Doctor's Orders: Goethe and Enlightenment Thought

Doctor's Orders: Goethe and Enlightenment Thought

Doctor's Orders: Goethe and Enlightenment Thought

Doctor's Orders: Goethe and Enlightenment Thought


Doctor's Orders shows how the foundational novel of the German tradition, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, documents the rise of medicine as an institution structuring the self and society. It sheds light on the Bildungsroman that this novel established, provides a groundbreaking overview of the role of medicine in eighteenth-century Germany, and addresses larger questions concerning the relationship between medicine and literature.


The doctor's orders are some of the most powerful and absolute in modern western society. Who would be so foolhardy as to disregard his or her doctor's orders? Physicians have an almost unchallenged right to distinguish between good and bad behavior, as the general acceptance of their recommendations about smoking, drinking, diet, and exercise has shown. While some may in fact occasionally ignore the advice of the medical establishment, such transgressions always have the slightly moral flavor of doing something "bad." Indeed, in broad swaths of modern western society, this medical morality applies more deeply and more generally than religious morality.

Part of the reason for the success of the medical model may lie in its claim to access a scientific truth that is less mystical and ambiguous than traditional religious truths. Even if one chooses to smoke, who but the most outrageous of tobacco company executives denies that cigarettes are "bad" for smokers? the medical community may send out conflicting reports about behavior: Is red wine really good for you? What about coffee? and what's the final word on eggs? Nonetheless, few doubt that eventually the truth of these behaviors will come out.

The absolute nature of medical opinions has been strengthened over the years, as scientific discoveries have uncovered bacteria, viruses, chemical imbalances, and the means to combat these problems. But while medicine now frequently has recourse to tests that claim to determine absolutely the status of health, the field was originally much more interpretative in nature. Prior to the nineteenth century, physicians had to read body and mind in order to discover the meaning of a particular ailment. Without the knowledge of such phenomena as infectious diseases and genetics, healing was an interpretative art.

Medical power is therefore a historical phenomenon. the rise of medicine in fact coincides with the rise of the bourgeoisie. It is still probably the paramount bourgeois profession, according its practitioners good salaries . . .

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