First, there were the priests. Now, there are the doctors. Has anyone else noticed the similarities between those two?
Along with lawyers, they have always formed the most loathed and derided professional triumvirate in literature and the theatre. Anton Chekhov, himself a physician, said, “Doctors are the same as lawyers; the only difference is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and kill you too.”
Anyone who has spent any time in Italy will have come across the numerous witticisms about the Church and its ministers. Boccaccio portrays clerics as lecherous, wealth-chasing gluttons. In Assisi, gift shops are littered with ceramic figurines of pot-bellied Franciscans and Dominicans downing tankards of beer or stuffing their faces with food. In Rome, locals will let you in on the fact that the Vatican car number plate S.C.V. (Stato Città del Vaticano = State City of the Vatican) actually stands for Se Cristo Vedesse! (= If Christ could only see!)
An ancient Roman proverb warns that “The doctor is to be feared more than the disease.” In the Commedia dell’Arte, the Plague Doctor is a figure of fun. Molière, a true life hypochondriac and, therefore, experienced patient, observed that “Doctors pour drugs of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, into patients of whom they know nothing.” Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Doctors will have more lives to answer for in the next world than even we generals.”
An obvious practice doctors and priests have shared over the centuries, is using multi-syllabic phrases – often in Latin or Greek – to dumbfound and scare into submission ignorant folk in order to cover up their own ignorance or their sometimes their less than altruistic motives. Both brandish language as a tool of power. By using terminology the punters do not understand, they place themselves outside the reach of contradiction, and become inaccessible to a fair fight. It is impossible to challenge someone who is speaking to you in a foreign tongue. Prior to the Reformation, when mass was exclusively in Latin, hoards of people said “Amen” to precepts they did not actually understand. Just as billions of people now swallow tons of tablets without knowing what they are actually made of. It is what we call an act of faith, “faith” being also something we are supposed to have in our doctors.
Both medicine and the priesthood are professions whose authority has always been feared for the power it possesses over us (the priest, over our souls; the doctor, over our bodies), rather than genuinely respected. Both demand that their orders (“doctor’s ‘orders'”, like in the military) be obeyed to the letter, without deviation or questioning, on pain of losing that without which you could not be human – your soul or your body. How many times have we heard people say, “The doctor says I can’t”? Millennia of Greek philosophy, Latin thinkers, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang and Darwin, and we still lack the most essential of freedoms – the freedom of thought. Instead, we delegate the responsibility for our thinking to others. “The doctor say I can’t” instead of “I can’t because it make sense to me that I shouldn’t.”
Doctors enjoy their authority because we concede it to them so readily. That is evident by the ruffled and peeved reaction you get from a doctor when you query or contradict him or her. They are clearly not used to being queried or contradicted, and the shock of it puzzles and disconcerts them.
Both professions have a strict hierarchy. Wherever they go, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are accompanied by a retinue. When visiting the hospital wards, the Consultant travels with a court of junior doctors ready to push you back if you attempt to address the Consultant directly.
As children, we were told by vicars, priests and nuns to be as good as the Child Jesus. The same vicars, priests and nuns told us that Jesus was the Son of God. I figured that, my father being a man, I lacked that inborn advantage, that head start to be as good as the Child Jesus. So how could I possibly even try? When I was a child, I asked the school chaplain. He frowned and said faith was a mystery.
As an adult, I asked several doctors why a part of my body was engaged in sabotage activity. They frowned and said, “It’s difficult to explain.”
Nicolas Boileu was unequivocal: “Ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement”. In other words, if it is clear in your mind, then you can explain it clearly.
The last thing I wish, is to offend in any way all those who owe their health and even their lives to a doctor. I respect their choice and their experience. I, on the other hand, am alive and in relatively good health in spite of a few.
My principal disagreement with the medical profession is on a matter of focus. Ashley Montagu phrases it perfectly: “The doctor has been taught to be interested not in health but in disease. What the public are taught is that health is the cure for disease.”
The doctor’s focus is hardly ever on the building, but on the destroying. Disinfecting. Cutting out. Removing. Taking out. Killing. Not Healing, Building up, Creating, Empowering. Doctors tell us that we live in a dangerous world where mutant viruses and hostile bacteria are lurking behind every corner, ready to attack us. They tell us a that the organs in our body are time bombs ready to blow up any minute. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Another proverb, this time from China: “The superior doctor prevents sickness; the mediocre doctor attends to impending sickness: the inferior doctor treats actual sickness.” It reminds me of a joke on a ceramic plate I once saw in Rome. “When you’re ill, go to the doctor and pay him. The man needs to make a living. Then go to the pharmacist and buy medicines. The man needs to make a living. Go back home and throw everything away. You need to stay alive.”
Some early Protestants denied the existence of Free Will. Everything was predestined by the Grace of God. The evils of the world were caused by the Devil. Doctors have done away with past superstitions, and opened our eyes to the existence of the D.N.A. So, instead of being preordained, our lives are now genetically predetermined. The Devil has been usurped by the Genes. It’s not my fault. It’s my genes.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it exquisitely on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. I only wish I could quote him verbatim. When God told off Adam for eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, he delegated his guilt. “It’s my wife’s fault. She gave me the apple.”
Eve promptly passed the buck. “It’s the serpent’s fault. He gave me the apple.”
God glared at the serpent. The poor animal glanced around in vain. There was no one around for him to blame.