Unit 8Section 5 Exercise 19Medical Uncertainty & Error Physician Arrogance
Molière’s 17th-century representation of the physician has something strikingly modern about it. Moliere’s targets were doctors, lawyers and clergymen—he also lambasted in his most famous plays the misers and hypocrites of his day, among others. Don Juan is a cynical opportunist and hedonist. He has just ruthlessly abandoned a young woman. In this scene, we see him in flight with his servant. His servant, while more law-abiding, is also more of a simpleton. Don Juan’s character accrues complexity because his own hypocrisies allow him to see through the pretences of others.
From Dom Juan, by Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) 1922-1723
Sgaranelle—So what do you say, Sir, admit that I was right: both of us are marvelously well-disguised.
Dom Juan—You’re right that you’re looking good, though I don’t know where you unearthed that ridiculous outfit.
Sgaranelle--Oh yeah? It’s the garb of an old doctor, who pawned it and I paid a good deal for it. But did you know, Sir, this get-up has already made me respectable? People I’ve run into have greeted me, and several people have already consulted me the way they would a person who knows his stuff.
Dom Juan—How’s that?
Sgaranelle--Five or six peasants I ran into along the way, came up to ask me my advice regarding various illnesses.
Dom Juan—You told them you didn’t know a thing about it, I assume.
Sgaranelle—Who, me? Not at all! I wanted to uphold the honor of this uniform, so I pondered their problems and made recommendations for each case.
Dom Juan—And what sort of remedies did you recommend?
Sgaranelle--To be honest, I grabbed at whatever came to mind—my recommendations were pretty random, and it would be a hoot if these patients actually got better and came back to thank me for what I told them.
Dom Juan—And why not? For what reason wouldn’t you have the same rights as other doctors? They aren’t any better at curing illnesses than you are, and their art is pure façade. They do nothing but reap the glory of their successes and you can like them take advantage of the patients’ good outcomes, by attributing to your remedies what is actually the work of luck and the forces of nature.
Sgaranelle--What, Sir? Are you as cynical about medicine as you are about faith?
Dom Juan—It’s one of the great errors circulating among humans.
Sgaranelle--What? You don’t believe in phlebotomy, nor in laxatives, nor in emetic wine?
Dom Juan—And why should I believe in those things?
Sgaranelle--You are a real unbeliever. And yet, as you know, emetic wine has for some time now been all the rage. Its miraculous effects have converted even the biggest skeptics, and I myself was witness to its marvels three weeks ago—I saw its effects with my own eyes.
Dom Juan—And they were---?
Sgaranelle--There was a man who had been in agony for 6 days. Nobody knew what to prescribe, and none of the remedies were working. Finally they decided to give him an emetic.
Dom Juan—He recovered, I assume.
Sgaranelle--No, he died.
Dom Juan—Well, that’s a fabulous outcome.
Sgaranelle--What are you talking about? He’d been in agony for six days, and this killed him right away. What better result could you possibly wish for?
1. Define the term ‘therapeutic nihilism.’ (try googling it). What medical treatments are alluded to here? Is Dom Juan a therapeutic nihilist? To what extent does he exhibit a healthy skepticism?
2. What kind of image of the doctor is presented here? What similiarities does Dom Juan share with Alec Anders' character in the skit on the following web page? Do you think arrogance is more a product of culture or an individual's own hubris?