Dalrymple recently acted as judge for the Hippocrates Prize, a poetry competition open to NHS employees, and describes in the New Criterion his difficulty with the experience and his enjoyment of an entry that did not win, “Two Bound Copies of the Lancet 1886” by Dr. Nicholas Leach of Leicestershire:
There is nothing in this description, accurate as it is, of the condescension of a later age towards an earlier; of that mockery that comes so easily to the lips or pens of those who take their current state of enlightenment, attributed by them to their own personal cleverness, as the acme of wisdom, as the final revelation of the truth. For Dr. Leach continues that the frock-coated phrases are the “assertion of the learned who yet know nothing . . .”
This is not the egoistic assertiveness of those who know nothing because of their own laziness, wilful ignorance, or intellectual incompetence. Far from it, it is of those who know nothing simply because the state of their science (by comparison with ours) is undeveloped—as ours will no doubt seem to future generations. Indeed, this line in the poem might be read as a call to perpetual modesty. For even the most learned of us yet knows nothing by comparison with all that might be known and by comparison with the great ocean of truth that forever lies all undiscovered before us.