On the disenchantment of medicine: Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1964 address to the American Medical Association

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 39 (6):483-497 (2018)

In 1964, the American Medical Association invited liberal theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel to address its annual meeting in a program entitled “The Patient as a Person” [1]. Unsurprisingly, in light of Heschel’s reputation for outspokenness, he launched a jeremiad against physicians, claiming: “The admiration for medical science is increasing, the respect for its practitioners is decreasing. The depreciation of the image of the doctor is bound to disseminate disenchantment and to affect the state of medicine itself” [1, p. 35]. Heschel’s reference to “disenchantment” suggests that he may have been familiar with the work, or at least the outlook, of sociologist Max Weber, whose 1917 address “Science as a Vocation” portrays the modern world as disenchanted by the progress of rationalism. Heschel’s life’s vocation had been to uncover the inner meaning of religious faith and to translate that faith into principled action. Heschel saw disenchantment not as an inescapable aspect of modern life but rather as the byproduct of physicians’ conscious choices to seek worldly success and material comfort. Yet, because of their privileged position as witnesses to human vulnerability, physicians possess an obligation to develop their own personhood, to re-enchant medicine, and through medicine to spark a positive transformation in all of modern life. As Heschel says, “The doctor must realize the supreme nobility of his vocation, to cultivate a taste for the pleasures of the soul. … The doctor is a major source of moral energy affecting the spiritual texture and substance of the entire society” [1, pp. 34, 38]. While Heschel’s conception of the physician’s role is romanticized and idealized, changes in the organization and practice of medicine have validated his concerns.
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DOI 10.1007/s11017-018-9472-x
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