The term alienation has been used over the ages with varied and sometimes contradictory meanings. In ancient history it could mean a metaphysical sense of achieving a higher state of contemplation, ecstasy or union—becoming alienated from a limited existence in the world, in a positive sense. Examples of this usage have been traced to neoplatonic philosophers such as Plotinus (in the Greek alloiosis). There have also long been religious concepts of being separated or cut off from God and the faithful, alienated in a negative sense. The New Testament mentions the term apallotrioomai in Greek—"being alienated from". Ideas of estrangement from a Golden Age, or due to a fall of man, or approximate equivalents in differing cultures or religions, have also been described as concepts of alienation. A double positive and negative sense of alienation is broadly shown in the spiritual beliefs referred to as Gnosticism.
Alienation has also had a particular legal-political meaning since at least Ancient Roman times, where to alienate property (alienato) is to transfer ownership of it to someone else. The term alienation itself comes from the Latin alienus which meant 'of another place or person', which in turn came from alius, meaning "other" or "another". An alienus in ancient Roman times could refer to someone else's slave. Another usage of the term in Ancient Greco-Roman times was by physicians referring to disturbed, difficult or abnormal states of mind, generally attributed to imbalanced physiology. In Latin alienatio mentis (mental alienation), this usage has been dated to Asclepiades. Once translations of such works had resurfaced in the West in the 17th century, physicians again began using the term, which is typically attributed to Felix Platter.
In medieval times, a relationship between alienation and social order has been described, mediated in part by mysticism and monasticism. The Crusades and witch-hunts have been described as forms of mass alienation.
In the 17th century, Hugo Grotius put forward the concept that everyone has 'sovereign authority' over themselves but that they could alienate that natural right to the common good, an early social contract theory. In the 18th century, Hutcheson introduced a distinction between alienable and unalienable rights in the legal sense of the term. Rousseau published influential works on the same theme, and is also seen as having popularized a more psychological-social concept relating to alienation from a state of nature due to the expansion of civil society or the nation state.
In the same century a law of alienation of affection was introduced for men to seek compensation from other men accused of taking away 'their' woman.