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Did Louis XVI Lose His Head Over a Hunting Addiction?

Looking at history can help us reconsider how we diagnose in the present.

Louis the XVI is most famous for getting his head whacked off—along with wife Marie Antoinette—during the French Revolution. But was he doomed from the start, or did his own mental health limitations make matters worse, leading to his downfall? Louis was an avid hunter, but by 1787—just a couple of years before the 1789 revolution—his hunting behaviors had become extreme. Did Louis develop a kind of "hunting addiction"—and did this impair his ability to deal with France’s financial crisis? Let’s have a look.

In fairness to Louis, he inherited many of the problems that led to the Revolution, including a regressive tax system, crushing national debt and general public disillusionment with the monarchy. Louis really wasn’t a bad guy (aside, one presumes, from the perspective of a woodland creature) but was indecisive, passive and disengaged. To give an idea, it took him quite literally 7 years to figure out how to make love to his wife (in fairness, Marie Antoinette reportedly wasn’t much help). Only the intercession of his brother-in-law, Marie Antoinette’s brother, got things moving. Talk about your awkward conversations.

Louis’ approach to government was about as clumsy. He added to France’s debt by financing the American Revolution against Britain (thanks for that France—so sorry it didn’t turn out quite so well for you), deregulated the grain market leading to increased prices, and spent lavishly. In fairness, the extravagant spending of Louis and Marie Antoinette was only a small contribution to the national debt compared to the various war debts, but furthered the perception of gross income equality between the nobility and the general public (and Louis and Marie Antoinette were far from the only nobility to spend lavishly on a lot of dumb stuff.)

By 1787, things had gotten worse. Louis’ financial ministers were at an impasse for how to fix France’s crushing debt or regressive tax system. Efforts for reform were frustrated by a hostile nobility disinclined to reduce their various privileges. This was one of these critical moments in history. Elements such as geography or culture matter to history, but so do individuals in positions of influence. France really needed a dynamic leader with some bold ideas and the force of personality to see them through. Instead, France got Louis—who, in modern life, might have made a reasonably good movie projectionist or computer technician, but for whom kinging just wasn’t his thing.

This is where hunting addiction came in. Increasingly despondent, Louis became obsessed with hunting, already a favorite pastime. Observed by witnesses such as Count Mercy, the Austrian ambassador, Louis was said to hunt “to excess” and neglected his governing duties. He began hunting for the escapism of it rather than for the enjoyment of it. He’d also sunk into a major depression, weeping daily and eating and drinking in gross amounts.

Do I really think Louis had "hunting disorder," to use the kind of parlance the World Health Organization (WHO) has begun to adopt? No—but that’s actually my rather subtle, stealthy, underlying point. As my colleague Lee Kyung-min at Seoul National University, recently pointed out, we’ve gotten to an era where the psychiatric community is at risk of overmedicalizing many human phenomena.

Recently the WHO proposed a new diagnosis for a gaming disorder, which would make video games the first hobby to be diagnosable. To be sure, some people overdo gaming just as Louis overdid hunting—and research suggests it's likely for the same reasons: to escape stress and depression. The evidence suggests the prevalence of problematic gaming is quite small, about 1 percent—hardly an epidemic. But people overdo a lot of things such as food, exercise, work, shopping; there are even research papers on dance addiction. One scholar recently discussed fishing addiction. Yet none of these have an official WHO diagnosis.

Hunting obviously wasn’t really Louis’ problem: He was depressed (the various rabbits and deer of France were also a bit torn up over the situation). His overindulgence in hunting was merely a symptom. But video gaming is no different. Generally, evidence suggests that overdoing gaming is symptomatic of other underlying mental health disorders, not a disorder in and of itself. With that in mind, it’s difficult to understand the WHO’s fascination with gaming disorder to the exclusion of other behaviors people overdo as anything other than a moral panic. Every generation sees older adults freak out about some new technology—from novels in the 19th century, to radio in the early 20th, to rock and roll in the latter 20th. It’s too bad the WHO didn’t have the historical perspective to be more cautious in creating what is, in the view of many experts, most likely a rubbish disorder. Even the WHO’s basic description of gaming disorder is vague. The WHO defines gaming disorder as “impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” If you take out “gaming” and put “hunting” into that description, you’ll see that hunting disorder fits Louis just fine.

Of course, what this really means is that Dr. Lee is quite right—we may have reached a point where psychiatric diagnoses are bordering on the absurd. That’s why other professional groups such as the respective media and technology divisions of the American Psychological Association and Psychological Society of Ireland have spoken out against gaming disorder as not being a valid diagnosis. We really must rethink our entire conceptualization of “addiction” so that we’re not overmedicalizing a lot of normal behaviors or misdiagnosing people by focusing on the wrong symptom.

As for Louis, well, things didn’t exactly turn out well for him or his wife. Caught up in the Revolution and blamed for the excesses of monarchy, he died by the guillotine in 1793. In the end, he died with dignity. Too bad he hadn’t ruled with strength and wisdom while he was alive, as things might have turned out different.

On January 7 of next year, I’ll be publishing my next book How Madness Shaped History which will be full of vignettes like this one, discussing the intersection of psychology and history.