Posted on  UTC 2019-08-01 07:32

Image of the month: The Stone of Madness

FoS image, size 708x491

Jan Sanders van Hemessen, The Surgeon, or The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, 1550-1555. Image: ©El Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. [Click on the image to view a larger version in a new browser tab.]
Cutting out the stone of madness was a widespread trick on the wealthy but gullible: fifty years before van Hemessen painted this picture, his countryman Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) painted a similar scene, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (1501-1505). It is also at the Prado. Bosch being Bosch, it is so overloaded with striking but obscure symbolism that its message becomes equally obscure.

A widespread belief in the Middle Ages held that madness was due to a stone lodged in the head. The analogy was to the kidney and bladder stones that caused such suffering to those affected. Extracting the 'stone of madness' from the head could free the patient from not only madness but stupidity and idiocy.

Travelling quacks would offer to remove the stone from rich people for a substantial fee. After the painful operation was over the doctor would show a stone to the patient, pronounce them cured and pocket the fee.

Hemessen's painting depicts the cynical smile of the doctor as he cuts into the client's forehead, an elderly woman holding the client's head, a young woman mixing unguents and preparing the bandages to be applied after the stone has been removed. We might infer that we are watching a family business. Another client appears to be waiting to be treated (whether his expression is crazed or just terrified is for the reader to decide).

The day has to come when the travelling quacks of the international climate change brigade will also be exposed as offering extremely expensive and painful quack remedies for the non-existent climate crisis to the gullible rich – whether individuals or countries.

Quote of the month: Rooting out errors

The great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) saw the importance of an untiring battle against such charlatans:

As is the case with all things in this world each medium of information, each advantage, each preference immediately becomes associated with fresh disadvantages; so the capacity to reason, which gives humans such an advantage over animals, brings with it its own special drawbacks and presents humans with paths to error which animals could never take. Along these paths a new type of drive unavailable to animals takes hold of his will; namely the drive to abstraction, through which mere thoughts, which are not always drawn from personal experience but which are contained in the speech and example of others, come to him via tradition and writings.

Having become accessible to thoughts he now immediately becomes open to errors. Every error, sooner or later, will cause harm. The greater the error, the greater the harm. At some time, the individual who harbours an error has to make amends and often pay a high price: the same applies on a greater scale for errors which befall entire nations. Thus it cannot be repeated often enough that every error, wherever we encounter it, has to be pursued and exterminated and that there are no such things as privileged or sanctioned errors. The thinker has to attack them; even though humans cry out in pain, just as a patient whose boil the doctor touches.

Wie bei allen Dingen dieser Welt jedem Auskunftsmittel, jedem Vortheil, jedem Vorzug sich sofort auch neue Nachtheile anhängen; so führt auch die Vernunft, welche dem Menschen so große Vorzüge vor den Thieren giebt, ihre besondern Nachtheile mit sich und eröffnet ihm Abwege, auf welche das Thier nie gerathen kann. Durch sie erlangt eine ganz neue Art von Motiven, der das Thier unzugänglich ist, Macht über seinen Willen; nämlich die abstrakten Motive, die bloßen Gedanken, welche keineswegs stets aus der eigenen Erfahrung abgezogen sind, sondern oft nur durch Rede und Beispiel Anderer, durch Tradition und Schrift, an ihn kommen.
Dem Gedanken zugänglich geworden steht er sofort auch dem Irrthum offen. Allein jeder Irrthum muß, früher oder später, Schaden stiften, und desto größern, je größer er war. Den individuellen Irrthum muß, wer ihn hegt, ein Mal büßen und oft theuer bezahlen: das Selbe wird im Großen von gemeinsamen Irrthümern ganzer Völker gelten. Daher kann nicht zu oft wiederholt werden, daß jeder Irrthum, wo man ihn auch antreffe, als ein Feind der Menschheit zu verfolgen und auszurotten ist, und daß es keine privilegirte, oder gar sanktionirte Irrthümer geben kann. Der Denker soll sie angreifen; wenn auch die Menschheit, gleich einem Kranken, dessen Geschwür der Arzt berührt, laut dabei aufschrie.
Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellungin Werke in zehn Bänden (Zürcher Ausgabe), Band 3, Zürich 1977, S. 77-85. Zeno Online. This translation ©Figures of Speech.

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