The family and personal histories of hysterics indicate some sort of relationship to the constitutional psychoses, epilepsy, mental deficiency, constitutional psychopathic states, etc. But the hysterical personality can be more specifically defined. Its essential feature, it seems to me, consists in a character defect, which I shall now take pains to describe.
Perhaps it is worth while to point out, to begin with, that in the moral side of our nature three motivating principles can be distinguished, each of which actuates our conduct in a measure which differs in different individuals.
The first of these may be termed pure or cesthetic morality; it is represented in the saying, "It is better to be right than to be president." No considerations of selfish advantage, of mere catering to popular taste or demand or to the powers that be, are here permitted to enter. A person actuated by this principle turns away from thoughts of deception, theft, dishonesty, or any other moral filth, just as he might, from inherent aesthetic repulsion, turn away from a foul smell.
The second principle may be termed prudent morality; it is represented in the saying "Honesty is the best policy." Unlike the case of the first principle, here considerations of selfishness and personal ambition not only are permitted to enter but are the basis of doctrine. A person actuated by this principle turns away from wrongdoing not from an aesthetic aversion, but because of a conviction that, in the long run at least, it does not pay.
The third principle, imposed morality, has its roots in the deterrent force of such measures of redress, retaliation, or protection as are available to individuals and society in dealings with wrongdoers. A person actuated by this principle has no aesthetic aversion to wrongdoing; and he regards the maxim of prudence with cynicism. His preoccupation is mainly how to escape detection, conviction, and punishment. If he refrains from wrongdoing, it is only when the risk involved is too great and too immediate.
I could not better define the hysterical personality, as I have observed it, than by saying that it is characterized by total lack of the first principle - pure or aesthetic morality; that it is at best actuated by the second principle - prudent morality; and that it is, in its typical manifestations, actuated entirely by the third principle - imposed morality, i.e., in so far as its conduct has any moral quality at all.
This places the hysterical individual in close relation to the criminal. Therein I believe my conception to be correct. Yet a certain difference may be pointed out. Most hysterics are characterized by a trait which is foreign to many criminals: indolence.
A desire to lead a parasitic existence, to be a burden on relatives, employers, the government, to live on a pension and do no work, is characteristic of many of these patients. They would, and often do, steal anything conveniently within reach, lie, cheat, make work and trouble for others, wantonly destroy government property, but they have not the enterprise or energy that some criminals have of planning and carrying out an embezzlement, or a burglary, or a train robbery: that is too much like work.
This description may seem to some much overdrawn. I would, therefore, at this point again call attention to the fact that the above described traits of hysterical personality exist in all degrees. Between the man of highest integrity actuated only by the purest motives of unselfish service, and the one who utterly lacks all moral compunction and is constantly preoccupied with motives of shirking and of organizing a parasitic existence, there are many shades of transition.
It should, moreover, be borne in mind that the material observed in the Plattsburg hospital, on which in the main this account is based, represents, by selection, the most refractory cases of hysteria met with in the army.