Rise of the Clever Brutes

(or: The Rise of Reason and the Fall of Respect)

Ideas have legs.

Some ideas can outrun a racehorse. Some ideas keep running for centuries, slowly soaking through the fabric of society.

Allow me to take you on a brief time warp. Not far, just to the dawn of the Modern Age (and no, it didn’t begin with the Beatles). Modernity is actually not that modern at all. It crystallised some 400 years ago in the writings of one man – another stale pale male – the genius mathematician Rene Descartes.

His statement, “I think, therefore I am,” changed the world forever.

At first glance, that statement sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it? But what was being replaced by this thought? For some 2,000 years before this, people believed in three sources of truth: Authority, Reason and Experience (in that order of importance). Theists (Jews, Christians, Muslims) added a fourth source of truth – Divine revelation – as a special kind of authority. But here’s the point: None of the ancients, regardless of religious view, questioned these sources.

What Descartes did (apparently unwittingly) with one stroke of his quill, was to elevate Reason to the top spot (“I think…”) while knocking Authority way, way downstairs *. The rampant abuse of authority had reached crisis proportions in Europe. As a result, Descartes’ ideas spread like wildfire. Think of this as the medieval version of Woodstock (minus the music and the herbs).

If our (somewhat shop-soiled) Modern age can be captured in one phrase, it is this: Reason trumps Authority. Authority would henceforth only exist (grudgingly) at the mercy of Reason. For us, this is such a basic fact of life that we never question it. Finding identity (“I am”) and truth by means of introspection is second nature to us, but we are not often aware of the effects this has on our lives.

“So what does this have to do with health and wellness,” I hear you ask.

I’m glad you asked… Every single aspect of health has been impacted by this approach. Solving health issues by reason brought tremendous advances, but those advances came at a steep price.

If you reject authority, you also reject history. Without history, we become little more than savage brutes. In medicine as much as anywhere else in our society, we have seen the rise of the clever brutes – the highly intelligent barbarians who demand our unquestioning obedience.

Finding a new path to wellness that avoids the old pitfalls is the challenge I face daily. It is all too tempting (and easy) to choose one extreme and steer my course by it. Even this very temptation to fanaticism is a product of Modernism, an almost obsessive desire to be unique and different – a mania to be Me.

As I learnt to redefine my own wellness (and that of my patients) in terms of community and history, rather than in terms of mind and body, I came face to face with a very, very rare creature: Joy. But more about that in a future post.

To your health!

‘Doc’ Frank

* Interestingly, Descartes admits that his writings on Reason were inspired by a divine revelation…