“And it belongs to…the medical art to produce health, not to make money. Nevertheless, some men turn every art into a means of money-making, as if this is the end.”
The state of medical practice in our country and in the world has been brought before our eyes in a dramatic way in the last year. There is much to ponder.
Let me immediately give a caveat. I am not going to make concrete assertions about the Covid crisis: its nature, its true extent, the response to it, its politicization, or its dramatic effects in the economy, in social life, in education, in religion, etc. Rather, this seems a fitting moment to reflect on a rather dramatic assertion—I think an insight—of Aristotle’s regarding the art of medicine.
The assertion, which is simple but profound, applies to any art. An art is a know-how, usually practiced, developed, and handed on over many generations, about how to reach certain ends by specific means. Some arts have a deep and perennial connection to human life—such as the arts of agriculture, home-making, woodworking, and of course, medicine, to name a few.
Aristotle explains that the end or goal of an art is to produce something with excellence. The art of woodworking is about producing beautiful and useful things of wood. The procedures and standards of the art are determined in view of this end. The art of medicine seeks to bring about health. Every aspect of the art should be judged in view of the greater health of human persons.
But Aristotle observed that something bad can happen, sometimes very subtlely. A worker deserves compensation and reasonably seeks it. Yet what if the worker puts his attention more on the compensation than on the product that is worthy of compensation? The art itself can be twisted, again subtlely but significantly, away from its real nature and end. The standards of woodworking can shift: from real quality of the product to the money-making power of the product. And the ‘art’ becomes a different thing—different in its procedures and standards, and different as something that should complete and give joy to its practitioner.
Aristotle himself choose medicine as an example of this problem. I find this remarkable. Perhaps prophetic.
Allow me to be clear regarding this complex matter. Individual practitioners of an art can be of good intention—for instance truly wanting to work for the health of people—even while the art itself as a whole degenerates, turning away from its true calling, and taking on methods and means that are inappropriate.
I am suggesting that even while there are many, many noble, well-intentioned and deeply competent men and women in the medical profession, we would all do well—including those in the profession—to consider with care Aristotle’s point. Has the practice of medicine, particularly as it has become a massive industry, in significant ways allowed its money-making side to overrun its deeper call and nature? And if this is the case, what does it mean for us?
I suggest just two things we might do. First of all, while always retaining a fitting respect and even piety towards those who have committed their lives to medicine, we reasonably have a certain skepticism regarding the pronouncements, or purported announcements, of the medical industry and experts. I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t mean we all pretend to be experts. But a rational agent has to take reasonable precautions in view of the reality in which we find ourselves. This puts a heavy burden on all of us, especially parents and others who have care of children. We must with diligence, courage, and humility go about trying to discover what is best for our children, for we are the ones who are responsible for them. So, seeking out what we judge to be the most reliable sources (yes, a very difficult thing) we make our best judgement.
Second, we can recommit ourselves to taking more responsibility for the day to day aspects of living a healthy lifestyle—the very things that the true art of medicine has always brought to our attention, things that can require real sacrifice. Eating well—itself very challenging. Sleeping well. Exercising regularly. Fresh air, clean water. Avoiding toxins of many sorts—in our foods, in our cleaners, in many miscellaneous products, in the byproducts of our countless technologies, and also in toxic thought patterns. We can work on our attitudes, keeping a hopeful and positive outlook, and maintaining an inner silence and peace, interacting with others in charity.
The true art of medicine has been practiced and developed by countless men and women through the ages. It is never beyond redemption. But its renovation will require all of us to be intentional and courageous, beginning in our own lives at home.
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