Theia mania (Ancient Greek: θεία μανία) is a term used by Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus to describe a condition of divine madness (unusual behavior attributed to the intervention of a God).

Do people who claim to experience divine madness believe the object of their "spiritual ecstasy" really is how it appears to them or just that it appears how it appears to them?

Are claims to "supernormal powers" or "possession" or healing or visitation (etc.), in these madnesses, meant to be real world facts or mere subjective reports? I'm guessing it depends on whose madness you mean, but much ink has been spent talking about these states, so why not ask?

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    sorry if the question is a poor one: I am happy to respond to all suggestions to improve it
    – user61995
    Aug 3, 2022 at 18:20
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    I do not think fact/appearance dichotomy is meaningful for the ineffable. There is an ambiguity in the meaning of "fact" between the truth maker and its propositional expression, which can be disregarded in many contexts, but not here. What mystics can produce publicly are, self-admittedly, only metaphorical "subjective reports", but the point is that the private experience behind them is as real, objective and true as it gets. It is similar to the status of qualia, but more exalted.
    – Conifold
    Aug 3, 2022 at 21:21
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    Maybe you'll find Dawes' discussion in Mysticism and Knowledge helpful, he interprets it in terms of Russell's knowledge by acquaintance:"the experience involves some kind of immediate acquaintance with the reality in question. The experience in question would be at least analogous to sense perception".
    – Conifold
    Aug 3, 2022 at 21:29
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    The ancient Shurangama sutra hinted: Suddenly a feeling of boundless joy wells up in him. There is such bliss in his mind that he cannot contain it. This is called, ‘experiencing lightness and ease, but lacking the wisdom to control it.’ If he understands, then there is no error. But if he considers himself a sage, then a demon that likes happiness will enter his mind...he will laugh. He will sing and dance in the streets. He will say that he has already attained unobstructed liberation. Lacking proper samadhi, he will certainly fall Aug 4, 2022 at 1:49
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    @jd may be right that people are too quick to declare things "not philosophy", but the correct response is not to get defensive; it's to add citations to philosophical literature and show by the details of your question that you are at least somewhat familiar with that literature. Aug 4, 2022 at 7:29

2 Answers 2


As a not very good sometime Mystic, I will try to offer my answer, which is heavily informed by the philosophy of science.

We humans have a pretty limited suite of experiences-- our direct realism does not take us very far. Qualia is about it. Everything else is indirect realism -- we INFER what is real, mostly unconsciously.

We also almost all believe that the models we infer, represent reality.

However, I am well enough informed on the nature of our mental processing, to realize that MY mental toolkit for interpreting qualia, has been wired by my neural net training to think in certain ways. Hence, what I "see" using 3rd eye vision -- is likely only loosely related to what "reality" is in a spiritual experience. Shapes, colors, etc-- are almost certainly manufactured by me, to help my struggling mind to make more sense of an unfamiliar and VERY foreign realm.

There is a similar effect in mystic communication. Data dumps are unwrapped, and the images and messages in them, are at least partly of my creation to better interpret a message.

When one is talking DIVINE madness, there is a more positive approach one can take to this "creative" interpretation. A divinity can be assumed to have a moderately good idea of one's mental toolkit, hence the triggering of one's images and metaphors, and concepts -- should be reasonably presumed to be deliberate. Hence, while they too may not be explicitly "real" the takeaway that one gains from them -- should be assumed to be the actual message (no, or at least far fewer, mistakes on the receiver for divine messages).

THAT one is interacting with a God, demon, lost soul, past life, or whatever -- mystics do not doubt this reality.

  • thanks for the reply. sorry for complaining
    – user61995
    Aug 5, 2022 at 8:44

"the beloved ought to accept the non-lover when he might have the lover, because the one is sane, and the other mad. It might be so if madness were simply an evil; but there is also a madness which is a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men. For prophecy is a madness, and the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when out of their senses have conferred great benefits on Hellas, both in public and private life, but when in their senses few or none. And I might also tell you how the Sibyl and other inspired persons have given to many an one many an intimation of the future which has saved them from falling. But it would be tedious to speak of what everyone knows. There will be more reason in appealing to the ancient inventors of names, who would never have connected prophecy which foretells the future and is the noblest of arts, with madness, or called them both by the same name, if they had deemed madness to be a disgrace or dishonour; —they must have thought that there was an inspired madness which was a noble thing; for the two words are really the same, and the distinguishing letter τ is only a modern and tasteless insertion. And this is confirmed by the name which was given by them to the rational investigation of futurity, whether made by the help of birds or of other signs —this, for as much as it is an art which supplies from the reasoning faculty mind the prophetic frenzy of the Oracle of Delphi and the priestesses of Dodona (the gift of Apollo) mystical revelations and initiations, which provide "a way of release for those in need" (the gift of Dionysus [ie mysticism]) poetic inspiration (the gift of the Muses) the madness of lovers (the gift of Aphrodite and Eros)."

-Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus

“Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings. The men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with it the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art. So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense - madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”

―Plato, Phaedrus

"those are called fortunate who although irrational succeed in whatever they start on. And it does not pay them to deliberate, for they have within them a principle of a kind that is better than mind and deliberation (whereas the others have reason but have not this): they have inspiration, but they cannot deliberate. For although irrational they attain even what belongs to the prudent and wise—swiftness of divination: only the divination that is based on reason we must not specify, but some of them attain it by experience and others by practice in the use of observation; and these men use the divine. For this quality discerns aright the future as well as the present, and these are the men whose reason is disengaged. This is why the melancholic even have dreams that are true; for it seems that when the reason is disengaged principle has more strength— "

-Aristotle, On Sense and the Sensible

"There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness."

-Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, pt1 ch7

"Much madness is divinest sense

To a discerning eye;

Much sense the starkest madness.

’Tis the majority

In this, as all, prevails.

Assent, and you are sane;

Demur, —you’re straightway dangerous,

And handled with a chain."

-Emily Dickenson

Mystics, divines, lovers, and poets, don't declare that they have a divine madness. That would be an act of self-consciousness that would undermine the declaration. They instead are possessed, by something transcendental, transpersonal, which by puppetting them reveals the parochial and humdrum nature of our ordinary sanities.

In love, it is our genes, or biological concerns that are an absolute prerequisite for where we find ourselfs arrived, which we experience in the rapture of love as a supervenient intrusion that overawes mumbling ordinary logic (see Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?). Mysticism and prophecy are out of style, but I suggest they are about relating to things that will outlast our own lives (see What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?). And a poet grasps what Alan Watts describes, "The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance" (see If everything ends one day why don't we end it today?).

There are things which precede rationality, and we can see here that we call them kinds of madness. But like Emily Dickinson says, echoing Foucault in 'Madness and Civilisation', we call certain expressions of madness that construct a world the majority accept, sane or real, and choose to ignore that there are other ways to engage. Hume says we cannot get an Ought from an Is, yet we don't wish to be reminded too often that there are alternatives to what our local community has settled on as how we ought to behave; and we call those who demur too much or too often, mad.

But without those expressing, in Socrates' sense a 'divine madness', we could not relate to the transcendental, the transpersonal. Diogenes, holding a lamp up in the sunshine to try to see an honest man, or Nietzsche's Zarathustra holding his lamp in the marketplace and asking "How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?"

The 'madness' of poetry allows the arrival at things more true than ordinary thinking; and gestures at the arrival at new logics from pre-logic. See Trying to Understand Quote by Nietzsche, and Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.

Isn't 'sanity', only that part of madness we refuse to question? Like a mystic or prophet, we know intuitive certainties, but unlike them we feel ours secured by agreement with a majority.

Look at Jung's synchronicity for how we can agree on events, but disagree on how to group them, and what they point to. See modern mystic Rupert Sheldrake, who questions Is The Sun Conscious, and uses that to point at how if we don't dare to ask 'mad' questions we might remain incapable of making sense of 70% of the universe (Dark Matter as accounted for by volitional movements of stars). Godel Incompleteness points to how a reframing is always possible from outside the system, that can make a larger sense out of what was previously undecidable, in a new logic.

We should retain a respect for divine madness, out of a humble recognition of the limits to what we call sane, or real, that history will show were neither.

  • Not all mystics are worried about maintining "credibility" with others, or are worried about self-consciousness. Carolyn Myss has written at length about experiencing spiritual madness. amazon.com/Spiritual-Madness-Necessity-Meeting-Darkness/dp/…
    – Dcleve
    Sep 5, 2022 at 0:23
  • @Dcleve: Sorry if I was less clear than I hoped. My point was to say mystics are called 'mad', when they may be accessing something more sane, than say for example, Mutually Assured Destruction, or Antinatalism. Perhaps you might read through what I said again.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 5, 2022 at 0:32
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    "The majority is always sane."
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 5, 2022 at 4:22

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