverdi, father of Western Opera (Orpheo et Euridice 1607) in Iglesia de Santa María Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Veneto Region, Italy

The third brightest star of the intellectual constellation is Ibn Khaldoun, born 1336, died 1420, an Arab/Muslim theologian, economist, philosopher, music lover and advocate and writer. He too wrote about 20 millions words in his lifetime. Ibn Khaldoun was the father of trickledown economics which was adopted by the late President Reagan in 1981. He appointed Columbia Professor Robert Mundel, as Chair of the White House Economic Council. Emily and I had lunch with him at his villa near Florence in 1993. And our conversation was around Ibn Khaldoun whose books and writings surrounded Robert’s study. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1999, after fathering the birth of Euro as a unit of currency for Europe. He is now busy developing a unit of currency for the Middle East. Incidentally, Ibn Khaldoun’s advocacy of music was ingenious. A word of history of the world of music in Islam is in order: Mohammad, the founder of Islam was born 580 AD. At age 40, 620 AD, he started Islam and two years later, the Islamic Holy Book, Quoran, was completed. In early Islam, music and paintings were prohibited by Islamic cannon and Fatwa. Ibn Khaldoun, a lover of music noted that it is permissible to sing the passages from Quoran as the Muezzins sing their invitation to prayer from minarets five times a day. He suggested to the ruling grand Ayatollah of the day to organize a competition and invite the best readers of various Islamic nations to come to a place and compete, picking the best singers of the Quoran passages. It is called Talavat Quran Majeed. It started in 1365 and continues to this day. It is like the Olympics of signing. He later introduced percussion (tablah) and strings to enhance the majesty of Quoranic passages. The Talavat competition has gone on uninterruptedly since 1365. The only other continuous musical event regardless of war, depression and uncertainties is Handle’s Messiah, since 1742. The first performance was attended by George I. He was so moved by the Alleluia chorus that he stood up, handing down the custom of standing ovation to this day.

These three writers’ advice against hubris, omnipotence, appearance and glitz, repeatedly warn us not to mistake ominous impotence for power and omnipotence. The distilled message of almost 60 million words written by these three sages is—and I am offering it as a take home treat– “The road to grace, salvation is to know what is good inside of you, that is intellect love, compassion, altruism, empathy, access to the rich array of so many other feelings; and knowing what is good outside of you, family, connectedness, friendship, music, nature, flowers, dance, and poetry; And to be thankful for them by giving something back and making a difference in the lives of others.”The issue of awareness is very important. It takes discipline to be aware. The heightened form of awareness in Sufi is called “Zekr”, that is to be constantly of aware of all good things inside and outside. Mowlana Rumi said “Blessed those who are in Zekr, they are in constant prayer…” What do we do with all this doom and gloom and pessimism? I think there is hope. There is possibility, there is redemption.

I believe that ultimately for those who believe in God that God wants us humans, His children or Her children, to succeed and progress. From time to time, one is chosen to become a role model. He sent Buddha to teach us patience, wisdom and awareness. He sent Zoroaster to give us the concept of good and evil, epistemological dualism. He sent Moses to exemplify discipline, devotion and yes, the gift of doubt. He sent Jesus of Nazareth to demonstrate the power of love. He sent Mohammad to offer us Islam total submission to the will of God. He sent Mozart to illustrate the power of music. This every day common man with multiple organ system failure, including kidneys and liver ravaged by alcohol, mourning the death of his mother and his little daughter, in the summer 1886 wrote Symphony in G minor, topping the trio with Jupiter Symphony in C major. No mere human can do this. Finally he sent America, our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others to give us a system of government, a republic, that cherishes the supremacy of rule of law, and not the whims of kings, shahs and Ayatollahs. America is a decent and generous nation. America is there in case of natural disaster, in Tahiti, in Pakistan, in Nepal and Myanmar. America is a land that allows its citizens to reach their maximum potential. I am very optimistic about the future of the world because the world has America.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is the 2016 recipient of the NC Awards, Fine Arts.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

On Lincoln, Mahler and Depression

“Monday Musings” for February 20, 2017
Volume VII. No. 8/320


Depression: Lincoln and Mahler

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

February 12 is Lincoln’s birthday. It is somewhat of an irony that George Washington, the grand patriarch of our beloved nation, was born on February 16. We wrote about both GW and Lincoln earlier. But today’s edition of “Monday Musings” is devoted to the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln, whose decisions saved our country from splitting in half, and his battle with depression. In observance of the occasion, I am offering the review of the book Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, publisher Houghton Mifflin Company. But first a few words about Gustav Mahler, also victim of chronic debilitating depression as reflected in his musical and word compositions in minor key (yes, Mahler was a song writer and lyricist as well as a story teller)

Gustav Mahler’s Chronic Depression and Suicidality

Gustav Mahler was chronically depressed. His depression deepened and he even became suicidal because of the death of his four years old daughter—diphtheria–, and fierce competition with Arturo Toscanini to become the Met Opera Conductor, topped by the dalliances and infidelity of his wife Alma. Also, Europe’s anti-Semitic climate forced him out of his job as conductor of the Vienna Opera. On His way to America, Mahler stopped by to visit Rodin in Paris for a day or so. His stay lasted two weeks. Rodin, realizing how depressed Mahler was, insisted that Mahler visit Freud. Mahler consulted Freud, and his visits with Freud were very helpful. He came to US and became conductor of the Metropolitan Opera until his death in 1911. NCS is playing Mahler Symphony No. 7, Maestro Grant Llewellyn conducting, Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh, on February 13 and 14.

Abraham Lincoln: A Book Review

When a publisher sends a book for review, I routinely cast an editorial “screening” glance to separate substance from fluff by noting the book’s proportion of text to notes, bibliography, and index. A scholarly and substantial book usually carries an extensive set of notes and references for almost every line of the book. A high volume of notes and an extensive bibliography assure the reader that the book is not fluff. Such is Shenk’s remarkable book on Lincoln. Lincoln’s Melancholy’s title is misleading. Although the book deals with Lincoln’s depression and melancholia, it is really a psychobiography of Lincoln a la Freud’s work on Leonard da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky. Part of the book reads very much like Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart the review of which the faithful readers of this space recall from an earlier day.

But there is something unique about this book. It is a book that seduces the reader. I fell in love with the book, not with the subject, not with the author’s erudition and intellectual prowess, not with the brilliant syntax and craftsmanship of the composition, but with the book itself. For me, an objective book reviewer engaged in this pursuit for more than 50 years, it is a rare phenomenon that the book itself becomes the object of love.

The book has a prelude and introduction and three parts with subsections dealing chronologically with Lincoln’s birth, growth, development, political maturation, education, religion, social interaction and finally death. But first a word about the author.

Joshua Wolf Shenk is neither an academic historian nor a Lincoln specialist. He is not of stature of famed Douglas Wilson, author of Lincoln’s Sword, Allen Guezlo, the internationally renowned leading Lincoln scholar. Readers might recognize Joshua from the pages of New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. He is referred to as an “independent scholar.” In this book, he shows command of psychopathology of depression, a good understanding of DSM IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manuel IV) and a keen insight into human nature. He seems to understand the comprehensive model of bio-psycho-social dynamics in the genesis and evolution of mental illness. But none of these explains why the book had a mesmeric effect on me. I guess as a psychiatrist in my practice dealing with psychic trauma and life tragedies, it is comforting to see the story of a man like Lincoln, with incredible childhood depravity, adverse upbringing, having lived a life of domestic slavery, constant beating and emotional denigration and put down, pull himself out of psychological sewer, literally clean up, educate himself, and ultimately become the 16th President of the United States of America. It is this subtle message reflective of Pauline theology of redemption, hope, love, faith, and possibilities that generated the uncommon mesmeric effect on me.

The book starts with a startling chapter on Lincoln’s family history of mental illness. His uncle, Mordecai Lincoln, according to court records had a “deranged mind”. So did his parents. Lincoln’s parents were born in Virginia and crossed the Appalachian Mountains and came to Kentucky in the late 18th century. They married in 1806 and had three children, Sarah, born Feb 19, 1807; Abraham, born February 12, 1809; and his brother Thomas born in 1811. They were all prone to deep depression. Lincoln’s mother Nancy died on October 5, 1818. She was about 35 years old. Lincoln was nine. Along the way, in addition to Lincoln’s mother, Lincoln lost his uncle and aunt. His care was left to a twenty-year-old cousin, during the absence of Abe’s father who had returned to Kentucky to court his second bride. Lincoln was beaten, mistreated and abused during those years. There are a lot of well documented accounts that Lincoln was self-taught. As a child he read all the books he could find. Tom Lincoln, Abe’s father, at some point started to oppose his son’s reading and education. The relationship between father and son was conflicted and abusive; Tom Lincoln would beat young Abe mercilessly. However, Lincoln continued to read and memorize and became very popular with his friends and fellow workers. It is recorded that he was not sad and depressed during his teen years because he had many friends and knew more than all of his friends put together. He did not attend a university to learn law. “I studied with nobody,” he said. A lawyer named Lynn McNutty Greene wrote that “Abraham Lincoln was extremely ambitious.” Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that all the folks seem to have good sense but none of them become distinguished, and he believed it was for him to become so.

Tracing the mental status of Mr. Lincoln, one discovers that he was suicide prone. At one time, a neighbor, Mentor Graham, related that “Lincoln told me that he felt like committing suicide often.” The neighbors and friends were compelled to keep watch and ward over him. This was even more pronounced when Lincoln’s first love, a bright, pretty young woman, Anna Mayes Rutledge, with flowing blond hair and blue eyes became ill. She died August, 1835. Lincoln was desperately in love with Anna. He suffered his first bout of major depression after her death. He had a second and more devastating bout of major depression in 1841. The repeat episode of major depression was precipitated by many causes among them breaking his engagement with his wife to be, Mary Todd, possibly “because of his affection for another woman.” Again, his friends and relatives were fearful that Lincoln might commit suicide. They removed guns and knives from his environ.

There is another set of assumptions that relates Lincoln’s depression to Marfan Syndrome. Marfan is an inherited genetic disorder that diminishes the strength of connective tissue from tendons to heart valves. Persons afflicted with Marfan are tall, gangly, with hyper flexion of joints. Marfan along with other connective tissue disorders such as Ehler-Danlos Syndrome are often associated with depression. An aside: the famed magician virtuoso violinist Paganini who could produce those fabulous high notes on his instrument, by hyperflexing his arm and fingers had Ehler-Danlos Syndrome and for most of his life suffered from depression. Robert Schumann who wished his fingers were like Paganini’s to do acrobatics on the keyboard, suffered from Bipolar Disorder. He would put his fingers through painful stretch exercises to make them longer and more limber….

Back to Lincoln, I do know of several sources who have studied Lincoln’s connective tissue disease including the eminent researcher, Victor A. McKusick, Professor of Medical Genetics at Johns Hopkins. He along with other Lincoln scholars, including Gabor Borritt, Adam Borritt, Douglas Wilson and Allan Guelzo, collectively state that Lincoln did not have Marfan Syndrome.

The second part of the book deals with the dynamics of Lincoln as a self-made man. He won elections, made friends, and with his eloquence mesmerized his audience. Lincoln continued to be ambitious, determined, and industrious. He was a devoted Christian with flavors of “old school of Calvinism”, and “hard shell Baptism” running through his speeches. However, Lincoln was a pragmatist and had a keen sense of reality.

According to Allen Guelzo, the leading Lincoln scholar, Lincoln was a serious philosophical thinker who kept abreast of leading ideas of his time. An indication of his pragmatism, as an example, in 1846 he wrote “What I understand is called ‘the Doctrine of Necessity’, that is the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” It was John Stuart Mill who first used the phrase “Philosophical Necessity.” The author quotes Herman Melville, Lincoln’s contemporary and fellow melancholic who suffered deep depression, “The in tensest light of reason and revelation combined cannot shed such blazing light upon deeper truths in man, as well sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness then is his light, and cat-like he instinctively sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to common vision.”

Part Three of the book deals with Lincoln’s Presidency and the fierce Civil War which he fought with conviction and courage. He was absolutely against the notion of the United States splitting into two nations. He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of who lived to maturity. In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for US Senate. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican Party nomination for President in 1860. As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. On January 1, 1863, he issued The Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865 Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South.

In his epilogue, the author states that he went to spend a weekend with the Association of Lincoln Presenters at their annual convention in Beckley, West Virginia. Seeing all these men in black suits and stovepipe hats and beards shaved above the chin was an instructive experience. However, he concludes that “it is a generic and inherent flaw of biography that in order to wrestle a figure, in this instance the formidable figure of Lincoln, onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two.” However, I believe that the young scholar, Joshua Wolf Schenk has done an excellent job of painting a three- dimensional picture of Lincoln. Bravo!

Lastly, this book has one perhaps unintended but welcome social and political implication. Here we have a politician, Lincoln, with depression genes atavistically skulking his psychic space. He had several major depressive episodes (nervous breakdowns in 19th century parlance) well known to the public. Yet he rose to become President of this country. I was thinking of the late Thomas Eagleton, the former US Senator from Missouri, and George McGovern’s VP nominee on the 1972 Democratic ticket who had to withdraw because of controversy over history of depression. It seems the public tolerance of mental illness has drastically decreased since 1841, Lincoln’s last episode of major Depression, to 1972, when it was discovered that Eagleton had treatment for depression. Are we turning backward?


* The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013 and elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015.

1 Comment

Filed under The Writer

On Valentines”s Day

Monday Musings” for Monday February 13, 2017
Volume VII. No. 7/319


An Essay on Valentine’s Day

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DSc (Hon), DLFAPA*


(This year’s Valentine’s Day is day after tomorrow, Wednesday February 14. Some reflections on history and biochemistry of Valentine’s Day):

History and Origin:

The word Valentine has to do with human sacrifice. Self-sacrifice and martyrdom are not new. They go back to the Iron age when Virgil in his Book IV, dramatically depicted the departure of Aeneas for the Trojan war leading to Dido’s plunging a knife into her breast and sacrificing herself for the love of Aeneas. And we know that during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-311 AD) Christians were caught and fed to the lions. Were those professed Christians who risked their lives and became dinner for the Emperor’s hungry lions on a suicide mission as are today’s fanatic suicide bombers of Islam? A good question to reflect upon…the martyr sacrificed self. The fanatic bomber(s) sacrifices self and kills innocent others. That is murder. Fortunately, things got better for Christians after Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) converted to Christianity in 313 AD. The same persecuted Christians under Diocletian were now pampered and given cushiony jobs under Constantine. What a difference a mere 75 years make!

History tells us that there were three Saint Valentines and the one we westerners strongly identify is the Saint Valentine of Rome who was a priest martyred in 269 AD by the orders of Diocletian. Some 200 years later Pope Gelasius I (he was the Pope when Saint Augustine ’345-430 AD’ became the Bishop of Hippo) decided to recognize Saint Valentine’s love and devotion for Christianity and established by papal order the Saint Valentine’s Day. It was not until Chaucer days in the fourteenth century England when the feast of February 14 first became associated with romantic love, a pure Anglo invention.

For this was on seynt Valentynysday Whan euery bryd cometh there to ches his mate.”

Chaucer Parlement of Foules, circa 1381

Our Saint Valentine comes from mid-15th century, “sweetheart chosen on St. Valentine’s Day,” from L.L. Valentinus, the name of an early Italian saint (from L. Valentia ”strength, capacity;”). Choosing a sweetheart on this day originated 14th century as a custom in English and French court circles- meaning “letter or card sent to a sweetheart”. The romantic association of the day is said to be from it being around the time when birds choose their mates.

For the past seven centuries the invention has served us well. Imagine the number of weddings that have been facilitated and children conceived by Saint Valentine. Incidentally, the etymology of Valentine is from Latin valentines means valence, and the word value takes its roots from the same origin.


Many people think that falling in love mimics a state of psychosis- a confirmation of this notion comes from Shakespeare’s insistence of the “fine frenzy” of the poet- the madman and being in love are indistinguishable insanities. We all have done the crazy “falling in love” things that there are to do-up all night, romantic breakfasts at dawn, impulsive trips to exotic isles, heartfelt torrents of vows, and suddenly becoming a poet fluid with sentiments and expressive powers… There are a whole host of brain chemical and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, catecholamine, indolamines, endorphins etc., involved in libidinal activities.

Recently however, we have begun to associate the phenomenon of falling in love with a chemical that churns in our body causing us to do crazy things. The molecule is called Phenylethylamine (PEA), a first cousin of amphetamine, which the body produces in its adrenal glands. PEA causes excitement just as amphetamines do. However, it is not as disruptive as amphetamine. Leading scientists and neuro-endocrinologists insist that biochemistry and psychiatry have a definite place in explaining the phenomenon of romance and falling in love. Why should this be left exclusively to poets and Harlequin romance writers. Scientists, too, have a lot to say about it.

There are people who are in constant need of excitement and romance. These are probably the people who have affairs outside of marriage, or those who have multiple marriages while chasing their need for constant stimulation and excitement. These individuals engage in many love affairs. It is suggested that high PEA victims may be suffering from a bipolar affective disorder (manic depressive) form of illness. In order to reach their highs, they must be in love and constantly enjoy the infusion of PEA in their body and brain. Examples of famous PEA levels are folks like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Some years ago, British psychiatrists coined the appropriate diagnosis of hysteroid dysphoria to explain the phenomenology of high serum PEA. It was never accepted by the American Psychiatric Association and as to what it leads people to do. A male reader, an emeritus university professor wrote and suggested that we should include the male genre. After all, we have had our share of sustained elevated PEA in males, folks such as Don Juan, Machiavelli, Bill Clinton…


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He was the 2011 inductee to Raleigh Hall of Fame, and 2016 recipient of the NC Award, Fine Arts.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer