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Dryden & the Physician


The seventeenth-century poet John Dryden may not be the first figure in the English literary canon that springs to mind, but he is worth getting to know – particularly for Catholics today facing ostracism of one sort or another in the workplace. Despite the obvious differences between his time and ours, Dryden knew what it was like to live in our own kind of era “where vice triumphs and virtue is a crime.”

In his day, Anglicanism was the state religion; embracing Catholicism was always consequential and often risky. Now the state as pseudo-religion has gone viral, and no one really gets worked up over actual “denominational” differences. Doctrinal squabbles may have receded from view (to the secularist or statist they don’t really matter anyway), but Catholicism has once again become the principal entity to be vanquished.

Dryden’s decision to openly profess the Catholic faith promptly led to the loss of his prestigious post as national poet-laureate.  Among other things, it also meant he had to pay twice as much in taxes as his compatriots. That may not have been a page right out of the Muslim playbook, but in that respect at least he was reduced to virtual dhimmitude.

I draw much here from Bryan Berry’s edifying essay “The Cost of John Dryden’s Catholicism” in the journal Logos (Spring 2009), which recounts his engagement with the religious tensions of the time, interspersed with stirring passages from several of his works. A distinguished satirist, Dryden also holds the distinction of producing “the only major work in English literature” – The Hind and the Panther – “devoted to the thesis that the Roman Catholic Church is the one holy catholic and apostolic church instituted by Christ.”

In that poem and Brittannia Rediviva, Berry writes, Dryden “adjures Britain to return to the Catholic faith at home and to spread the gospel of Christ abroad more than it has done in the past.”  Aside from the pope, who would dare say such a thing these days, even if they, like Dryden, sense that doing so is a duty, and would redound to the good?

Dryden’s reward, we might gather, is expressed in the preface to his Discourse on Satire: “More libels have been written against me, than almost any man now living.”  And he tells us that this is so not on account of his poetry, but his morals – his unwillingness to follow others fleeing from the truth.

In his preface to Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden cut his critics to the quick with the kind of perceptive intuition that would also make most modern ears recoil: If you like not my poem, the fault may possibly be in my writing. . . .But, more probably, ’tis in your morals, which cannot bear the truth of it.”


       John Dryden by Michael John Wright (c. 1688)

The analogy Dryden used in another passage – a gem Barry does not include in his essay – at the end of the same preface got me to thinking about what we will tolerate from the physician:

The true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction & he who writes honestly is no more enemy to the offender, than the physician to the patient, when he prescribes harsh remedies to an inveterate disease.
It is taken for granted that the physician holds the best interest of the patient in mind, and as a result is granted the license to resort to even harsh remedies for his sake. Certainly, that is still the case with respect to, say, aggressive chemotherapy.

Yet in our day, the physician – the public health apparatus, more accurately – holds no such license if it means prescribing remedies to lifestyle-related diseases that people deem “harsh”; that is, if they interfere with what I want to do.

Instead, the public health apparatus must defer to the cultural overlords who insist that there is no vice and, hence, there is simply no need for “correction.” There is only disease to conquer; the bad byproducts of profound social transformation are thus medicalized.

Take obesity as a case in point. Is the overall approach “harsh” or is it evasive and technocratic? That the American Medical Association just saw fit to classify it as our newest “disease” is answer enough. Remedies corresponding to role of diet and altered family dynamics would be harsh.(This is not to say that banning sodas or simply scolding people will do the trick). Pharmaceuticals must therefore ride to the rescue.

Finding any recommendation to avoid harmful practices altogether in the medical journals is more difficult than spotting an endangered species. The British Medical Journal did just that, however, in a January 2013 article. But since it was about smoking, this kind of atavistic harshness is perfectly acceptable: “But for most smokers quitting is the best option and should be presented as achievable and attractive.”

Nothing so harsh would ever be suggested for the range of endemic sexually transmitted diseases: that would be a dangerous distraction from the power of technology to deliver “safety.”

I suppose I must specify that the BMJ article referred to tobacco. Marijuana falls into that other “drug addiction as disease” category for which the mere management of risk is all that is allowed; “best practice,” in many such cases, amounts to replacing one drug (or needle) with another.

“Each generation”, according to Rene Girard, “embodies one stage of ontological sickness.” That the healing professions by and large refrain from “harsh” counsel because that, ipso facto, would be “judgmental” rather than sensible is symptomatic of the madness into which we have descended.

It is hard to be of service to man when you are enslaved to the falsehoods of the age. Catholics are promised the world will hate them; being called “haters” is how truth-tellers are now designated, which is why public health officials flee from the remedy of truth. Being of authentic service in the health care arena, as with so many professions these days, like Dryden in his, means paying a price.

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.



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