This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
[Footnote: An extract from a Treatise on Insanity shortly to be published by D. Appleton & Co.]
Persons whose minds deviate in some one or more notable respects from the ordinary standard, but yet whose mental processes are not directly at variance with that standard, are said to be eccentric. Eccentricity is generally inherent in the individual, or is gradually developed in him from the operation of unrecognized causes as he advances in years. If an original condition, it may be shown from a very early period of life, his plays, even, being different from those of other children of his age. Doubtless it then depends upon some peculiarity of brain structure, which, within the limits of the normal range, produces individuality of mental action.
But eccentricity is not always an original condition, for, under certain circumstances, it may be acquired. A person, for instance, meets with some circumstance in his life which tends to weaken his confidence in human nature. He accordingly shuns mankind, by shutting himself up in his own house and refusing to have any intercourse with the inhabitants of the place in which he resides. In carrying out his purpose he proceeds to the most absurd extremes. He speaks to no one he meets, returns no salutations, and his relations with the tradesmen who supply his daily wants are conducted through gratings in the door of his dwelling. He dies, and the will which he leaves behind him is found to devote his entire property for the founding of a hospital for sick and ownerless dogs, "the most faithful creatures I have ever met, and the only ones in which I have any confidence."
Such a man is not insane. There is a rational motive for his conduct--one which many of us have experienced, and which has, perhaps, prompted us to act in a similar manner, if not to the same extent.
Another is engaged in vast mercantile transactions, requiring the most thorough exercise of the best faculties of the mind. He studies the markets of the world, and buys and sells with uniform shrewdness and success. In all the relations of life he conducts himself with the utmost propriety and consideration for the rights and feelings of others. The most complete study of his character and acts fails to show the existence of the slightest defect in his mental processes. He goes to church regularly every Sunday, but has never been regarded as a particularly religious man. Nevertheless, he has one peculiarity. He is a collector of Bibles, and has several thousand, of all sizes and styles, and in many languages. If he hears of a Bible, in any part of the world, different in any respect from those he owns, he at once endeavors to obtain it, no matter how difficult the undertaking, or how much it may cost. Except in the matter of Bibles he is disposed to be some what penurious--although his estate is large--and has been known to refuse to have a salad for his dinner on account of the high price of good olive-oil. He makes his will, and dies, and then it is found that his whole property is left in trust to be employed in the maintenance of his library of Bibles, in purchasing others which may become known to the trustees, and in printing one copy, for his library, of the book in any language in which it does not already exist. A letter which is addressed to his trustees informs them that, when he was a boy, a Bible which he had in the breast-pocket of his coat preserved his life by stopping a bullet which another boy had accidentally discharged from a pistol, and that he then had resolved to make the honoring of the Bible the duty of his whole life.
Neither of these persons can be regarded as insane. Both were the subjects of acquired eccentricity, which, in all likelihood, would have ensued in some other form, from some other circumstance acting upon brains naturally predisposed to be thus affected. The brain is the soil upon which impressions act differently, according to its character, just as, with the sower casting his seed-wheat upon different fields, some springs up into a luxuriant crop, some grows sparsely, and some, again, takes no root, but rots where it falls. Possibly, if these individuals had lived a little longer, they might have passed the border-line which separates mental soundness from mental unsoundness; but certainly, up to the period of their deaths, both would have been pronounced sane by all competent laymen and alienists with whom they might have been brought into contact; and the contest of their wills, by any heirs-at-law, would assuredly have been a fruitless undertaking.
They chose to have certain ends in view, and to provide the means for the accomplishment of those ends. There were no delusions, no emotional disturbance, no hallucinations or illusions, and the will was normally exercised to the extent necessary to secure the objects of their lives. At any time they had it in their power to alter their purposes, and in that fact we have an essential point of difference between eccentricity and insanity. We may regard their conduct as singular, because they made an unusual disposition of their property; but it was no more irrational than if the one had left his estate to the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals," and the other had devoted his to sending missionaries to Central Africa.
Two distinct forms of eccentricity are recognizable. In the one, the individual sets himself up above the level of the rest of the world, and, marking out for himself a line of conduct, adheres to it with an astonishing degree of tenacity. For him the opinions of mankind in general are of no consequence. He is a law unto himself; what he says and does is said and done, not for the purpose of attracting attention or for obtaining notoriety, but because it is pleasing to himself. He does not mean to be singular or original, but he is, nevertheless, both. For every man is singular and original whose conduct, within the limits of reason and intelligence, differs from that of his fellow-men. He endeavors to carry out certain ideas which seem to him to have been overlooked by society to its great disadvantage. Society usually thinks different; but if the promulgator is endowed with sufficient force of character, it generally happens that, eventually, either wholly or in part, his views prevail. All great reformers are eccentrics of this kind. They are contending for their doctrines, not for themselves. And they are not apt to become insane, though sometimes they do.