The Damned and the Saved

A few days ago I remarked in comments: ‘What puzzles me is why, all around the world, public health seems to have acquired such singular importance, to the point where it is used to bulldoze cultural and social institutions like pubs.’

In the same comments someone else wrote:

It’s because we’ve lost the Church. It used to be quite good at making us behave ourselves because it stood for God and the Afterlife. Then the Church stopped believing in God and the Afterlife and promptly lost all moral authority. People don’t want to wait for the Afterlife any more, they want immortality NOW. Enter Public Health with promises of Eternal Youth but only if you let them tell you how to behave.
Other commenters expressed doubts about this. But I would like to pick up this suggestion and expand upon it a bit.
Why did anyone believe in an afterlife? The answer, perhaps, is that justice demanded it. Justice demands that wrongs be righted. Justice demands that the young life that is cruelly stamped out, or the life that is lived in toil and suffering, be repaid or rewarded. And if this debt was not repaid in this life, then it would be repaid in the next. The afterlife represents the unpaid debt, the amount owing, the balance due. Divine justice must inexorably ensure retribution in the fullness of time. In that afterlife, the poor would be rich, and the rich would be poor. All things would even out in the end, and would do so with an iron inevitability. Such was the way of nature- to raise up what had been brought low, and to strike down what had stood tall.
Such a belief no doubt consoled a toiling peasant, bilked by his landlord, taxed by his king, oppressed by his bishop. In due course, all would be reversed. In the world to come, these rich landlords and proud kings and pompous divines would serve snivelling as his footstools for all eternity. Just wait and see. And, in a static feudal society, the peasant could entertain no other hope. And the intensity of that hope was so great that it metamorphosed into the most perfect certainty.
And to the extent that the landlords and bishops and kings did not enjoy lives that were very much better than the serfs and villeins beneath them, they too would also entertain similar hopes and expectations of their afterlives.
To the extent that men have ever lived difficult and brief lives, to that extent they lived in expectation of a compensatory afterlife of ease and longevity. For such men, their brief natural life served as a small antechamber to the vast hall of the afterlife that lay beyond it. A mediaeval cathedral’s towering columns and traceried ceilings and stained glass windows and incense and choir provided an inkling of the life to come. God would do far better, of course. This brief natural life paled into insignificance before the majestic world to come. The faithful were to asked to endure the trial of their brief lives with fortitude and piety, before finally stumbling gratefully through the doors of death into the world beyond.
But when men’s lives began to improve, and their burden of toil and suffering began to ease, and they began to live longer and longer lives, the need for a compensatory afterlife began to dwindle. Justice no longer demanded it so loudly. Why should someone who had lived a long and prosperous and fulfilled natural life expect a long and prosperous and fulfilled unworldly afterlife? Was it not more likely that, in the scheme of divine justice, that a long and happy natural life would be followed by a compensatory long, unhappy, and tortured afterlife? In this manner, as men became more prosperous, they gradually ceased to look forward to a life of bliss in the hereafter, but to instead dread a life of eternal torment. While the peasant in the cathedral saw the prospect of heaven in its exquisite architecture, the rich man saw instead the prospect of hell painted as a doom upon its walls. Faced with such a prospect, the rich might at first act to enhance their prospects by endowing a monastery or two with their wealth, and employing its monks to pray for his soul in perpetuity, because he would need their intercession.
And, furthermore, once men began to live long, happy, and fulfilled lives, what need did they have for an afterlife, particularly one that now promised endless torment? Why believe such scary nonsense? The idea gradually became as repellent to the rich as it had once been alluring to the poor. The natural life that had once been a small antechamber before the vast cathedral nave beyond gradually expanded into a larger and larger chamber, and the cathedral shrank into a church and then a chapel, and finally a mere tomb or unmarked grave. Beyond this life there eventually came to loom not the titanic prospect of heaven and hell, but absolutely nothing at all.
And justice now had to be played out within the confines of a natural lifetime. The peasant who would stoically endure a life of toil and suffering in sure certainty of eternal bliss thereafter would now have to fight for it in this life, and overthrow bishops and kings and landlords in order to fulfil the demands of justice, and equalise what had been unequal. So began an age of revolutions, in which kings and churches and landlords were overthrown. Justice could no longer wait upon God: it had to be dispensed now.
Men now had to be rewarded in this life for the good work they had done, and punished in this life for the evil they had done. The good were to be showered with honours and prizes, and the evil were to be imprisoned or executed. And so penitentiaries and prisons and penal colonies multiplied. Heaven and hell was to be created on earth, now that it no longer could be found beyond it.
And rather than looking to the doctors of the Church for salvation in the afterlife, men turned to doctors of medicine to ensure them them health and longevity in their earthly lives. Our medical doctors have become our new bishops and priests. . Where once a Christian had a duty to lead a virtuous life that would be rewarded in Heaven, modern man now had a duty to lead a healthy life which will be rewarded with extended longevity. The damned were those condemned to the worst imaginable fate: the premature death. The saved lived on into a not-quite-perpetual old age.
An entire Christian eschatology has been dismantled from its foundations in the afterlife, and re-assembled in this life. The cathedral has become a gymnasium, its pews replaced by exercise bicycles, its deacons replaced by burly Atlases and Schwarzeneggers, its sacraments exchanged for spring water and vitamin pills. On its walls are depicted an updated version of the mediaeval doom, in which sinful smokers and drinkers descend into hell on one side, while a muscular elect bound up to heaven on the other.  In place of the cult of the immortal soul, there is the cult of the immortal body.
The mediaeval universe was a haunted by innumerable demons. Ours is an equally demon-haunted world. The very air is thick with demons, but they now come in the form of carbon dioxide and tobacco smoke and radon gas and traffic exhaust and radioactive fallout and free radicals and ozone.
Libera nos, quaesumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, praeteritis, praesentibus, et futuris.
Modern mediaeval man carries with him the same eschatological system as his mediaeval forebears, only transposed from the next life into this life. He is as much a flagellant as any of them ever were, but he punishes himself not with whips and chains but with marathon cross country runs, and upon infernal instruments of torture constructed of beams and weights. Like them, he hopes through his present suffering to earn a future reward. Ten press-ups now will earn him ten whole days of prolonged life later, just as surely as a papal plenary indulgence would once have earned him forgiveness of all his sins.
Nothing has really changed. A lost Christian cosmos has been replaced by a botched and stunted replica of it, complete in every detail. And it is a cult which faces the same fate, sooner or later, as its Christian forerunner. For, despite the insistence of this new proselytising cult of health, men will prefer to live well now than hope to live well into an uncertain and incontinent old age. Earthly immortality is no more achievable than heavenly immortality. This will becoming painfully apparent when the athletically fit fail to live lives of the promised longevity. Or when lifelong smokers live to record-breaking ages. To exercise upon a trampoline will come to seem as pointless as praying to a patron saint. The gymnasia will empty and be closed down just like the churches before them. And people will look back on those who sweated inside them with the same incredulity as we now look back upon St Benedict rolling in nettles, or St Simon Stylites standing on his pillar.

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17 Responses to The Damned and the Saved

  1. Anonymous says:

    Speaking as one of the Damned
    Beautifully expanded, Frank.
    “In place of the cult of the immortal soul, there is the cult of the immortal body.”
    And how convenient that the message of Public Health happens to chime so well with the social philosophy of our statist, authoritarian government. Stay young, fit and active for ever and ever, and if anything nasty happens, thereby removing you from the workforce, then it’s obviously your own silly fault. Don’t expect any sympathy or dignity when it all goes pear-shaped. You’ll be fast-tracked onto the Liverpool Care Pathway, saving a lot of time and money all round.
    Anecdotally, one notorious anti-smoker commenter wrote of her sincere belief that scientists will soon be along with an anti-aging, anti-death pill. Only those who have lived their lives according to the Righteous Public Health Recommended Lifestyle Chart will earn the right to pop one.
    It is a kind of religion. The RampantAntismoking site suggests the same. As heretics we smokers have been excommunicated from polite society. I wish they’d hurry on to the other heretics – the drinkers and eaters – then all the normal people (who generally still believe in God and an afterlife of some sort) will start wondering why so much power has been investeted in these tiresome, dreary, Public Health killjoys

  2. Anonymous says:

    Gosh, Frank, you do go into the deepest of subjects, and very intelligently so.
    I do not have your way with words, but I will try my best.
    As regards the religious belief that a person’s suffering in this life will be ‘rewarded’ in the next, you do not have to go back to medieval times. Certainly, my mother (a good catholic girl) and her sisters (my aunts) believed absolutely. I am talking about a time only about 50 years ago. But there was not only the idea that one has to ‘suffer the slings and arrows’, but one has to be ‘virtuous’ – ie. be kind, turn the other cheek, etc. But there were also other ideas – silly ideas. Such as, you MUST eat fish on Fridays – or rather, that you must not eat MEAT on Fridays. If you do eat meat on a Friday, YOU WILL GO TO HELL! Also, you must go to mass on a Sunday. If you do not, YOU WILL GO TO HELL! It took me a long time, as a child, to ask the question, “How do merchant seamen go to mass on a Sunday when they are in the middle of the ocean?” Such questions were glossed over.
    At the time (50 years ago), as regards ‘physical suffering’ and ‘mental suffering’, no one thought that the rich were immune. We were still in the time of significant infant mortality. Not terribly bad, but significant. The rich were not immune.
    I think, tentatively, that your ideas about religion are just a little bit unfair. I think that one needs to go back much further than Jewish, Christian, Muslim ideas. I can certainly imagine a situation, 10 000 years ago, where there are two shepherds, lying in the grass at night in balmy conditions, looking at the sky. No light pollution, the Milky Way spread out above, and one saying to the other, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” Let us not underestimate the intelligence of people who lived 10 000 years ago. Alfie’s answer would have been ‘religious’.
    But we must come closer in time. We must contemplate Plato and Aristotle, until recently still the accepted philosophical basis of Christian ideas.
    Essentially, Plato disconnected the existence of ‘thought’, ‘goodness’, ‘heroism’, etc from the physical body. He suggested that these ‘ideas’ where just as real as the physical body.
    It all becomes very complex, but we can move on to recent times. We can think about Descartes – “Cogito, ergo sum – I think therefore I am”. Which, philosophically, can mean that one does not need a body in order to exist. From a religious point of view, this idea is most important.
    You are certainly right about HEALTHISM becoming the new religion, but only for a few. It seems to me that the vast majority of people simply ignore the health fascists. ‘Five a day?’ Shit. ’21 units of alcohol a week?’. Codswallop. ‘No tobacco?’ Oh, erm, not quite sure……..
    Sorry to go on.

  3. Anonymous says:

    An addendum.
    I forgot to say that we should be aware that this new religion of HEALTHISM is being promoted by Health Ministers, Medics and Epidemiologists. Are they the new Missionaries? If so, where do they get their authority from?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Another addendum.
    The above two comments are by Junican. I keep forgeting that one has to type in one’s name.

  5. Frank Davis says:

    Sorry to go on
    Don’t apologise. I wish you would continue. You write very well.
    And Yes, I know all about Catholicism 50 years ago, because I lived within it. My mother was a Catholic of the worst sort.
    I think that the odd thing, in some ways, is that it’s all so recent, that it is part of my personal experience. But it’s not as if it started 50 years ago. These ideas are far older than Christianity. The Egyptians 4,000 years ago had a very well developed idea of immortality and the soul (which they called the ka or the ba).
    Let us not underestimate the intelligence of people who lived 10 000 years ago.
    I completely agree. It’s sheer vanity on our part to imagine we know any better than they did. But it is equally unfair (to ourselves) to suppose that they knew any better than we do.
    And yes, I know about Plato’s ‘forms’ – those perfect circles which can never be found in the real world. I always find myself more inclined to Aristotle, even if he thought that ice did not float.

  6. Frank Davis says:

    Re: Speaking as one of the Damned
    A year or so back, when trawling through tobaccodocuments(?), I came across a paper by Sir Richard Doll in which he discussed the prospect of immortality. I read it in slight disbelief, wondering if he was a bit mad.
    Of course, he was indeed a bit mad. I wish I’d stored the link somewhere, but I didn’t. All I know is that there is, somewhere in the vast wilderness of the internet, a paper by him on immortality.
    I’m not a believer in immortality. My Idle Theory more or less completely precludes the possibility of it. We can never attain perfect idleness.

  7. Frank Davis says:

    I keep forgeting that one has to type in one’s name.
    Well, that’s what comes with being 70 years old!
    I am not very far behind you in forgetfulness.

  8. Anonymous says:

    They get it from governments. I watched a parliamentary debate in which Harriet Harman seemed to be arguing for handing more legislative powers to Public Health bodies. I wasn’t aware that they had any legislative powers in the first place but her speech suggested otherwise.

  9. tayles_100 says:

    The world is undoubtedly full of people looking to save us from life’s ills. What motivates them is not entirely clear, although I cannot say that I see their perfect health agenda as filling a religion-shaped hole in our lives. It is more, I suspect, a question of their personal beliefs and ambitions. Many people are attracted by the power and status of politics and enjoy telling people how to live. They believe they should have a say in how things are run and even imagine they have a duty to get involved.
    Naturally, this rarely entails giving people the freedom to run their own lives. They prefer to believe that society should be managed according to some central plan of their design. They and their supporters realise that without some centralised scheme, they will probably not receive the recognition and reward they think they deserve, so they propagate theories that support this view and enlist the help of experts to help them devise their grand schemes. Inevitably, these experts – usually doctors, scientists and other members of the intellectual class – are similarly predisposed to supporting whichever theory grants them the most influence, and are always keen to please their paymasters with their favoured theories.
    They say a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail. In the same way, an expert, if asked, will always see problems to which his or her skills provide the solution. Experts are always predicting health scares and environmental disasters, and in each case demanding that Something Be Done – that something being the implementation of their ideas. Politicians pounce on anything the experts say as justification that more intervention is required, passing it off as being motivated by concern and a sense of duty.
    This phenomenon has flourished in the past twenty years for a couple of reasons, I believe. When the Cold War ended, it was widely presumed that socialist ideology would fade away, shamed and discredited as it was in Eastern Bloc countries. Instead, with no negative examples to remind us of its disastrous consequences, Left-wing ideology began to regain credibility. Those who had long-detested the supposedly uncaring tenets of Thatcherism, but whose own ideas had looked cruel and ineffective when the gulags and the Stasi were contemporary horrors, put forward ideas that called for more state intervention and found less resistance than would have been the case a few years earlier.
    Secondly, we entered a period of strong economic growth, leading many to stop wondering what the circumstances were that brought it about. Most of us had jobs, opportunities and prospects, but no one seemed to draw any connection between those things and the policies of the incumbent government. They felt that all kinds of economic and social changes could be made without jeopardising the luxuries they had come to take for granted. People could now afford a conscience and many bought into the idea that the country was run by a sexist, racist, homophobic old boys club. It was this fertile environment that led to the creation of New Labour and the snowball of state intervention that has been gathering size and speed ever since.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I thought this quote from Petr Skrabanek’s book ‘The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism’ might be of interest.
    “Healthism is a powerful ideology, since, in secular societies,it fills the vacuum left by religion. As an ersatz religion it has a wide appeal, especially among the middle classes who have lost their links with traditional culture and feel increasingly insecure in a rapidly changing world. Healthism is embraced eagerly as a path to surrogate salvation. If death is to be the final full stop, perhaps the inevitable can be indefinitely postponed. Since disease may lead to death, disease itself must be prevented by propitiatory rituals. The righteous will be saved and the wicked shall die.”
    The book is out of print but can be downloaded from:
    It is a fascinating read.

  11. Frank Davis says:

    and enlist the help of experts
    This makes the experts their assistants. But my impression about the smoking ban is that the ‘experts’ – the antismoking organisations, the WHO, and the medical establishment – all conspired to present the need for a smoking ban as an absolute medical necessity on a par with vaccinating the population against some terrible plague.
    As best I understand it, Tony Blair had strong reservations about a total ban. It took the threatened resignation of Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government Health Officer, to push the (weakened) Blair government into tabling a total ban. When the government handed the matter to parliament for a free vote (which allowed it to wash its hands of the matter), MPs were subjected to a powerful propaganda campaign by antismoking organisations as a “confidence trick”. It appears that ministers and MPs, not being experts themselves, nor particularly sceptical, swallowed everything the ‘experts’ told them.
    So it seems to me that instead of the government dog wagging the tail of experts, the tail was wagging the dog.
    But that’s just my impression.
    And, as another example of the same medical scaremongering, swine flu has now been built up by the likes of Liam Donaldson (again!) from a mild form of flu to an epidemic on the scale of the Black Death.

  12. Frank Davis says:

    Skrabanek’s books are on my rather long must-read list. I believe that they can be downloaded, but I have a slow phone connection so it’s not possible for me to do this yet.
    But what he’s saying here is essentially what I’ve argued, it would seem.

  13. tayles_100 says:

    That’s all true, but the political framework put in place by New Labour made the smoking ban possible. Twenty five years ago, the idea would have been laughed out of parliament because no one saw it as any of the government’s business whether or not people tolerated smoking in each other’s company — any more than the state should legislate against jukeboxes or the telling of rude jokes in pubs.
    Ironically, one of the first things Labour did on entering government was to undermine traditional authority figures in society – including teachers, doctors and the police – since they were seen as allies of the old establishment they hated. The idea that anyone in a position of influence might be working to an agenda other than that of the Labour government was unthinkable. Following a period of re-education, these authority figures re-entered our lives a few years ago well versed in the tenets of political correctness and the nannying culture. They were then used as instruments of change, although inevitably the prominent figures within these institutions tended to share the meddling, power-hungry tendencies of their paymasters.
    Consequently, many members of the scientific and medial communities came to crave influence and recognition. They wanted to look back and say “They used to allow smoking in pubs, you know, but they don’t any more and that was down to me and my colleagues.” When they were pushing for a smoking ban, they could already imagine the graphs showing a reduction in smoking-related illnesses – real or fabricated – and a grateful public hailing them for their bravery and compassion in addressing a serious public health issue.
    The past decade or so has seen the growth of a culture which deemed that the great and the good have a duty of care towards us and an obligation to engineer a fairer, safer society. The opposition eventually gave into it, after accusations of being uncaring. Even businesses, whose previous duty was only to their shareholders and customers, were hoodwinked into growing a social conscience. They have swallowed the propaganda of the government and the chattering classes, which says that the strong must look out for the weak, and that any other approach is tantamount to abuse.
    If you make it your raison d’être to act as saviour and redeemer of the populace, then you will spend your time scouring the earth for things to save people from. What’s more, since you have determined that there is virtue in your intent, rather than in your deeds, it doesn’t matter whether the problems you identify are real or if your actions achieve their intended results. All that matter is that you acted in the right spirit. So, instead of tackling tangible problems with practical solutions, bogus are panics met with pointless legislation (which tends also to be expensive and oppressive).
    The only means the medical and scientific communities have of demonstrating their conscience and flexing their muscles is in their areas of expertise. The likes of Liam Donaldson, who clearly craves recognition and influence (but dresses it up as sincerity and concern) therefore takes every opportunity to exaggerate risks and demand that Something Be Done. The man is a menace but Labour politicians embarked long ago on a game of moral one-up-manship than Donaldson is simply taking to the n-th degree.

  14. Frank Davis says:

    Following a period of re-education, these authority figures re-entered our lives a few years ago well versed in the tenets of political correctness and the nannying culture.
    Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just replace them?
    The other problem with blaming everything on New Labour (for whom I have no love whatsoever) is that exactly the same has been happening all over Europe. And America. And elsewhere. Smoking bans have been appearing all over the shop. There are a variety of different political parties in all these countries, of different hues. But they all end up with smoking bans.
    To me it almost seems that ‘public health’ short-circuits the normal political process. If you want to reform trade unions, or encourage economic growth, or limit immigration, these are recognised as essentially political matters, and are discussed accordingly. If you want to reduce infestations of rats, or clean up the rivers, or preserve woodlands, or provide smoke-free environments, they’re not regarded as political issues, but public health concerns, and don’t get the same attention. One is politics, and the other is public health, and they are kept separate.
    People might strenuously object to an overtly political programme of social equality, but if you dress this up as correcting ‘health inequalities’ it’s perfectly all right. There’s been a politicisation of public health, which was perhaps personified by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was, in succession, 1) a physician, 2) Prime Minister of the Labour government in Norway, and 3) Director General of the WHO, where she was instrumental in shifting it towards ‘lifestyle medicine’. She also chaired the Brundtland Commission on sustainable development, and currently is UN Special Envoy on Climate Change (another politicised science). And she is a feminist as well. And is, all in all, the very personification of everything I have come to thoroughly detest over the past few years. It seems to me that it’s people like her, rather than our bumbling and soon-to-be-ousted Labour party, who are the real movers and shakers.

  15. tayles_100 says:

    Perhaps I’m a bit paranoid about New Labour, but it is certainly true that as a party they are very much pro-intervention. It’s not just the smoking ban; they’ve introduced a blizzard of new laws and regulations on a scale unprecedented in British political history.
    It is also true to say that measures of this kind and scale were never contemplated by the Tory government that preceded New Labour. They were by no means perfect, but that kind of meddling in people’s affair simply didn’t interest them.
    And yet, as you say, Labour are not unique in world politics. There are countless governments, some of them of a less socialist bent, that have also introduced measures such as the smoking ban. None have quite the same record of nannying, profligacy and illiberalism as Labour, but there is undoubtedly a greater acceptance of such measures than there was, say, twenty years ago.
    So what happened? Why have we seen the rise of a political elite that deems such action both desirable and necessary. If might look at global developments in the past two decades, which is when this trend began in earnest. This period started with the end of the Cold War and then witnessed substantial economic growth (the recession permitting). Could these be factors? Or am I putting two and two together and coming up with five?

  16. Anonymous says:

    I’d hate to distract you from your excellent blog but if you did want to download the book, it is only 845KBytes on the link above. Probably about 4 minutes on a 32Kbit dial up link.
    And yes he argues a very similar case.

  17. Frank Davis says:

    You were right! I hadn’t noticed that these were text pdfs rather than images. I now have The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism.

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