whitney guenther

Jesus, Friedrich Nietzsche and Joan of Arc were all super paranoid, but in the best possible sense of the word – at least that is the premise of English professor John Hampsey’s book “Paranoia and Contentment: A Personal Essay on Western Thought.”

The book reintroduces the idea of pre-Plato Greece that paranoia can be positive. Hampsey, 52, said “para” means beside and “noia” means mind, and originally to be “beside the mind” was determined brilliant.

It was Plato who created the negative connotation which now accompanies the word, Hampsey said.

“For Plato, if you were going beside the mind you weren’t being rational,” Hampsey said. “After Plato, going off-track was seen as dangerous or sick or abnormal.”

Hampsey created two words to distinguish between the positive and negative uses of paranoia: “paraniodic” for the post-Plato meaning and “paranoic” for the pre-Plato meaning.

Joan of Arc, Nietzsche and Jesus, who Hampsey calls a “paranoic visionary,” falls into the latter category.

Hampsey said people who changed the course of western civilization were paranoic and would be outcasts in today’s society.

“The greatness of history comes from people who look like losers,” he said. “I call them paranoic heroes.”

But Hampsey said society’s focus on contentment makes positive paranoia a rarity, and instead gives rise to paraniodic thoughts.

“We are often torn between something that is about contentment and security and something that is creative, yet risky and dangerous,” he said. “Once you buy into contentment you are also buying into the irrational fears over losing it.”

Hampsey hopes that bringing light to the relationship between negative paranoia and contentment will inspire readers to seek positive paranoia.

He said the goal of the book is “to get people to investigate; to look for answers yourself, to question and to not be afraid to pursue an answer that you might think risks your security.”

Hampsey said he is pleased with the feedback the book has received thus far. He said the local newspaper reviews have responded favorably to the book’s originality, and that he was well-received on an eight-city book tour he took in 2005.

“I never wanted to write a book just to write a book,” Hampsey said. “I wanted to write a book because it would be important or different.”

He succeeded in more ways than one.

Not only is Hampsey’s book unconventional in context, but it is unconventional in format as well.

Pieces of memoir and fiction are interspersed in every chapter to exemplify Hampsey’s message.

“I’m so pleased that I didn’t sell out along the way and write a conventional book that just a few scholars would read,” he said.

The book’s hardback version was released in January 2005, with the paperback version following a year later. Sales have topped 5,000 copies for the hardback and the paperback is consistently selling about 500 copies a month, Hampsey said.

While his book is never required in his curriculum, he does offer it as a recommended text when it relates to coursework.

Hampsey teaches 19th century British literature and classical Greece at Cal Poly, where he has worked since 1989. Before coming to Cal Poly, Hampsey spent five years teaching at Boston University, near his home state of Pennsylvania, where he met world-renowned historian and fellow Boston University professor Howard Zinn.

“Hampsey’s goal is to startle us into reconsidering our conventional ways of thinking, and I believe he has achieved that goal admirably,” Zinn said in his endorsement of “Paranoia and Contentment.”

The book was not the only high-point of 2005 for Hampsey; he was honored with Cal Poly’s University Distinguished Teaching Award the same year.

“Cal Poly has smart kids,” Hampsey said, “and I love turning them onto the stuff that’s in my book, great poetry and great literature.”

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