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16 April 2020updated 28 May 2020 11:37am

From the NS archive: On being ill

9 November 1918: An anonymous author traces the public’s cult of health back to ancient Greece.

By Anonymous

A matter of days before the signing of the Armistice that brought an end to the First World War, the New Statesman published a wide-ranging essay on the prevailing “idolatry of health”. While some people, the writer suggested, perceived God as an “Almighty Medicineman” most “no longer identify salvation with safety in one religion” but were fixated instead with minor ailments and questionable cures: it was a concern that went back to ancient Greece. The tone of the piece is quizzical but the writer’s admiration for doctors and nurses – “the most devotional of lives” – is sincere. At the time of writing, the devastating Spanish flu pandemic was coming to a head.


Man, as is always shown at a time of epidemics, will go to any lengths in pursuit of health. He will eat raw onions. He will snuff salt water up through his nostrils. He will go to bed at eight. He will give up tobacco. He will drink sour milk. He will sleep with the windows open. He will take exercise. He will rub the soles of his feet with the grease of a dormouse. Most of us are inclined to scoff as we see one church after another being put up in honour of Christ Scientist in the richer parts of London. We feel that there is something blasphemous in the worship of God as an Almighty Medicineman.

But is our own idolatry of health so much less shocking? Perhaps it is Mrs. Eddy’s prose rather than her theology that makes us shudder. At any rate, there is little in the Christian Scientist’s religion of health that has not its parallel in all ages and among all peoples. It has even a curiously attractive parallel in the religious life of ancient Greece and Rome. Christ Scientist is but Aesculapius in a new incarnation, and none of us dreams of scoffing at Aesculapius.

Of all the figures in Greek mythology it is to Prometheus and Aesculapius that men owe the greatest debt – to the givers of fire and the healer of disease, both of them punished terribly by Zeus for their services to men. We cannot call up for ourselves a complete picture of Greek life unless we realise that the temples of Aesculapius set up all over the country were the counterparts at once of our churches and of our hospitals and hydropathics. In his introduction to the Loeb edition of Galen’s On the Natural Faculties, Dr. A. J. Brock writes: “The temples of Aesculapius were scattered over the ancient Hellenic world. To them the sick and ailing resorted in crowds. The treatment, which was in the hands of an hereditary priesthood, combined the best of the methods carried on at our present-day health-resorts, our hydropathics, sanatoriums, and nursing homes. Fresh air, water-cures, massage, gymnastics, psychotherapy, and natural methods in general were chiefly relied on.”

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Everyone who has read Marius the Epicurean will remember Pater’s charming description of a temple of Aesculapius in Italy at the time of the Antonines – a description that suggests the existence of various points of contact between the religion of Aesculapius and modern religion and medicine. “The priesthood or ‘family’ of Aesculapius, a vast college, believed to be in possession of certain precious secrets, came nearest, perhaps,” says Pater, “of all the institutions of the ancient world, to the Christian priesthood. The healers of the body were for the Romans of those days the real Salvation Army.”

The religion of the god of bodily health, Salvator, as they called him absolutely, had a chance just then of becoming the one religion; that mild and philanthropic son of Apollo surviving, or absorbing, all other pagan godhead.” And such a modern as Dr Freud would have felt as comfortably at home in the temples of Aesculapius as the veriest faith healer or Christian. Do we not read that the priests of Aesculapius held that “dreams do sometimes, for those who watch them carefully, give many hints, concerning the conditions of the body – those latent weak points at which disease or death may most easily break into it. In the time of Marcus Aurelius these medical dreams had become more than ever a fashionable caprice”? Truly, experience, like the earth, is round, and progress ultimately brings us back again to the point from which we set out. So, at least, the proverbs tell us in all languages. And history seems to justify them, though faith flutteringly protests.

If the majority of us do not make a religion of medicine in these clays, it is not because we are haunted in a less degree by the fear of ill health than the Greeks and Romans or because we are less credulous. The world’s obsession with the fear of illness is manifest in the amount of costly space devoted to advertisements of patent medicines in the newspapers. Every picture tells a story, says one of the most depressing of the advertisers; and it is the story of a world of sick men and women hobbling in search of a well of miracles. Have you a bad leg? Do you suffer from head noises? Has excessive tobacco or worse given you hardening of the arteries? Is your hair falling out? Are you ruptured? Have you corns, or eczema, or heart disease? Are you troubled with gout or asthma or insomnia or pimples?

Who that has ever been to a holy well and watched the procession of beggars for health going down to drink the waters can have failed to see in it the image of all the world seeking – and finding – marvellous cures? One is tempted to ridicule the pills and bottles of the newspapers, even when one is superstitious and buys them, but there is a pathetic element in the tumult of hopes and fears they give rise to in a million breasts. We no longer identify salvation with safety in one religion.

But to the sick man there is often little difference between them. He, like the gaoler in the New Testament, is troubled by the question, “What must I do to be saved?” No doubt, when the invalid becomes wrapped up in his illness, he is an egoist and a nuisance. Save the souls of others, said Mazzini; never mind your own. And we feel that a good man will say the same thing about his body. If you must be anxious about health, it should be about other people’s health. There is no more ludicrous figure on earth than the valetudinarian sipping his gruel and only warming into eloquence when discussing some such subject as whether eating butter is a cause of rheumatism.

At the same time, one must not set up a superhuman standard; it is as reasonable to hate disease as to hate dirt, and one may do so with a good conscience provided one does not make a song of it. Who knows what subtle relationship there may be between health of the body and health of the soul? Who knows how much ground there may be for the Aesculapian belief, referred to by Pater, that “all the maladies of the soul might be reached through the subtle gateways of the body”? Shelley and Francis Thompson were not the least spiritual of the poets of the nineteenth century. And yet Francis Thompson wrote: “Health, I had well-nigh said, is Holiness. What if Holiness be Health?”

And did Shelley not dream of dieting the world into perfection? Was not the drinking of distilled water in his view an aid to virtue as well as a preservative against cancer? There are few authors indeed who ham scorned the subject of disease. Montaigne tells us without reticence how he suffered from the stone, and Pepys describes his sufferings from the same affliction with still less modesty. Even the healthy minded Meredith seems to have enjoyed writing to his friends about digestive troubles. One finds him writing to Admiral Meux such counsel as: “If the stomach is down, eschew potatoes as well as beer . . . Rise quickly in the morning, exercise after bath, and pray do not be more than half-an-hour without feeding, if you only take a crust of bread and water.” And in his old age he allowed himself to be enrolled as a member of the Food Reform Association, though he wrote: “I am unworthy to be among you, for I drink wine and I smoke.”

One would have fancied that with all this pother men of genius and men of name have made about their health, the world should now be on its way to know all that is necessary about sickness and its cure. And yet those patent-medicine advertisements of which we have spoken are evidence that disease is still as great a mystery to the average man as it was to his ancestors who thought that a mandrake apple placed under the pillow was a cure for sleeplessness, and who attempted to remedy loss of memory, not by a course of ––––ism, but by binding the tooth or the left leg of a badger “about your Right arme next unto the flesh”. It is certainly not for the twentieth century, with its pillboxes and its ignorance, to deride the quaint cures sought in other centuries from herbs and charms. Gerard in his Herball showed as bold a face regarding the efficacy of his cures as any pill-manufacturer of to-day. Describing a certain cucumber mess recommended as a cure for “a pimpled or saucy face,” he claims that it “doth perfectly cure all manner of sawceflegme and copper faces, red and shining firie noses (as red as red Roses) with pimples, pumples, rubies, and such like pretious faces”.

One can imagine a generation in which the pimpled read these words with a leaping of the heart. Well, men and women are still troubled about their faces, and they well may be. One still sees plenty of “shining firie” noses (as red as red Roses) in the streets, and neither drug nor herb avails against them. The confession of the race of man is still that of the lepers: “Unclean unclean!” We are still only in the first day of knowledge, and we are nearer the level of the old guessing herbalist than of the wise man of tomorrow. We do not know enough even to introduce an era of clean streets and clean houses. So little do we know that, when policemen standing in filth-swirling streets fall easy victims to influenza, we begin at once to doubt the beneficence of fresh air.

We are progressing, however. So much we may claim without boasting. Not only do our doctors actually know more than their predecessors, but they have a fine ideal of service. When the plague broke out in the sixteenth century in London, the doctors, we are told, left the town in the company of their fashionable patients. The poor man, not being able to pay fees to a doctor, was left to die unattended. By the time of Pepys a new spirit had come, and doctors suffered with the poor. But even then, as one is appalled to remember, the sick man and his friends were treated as outcasts, and shut away from the world as doomed creatures. The heroism of the modern nurse was still unknown. What an appalling picture of the dread and detestation of the plague-stricken we get when Pepys writes:

“Three or four days since I saw a dead corps in a coffin lie in the Close unburied, and a watch is constantly kept there night and day to keep the people in, the plague making us cruel, as dogs, one to another.”

There is, no doubt, more of this kind of cruelty surviving in the world than we like to admit. We have heard of instances of strange conduct to the sick on the part of mistresses, hotel-keepers and even panel-doctors. But, to balance this, there has been an immense increase in the spirit of service, and the doctor’s or the nurse’s is the most devotional of lives. There are few of us who have not in the course of our illnesses met a doctor who justified Stevenson’s great praise of the physician: “He is the flower – such as it is – of our civilisation; and when that stage of man is done with, and only remembered to be marvelled at in history, he will be thought to have shared as little as any in the defects of the period, and most notably exhibited the virtues of the race.”

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)