Doctor, Heal Thyself!

And as for our healers, Podalirius and Machaon,
one is back in the shelters, wounded, I think —
Machaon needs a good strong healer himself…
(Iliad, 11.996-998 trans. Fagles 1990:324)

The phrase “Physician, physician, heal thine own limp!” appears in rabbinic texts. (Genesis Rabbah 23:4)

In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound the chorus sings, “like a bad doctor who has fallen sick, you are in despair and unable to discover by what remedies your own condition is curable.” (Prometheus Bound 473-475, trans. Summerstein 2009:181)

A fragment from the playwright Euripides reads: “A physician for others, but himself teeming with sores.”(Euripides fr. 1086, Nauck)

The theme appears in Ovid, as well: “Sick, like Podalirius, I cured myself with the proper herbs, and (I confess it) though a physician, to my shame, I was sick.” (Remedy of Love 314, trans, Riley 1919:474)

The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus’ opponents mocked him while he was suffering crucifixion: “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” (Matthew 27:42) Apparently, this was not a new line of ridicule. Earlier, when Jesus refused to perform miracles in his hometown, he anticipated the response of his sceptics: “Doubtless you will tell me this parable, ‘Physician, heal yourself!'” (Luke 4:23)

Servius Sulpicius, Roman jurist, writing to Cicero in 45 BCE, reminds his friend:

[N]ever forget that you are Cicero, one who has ever been wont to instruct and advise others; and do not imitate bad physicians who, in treating the diseases of others, profess to have mastered the whole art of healing, but themselves they cannot cure; nay, rather apply to yourself and set before your own mind the precepts you so often seek to impress upon others. (Cicero: The Letters to His Friends, trans. Williams 1958[1927]:275)

Personally, my favourite iterations of the so-called ‘ailing doctor’ motif come from the Aesop tradition. The fables revel in comic situations that lay hypocrisy bare for all to see. There is a contagious glee to the stories, and there are quite a few of them:

One day, a frog in a marsh cried out to all the animals:
‘I am a doctor and I know all the remedies!’
A fox, hearing this, called back:
‘How could you save others when you can’t even cure your own limp?’
(Fable 69, trans. Temple 1998:55)

The Fables are intensely interested situations where claims and actions are incongruous. For instance, we meet a man at a market hawking a wooden statue of the god Hermes. The vendor tells a potential customer that the idol is guaranteed to provide wealth to its owner. “If this god is so beneficial,” the passerby asks, “Why are you selling it instead of keeping it for yourself?”[note]See Fable 2, Temple 1998:2[/note]

When a woman is sentenced to death for heresy — for masquerading as a prophetess who could intervene with the gods on behalf of paying clients — the angry mob seizes on the ironic spectacle of her execution: “You got so wealthy by diverting the wrath of the gods? And yet you cannot divert the wrath of these mere humans?” (See Fable 91, Temple 1998:72)

One day, a fortune-teller is busily working in the town square. Suddenly, a neighbour runs up and says, “You left the front door of your house open! Thieves are taking all your possessions!” In a panic, the fortune-teller races away, to the raucous laughter of nearby spectators: “You claim to see the future for others, but you can’t see what will happen to yourself?” (See Fable 233, Temple 1998:172)

While travelling, two people saw a one-eyed raven in front of them. One of the travellers said, “We must turn around right now: ravens are bad omens.” But the other traveller replied, “How can this raven predict the future when it could not even see the future clearly enough to avoid losing an eye?” (Fable 255, Temple 1998:191)

The first lesson we learn from the ‘doctor, heal thyself’ motif is that we ought to investigate the legitimacy of any claim by examining the life of the person who is making it. Today, not unlike in the time of Aesop, we might ponder, Consultant, advise thyself! Success guru, read thine own self-help tips! Get-rich-quick-marketer, what is the sum in thy personal bank account? Oh, sensei of tranquility, what keeps you up at night? Hey, leadership expert, who is following you?

However, I think there’s an even more pointed lesson here. These stories are not reprimands for the fraudsters amongst us. Who are the fools? The fools are not the swindlers who prophesy the fortunes of others while blind to their own misfortunes. No, the fools are the people seek out the swindler’s services. The fools are not the enterprising, conniving hypocrites, but the idiots who follow them: the people who are so simple as to believe anything without asking any questions of the messengers.

‘Doctor, heal thyself’, is a poignant reminder that every message has an agenda embedded within it. To assume otherwise is to believe everything you hear. So do not seek to interpret the message without first discerning the agenda. Behold, Aesop’s expertise: there are plenty of very sick people out there who are desperate for you to believe that they possess the cure.

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