Chapter ID: CBB544167591

Tres medici, duo athei? The Physician as Atheist and the Medicalization of the Soul (2016)


Until recently, examinations of the ‘mind-body problem’ in historical context paid only cursory attention to its specifically medical dimension, if at all. At best, some ‘folk physiology’ was entertained, usually to laugh at it (the pineal gland, animal spirits). Conversely, historians of neuroscience or of artificial intelligence (Jeannerod M, The brain machine. The development of neurophysiological thought, trans. D. Urion, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1985; Dupuy J-P, The mechanization of the mind: on the origins of cognitive science, trans. M.B. DeBevoise, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000) often present figures like La Mettrie as heroic early cases of ‘naturalization’, giving an experimental basis to materialism: their symmetrically inverse mistake is to take professions of medical authority too literally (although there are genuine cases where all of the above does coalesce – where ‘actors’ categories mysteriously transcend historiographic projections –, such as Hieronymus Gaub’s reflections on the ‘regimen of the mind’ in the mid-eighteenth century, or, more theoretically, Guillaume Lamy’s Epicurean-inflected Anatomical Discourses on the Soul, eighty years earlier). Contrary to the denial of the relevance of medicine in early modern philosophy, as regards issues such as the body-soul (then body-mind) relation among others, it seems patently difficult to separate medical theory, medically nourished philosophical speculation, and metaphysics. This is the case, whether in Descartes, Gaub, the ‘animist’ Georg-Ernest Stahl, or materialists such as Guillaume Lamy and La Mettrie: medicine, or rather ‘a certain idea of medicine’, is everywhere. Here I focus on the motif of a radical medicine – a medical precursor of the Radical Enlightenment (Israel J, Radical enlightenment. Philosophy and the making of modernity, 1650–1750, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001; Israel J, Enlightenment contested. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, Israel J, Enlightenment, radical enlightenment and the “medical revolution” of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In: Grell OP, Cunningham A (ed) Medicine and religion in enlightenment Europe. Ashgate, Aldershot, pp 5–28, 2007), symbolized negatively by the slogan, tres medici, duo athei, or ‘where there are three doctors, there are two atheists’, i.e. medicine as a basis for atheism. This theme runs through various works of medical or medico-theological propaganda: Thomas Browne’s 1643 De religio medici begins with Browne regretting rumors of doctors being atheists as the “general scandal of my Profession”; Germain de Bezançon’s 1677 Les médecins à la censure works hard at rebutting the saying, “Bon Physicien, mauvais chrétien.” But these are examples of the fear of a radical medicine – a medicine that denies the existence of an immortal soul, or even defends materialism and atheism. Are there positive statements of this doctrine? Indeed, attacks on it are much more common than statements identifying with it, like medical versions of natural theology in general. In fact, just as there were theologically motivated medical works, there were also medically motivated works of radical or heretical theology, like William Coward’s Second Thoughts on the Human Soul (Coward W, Second thoughts on the human soul. R. Basset, London, 1702, building on Overton 1644), which engaged in polemics concerning the nature of the soul – mortal or immortal? (Thomson A, Bodies of thought: science, religion, and the soul in the early enlightenment. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008). Parallel to the mortalist trend, but flowing into a common genre of radical, medico-materialist texts (sometimes anonymous, such as L’Âme Matérielle, from the 1720s) are at least two other strands of radical medicine: a post-Cartesian focus on medicina mentis and the nature of the mind (Henricus Regius, Hieronymus Gaub, Antoine Le Camus), and an Epicurean medicine, in which mind and body are organismically united, with an additional hedonistic component, notably in Lamy, Mandeville and La Mettrie (Wright JP, Locke, Willis, and the seventeenth-century epicurean soul. In: Osler MJ (ed) Atoms, Pneuma, and Tranquillity: Epicurean and stoic themes in European thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 239–258, 1991; Wolfe CT, van Esveld M, The material soul: strategies for naturalising the soul in an early modern epicurean context. In: Kambaskovic D (ed) Conjunctions: body, soul and mind from Plato to the enlightenment. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 371–421, 2014). The focus on a medicine of the mind (Corneanu, (ms. 2013), The care of the whole man: medicine and theology in the late renaissance, 2013) is obviously connected to a ‘medicalization of the soul’: there was a body-soul problem in and for medicine, a sort of medicalized ‘pneumatology’. Radical medicine is located somewhere in between the early forms of ‘naturalization’ or ‘medicalization’ of the soul and the pose of scientific neutrality that is characteristic of early nineteenth-century medicine (as in Cabanis, Bichat or Bernard): it is a short-lived episode. I seek to reconstruct this intellectual figure, in which mortalist, post-Cartesian and Epicurean strands intersect and sometimes come together. I suggest that medically influenced materialism in the Radical Enlightenment (e.g. in the later French cases, La Mettrie, Ménuret and Diderot), is different from later, more experimentally focused and more quantitatively oriented forms of medical materialism, precisely because of its radical dimension. This radical medicine often insists on vitality, as opposed to “anatomie cadavérique”: it is vital and hedonistic, a medicine concerned with maintaining bodily pleasure.

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Book Benjamin Goldberg; Peter Distelzweig; Evan R. Ragland (2015) Early Modern Medicine and Natural Philosophy. unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Arecco, Davide
Chisick, Harvey
Cunningham, Andrew
Donato, Maria Pia
Garber, Daniel
Grell, Ole Peter
Bruniana & Campanelliana: Ricerche Filosofiche e Materiali Storico-testuali
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
European Legacy
History of European Ideas
Intellectual History Review
University of Iowa
Edizioni ETS
Oxford University Press
Atheism; agnosticism; irreligion
Mind and body
Medicine and religion
Natural philosophy
Diderot, Denis
Spinoza, Baruch
Feijóo y Montenegro, Benito Jerónimo
Hartley, David
Hooke, Robert
La Mettrie, Julien Offray de
Time Periods
18th century
17th century
16th century
19th century
Great Britain
Rome (Italy)

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