Views & Reviews Between the Lines

No room for Plato

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 24 April 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:963
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

In 1942, when it was not yet certain that Germany would lose the war, John Steinbeck wrote a short novel entitled The Moon Is Down in which a small town in an unnamed country is occupied by an equally unnamed foreign army. At first the occupiers are relatively polite and considerate, but as the hostility of the townspeople to them becomes more evident and active, so they become more brutal. Steinbeck, it seems, was imperfectly informed about Hitler at the time, for he reports that “the leader,” back in the occupiers’ capital, is allergic to dogs and therefore shuns them, whereas in fact Hitler was very passionately fond of Blondi, his Alsatian, and always kept him near.

The two most prominent citizens of the town are Orden, the mayor, and Winter, the town physician and historian. Corell, the local storekeeper, has provided the enemy with information before the invasion. Orden is kept on as mayor by the occupiers, with Winter at his side.

Dr Winter is an old fashioned country doctor, loved by all, of whom Steinbeck says, “[He] was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound.” I’d like to be like that—or is it the other way round, a man so profound that only a profound man would know that I was simple?

When the troops search him soon after their arrival they find a flat black case in Dr Winter’s inside pocket that contains a couple of scalpels, some surgical needles, and some clamps. Dr Winter explains: “You see, I am a country doctor. One time I had to perform an appendectomy with a kitchen knife. I have always carried these with me since then.”

At the end of the book the occupiers, who have been subjected to ever more sabotage attacks, realise that the mayor and the doctor have been in league with the resistance all along. They are taken hostage, to be shot one after the other if any more sabotage attacks occur. There is such an attack, and the mayor is to be shot. In the final scene, just before his execution, he and the doctor, who were at school together, recite passages from Apology, Plato’s version of Socrates’ final speech, the doctor correcting the mayor’s faulty memory of the dialogue in which Socrates accuses his accusers. As he is led out to his death the mayor quotes Socrates’ last words: “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius [the god of healing].”

Of course, Steinbeck was writing fiction, but he wanted his characters to be plausible to his readers. Would it be plausible to depict a doctor in such a situation nowadays quoting Plato; and if it wouldn’t be plausible, does it matter? It wouldn’t be plausible, either, to depict a doctor carrying round instruments just in case he has to perform an operation on a kitchen table, and thank goodness for that.

Doctors have to know so much these days that there doesn’t seem room for anything else. I would rather that my orthopaedic surgeon knew anatomy than Shakespeare; and yet, in a recent book by doctors who unexpectedly became patients themselves, they said that they valued their own doctor’s broad humanism as much as their technical brio.

This doesn’t quite settle the question of the relevance of literature to medicine, however. Literary types, in my experience, are just as petty, shallow, vain, quarrelsome, and vindictive as anyone else, perhaps more so. Literature certainly hasn’t done them any good. Why should it do us good?

Doctors have to know so much these days that there doesn’t seem room for anything else

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