On March 21st, 2020, the President of the United States revealed that his tremendous capacities also stretched to the field of medicine:
More recently, medical studies would appear to suggest that hydroxychloroquine is only marginally more effective than anthonyquine when it comes to battling COVID-19.
It also turned out that Mr Trump may have had a sliiiiiiight financial interest in promoting the drug (though, for once, in a Trump story the filthy-lucre aspect seems less spectacular).
But to see someone who famously failed at several other businesses, suddenly fake medical knowledge and pretend to have a miracle cure –––
––– that did remind me of a short fable: a fable preserved in the collection of the Roman fabulist Phaedrus:
Malus cum sutor inopia deperditus
medicinam ignoto facere coepisset loco
et venditaret falso antidotum nomine,
verbosis adquisivit sibi famam strophis.
hic cum iaceret morbo confectus gravi . . .
rex urbis, eius experiendi gratia
scyphum poposcit: fusa dein simulans aqua
illius se miscere antidoto toxicum,
combibere iussit ipsum, posito praemio.
timore mortis ille tum confessus est
non artis ulla medicum se prudentia,
verum stupore vulgi factum nobilem.
rex advocata contione haec edidit:
“Quantae putatis esse vos dementiae,
qui capita vestra non dubitatis credere
cui calceandos nemo commisit pedes?”
Hoc pertinere vere ad illos dixerim,
quorum stultitia quaestus impudentiae est.
A bungling cobbler, desperately in want, had resorted to practising medicine in a strange locality, and, peddling what he falsely called an “antidote,” built up a reputation for himself by verbal tricks of advertising. So it happened that when lay gravely ill and all but gone, the king of the city, to test his skill, called for a cup; then pouring water into it, but pretending to mix poison with the “antidote,” he ordered the man to drink it off himself, for a reward that he displayed. In mortal fear the cobbler then confessed that his high standing as a physician was not due to any knowledge of the art but to the gullibility of the crowd. The king then summoned an assembly and said to the people: How crazy you are, you may judge for yourselves. You have no hesitation about putting your lives at the mercy of a man to whose care no one in want of shoes ever trusted his feet.”Phaedrus, Fables 1.14 (transl. B. E. Perry)
This, I dare say, strikes home at those whose gullibility provides an income for impostors.
Of course there are many things one might say about this fable, and there would be many delightful parallels to unpick.
What strikes me most, however, is that Phaedrus chose not to comment on the fraudulent doctor or the cunning king: instead, he chose to make this about those whose stultitia, whose gullibility, proudly uninformed by knowledge or relevant experience, promote impostors and their money-making schemes in the first place.
Making this about public responsibility for what (and whom) we, collectively, allow to succeed, shamelessly mixing self-interest in their selling miracle cures for everything, may not be a bad take on the matter.
But what do I know.
Stay healthy and keep safe, everyone. And don’t take any untested miracle drugs.