Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PHYSICIANS.

Regimen is superior to medicine, especially as, from time immemorial, out of every hundred physicians, ninety-eight are charlatans. Molière was right in laughing at them; for nothing is more ridiculous than to witness an infinite number of silly women, and men no less than women, when they have eaten, drunk, sported, or abstained from repose too much, call in a physician for the headache, invoke him like a god, and request him to work the miracle of producing an alliance between health and intemperance, not omitting to fee the said god, who laughs at their folly.

It is not, however, the less true that an able physician may preserve life on a hundred occasions, and restore to us the use of our limbs. When a man falls into an apoplexy, it is neither a captain of infantry nor a sergeant at law who will cure him. If cataracts are formed on my eyes, it is not my neighbor who will relieve me. I distinguish not between physicians and surgeons, these professions being so intimately connected.

Men who are occupied in the restoration of health to other men, by the joint exertion of skill and humanity, are above all the great of the earth. They even partake of divinity, since to preserve and renew is almost as noble as to create. The Roman people had no physicians for more than five hundred years. This people, whose sole occupation was slaughter, in particular cultivated not the art of prolonging life. What, therefore, happened at Rome to those who had a putrid fever, a fistula, a gangrene, or an inflammation of the stomach? They died. The small number of great physicians introduced into Rome were only slaves. A physician among the great Roman patricians was a species of luxury, like a cook. Every rich man had his perfumers, his bathers, his harpers, and his physician. The celebrated Musa, the physician of Augustus, was a slave; he was freed and made a Roman knight; after which physicians became persons of consideration.

When Christianity was so fully established as to bestow on us the felicity of possessing monks, they were expressly forbidden, by many councils, from practising medicine. They should have prescribed a precisely contrary line of conduct, if it were desirable to render them useful to mankind.

How beneficial to society were monks obliged to study medicine and to cure our ailments for God’s sake! Having nothing to gain but heaven, they would never be charlatans; they would equally instruct themselves in our diseases and their remedies, one of the finest of occupations, and the only one forbidden them. It has been objected that they would poison the impious; but even that would be advantageous to the church. Had this been the case, Luther would never have stolen one-half of Catholic Europe from our holy father, the pope; for in the first fever which might have seized the Augustine Luther, a Dominican would have prepared his pills. You will tell me that he would not have taken them; but with a little address this might have been managed. But to proceed:

Towards the year 1517 lived a citizen, animated with a Christian zeal, named John; I do not mean John Calvin, but John, surnamed of God, who instituted the Brothers of Charity. This body, instituted for the redemption of captives, is composed of the only useful monks, although not accounted among the orders. The Dominicans, Bernardines, Norbertins, and Benedictines, acknowledge not the Brothers of Charity. They are simply adverted to in the continuation of the “Ecclesiastical History” of Fleury. Why? Because they have performed cures instead of miracles — have been useful and not caballed — cured poor women without either directing or seducing them. Lastly, their institution being charitable, it is proper that other monks should despise them.

Medicine, having then become a mercenary profession in the world, as the administration of justice is in many places, it has become liable to strange abuses. But nothing is more estimable than a physician who, having studied nature from his youth, knows the properties of the human body, the diseases which assail it, the remedies which will benefit it, exercises his art with caution, and pays equal attention to the rich and the poor. Such a man is very superior to the general of the Capuchins, however respectable this general may be.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25