The Obtuse Man and ADHD in Ancient Greece – 2000 Forgotten Years of ADHD?

Today, we’re going to learn about the Obtuse Man of Theophrasus, the earliest known written example of a character with ADHD in Ancient Greece, over 2000 years ago. 

Although ADHD is often considered a modern phenomenon, and an abnormality or disorder, did you know that we actually have good evidence that ADHD is a normal neurodivergence?

The presentation or traits of ADHD are due to a genetic variation, or possibly several variations, just like autism and some other things most medical literature currently classifies as neurodevelopmental differences.

How do we know this? Well, besides current technology that allows researchers to actually look at how the brains of ADHD folks work in real-time, we have a lot of evidence of folks with ADHD in historical sources.

I know a lot of people feel like ADHD appeared out of nowhere in the 1980s and has kind of taken over kids’ brains since then, but that’s not true. People have been writing about neurodivergences that look a lot like ADHD throughout history.

2000 Years of ADHD? The Obtuse Man and ADHD in Ancient Greece

adhd in ancient greece, obtuse man

 

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How Do We Find Ancient ADHD?

So, let’s get into it! Obviously, people didn’t call ADHD “ADHD” two thousand years ago, or even two hundred years ago, so first, we need to set out how we want to identify ADHD in historical sources. I think there’s probably a ton of different approaches to this problem, but personally, I thought the most direct thing to do is to look at ADHD traits.

So, the obvious ones should be the ones that we mostly use to diagnose, since we think they apply to, if not all, at least a good percentage of ADHD folks. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s set those traits as inattention (different attention), hyperactivity or excessive activity, and impulsivity. 

When you look at those specific traits, you can find a history of children and adults with probable-ADHD diagnosed under different terminology. These terms change based on the time and place you’re looking at, which is why it looks like ADHD appeared out of nowhere in the 1980s - it wasn’t called ADHD before!

Here’s an incomplete list of other names for what we’d now call ADHD throughout Western history. 

(Some of these terms are pretty offensive! I’m including them as a history lesson, not because they are terms that we should ever use in any other context.)

Some of these terms include:

  • Brain-injured
  • Brain-damaged 
  • Hyperkinetic impulse disorder
  • Hyperexcitability syndrome
  • Clumsy child syndrome
  • Hyperactive child syndrome
  • Hyperkinetic reaction of childhood or adolescence 
  • Minimal brain dysfunction
  • Organic brain disease
  • Nervous child

And of course, attention deficit disorder, the term that was the immediate precursor to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, in Western psychiatry.

The history of ADHD is likely as long and complex as the history of humanity itself, but of course, we can only access small pieces of history through whatever documents have been left behind. Luckily, one of those documents that has been preserved describes a character in a story with traits that are very easy to read as ADHD traits by modern diagnostic criteria.

Theophrastus and the Obtuse Man

Theophrastus, who was a student of Aristotle, and a Greek native of Lesbos in the 3rd century BCE, gave the Western world the first character who looks like someone who would be considered ADHD in the current day. Theophrastus wrote a short collection of texts which are basically summaries of character archetypes, where each kind of character is described by about 15 traits.

The character we’re interested in here is translated into English as either the “Obtuse Man” or the “Stupid Man,” depending on the translator, who presents with features that closely resemble the modern description of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

For example, The Obtuse Man, an adult man, seems to have a lot of trouble putting and keeping his attention where he wants it. He’s also very impulsive. Theophrastus writes:

When he is defendant in an action, and it is about to come on, he will forget it and go into the country; when he is a spectator in the theatre, he will be left behind slumbering in solitude. If he has been given anything, and has put it away himself, he will look for it and be unable to find it...If he is cooking a leek himself in the country, he will put salt into the pot twice, and make it uneatable.”

- The Characters of Theophrastus, Trans. R.C. Jebb, 

The Obtuse Man forgets important appointments and is so active that he exhausts his children when they play. He also has trouble planning into the future and sleeping at culturally-expected times. These last two are not ADHD symptoms in and of themselves, but sleep troubles and executive dysfunction are very common among the ADHD population.

Is This Historical ADHD?

The authors of this paper compare the Obtuse Man, as Theophrastus describes him, with the modern DSM-5 ADHD traits, and conclude that he would probably be currently diagnosed with this disorder as an adult. The authors claim that this is the oldest description of ADHD, as we recognize it, in adults in the Western literature, and I wasn’t able to find anything older myself.

Now, obviously, the Obtuse Man is an archetype, a character. He’s not a description of a real person, but an amalgamation of various people with certain over-exaggerated character traits. We can’t look at the Obtuse Man and claim to have found a real, historic person with ADHD. 

Still, I think it’s important to recognize the Obtuse Man as proof that folks with ADHD existed in the past. Theophrastus had met enough people with these character traits in real life that he bothered to include them as an archetype in his book, a book which was meant to present a classification system of types of humans.

Neurodiversity in Ancient Greece

Additionally, we can see from Theophrastus' work that attitudes toward ADHD and other neurological differences were apparently quite negative in Greece in the 3rd C. BCE.

The Obtuse Man is described unsympathetically overall. He’s called “slow,” is depicted as inattentive to typical household expectations and work, and is several times called out for speaking in a different way than his peers.

He seems to be married, have children, and own slaves, so he must be from a higher class family, and was able to find a wife, so some people in his hometown must find him at least tolerable.

However, the language Theophrastus uses implies that he himself views the Obtuse Man archetype as lazy, lacking intelligence, unaware or disinterested in social norms, and otherwise not acceptably contributing to the larger society. This is a very unsympathetic view, and one that implies that neurodivergence was not very accepted in Theophrastus’ own milieu of Ancient Greece.

Theophrastus wrote “The Obtuse Man” in the 3rd century BCE, so roughly 2300 years ago, and yet the symptoms of ADHD are so clearly present that we can recognize them across culture, language, and a great deal of time.

If you have someone in your life who is stuck on the idea that ADHD isn’t real, or that it’s a modern-day issue, or something created by a pharmaceutical company or the public school system, you should tell them about the Obtuse Man, our ADHD friend from the 3rd century BCE.

 


Want to Learn More About Neurodiversity?

If you're interested in learning more about neurodiversity in general, or in reading more about autism, ADHD, or sensory processing challenges specifically, here are some of my favorite books!


 

Further Reading:

Victor, Marcelo M et al. “Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in ancient Greece: The Obtuse Man of Theophrastus.” The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry vol. 52,6 (2018): 509-513. doi:10.1177/0004867418769743:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29696989 

The Characters of Theophrastus, by Theophrastus, Translated by Charles E. Bennett and William A. Hammond: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/58242/58242-h/58242-h.htm

The Characters of Theophrastus, by Theophrastus, Translated by R.C. Jebb, 1870: https://www.eudaemonist.com/biblion/characters/#14

 

*I’m an English speaker/reader living in the United States, so a lot of Eastern history sources are currently not accessible to me. Obviously there are folks with ADHD all over the world historically, not just in the West.

If you’re someone who studied the history of ADHD in Asia, Africa, Polynesia,  etc., please get in touch!

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