Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Medicine and Morals.

A stroke of personal ridicule is levelled at Dryden, when Bayes informs us of his preparations for a course of study by a course of medicine! “When I have a grand design,” says he, “I ever take physic and let blood; for when you would have pure swiftness of thought, and fiery flights of fancy, you must have a care of the pensive part; in fine, you must purge the belly!” Such was really the practice of the poet, as Le Motte, who was a physician, informs us, and in his medical character did not perceive that ridicule in the subject which the wits and most readers unquestionably have enjoyed. The wits here were as cruel against truth as against Dryden; for we must still consider this practice, to use their own words, as “an excellent recipe for writing.” Among other philosophers, one of the most famous disputants of antiquity, Carneades, was accustomed to take copious doses of white hellebore, a great aperient, as a preparation to refute the dogmas of the stoics. “The thing that gives me the highest spirits (it seems absurd, but true) is a dose of salts; but one can’t take them like champagne,” said Lord Byron. Dryden’s practice was neither whimsical nor peculiar to the poet; he was of a full habit, and, no doubt, had often found by experience the beneficial effects without being aware of the cause, which is nothing less than the reciprocal influence of mind and body.

This simple fact is, indeed, connected with one of the most important inquiries in the history of man — the laws which regulate the invisible union of the soul with the body: in a word, the inscrutable mystery of our being! — a secret, but an undoubted intercourse, which probably must ever elude our perceptions. The combination of metaphysics with physics has only been productive of the wildest fairy tales among philosophers: with one party the soul seems to pass away in its last puff of air, while man seems to perish in “dust to dust;” the other as successfully gets rid of our bodies altogether, by denying the existence of matter. We are not certain that mind and matter are distinct existences, since the one may be only a modification of the other; however this great mystery be imagined, we shall find with Dr. Gregory, in his lectures “on the duties and qualifications of a physician,” that it forms an equally necessary inquiry in the sciences of morals and of medicine.

Whether we consider the vulgar distinction of mind and body as an union, or as a modified existence, no philosopher denies that a reciprocal action takes place between our moral and physical condition. Of these sympathies, like many other mysteries of nature, the cause remains occult, while the effects are obvious. This close, yet inscrutable association, this concealed correspondence of parts seemingly unconnected, in a word, this reciprocal influence of the mind and the body, has long fixed the attention of medical and metaphysical inquirers; the one having the care of our exterior organization, the other that of the interior. Can we conceive the mysterious inhabitant as forming a part of its own habitation? The tenant and the house are so inseparable, that in striking at any part of the dwelling, you inevitably reach the dweller. If the mind be disordered, we may often look for its seat in some corporeal derangement. Often are our thoughts disturbed by a strange irritability, which we do not even pretend to account for. This state of the body, called the fidgets, is a disorder to which the ladies are particularly liable. A physician of my acquaintance was earnestly entreated by a female patient to give a name to her unknown complaints; this he found no difficulty to do, as he is a sturdy asserter of the materiality of our nature; he declared that her disorder was atmospherical. It was the disorder of her frame under damp weather, which was reacting on her mind; and physical means, by operating on her body, might be applied to restore her to her half-lost senses. Our imagination is higher when our stomach is not overloaded; in spring than in winter; in solitude than amidst company; and in an obscured light than in the blaze and heat of the noon. In all these cases the body is evidently acted on, and re-acts on the mind. Sometimes our dreams present us with images of our restlessness, till we recollect that the seat of our brain may perhaps lie in our stomach, rather than on the pineal gland of Descartes; and that the most artificial logic to make us somewhat reasonable, may be swallowed with “the blue pill.” Our domestic happiness often depends on the state of our biliary and digestive organs, and the little disturbances of conjugal life may be more efficaciously cured by the physician than by the moralist; for a sermon misapplied will never act so directly as a sharp medicine. The learned Gaubius, an eminent professor of medicine at Leyden, who called himself “professor of the passions,” gives the case of a lady of too inflammable a constitution, whom her husband, unknown to herself, had gradually reduced to a model of decorum, by phlebotomy. Her complexion, indeed, lost the roses, which some, perhaps, had too wantonly admired for the repose of her conjugal physician.

The art of curing moral disorders by corporeal means has not yet been brought into general practice, although it is probable that some quiet sages of medicine have made use of it on some occasions. The Leyden professor we have just alluded to, delivered at the university a discourse “on the management and cure of the disorders of the mind by application to the body.” Descartes conjectured, that as the mind seems so dependent on the disposition of the bodily organs, if any means can be found to render men wiser and more ingenious than they have been hitherto, such a method might be sought from the assistance of medicine. The sciences of Morals and of Medicine will therefore be found to have a more intimate connexion than has been suspected. Plato thought that a man must have natural dispositions towards virtue to become virtuous; that it cannot be educated — you cannot make a bad man a good man; which he ascribes to the evil dispositions of the body, as well as to a bad education.

There are, unquestionably, constitutional moral disorders; some good-tempered but passionate persons have acknowledged, that they cannot avoid those temporary fits to which they are liable, and which, they say, they always suffered “from a child.” If they arise from too great a fulness of blood, is it not cruel to upbraid rather than to cure them, which might easily be done by taking away their redundant humours, and thus quieting the most passionate man alive? A moral patient, who allows his brain to be disordered by the fumes of liquor, instead of being suffered to be a ridiculous being, might have opiates prescribed; for in laying him asleep as soon as possible, you remove the cause of his sudden madness. There are crimes for which men are hanged, but of which they might easily have been cured by physical means. Persons out of their senses with love, by throwing themselves into a river, and being dragged out nearly lifeless, have recovered their senses, and lost their bewildering passion. Submersion is discovered to be a cure for some mental disorders, by altering the state of the body, as Van Helmont notices, “was happily practised in England.” With the circumstance to which this sage of chemistry alludes, I am unacquainted; but this extraordinary practice was certainly known to the Italians; for in one of the tales of the Poggio we find a mad doctor of Milan, who was celebrated for curing lunatics and demoniacs in a certain time. His practice consisted in placing them in a great high-walled court-yard, in the midst of which there was a deep well full of water, cold as ice. When a demoniac was brought to this physician, he had the patient bound to a pillar in the well, till the water ascended to the knees, or higher, and even to the neck, as he deemed their malady required. In their bodily pain they appear to have forgot their melancholy; thus by the terrors of the repetition of cold water, a man appears to have been frightened into his senses! A physician has informed me of a remarkable case; a lady with a disordered mind, resolved on death, and swallowed much more than half a pint of laudanum; she closed her curtains in the evening, took a farewell of her attendants, and flattered herself she should never awaken from her sleep. In the morning, however, notwithstanding this incredible dose, she awoke in the agonies of death. By the usual means she was enabled to get rid of the poison she had so largely taken, and not only recovered her life, but, what is more extraordinary, her perfect senses! The physician conjectures that it was the influence of her disordered mind over her body which prevented this vast quantity of laudanum from its usual action by terminating in death.1

Moral vices or infirmities, which originate in the state of the body, may be cured by topical applications. Precepts and ethics in such cases, if they seem to produce a momentary cure, have only moved the weeds, whose roots lie in the soil. It is only by changing the soil itself that we can eradicate these evils. The senses are five porches for the physician to enter into the mind, to keep it in repair. By altering the state of the body, we are changing that of the mind, whenever the defects of the mind depend on those of the organization. The mind, or soul, however distinct its being from the body, is disturbed or excited, independent of its volition, by the mechanical impulses of the body. A man becomes stupified when the circulation of the blood is impeded in the viscera; he acts more from instinct than reflection; the nervous fibres are too relaxed or too tense, and he finds a difficulty in moving them; if you heighten his sensations, you awaken new ideas in this stupid being; and as we cure the stupid by increasing his sensibility, we may believe that a more vivacious fancy may be promised to those who possess one, when the mind and the body play together in one harmonious accord. Prescribe the bath, frictions, and fomentations, and though it seems a round-about way, you get at the brains by his feet. A literary man, from long sedentary habits, could not overcome his fits of melancholy, till his physician doubled his daily quantity of wine; and the learned Henry Stephens, after a severe ague, had such a disgust of books, the most beloved objects of his whole life, that the very thought of them excited terror for a considerable time. It is evident that the state of the body often indicates that of the mind. Insanity itself often results from some disorder in the human machine. “What is this MIND, of which men appear so vain?” exclaims Flechier. “If considered according to its nature it is a fire which sickness and an accident most sensibly puts out; it is a delicate temperament, which soon grows disordered; a happy conformation of organs, which wear out; a combination and a certain motion of the spirits, which exhaust themselves; it is the most lively and the most subtile part of the soul, which seems to grow old with the BODY.”

It is not wonderful that some have attributed such virtues to their system of diet, if it has been found productive of certain effects on the human body. Cornaro perhaps imagined more than he experienced; but Apollonius Tyaneus, when he had the credit of holding an intercourse with the devil, by his presumed gift of prophecy, defended himself from the accusation by attributing his clear and prescient views of things to the light aliments he lived on, never indulging in a variety of food. “This mode of life has produced such a perspicuity in my ideas, that I see as in a glass things past and future.” We may, therefore, agree with Bayes, that “for a sonnet to Amanda, and the like, stewed prunes only” might be sufficient; but for “a grand design,” nothing less than a more formal and formidable dose.

Camus, a French physician, who combined literature with science, the author of “Abdeker, or the Art of Cosmetics,” which he discovered in exercise and temperance, produced another fanciful work, written in 1753, “La Médecine de l’Esprit.” His conjectural cases are at least as numerous as his more positive facts; for he is not wanting in imagination. He assures us, that having reflected on the physical causes, which, by differently modifying the body, varied also the dispositions of the mind, he was convinced that by employing these different causes, or by imitating their powers by art, we might, by means purely mechanical, affect the human mind, and correct the infirmities of the understanding and the will. He considered this principle only as the aurora of a brighter day. The great difficulty to overcome was to find out a method to root out the defects, or the diseases of the soul, in the same manner as physicians cure a fluxion from the lungs, a dysentery, a dropsy, and all other infirmities, which seem only to attack the body. This indeed, he says, is enlarging the domain of medicine, by showing how the functions of intellect and the springs of volition are mechanical. The movements and passions of the soul, formerly restricted to abstract reasonings, are by this system reduced to simple ideas. Insisting that material causes force the soul and body to act together, the defects of the intellectual operations depend on those of the organisation, which may be altered or destroyed by physical causes; and he properly adds, that we are to consider that the soul is material, while existing in matter, because it is operated on by matter. Such is the theory of “La Médecine de l’Esprit,” which, though physicians will never quote, may perhaps contain some facts worth their attention.

Camus’s two little volumes seem to have been preceded by a medical discourse delivered in the academy of Dijon in 1748, where the moralist compares the infirmities and vices of the mind to parallel diseases of the body. We may safely consider some infirmities and passions of the mind as diseases, and could they be treated as we do the bodily ones, to which they bear an affinity, this would be the great triumph of “morals and medicine.” The passion of avarice resembles the thirst of dropsical patients; that of envy is a slow wasting fever; love is often frenzy, and capricious and sudden restlessness, epileptic fits. There are moral disorders which at times spread like epidemical maladies through towns, and countries, and even nations. There are hereditary vices and infirmities transmitted from the parent’s mind, as there are unquestionably such diseases of the body: the son of a father of a hot and irritable temperament inherits the same quickness and warmth; a daughter is often the counterpart of her mother. Morality, could it be treated medicinally, would require its prescriptions, as all diseases have their specific remedies; the great secret is perhaps discovered by Camus — that of operating on the mind by means of the body.

A recent writer seems to have been struck by these curious analogies. Mr. Haslam, in his work on “Sound Mind,” says p. 90, “There seems to be a considerable similarity between the morbid state of the instruments of voluntary motion (that is, the body), and certain affections of the mental powers (that is, the mind). Thus, paralysis has its counterpart in the defects of recollection, where the utmost endeavour to remember is ineffectually exerted. Tremor may be compared with incapability of fixing the attention, and this involuntary state of muscles ordinarily subjected to the will, also finds a parallel where the mind loses its influence in the train of thought, and becomes subject to spontaneous intrusions; as may be exemplified in reveries, dreaming, and some species of madness.

Thus one philosopher discovers the analogies of the mind with the body, and another of the body with the mind. Can we now hesitate to believe that such analogies exist — and, advancing one step farther, trace in this reciprocal influence that a part of the soul is the body, as the body becomes a part of the soul? The most important truth remains undivulged, and ever will in this mental pharmacy; but none is more clear than that which led to the view of this subject, that in this mutual intercourse of body and mind the superior is often governed by the inferior; others think the mind is more wilfully outrageous than the body. Plutarch, in his essays, has a familiar illustration, which he borrows from some philosopher more ancient than himself:—“Should the body sue the mind before a court of judicature for damages, it would be found that the mind would prove to have been a ruinous tenant to its landlord.” The sage of Cheronæa did not foresee the hint of Descartes and the discovery of Camus, that by medicine we may alleviate or remove the diseases of the mind; a practice which indeed has not yet been pursued by physicians, though the moralists have been often struck by the close analogies of the MIND with the BODY! A work by the learned Dom Pernetty, La connoissance de l’homme moral par celle de l’homme physique, we are told is more fortunate in its title than its execution; probably it is one of the many attempts to develope this imperfect and obscured truth, which hereafter may become more obvious, and be universally comprehended.

1 A physician of eminence has told us of the melancholy termination of the life of a gentleman who in a state of mental aberration cut his throat; the loss of blood restored his mind to a healthy condition; but the wound unfortunately proved fatal.

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