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Idiocy, As The Effect Of Social Evils, And As The Creative Cause of Physiological Education

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: January 1870
Publication: The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Diseases of the Nervous System
Source: Available at selected libraries

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THERE are men who contract all that they touch; there are others who enlarge all the ideas with which they come in contact. To see only idiocy in idiots, would be to narrow it. To see beyond, what improvement can accrue to society (1), from the contingent disposition of idiocy; (2), from the actual discovery of means of improving general education by the method expressly contrived for idiots, at once incorporates idiocy -- retrograde phenomenon as it is by itself -- among the agents of progress.


The following considerations on idiocy, having this object, address themselves to the latter class of physicians and physiological teachers:


Many sufferings yet need alleviation, many infirmities cure, many sorrows protection, many weaknesses support; but one rejoices to see that through the flow of egotistic currents, arises now and then in our midst a new islet where the needy can rest. The institutions founded during the present generation in behalf of idiots are charities of that class, and present this unique character, that, called for, conceived and executed by a single jet of the heart and brain, with all their sources of luxuriant and generous society, they have, all at once, attained a degree of material perfection that leaves nothing to wish by the philanthropist or even the misanthrope. How different an aspect was presented at the beginning of this century, in the growth of the institutions for the insane! How long it took to disencumber them from the cold flag-stone, dripping walls, iron bars and carcanets, riveted chains and bolts, and other decorations of the old prison? The ferocious Couthon (so called because he could not see the use of noblemen in livery and of abbots of the alcove in modern society), in his capacity of administrator of the hospitals and prisons of Paris, took an initial interest in that reform. He witnessed at Bicétre the efforts of Pinel, and gave the first authorization to loosen their chains, and let them stand free before their benefactor; though saying at the same time to the hero, "My clear doctor, I give the authorization, but, on your demand, at your risk and peril, sure that they will kill you!" Since then it has taken three generations of Esquirols, Connollys, Leurets, to raise, upon that old soil of horror, the present spruce, placid, and benevolent institution for the insane, hardly distinguishable from that for idiots by its magnitude.


The character of thoroughness of these two classes of institutions has been fully expatiated upon, and justly lauded. Let us reaffirm that it is not a smooth, glittering, and deceitful surface, hut that it represents real improvements in the condition of the inmates of both kinds. But, in the present paper, our object is to treat only of the institutions for idiots; and even to consider exclusively the influence their philosophical management will exercise upon some impending problems whose solution is just now looked for. Therefore, taking for granted that every thing that could be done for idiots, as individuals, is accomplished, and leaving dormant the question of what can be done to counteract the increasing frequency of idiocy and cognate affections as evil entities, we come to the providential phraseology: what idiocy may be good for, translated in utilitarian language? what advantages can we expect from the study of idiocy? what boon may society receive as a moral compensation for the generous hospitality it has bestowed upon idiots? They could, indeed, be considered as above or out of mankind, if they were improved, and faithfully served in and out of their infirmity, and yet remained of no use, for any thing, to anybody. If so, it would be but our fault -- not theirs.


The time has come when, with a due regard for the welfare of idiots and an unremitting zeal for perfecting the hygienic, medical, and pedagogic method of treatment adapted to their abnormal perfectibility, idiocy will have to be observed in its relations to anthropology; and the rationale of its treatment will have to be studied in its bearing upon the most intimate problems of the development of man by education.


1. -- Idiocy reviewed in its Bearings on Anthropology. -- This study was begun by kind lovers of the curious and the wonderful. From time to time appeared one of these monographs,-1- the most ancient of which Linnaeus took care to collect in his "Natural History." We owe to the great Boerhaave, that of John of Liege; to Louis Racine (as one would say in contemporaneous phraseology, Racine le petit), that of Mlle. Leblanc -- a case of imbecility, of obscure origin and doubtful termination, in the mezzotinto of a convent; to Bonaterre and Itard, two chefs-d'oeuvre of description of the boy of the Aveyron, idiotic and savage altogether; to Daumer, the mysterious narrative of Caspar Hauser -- an intelligent child, made practically idiotic by imprisonment between four walls, and seclusion from any thing but a silent jailer and a wooden horse; and to Esquirol, who suffered the name of the present writer to appear with his own on the first monograph of an idiot treated by the physiological method: "Résumé de ce que nous avons fait pendant quatorze mois. -- Esquirol et Seguin, Paris, 1839."

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