The Discourse of Cure:
Rhetoric and Medicine
in the Late Renaissance
Johns Hopkins University
All history is contemporary history, Benedetto Croce claimed. And historians' motives are present motives, often enough. The historians of rhetoric of my acquaintance, historians who have been at least slightly ill and have had some slight experience with the medical profession, have a firm conviction that medical rhetoric simply begs for analysis. But the past presents its own demands. The historian of the Renaissance finds not only doctors' rhetoric to be analyzed but also some very sharp rhetorical critiques of physicians' words. And he finds deeper, more fundamental connections between medicine and rhetoric as disciplines. Both, I argue, are rather shaky empirical sciences. Both rest their claims to certainty on control of certain methods; but both are beset by the uncertainties of empirical observation: by inadequate methods of reading and reacting to multiple and diffuse, manifest or occult signs. Beset by uncertainty, both are obliged to be interventionist, and the interventionist discourse of both attracts opprobrium. Most intriguing, they share a difficult topic: the recalcitrant, fractious domain of the passions, for appeal to the passions is the special competence of the rhetorician, while the passions are central to holistic cure in premodern medicine. I focus here on medical rhetoric, the problems with this rhetoric, the shared interests of rhetoric and medicine, and the Renaissance changes in the notions of rhetorical and medical interventions, changes that mark modernity still.
The first and simplest project is to analyze doctors' rhetoric. Here an exemplary Renaissance account precedes us. Michel de Montaigne, by virtue of his kidney stones, took the task of critique of medicine seriously. In the essay "Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers" (vol. 2, 37), the resemblance lay, of course,