Is Moliére Still Right?

I saw Moliere’s play the Imaginary Invalid a few nights ago. I’d never seen the play before so I was very surprised to find just how well some aspects of it fit into the modern times. The issues with medicine that Moliére, who lived in the 17th century, brings up are amazingly relevant to this day and age, particularly where psychiatric medications are concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, modern medicine is obviously a completely different slice of cake from the medicine in the 17th century France. Enemas and bleeding are no longer considered proper treatment, thank God. Yet Moliére still has a point. As before, doctors still prescribe more medicine than necessary, and there are all too many occasions where the cure is worse than the actual disease.

Here the protagonist, the imaginary invalid Argan, and his brother Béralde, who doesn’t quite believe that Argan is as ill as he thinks he is, converse. The excerpts are taken from the Project Gutenberg webpage.

Arg. But are you aware, brother, that it is these medicines which keep me in good health? Mr. Purgon says that I should go off if he were but three days without taking care of me.

Ber. If you are not careful, he will take such care of you that he will soon send you into the next world.

Arg. But let us reason together, brother; don’t you believe at all in medicine?

Ber. No, brother; and I do not see that it is necessary for our salvation to believe in it.

Arg. What! Do you not hold true a thing acknowledged by everybody, and revered throughout all ages?

Ber. Between ourselves, far from thinking it true, I look upon it as one of the greatest follies which exist among men; and to consider things from a philosophical point of view, I don’t know of a more absurd piece of mummery, of anything more ridiculous, than a man who takes upon himself to cure another man.

Arg. Why will you not believe that a man can cure another?

Ber. For the simple reason, brother, that the springs of our machines are mysteries about which men are as yet completely in the dark, and nature has put too thick a veil before our eyes for us to know anything about it.

Arg. Then, according to you, the doctors know nothing at all.

Ber. Oh yes, brother. Most of them have some knowledge of the best classics, can talk fine Latin, can give a Greek name to every disease, can define and distinguish them; but as to curing these diseases, that’s out of the question.

Doctors these days understand quite a lot about how our bodies work compared to the doctors of that time. But in the area of psychiatric medications, the words of Béralde are still wise. People are still to a surprising extent in the dark about how the brain works, and no one has any idea about what the medications we put in people’s brains exactly do there.

In the end Moliére gives a recommendation. It’s no good for cancer, of course, but there are oh so many diseases, imaginary and otherwise, which are medicated even though the best cure might be considerably simpler.

Arg:What is to be done when one is ill?

Ber. Nothing, brother.

Arg. Nothing?

Ber. Nothing. Only rest. Nature, when we leave her free, will herself gently recover from the disorder into which she has fallen. It is our anxiety, our impatience, which does the mischief, and most men die of their remedies, and not of their diseases.


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