Lettres Persanes

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

In his Lettres Persanes, first published in 1721 and reprinted many times during his lifetime, Charles-Louis de Secondat, better known as Montesquieu (1689 – 1755), used the device of letters from fictional Persian visitors to Paris to examine French (and European) manners, assumptions and prejudices. Among the subjects which he treated with irony, perhaps not surprisingly, was the medicine of his time.

For example, he relates the story of a doctor who had a patient who suffered from insomnia for thirty-five days. He prescribed him opium, but the patient, reluctant to take it, asked whether he might try an idea of his own first, on the promise that if it did not work he would then take the opium.

His idea was to try some of the books in a local bookseller as a soporific. “Monsieur,” he asks him, “would you not have in your shop some book of (religious) devotion that you have not been able to sell, for often the rarest remedies are the most effective?” The bookseller replies “Monsieur, I happen to have the Holy Court of Father Caussin. I will send it to you.”

It duly arrived. “The dust was shaken from it and the son of the ill man, a young schoolboy, began to read it. He was the first to feel the effect; at the second page, he began to mispronounce, and everyone felt tired; a moment afterwards, everyone was snoring except the ill man who, after long resisting, finally succumbed.”

The doctor visits the next day and assumes that the patient, who has slept well, has taken the opium he prescribed. He is quickly disabused, and begins his researches into the medical effects of boring books. A footnote gives his prescriptions:

Purgative infusion: Take three pages of Aristotle’s logic in Greek; two pages of the most acute treatise of scholastic theology, as for example that of Duns Scotus; four pages of Paracelsus; one of Avicenna; six of Averroes; three of Porphyry; as many again of Plotinus. Infuse them for
twenty-four hours, and take four times a day.

In order not to make his medicines as cheap as possible, and in order not to cause his patients financial embarrassment, the doctor decides not to use rare ingredients, such as dedicatory epistles that cause no one to yawn, prefaces that are too short, Jansenist works not highly-regarded by other Jansenists and not despised by Jesuits. As for a good vomit, six funeral orations, a collection of new operas, fifty new novels and thirty new memoirs, distilled in an alembic, should be sufficient.

As for asthma:

Read all the works of the Reverend Father Maimbourg, taking care not to stop before the end of every sentence; and you will feel the ability to breathe return little by little, without the necessity to repeat the cure.

As to the medical books of the time, Montesquieu was hardly more complimentary:

The textbooks of medicine: these monuments to the fragility of nature and the power of the art; which make us tremble when they treat of even the slightest illnesses, so close to death do they make us seem; but that reassure us completely when it comes to the value of remedies, so that it is as if we had become immortal.

2 thoughts on “Lettres Persanes

  1. Pingback: The medical effects of certain books | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

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