We are the Disease

"We are the Disease": Truth, Health, and Politics from Plato’s 'Gorgias' to Foucault

Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy, 18:2, 287-310.

Abstract:  This paper questions the political implications of the analogy in Plato's 'Gorgias' between philosophical truth and health on the one hand, and rhetoric and corruption on the other. I start with the importance of the parrhesiastes – the political and therapeutic truth-teller - for Michel Foucault's care of the self. I show how Socrates' rhetoric, especially in the form of ventriloquism, infects the text itself, contradicting his claim to be a doctor-like truth-teller. I ask how we account for the effect of the “contaminated” philosophical dialogue on our readerly health. Is the text placebo, vaccine, or virus? All of these options, I argue, complicate Foucault’s prescription for parrhesia, requiring us to think anew the continuing political ramifications of the metaphor of care.


Let me begin by relating an anecdote that serves as a kind of epigraph. Over a century ago, the socialist Aleksandr Ivanovitch Herzen is reputed to have exhorted a group of anarchists about to overthrow the tsar: “We are not the doctors. We are the disease.” His pithy remark is often glossed by leftists as a strident protest against reformism in favor of total revolution; for a certain species of environmentalist, it is a cue to see the latest tsunami as Mother Nature’s immune system battling humanity’s cancerous spread. Sometimes, too, the declaration is simply misunderstood by critics who take it to mean that the U.S. and other bellicose Western governments have become part of the problem rather than the solution. All of these readings reiterate the traditional values that Herzen challenged—namely, that doctors are good, disease is destructive—and so they anesthetize the political substance of his move. My hunch, in contrast, is that by claiming the position of disease rather than doctor, Herzen shifts our understanding of the terrain of politics and the possibility of our agency in a more radical way.

Why am I ventriloquizing Herzen to speak of disease and politics in the same breath, and this under the supposed aegis of Platonic philosophy? The analogy of politics and medicine is at least as old as Alcmaeon of Croton, who in the fifth century B.C. described health with the political term isonomia (equality) and disease as the regime of monarchia (monarchy). And the physician is frequently invoked in Greco-Roman philosophy as an analogy for the philosopher, as Michel Foucault has prominently pointed out. But it is not merely the case that medicine is the overlapping term of two separate analogies to politics and philosophy. Rather, as Emile Benveniste finds in a startling linguistic analysis, there is a deep resonance between the doctor, politician, and philosopher in the very bones of Indo-European languages. Benveniste defines the common root *med, from which we derive “medicine,” as meaning “to take measures of order with authority and reflection; to apply a deliberate plan to confused situation.” He concludes that the doctor in Indo-European language and culture was a sort of genre of leadership, and moreover, that the authority of both physician and king was underwritten by the capacity for reflection and discernment: that is, by the capacity of the philosopher. Benveniste’s work concretizes and substantiates the deep co-constitution of truth, medicine, and politics in the West. And this ancient connection in turn suggests that Herzen’s metaphor was not mere poetics.

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