The ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates theorized that mental illness may be rooted in physiological abnormalities. Hippocrates even wrote that he praised Democritus for cutting open animals in his garden in an attempt to discover the cause of madness and melancholy. Nonetheless, a central idea found in ancient Greek philosophy is the concept of the psyche (i.e., the soul), which is immortal and distinct from that which pertains to the body (i.e., the somatic). This is why the Orthodox adopted this same language in describing the human person as a psychosomatic being with the destruction of this psychosomatic unity resulting in physical death.

Since that time, many physical illnesses and injuries have been identified as having a profound affect on the psyche and the psychosomatic relationship. However, the exact nature of how these physical illnesses and injuries cause these problems has eluded secular medical science. The Orthodox, on the other hand, would explain this as Fr. Theophanes (Constantine) did in Volume 1 of The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart:

This psychic healing comes from acquiring an “inner stillness,” which is called hesychia, through ascetic discipline and contemplative prayer. The stages of acquiring this “inner stillness” or hesychia are often described as: katharsis, the purification of the soul from egotistical passions; photisis, the enlightenment of the soul, a gift of the Holy Spirit once the soul has undergone purification; and finally theosis, union with God. Theosis is partaking of the Divine nature and escaping the corruption of this world.

“The soul functions through the body, and if the body is damaged, say in its higher brain centres, then the soul cannot express itself, without for all that having been lost.”

The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart – Fr. Theophanes (Vol 1)

The field of psychology can be open to either psychic or somatic causes for various psychic problems; however, medical science is focused solely on the somatic, on the biology. While medicine can be combined with psychology, somatic medicine itself is incapable of healing a psychic problem that has no somatic cause. The Orthodox will admit that some psychological methods can be useful to a certain point, but somatic medicine is incapable of actually healing illnesses that are truly psychiatric.

By incorrectly placing psychiatric illnesses within the domain of physical illnesses, somatic medicine is expected to do something it cannot do. The theory of materialism, for which there is no empirical evidence and must be accepted merely on blind faith, is not only in direct conflict with the Orthodox Faith, the use of the terms “psychiatry” and “psychiatrist” make no etymological sense within the context of materialism. Since the Greek concept of the psyche is distinct from anything somatic, which is why the Orthodox adopted these words, the medical field of “psychiatry” is wrongly called so because it does not deal with anything specifically psychic, but only the somatic. While the term psyche could possibly be used as a metaphor for something somatic, this would make the word psychosomatic rather meaningless.

Elder Porphyrios also explains why humiliation is beneficial in healing psychiatric illnesses:

The cause of psychological instability and disorder is egotism. This is something that psychiatrists themselves, if they explore the matter, will discover, namely, that the egotist is sick.”

Elder Porphyrios

While the word “ego” itself only appears in more contemporary translations and commentaries, throughout even the most ancient Orthodox texts, there are countless references to the hazards of self-love, self-esteem and the “most sinister of demons” – pride.

Considered by Christians to be the sin that not only brought Lucifer, God’s highest angel, tumbling to a fiery fate but that also led Adam and Eve to be exiled from paradise on earth, pride is referred to variously as “the mother of all woes” and “the first offspring of the devil.”

It is also universally regarded as the most destructive and powerful adversary on the spiritual path. As St. John Cassian writes,

“Just as a deadly plague destroys not just one member of the body, but the whole of it, so pride corrupts the whole soul, not just part of it. . . . when the voice of pride has become master of our wretched soul, it acts like some harsh tyrant who has gained control of a great city, and destroys it completely, razing it to its foundations.”

St. John Cassian

The Orthodox believe that we are all sick due to sin and that the Orthodox Church is the hospital for the soul, the psychiatric hospital with God being our Psychiatrist, the Physician of our souls.

“O Physician of our souls, who knowest the mind of man, in Thy compassion heal our infirmities, for we are weak and broken by sin.”

Troparion of the Prophecy for the Sixth Hour of the Monday of the Third Week of Great Lent

One of the foremost experts on the depths of the human spirit, St. Isaac the Syrian, says in his 41st homily:

“The one who has come to a realization of his sin is higher than the one who raises the dead through prayer; whoever has been able to see his own self is higher than the one who has been granted the vision of angels.”

St. Isaac the Syrian

Pride, egotism, and vanity – to which we can add haughtiness, arrogance, and conceit – are all different varieties of one basic manifestation: “turning towards oneself.” Out of all these words, two have the most concrete meaning: vanity and pride. According to The Ladder, they are like youth and man, seed and bread, beginning and end.

The symptoms of vanity, this initial sin, are: intolerance of criticism, a thirst for praise, a search for easy paths, and a constant orientation toward others. What will they say? How will it appear? What will they think? Vanity sees an audience approaching from afar and makes the wrathful affectionate, the irresponsible serious, the distracted concentrated, gluttons temperate, and so on – all of this as long as there are observers around.

The same orientation towards an audience explains the sin of self-justification, which often creeps unnoticeably even into our confession: “I am no more sinful than the rest… only insignificant sins… I have not killed anyone or stolen anything.”

The demon of vanity is overjoyed, says St. John of the Ladder, seeing our virtues increase: the more success we have, the more food for vanity.

“When I keep fast, I am vain; when I hide my spiritual labors, I am vain over my piety. If I dress pleasingly, I am vain; and if I put on old clothes, I become even vainer. If I begin to speak, I am consumed by vanity; if I keep silent, I become still vainer. No matter how you turn this prickly plant, it always has its thorns sticking upward.”

St. John of the Ladder

As soon as a kind feeling or a sincere movement arises in a man’s heart, immediately there appears a vain, backward look at oneself. Thus these most precious movements of the soul disappear, melting like snow under the sun. They melt, which means they die; therefore, because of vanity, the best in us dies. Thus we kill ourselves with vanity and we replace a real, simple, and good life with phantoms.

Increasing vanity gives rise to pride.

Pride is supreme self-confidence and the rejection of all that is not of itself; it is a source of rage, cruelty, and malice; it is a refusal to accept God’s help; it is a “demonic stronghold.” It is an “iron curtain” between ourselves and God (Abba Pimen); it is an enmity towards God; it is the origin of all sin; and it is present in every sin. Every sin constitutes a willing yielding of oneself to one’s vice, a conscious flouting of God’s law, an audacity against God. “The one who is subject to pride is desperately in need of God, for no man can save such a one” (The Ladder).