The autumn 2005 issue of the excellent City Journal has a very good paper by Theodore Dalrymple on Shakespeare and medicine. Dalrymple explains how the Galenical theory of humors ruled Western medicine for hundreds of years, even though it couldn’t cure people much. Because Shakespeare had no university training in medicine, he understood well the limits and problems of the medical knowledge of his days (the same was true of French playwright Molière).
As Dalrymple argues, the parallel with today’s world is of interest. Policy makers all around the planet constantly create the problems they are trying to solve, as if a Galenical theory of policy was ruling the world. In the words of Dalrymple:
But Shakespeare was not in thrall to Galenism as was his son-in-law [Hall]: in other words, it was precisely his lack of university training that permitted him to be so acute an observer. While he needed a sophisticated basic education to be Shakespeare, the author of the plays, a university training, at least with regard to medicine, would have diminished rather than enhanced his work. A contemporary medical man can learn something from Shakespeare; he can learn nothing from Hall. As Orwell pointed out, it takes effort and determination to see what is in front of one’s face. Among the efforts required is the discarding of the lenses of excessive or bogus theorizing. When it comes to our attempts to understand the phenomena of our own society, I cannot help but wonder how many of us are in the grip of theories that are the equivalent of Hall’s Galenical theory, and whether as a result we do not prescribe the legislative equivalents of human skull, mummy dust, and jaw of pike.
For the entire article, see here. The best quote, however, is at the end of the article: “We have sunk to a depth in which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” – George Orwell