Le Médecin Moliéresque: Imaginary Malady, Imaginary Cure.

The Imaginary Invalid was the last play Moliere was to write. He was at the peak of his career, and the nadir of his health when he penned the most confrontational and explicit of his screeds against the profession of medicine. He explicitly framed his argument in an ongoing debate between a hypochondriac, The Imaginary Invalid (Argan), and his rational, and skeptical, brother (Beralde). They even discuss the author by name—“a fine impertinent fellow.” The last scene is a triumphal ceremony as The Imaginary Invalid is installed as his own physician. But the ceremony is a farce—the triumph is Moliere’s.

From the Van Laun translation.

From the Van Laun translation.

We touch upon three themes in The Imaginary Invalid: criticism of the medical profession, philosophical accommodation to mortality, and the therapeutic benefit of comedy.

Moliere’s criticism of the medical practices of his time might be mistaken for opportunistic lampooning, low comedy, or even mean-spirited. But, as Beralde says, he (Moliere),

“…does not make fun of physicians, but of the ridiculousness of physic.” 

He goes on to say, 

“In speaking and in reality, your great physicians are two different sorts of persons. Hear them hold forth, they are the cleverest people in the world; see them act, they are the most ignorant of all men.”

As we previously noted, Moliere was academically astute. He took his philosophy, at least in part, from Montaigne. He learned critical thinking from the famous Professor Gassendi. He counted amongst his friends the more enlightened physicians, such as Mauvillain. He knew that Hippocrates and Galen were no longer valid touchstones, that phlebotomy and antimony were dangerous, and that doctors, in general, did not know what they were doing. He was the voice of the vanguard, heralding in the early scientific era of medicine.

The Problem with Doctors

The problem was this: the doctors of 17th century Europe were steeped in classical learning but lacked a scientific basis for what they did to patients. If that were it alone, we might spare our own criticism, not wanting to judge them outside of their historical context. But, it was more than that. The medical establishment of his time, particularly in Paris, was arrogant and resistant to change. Arguments in Latin were meant to be accepted ex cathedra. The circulation of blood (England) and new ‘chemical’ theories (rival school in Montpelier, France) were rejected out of hand. They rigidly prescribed unproven treatments—bleeding, purgatives and enemas—that were based on an archaic nosology—the four humors.

Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood was still resisted by many at the time of the play. “If blood circulated through the body, bleeding to cure a local trouble would be useless. But bleeding cannot be useless. Therefore blood does not circulate.” This is satirized when Thomas, a physician-to-be, and a dolt, attempts to woo Angeline thus:

THOMAS. (Drawing from his pocket a large thesis rolled up, which he presents to Angelique). I have defended a thesis against the circulators, which, with the permission of your father (Bowing to Argan), I make bold to offer to this young lady, as a homage which I owe to her of the first fruits of my mind.

Thomas extends his courting:

THOMAS. (Again bowing to Argan). Once more, with the permission of your father, I invite you to come and see, one of these days, for your amusement, the dissection of a woman, upon which I am to lecture. 

TOINETTE. The entertainment will be pleasant. There are some people who treat their mistresses to a comedy ; but to provide a dissection is more gallant. 

But doctors did not maintain their authority by being entertaining. Their power was akin to that of the priests: they had privileged insights into great mysteries, ones unknowable to mere mortals, public or courtly.  But better the common person for a patient than a great one:

MR. DIAFOIRUS. … The public is easy to deal with; you are responsible for your actions to no one; and provided you follow the current of the rules of your art, you need not be uneasy about what may happen. But what is vexatious with the great, is that, when they fall ill, they absolutely wish their physicians to cure them. 

TOINETTE. That is funny! and they are very impertinent to wish you gentlemen to cure them! You are not near them for that ; you are there only to receive your fees, and to order them remedies ; it is for them to get better, if they can.

MR. DIAFOIRUS. That is true ; one is only obliged to treat people according to the rules.

Primo saignare, deinde purgare, postea clysterium donare: Daumier 1833.

Primo saignare, deinde purgare, postea clysterium donare: Daumier 1833.

And the rules were to be followed by the patient with religious devotion.

ARG. (Putting his hand to his cap, without taking it off). Mr. Purgon, Sir, has forbidden me to uncover my head.You belong to the profession: you know the consequences.

The doltish reliance of Thomas on the direction of his father is of course meant to reflect the obsequiously referential nature of medical education at the time. 

Argan panics at one point because he can’t remember which way, length or cross-wise, that he was told to pace in his room. As always, Beralde tries to talk him down:

BER. What does it signify what he says? Is it an oracle that has spoken? To hear you speak, it looks as if Mr. Purgon holds in his hands the thread of your life, and that by a supreme authority he lengthens or shortens it for you, as it pleases him. Remember that the springs of your existence are in yourself, and that the wrath of Mr. Purgon is as little capable of killing you as his remedies are of keeping you alive. Here is an opportunity, if you wish, to rid yourself of the physicians…

Moliere, Montaigne and Mortality

There is a different theme in the play other than the mockery of doctors, one that might be missed amid all the buffoonery—i.e. the fear of dying.

Argan would force his daughter into an unwanted marriage so as to acquire a doctor as a son-in-law, and so assure himself of affordable and constant care by a doctor. Everyone in his family is against this, except his wife, step-mother to his daughters. She wants them in a nunnery and for him to kick-off and gain his riches. This is not clear until he feigns death to test her reaction. Her greed and duplicity are revealed. 

Beforehand, Argan wonders aloud, 

“Is there not some danger in counterfeiting death? ” 

As Van Laun put it in his introduction to the play, 

“Moliere endeavoured to sketch the excessive dread of death and its consequences, harshness of heart, tyrannical egotism, and an extreme facility for being deceived.”

Montaigne wrote of death with more equanimity in Of Physiognomy :

"If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you, don't bother your head about it.

We trouble our life by concern about death, and death by concern about life.”





Moliere and Montaigne were of like minds on the subject of doctors as well. The discourse between Argan and his brother takes up quite a bit of the play. A sample:

ARG. But doctors must believe in the truth of their art, inasmuch as they make use of it for themselves. 

BER. That is because there are some among them who themselves share in the popular error by which they profit ; and others who profit by it without sharing in it. Your Mr. Purgon, for instance…a man who believes in his rules…and who, with an impetuosity of prejudice, a stiff-necked assurance, a coarse common sense and reasoning, rushes into purging and bleeding, and hesitates at nothing…and he would, in killing you, only do what he has done to his wife and children, and what, if there were any need, he would do to himself.

ARG. …But to cut it short, let us come to the fact. What must we do, then, when we are ill ?

BER. Nothing, brother…nearly all men die of their remedies,

BER. Good Heavens brother, these are mere ideas with which we love to beguile ourselves; and, at all times, beautiful fictions have crept in amongst men, in which we believe, because they flatter us, and because it were to be wished that they were true. When a physician speaks to you of aiding, assisting, and supporting nature…he just tells you the romance of physic. But when you come to the truth and experience, you find nothing of all this ; and it is like those beautiful dreams, which, on awaking, leave you nothing but the regret of having believed in them. 

At the time The Imaginary Invalid was mounted on stage, Moliere was waxing philosophical. He had recently lost a son at one month of age, his marriage was a shambles and his musical collaborator, Lully, had abandoned him. He would say to his wife something about ‘a life equal parts pain and pleasure’ and ‘how a man suffers before he dies.’

Pere LaChaise. Moliere and LaFontaine

Pere LaChaise. Moliere and LaFontaine

And yet, the show went on. During a feigned death scene, the actor playing the title role was seized with a coughing fit and escorted off-stage and to his home. He died hours later, sans the attendance of a doctor, as he refused one; and sans last rights, as the church refused this to him, the actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known to posterity by his nom de plume—Moliere.

Ironically, Moliere has Argan say, 

“…if I were a doctor, I would avenge his impertinence and, when he falls ill, I would leave him to die without any assistance.”

He died precisely one year to the day after Madeleine Bejart, his companion and muse from the beginning, probably his lover early on, and the mother of his second wife. It was a relationship that seemed to transcend norms. 

It is recorded that his death was attended by two nuns and the coup de grace was pulmonary hemorrhage from tuberculosis. (Possibly an Aneurysm of Rasmussen, a ghastly consequence of tubercular erosion of the pulmonary artery.)

The priest of Saint-Eustache refused him Christian burial as he had not had the last rites performed. When the King was notified that Moliere had passed he was ‘deigned to show his emotion’. Moliere’s body was reburied, at the Kings command, in a proper site. 

Jean Baptiste Poguelin–Moliere

Jean Baptiste Poguelin–Moliere

Madeleine Bejart

Madeleine Bejart

Ars longa, vita brevis

So, we close this post and this series on Le Medicin Molieresque with the final scene of the final play: the Third Interlude (it is a comedy-ballet after all), in which Argan becomes his own physician. Wary at first, he is reassured: 

ARG. What! do people know how to discourse upon diseases when they have on that gown ? 

BER. Yes. You have but to speak with a gown and a cap, and any gibberish becomes learned, and all nonsense becomes sense. 

Earlier in the play, The insolent maid Toinette, is a strong female character, typical of Moliere poses as a doctor in disguise, demonstrating that dress and language alone are sufficient credentials. Toinette, a skeptic, engages Argan in a hilarious exercise of reductio ad absurdum).

This ceremony has been described by historians as not far from the form of real ceremonies of the time, as witnessed at Montpelier by the visiting Englishman John Locke. 

“A Burlesque Ceremony of admitting a Doctor of Medicine in recitative Music and Dancing.

Several upholsterers [Moliere’s old job] enter to prepare the hall and place the benches to music. After which the whole assembly, composed of eight syringe-bearers, six apothecaries, twenty-two doctors, and the person that is to be admitted physician, eight surgeons dancing, and two singing, enter, and take their places, each according to his rank.”

The ceremony is chock full of “Latin, dog-Latin, Italian, words French, and of belonging to no language under the sun.” The bits most on the nose are:


Clysterium donare, Postea seignare, Ensuita purgare.

[Give an enema!, After that a bleeding!, Then  induce vomiting!]


Bene, bene, bene, bene–respondere.

[Good, good, good, good–we answer!]

Monoco Commemorative Stamp

Monoco Commemorative Stamp

And of the third theme in the play, we remember that Moliere was above all, a comedian. He made people laugh, which is its own form of medicine.

Beralde says, in introducing the second ballet interlude:

I have brought you an entertainment…which will dissipate your chagrin, and make you better disposed…with which I am sure you will be pleased;…as good for you as a prescription of [your doctor] Mr. Purgon.

When doctors cannot heal our body, Moliere at least may heal our soul. 

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The Imaginary Invalid translated by Henri Van Laun

Medicine and Entertainment in Le Malade Imaginaire, in The Cambridge Companion to Moliere

Moliere and the Doctors H. Ashton, in Moliere

The Imaginary Invalid in Moliere, Gertrud Mander

Montaigne and Moliere: The Canonical Elusiveness of the Truth The Western Canon, Harold Bloom