Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend

Chapter III
Marat as Philosopher, Man of Sciences and Physician

THE first work in which Marat deals with philosophical problems was a short treatise already referred to, entitled An Essay on the Human Soul, published in 1772. In 1773 he expanded it into a large book, bearing the title A Philosophical Essay on Man, or the Principles and the Laws of the Influence of the Soul on the Body and the Body on the Soul. This book, like the previous one, was published in the English language, with which Marat by this time had acquired great familiarity. Indeed, so thoroughly idiomatic is the style that one can hardly suppose that his English writings were not either written or supervised by some native. Two years later, in 1775, he produced a French edition, enlarged in three volumes.

As philosopher, Marat was a pronounced dualist, believing firmly in the two Cartesian substances. In perfect consistency with this theory was his eighteenth-century Deism. Like his precursor, Rousseau, though with more logic and less sentiment but greater philosophical knowledge, he believed in a God “out of the machine”, the eighteenth-century God of Nature, who regulated Nature in the same way as the soul was supposed to regulate the body. At the same time, Marat starts his researches from the point of view of Cartesian mechanism, and does not pretend to pronounce on the absolute nature of the soul. In true Cartesian fashion he treats the human body as the machine serving as the organ of the soul. The work is divided into four sections. The first is purely anatomical. The second treats of the human soul. “The body vegetates left to itself; it is the soul alone that gives true life to its marvellous mechanism; an invisible spring, rendering our members active, producing all their harmonious movements, all those rapid and prodigious movements that make the body so adroit and admirable a machine.” And again, “It is the soul that renders man intelligent and free.”

The second section contains a vigorous and detailed polemic with Helvétius, who, as is well known, would derive the passions from the system of physical sensations. It is the task of the third section, which is divided into two parts, to deal respectively with the modifying influence of the bodily machine on the indwelling soul and of the soul upon the physical mechanism. In this section the phenomena of sleep and dreaming are expatiated upon, as illustrating the author’s theses. The soul participates in the infirmities of old age, of bodily disease, of strong drink, etc. Men of coarse bodily structure enjoy coarse amusements and blatant pleasures, garish colours, martial, music, and strong flavours. On the contrary, persons of delicate bodily constitution love soft colours, half-tints, plaintive music, “the tender perfume of the rose and the jasmine”. The fourth section of the book deals with the causes and modus operandi of the influence of body and soul on each other, and contains a general statement of the author’s position, which is as follows:- There neither is nor can be any direct relation between the soul and body, each being in its nature, sui generis, distinct from the other. Yet that there are reciprocal relations he had already maintained. Hence these relations, since they are not immediate, must be brought about through the mediatisation of some third agent or influence. This tertium quid is, according to Marat, what he terms the “nervous fluids”, by which he understands a subtle ether or substance, “neither grossly material, like the body, nor purely immaterial, like the soul”, but occupying a position between the two, which is the vivifying power of living nerve-substance, and which is concentrated in its greatest intensity in the brain. The movements of this mysterious fluid combine with the elasticity of the fibres and the physical quality of the various organs affected, upon which moral and physical peculiarities depend.

Marat’s psychological system was in no way original. Notwithstanding his derogatory references to Descartes, it was based in all important points upon the system of Descartes, and might have been written, save for certain minor details, chiefly of illustration, by any Cartesian of a corresponding amount of physiological knowledge, at any period between, let us say, the middle of the sixteenth and the close of the eighteenth century.

The French version which Marat wrote of this work was, like most other literary productions of the period, sent to Voltaire, and was honoured by a fairly long, if caustic, criticism from the great god of contemporary letters. The style of the book is held up to ridicule, and passages are quoted with the hint that they are nothing better than rhetorical verbiage. Voltaire is especially severe on Marat’s supercilious treatment of the great lights of thought that came in his way, such as Locke, Malebranche, Condillac, and Helvétius. A certain piece of “fine writing” is the special object of Voltaire’s sarcasm. Marat apostrophises the power of thought, and says that “thought makes man to live in the past, the present, and the future, raises him above sensible objects, transports him to vast fields of imagination, expands, so to say, his eyes to the limits of the universe, discovers for him new worlds, and makes him to enjoy nothingness itself.” Voltaire felicitates the author on being able to enjoy nothingness. “It is a great empire,” he says, “reign there, but insult a little less those who are something.” Referring to a passage on “true force of soul”, in which Marat refuses this attribute to the “boiling Achilles, the furious Alexander, the austere Cato”, although in another part of the book he had spoken eulogistically of the dauntlessness of these classical heroes, Voltaire observes that if the worthy doctor is given to contradicting himself thus in his consultations, he will not be often called in by his colleagues.

Voltaire’s criticism seems to have rankled in the mind of Marat for a long time. Brissot relates (Mémoires, pp.190 sqq.) that Marat was deeply offended at a eulogy of Voltaire, contained in his (Brissot’s) Théorie des lois criminelles, and that he almost threatened a rupture of the friendship that then existed between them, on the ground of Brissot’s having praised a man who had mortally injured him by attacking one of his works in a cowardly and stupid manner, as he termed it. From a latter-day point of view the piece of stilted, rhetorical bombast in question would have more injured Brissot’s reputation for good taste than have damaged Marat by its laudatory periods as regards his critic. The modern man will probably think Voltaire justified in his criticism of Marat’s style in the work in question, but he will also have his opinion on the eighteenth-century taste in general which could tolerate, and on the particular taste of Brissot who could write, such stuff as the following:- “It is to thee, sublime Voltaire, to thee who hast breathed into our century the fire of thy genius, hast created it, hast vivified it; it is to thee that the universe owes the pure light that illumines it; at thy force, Truth has regained her torch, Reason her pinion!” and so forth.

Our author published the French version of his essay on “Man” at Amsterdam, in accordance with the usual practice of the time in the case of books on serious subjects. During his residence in Paris, Marat threw himself with ardour into scientific pursuits, especially those connected with investigations into electricity and light. His medical studies had led him to consider the question of electricity as a curative agent. The result of these studies was published by him under the title Découvertes de M. Marat sur le feu, l’élctricité et la lumière. It was only a small brochure of thirty-eight pages octavo, but it received the approbation and honourable mention of the French Academy of Sciences. At the same time, the Academy rejected the theory it sought to establish, and this slight, as Marat considered it, was the origin of his quarrel with that institution. The object of the essay was to prove the existence of an igneous fluid. Marat describes experiments that had taken place with an instrument apparently invented by himself, which he calls the Solar Microscope. At many of these Benjamin Franklin had assisted. “It is the same to-day,” writes Marat, “as it seems to me, with the theory of fire as it was with the theory of colour before Newton. It is regarded as matter, whilst it is only a modification of a particular fluid that I designate with the name of igneous fluid.” The pamphlet contains the account of sixty-six experiments in proof of the theory advanced, and is illustrated with seven engraved plates. Marat’s igneous fluid, like his “nervous fluids”, has a singularly archaic sound to us at the beginning of the twentieth century, but we must not forget that at this time “phlogiston” was still struggling to maintain itself in face of the discoveries of Priestley and Lavoisier. To the savants of Marat’s day igneous fluid might easily have seemed a perfectly rational and intelligible hypothesis. In fact, before the discovery of the composition of flame from oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, whilst the ancient views still held sway that fire was one of the ultimate elements of the universe, Marat’s theory was as plausible as any other that had been suggested. When we recollect that the last important book on Alchemy and the first important book on Chemistry were separated from one another by a year only, that the one appeared in 1749 and the other in 1750, we can realise to some extent the mental background of investigators of physical science in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. That the Academy of Sciences of Paris testified its appreciation of Marat’s investigations, notwithstanding its rejection of his theory, is sufficient guarantee of their not having been below high-water mark at the time.

Somewhat after the appearance of the last-mentioned work appeared Découvertes de M. Marat sur la lumière, confirmed by a series of new experiments. It was a book of 141 octavo pages, and was published early in 1780. This was followed in two years’ time by a considerable volume in 461 pages, entitled Recherches sur l’électricité par M. Marat. The work begins with a sketch of the history of physical science up to the date of writing, the sketch exhibiting a vast amount of reading, if nothing else. Subsequent portions discuss the best instruments for electrical work, and contain the reports of many hundreds of experiments made by Marat himself. All these works were published at Marat’s own expense. They were not without success, the treatise on Light passing through two editions, and affording occasion to Marat to give a course of lectures on optics, which were attended, it may be remarked, by Marat’s subsequent political and personal enemy, Barbaroux, the Girondist. The book in question was translated into German and honoured with the commendation of Goethe. In 1784, Marat published a work presumably based upon these lectures, entitled Notions élementaires de l'optique. Finally, in 1788, appeared his translation of the Optics of Newton, with notes, although, on the ground of a disagreement he had had with the Newtonians on certain points – a disagreement that in some cases seems to have amounted to a personal quarrel – he did not offer this to the public directly under his own name. This work, to which only Marat’s initial was appended, and which was edited by one Bauzée, received the high approbation of the Academy. The secret of its authorship was so jealously guarded that Bauzée, in a dedication to the King, declared the author of the translation to be unknown to him.

The last scientific work of Marat was published in 1788. Its title was Mémoires Academiques, ou nouvelles découvertes sur la lumière. As regards this work, Marat says that he forwarded it by other hands to compete with works sent to the Academy, and that in writing it he had been careful to avoid alluding to his earlier productions in connection with his own name. “Such,” he says, “is the domination of old opinions, that an innovator, without intrigue, without party, without trumpet-blowers, is often reduced to hide himself in order to escape persecution. I know that my adversaries are endeavouring more than ever to close the journals to me. If they succeed, I shall wonder at the force of personal considerations and at the docility of critics. For the rest, they need not flatter themselves that they are going to tire me out. One is not made to be the apostle of Truth, when one has not the courage to be its martyr.” Marat states that he has other optical essays in his portfolio, which he proposes to publish at the end of the year; amongst others, essays on the rainbow and the colour of the sky at sunrise and sunset, on the ellipsis of the moon on the horizon, also on the double image in the Icelandic crystal. But this was on the eve of the Revolution, and the treatises in question were never destined to see the light of publicity. In conjunction with a large number of private documents, they were probably stolen from Marat by the authorities during the raid upon his apartments on the 22nd of January 1790.

Respecting this raid Marat writes in the Ami du Peuple: “They have seized a package containing forty-three letters, forming my correspondence with Spain relative to the post the late King offered me in 1785; fifty-seven letters, seventeen from Franklin amongst them, forming my academic correspondence; and more than three hundred letters forming my private correspondence.”

As appertaining to the career of Marat as a physicist, we may recall an incident which occurred about 1785, and which hostile writers have more than once endeavoured to turn to his disparagement. The Academician Charles, Professor of Physics, who had made some bitter attacks on Marat’s publications on Optics, announced a course of public lectures in one of the galleries of the Louvre. Marat went there, and found the place crowded. Charles soon after, entering amidst enthusiastic applause, began his discourse. The lecture consisted of a violent diatribe against the latest innovator. Marat, who was personally unknown to the audience, sat out for some time in silence the travesty of his theories in physics given by the lecturer. The latter, finally, capped his observations by exclaiming, “And who is this Marat?” in a tone of acrid contempt – “this Marat, whom Voltaire has so justly stigmatised as a harlequin!” At this juncture our visitor springs up. “This Marat is here,” says he, “and is ready to unmask false savants and to chastise insolence.” For a moment the assembly was stupefied, but soon after voices were raised, demanding the expulsion of the disturber from the hall. “Let him alone,” replied the Professor, with a disdainful shrug of the shoulders, “the gentleman is not dangerous.” At this last insult, Marat sprang to his feet, shook himself free of his neighbours, and made a dash for the platform, where the Professor was proceeding to adjust his instruments to continue his lecture. Turning round with still greater contempt than that previously shown, Charles observed, “Is it a lesson in physics that you have come to receive from me?” “I propose, first of all, giving you a lesson in politeness,” responded Marat, at the same time drawing his sword. The distinguished member of the Academy of Sciences and pensioner of the King, who also carried a sword, according to the custom of the period, slowly and with apparent indifference drew his. The swords were crossed, and Charles with the greatest sangfroid remained on the defensive, whilst Marat, mad with rage, cut and thrust furiously, the Professor deftly parrying the blows. Finally, in the second bout, Marat, too excited to defend himself scientifically, received the sword of his adversary in the left hip. It penetrated right through the flesh, and Marat fell down in a swoon. A doctor present gave him attention, and declared that there was no danger. Marat was carried to his apartments, and after a few days recovered, but at the request of Charles, who was influential in Court circles, no notice was taken of the matter by the authorities. Such is the story as it has been told.

The account of this incident was first published by M. Gabriel Guillemot in the Rappel, some five-and-twenty years ago. The facts, as described, have been questioned on the ground of improbability, especially the duel before a public audience in the Louvre. This has led writers both friendly and hostile to Marat to reject its authenticity as it stands, although without questioning the fact of a quarrel between Marat and Charles, or even the possibility of a duel at some time and place.

The only direct documentary evidence on this affair is a letter from Marat written to Macquer, a distinguished chemist and a common acquaintance of both Marat and Charles, of which the following is preserved in Chevremont (Vol.i, p.75); “Although you have given me cause to suspect your principles, Monsieur, I will not believe you sufficiently cowardly to break your word of honour so many times pledged to me. You will find in me a generous enemy, who would blush to surprise his adversary or to wish to take advantage of his superiority. In order to convince yourself of this, have your witness ready; I shall have mine. The bearer will tell you the rest. Sunday; two o'clock. MARAT.” From the text of this letter, it is not quite clear whether it was intended for Charles, and merely sent through the hands of Macquer, or whether it was addressed directly to Macquer himself.

The best general idea we can give of Marat’s position in the scientific world at this time is that afforded by a letter of his to his friend Philippe-Rose Roume de Saint-Laurent, who had used his influence in Spain to obtain for Marat the directorship of the Academy of Sciences at Madrid. Roume founded a brilliant Spanish colony “from which the very name of the Inquisition was banished”. He evidently was in close relations in some official capacity with the Spanish Court, and was subsequently French National Commissioner in the colony of San Domingo. Letters are extant from him dating from shortly before Marat’s death, two to Marat himself, and another to Danton and Robespierre, pleading his own cause against the accusations that had been made against him. His friendship at the time with which we are dealing was duly appreciated by Marat, as the letter from which we here quote shows. It bears date: “Paris, the 20th of November 1783”. Marat begins: “It is true, then, my friend, that calumny has flown from Paris to the Escurial to blacken me in the mind of a great king and an illustrious Maecenas. Twenty letters, you say, have painted me in the blackest colours. But who are my detractors? Is it necessary to ask? Envious cowards, the numerous crowd of whom does not cease to devote itself to my destruction – modern philosophers, hidden under anonymity or false names in order to defame me. Shall I, then, always be the butt of their ill-humour, for having renounced academic honours for the love of truth, for having advanced useful knowledge, for having called back to life a great number of my brethren declared incurable, for having defended the cause of virtue? At this idea my heart revolts. But no, I will not murmur against the holy decrees of Providence, and no matter what may be the excesses to which my adversaries lend themselves, never shall they force me to repent of having been a good man.” It is, he declares, necessary to go back to the origin of their hatred. “Since my youth,” he continues, “I have cultivated letters, and I may say with some success. Scarcely had I attained the age of eighteen, when our pretended philosophers made various attempts to drag me into their party. The desire to educate myself in science and to avoid the dangers of dissipation induced me to migrate to England. I became an author, and my first work was destined to combat materialism in developing the influence as much of the soul on the body as of the body on the soul.” He relates that he was advised to preserve an incognito in his writings. “Whilst maintaining my incognito, but distrusting the exactitude of the translation that had been made, [From this it would seem that the treatise in question was translated by an Englishman from Marat’s French, although this is not stated on the title-page of the book.] I submitted it to the examination of certain Englishmen distinguished by their virtues as much as by their talents, amongst others to the late Lord Lyttelton, the author of several esteemed works, and to M. Collignon, Professor of Physiology in the University of Cambridge ... Finally my work appeared, and made a sensation. The notice given in the Westminster Magazine for June or July 1773, written by a society of men of letters, may be consulted. I will say nothing here of the praises that they lavished upon it, but I cannot pass in silence the censure dealt out to me for the disrespectful manner in which I had treated our pretended philosophers in a note to be found at the beginning of the work. Lord Lyttelton has often spoken of me to the Russian minister; and some months after the publication of my book, an offer was made to me to go to St. Petersburg.”

He proceeds to describe the fortunes of the French versions of his book. Owing, as he thinks, to the intrigues of certain French philosophes, it had been prohibited in France although the embargo was subsequently removed and the edition speedily sold out. Farther on, he relates how, having passed ten years in London and Edinburgh in scientific research, he returned to Paris. “Many sick persons of distinguished rank, who, he says, were despaired of by their physicians, and to whom I had restored health, joined with my friends in endeavouring to induce me to fix my abode in the capital. I acceded to their persuasions; they promised me fortune, I have only found outrage, annoyance, and trouble.”

He continues:

The fame of the surprising cures I have made drew to me a prodigious crowd of sick people; my door, was continually assailed by the carriages of persons who came to consult me from every quarter. As I exercised my art as a physician, the knowledge of Nature gave me great advantages, no less than my swiftness of eye and accuracy of touch, and my multiplied successes caused me to be called “the physician of the incurable” ... My successes gave umbrage to the doctors of the Faculty, who calculated with sorrow the big amount of my profits. They consoled themselves by forming a project to dry up their source. I could prove, if needs be, that they held frequent meetings to consider the most efficacious means of slandering me. Henceforth calumny spread in every direction, and anonymous letters reached my patients from all sides in order to alarm them with regard to me. A large number of persons, whose friendship for me is founded on esteem, took up my defence, it is true; but their voices were drowned by the clamour of my opponents. All these facts are matters of public notoriety.

Disgust, inseparable from the practice of medicine, made me sigh more than once for the retirement of the library; I then gave myself up entirely to my favourite studies. Could I have foreseen that I was going to make myself a new cause for envy?

Scarcely had I passed thirteen months in my study when my Nouvelles découvertes sur le feu were complete. To shelter them from plagiarism, I applied to the Committee of the Academy of Sciences; but as it counted amongst its members several philosophes whom I had acquired so strong a right to distrust, I considered that I ought only to reveal myself to the Comte de Maillebois, and I appeared merely as the representative of the author.

The curiosity excited amongst the Academicians by the discovery of the igneous fluid, that formidable agent of Nature, was enormous. You will only get a feeble idea of it from the letter which one of the committee-men wrote me on this subject a few days before making his report. ... Compare, I beg you, the tone of this letter with that of the Academy’s report, and you will recognise that frankness is not always the language of scientific bodies. However, in spite of its tortuous style, in spite of its insidious reticence, in spite of the faint praise that this report contains, it says enough to far-seeing men to satisfy them as to the importance of my discovery.

Marat goes on to explain in this lengthy letter the steps he took to avoid being robbed of the merit of his discoveries. “At last,” he says, “the summary of my experiments into the nature of Fire became known. The sensation that it caused in Europe was prodigious ;every public journal made mention of it. For six months I had peer and townsman (la cour et la ville) at my house. Those who could not see my experiments in my study as often as they wished, asked for special courses of lectures, which M. Filassier, a member of several Academies, gave. Amongst the subscribers were princes of the blood and the most eminent personages in the country.

Whilst the curious ran in crowds to my disciple’s house to see my fire experiments, I submitted my Decouvertes sur la lumire to the examination of the Academy. Being unable to preserve my incognito any longer, I counted less upon the impartiality of my judges, almost all of them out-and-out partisans of Newton.

At the first sitting, they saw several experiments with which they appeared much struck. In beginning the second, they asked to see the principal experiments only. Their request astonished me, and made me think they intended stifling at their birth the discoveries they dreaded. But, without showing them my surprise, I contented myself with replying that it was important to follow the natural order of things, and that one should only pass on to a new experiment when the preceding one had been established. Events proved indeed that the precaution was not useless, since the Academician entrusted with the report, being unable to send it back, tried to take from me the manuscript examined by my commissary, although he had copied it, as appears from his letter.

The Academy, having recognised that it would not be possible to annihilate my discoveries, sought to have them brought out under its auspices. So some days after this little transaction, I received on the same morning, one after the other, visits from three of its members. They asked me, each in private, if I had the design of entering the Academy. I had just been a witness of the disagreements that one of them had experienced with his colleagues; he had been on the point of being expelled for having refused to submit his opinions to them. If this honest man has run such a risk, said I to myself, I shall run more, I who hold in horror the underhand intrigues of a certain scientific body [viz. the Academy. Accordingly, I contented myself with replying to them that I had not yet thought over the matter. My reply, misunderstood, was taken for a disdainful refusal, and from that time the persecution began.

Seven months had been spent in establishing my experiments on the subject of Light; three months were spent in drawing up the report upon it, and five months on my part in asking for it. The result was a denial of justice; it was exactly what I had expected, for it must be confessed that the task was as delicate as it was thorny for the gentlemen of the Academy. To admit the truth of my experiments was to recognise that they had worked for forty years on wrong principles, a confession that specially affected the section of geometricians and astronomers. Accordingly, it formed a veritable cabal against me. After having denied facts that they had not seen, they cried in unison: ‘If this man is right, what do you wish to have done with the annals of the Academy?’ And the Academy, swayed by this beautiful argument, shut its eyes to the evidence.”

After some further remarks on the subject of his Academic persecution, Marat writes:

I followed my Découvertes sur la lumière with my Decouvertes sur l’électricité, which had the approval of several famous physicians.” He then quotes the names of numerous journals that had dealt favourably with his treatises. He mentions, amongst them, the Monthly Review, adding, “You will see from this that, although it affects the fame of their immortal Newton, the English have not been afraid to call in question that which he believed he had settled.

ࢬIn the midst of my success,” he continues, “what has most flattered me is the zeal of some foreign professors who have made the journey from Stockholm and from Leipsic to Paris, in order to make themselves acquainted with my experiments ... After having worked at the physical side of electricity, I arranged to work at its medical side, a scientific subject that interests society so much.” He goes on to relate that the Academy of Rouen had opened a concours, the subject of the competitive essays being to determine up to what point and under what conditions one can rely upon electricity in the treatment of disease. Marat sent in an anonymous essay, and shortly afterwards learnt that it had been “crowned”. “You see again from this little success,” he adds, “that the Academies themselves know how to do me justice when I retain my incognito.”

It is enough to sum up briefly the latter part of this letter. Marat has endeavoured to show that the charges of ignorance, incapacity, and charlatanism made against him by his opponents had been dictated by envy and had been unmasked by the testimony of a multitude of distinguished men. He now proceeds to deal with the sneer that he is a man who promises great things and who is incapable of fulfilling his undertakings. To destroy the charge of megalomania, he points to his refusal to accept many tempting offers from crowned heads and others. “Eleven years ago,” he says, “after Lord Lyttelton’s flattering testimonials, I received from the Russian minister splendid proposals for a visit to Russia, and without entering into any explanation I refused them, because the climate did not suit me. Ten months ago, after the flattering testimonials of the Comte Valis, who knew me intimately, a sovereign in the North offered me 24,000 livres a year salary and 12,000 livres retiring pension, to go to his country and work there at a complete course of physics. Free to accept, I have not done so; the reasons are known to you. Nine months ago you communicated to me the project you had formed of bringing me to Spain; you know if my reply was that of an ambitious man.” Marat turns aside here once more to denounce the manoeuvres of the philosophes who had tried to injure his reputation at Madrid. “The morality of these gentlemen, adapted for corrupt courts, has a thousand attractions for young people; accordingly, their proselytes are very numerous ... Already they have formed the horrible project of destroying all the religious orders, of annihilating religion itself ... If one day they should come to conceive the ambitious scheme of carrying their opinions into political affairs, who shall hinder them, by means of their creatures, acquainted with all that passes in official quarters, from shaking governments and overturning states? I see only one means, my friend, of preventing these misfortunes, and this is to employ all great writers to cover these apostles of modern philosophy with ridicule.”

This last quotation is interesting as indicating a distinctly conservative strain, not merely religious, but also political, in the Marat of this period. One more quotation will suffice to show the high value which Marat attached to his labours. “Until my time, all that had appeared on the subject of electricity could be reduced to a mass of isolated experiments, complicated in character, mixed up one with the other, and scattered over five hundred volumes. The thing was to drag science out of this frightful chaos. I shut myself up in my dark chamber, I turn to my method of observation, I render visible the electric fluid, I compare it with the fluid of flame and the fluid of light, with which it has been confounded. I observe its properties, its manner of action, the phenomena that result from its contact with air, light, and fire. Then, no more hypotheses, no more conjectures, no more probabilities – all becomes experimental; science is created. And it is an ignoramus indeed, is it, who has brought to the light of day the only methodical principle, the only known theory, of electricity?” Marat concludes with the words “There, at last, my task is finished. To put the coping to yours, you have only to present my justification to that wise minister [Comte de Florida Blanca], asking him on my account to bring it under the King’s notice, rendering me happy, ay only too happy, to be judged at the tribunal of his wisdom and justice.” This letter will afford the reader a sufficient insight into Marat’s scientific activity. Other small pamphlets appeared from his pen, one of them discussing the causes of a fatal accident that happened to aeronauts near Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1785, when from some unexplained causes an explosion took place and the balloon caught fire.

More practically important from a personal, as well as from a public, point of view than Marat’s researches into igneous fluids, visible electricity, and the like, was his career as a medical man. The malignant reports circulated after his death, and even to some extent before, by his political enemies, absurd on the very face of them, and given without so much as an attempt at substantiation, are beneath our notice. It was, of course, attempted to dispute his qualifications and to brand him as a quack, and any falsehood, however grotesque or impossible, has been eagerly accepted by a public opinion debased by class-interest to hatred of all those opposed to class-domination. For Danton, the mere politician and patriot, there might be a place for forgiveness. For Marat, the social revolutionist, there could be none.

We have already seen that Marat received a good education in his father’s house, and spent some years, on leaving home, in pursuing his medical studies. Whether he actually took his degree in medicine in the ordinary course on the Continent is uncertain. We know, however, of the success that attended his practice apparently from the first – a success that acquired for him the sobriquet of “the physician of the incurable”. As evidence of his academic and medical status, two documents from the University of St. Andrews are decisive. The first is the diploma of doctor in medicine accorded to him by the Scottish University. The translation of the Latin reads as follows:-


We, Rector of the University of St. Andrews of Scotland, Director, College Prefects, Dean and Professor of all degrees of the Faculty of Arts, to the readers, salutation.

Since it is just and reasonable that those who, by long study, have attained a knowledge of the useful arts, should receive a prize worthy of their studies and distinguish themselves from the ignorant vulgar by honours and special privileges, which bring to them some advantage and the respect of each and all; since amongst the important rights accorded from a distant period to the University of St. Andrews, it has that of attaching to itself, whenever necessary, capable men in each section of the Faculties, and of making them participate in the honours which it enjoys; since Jean-Paul Marat, a very distinguished master in arts, has given all his attention to medicine for several years, and has acquired a great skill in all branches of this science; with the approbation of numerous doctors in medicine, there has been conferred upon him the supreme grade of doctor in medicine; on these grounds we have accorded to the master who has presented himself, and who has been named above, the free and entire liberty to profess, to exercise, in whatsoever fashion, the art of medicine, and to do all that is connected with this art; so that the privileges, advantages, emoluments, honoraria, which are accorded in all countries to doctors in medicine, may be conferred upon him; and we wish that he be honoured with the title in medicine, and that he may be considered henceforth by all as a doctor received and very worthy to be one. In faith of which we have delivered to him this diploma as a privilege bearing our signature and stamped with the seal of our powerful University of St. Andrews.

Given at Andreapolis on the 30th of the month of June 1775

The second document is an extract from the minutes of the University, and reads as follows: -

St. Andrews, the 30th of June

Before the Rector, Professor Shaw, Dr. Forrest, Mr. Cook, Dr. Flint, Mr. Cleghorn,

The University, unanimously, has conferred the degree of doctor in medicine upon Jean-Paul Marat, practising in physics, on the certificates which are in the hands of Dr. Hugh James and Dr. William Buchan, doctors at Edinburgh.

Here we have conclusive proof of Marat’s qualifications as a medical man. That he studied at Toulouse and elsewhere in France we have also good evidence, though, as said before, whether he took his degree there has not been ascertained. Brissot, who became Marat’s bitterest enemy, but who was at the time when the latter was practising medicine in Paris on terms of intimacy with him, relates that Marat had told him he was then charging thirty-six francs a visit and that he was unable to see all the patients who came to consult him. Neither Brissot nor any one else thought of doubting the facts at the time, but when the Girondin leader wrote his memoirs it was, of course, necessary for him to malign his former friend. Hence he is bound to throw doubts upon Marat’s success no less than upon the value of his discoveries as physicist, which he himself admits that he had formerly rated highly. In connection with Marat’s medical standing, Brissot naively says, “It was only after recalling the divers circumstances of my relations with this odious man, and comparing them with the role that he had played in the Revolution, that I convinced myself that it was charlatanism that had directed and covered his actions all his life.” In other words, he had to call his political prejudices against Marat into play in order to persuade himself that Marat was no good as a doctor or in any other capacity! The only other argument he adduced against Marat’s statement of the extent and value of his practice is that – although he admits he lived in very comfortable style – he did not notice those signs of luxury in his apartments which he would have expected where a man was making the income alleged. This very lame argument can hardly have been used in good faith, for Brissot, knowing Marat as well as he did, must have been aware that he was the last man to care for superfluous display. Moreover, he himself goes on to relate that Marat declared to him his intention of abandoning his profession, lucrative as it was, for the purpose of devoting himself to his favourite studies in physics. This, of itself, would afford more than sufficient grounds for Marat’s preferring to save, instead of living up to the top of his income. The natural conclusion that Brissot was acquainted with his friend’s ascetic habits is confirmed by his own words, when in a moment of candour he writes concerning Marat: “One must do him justice; insensible to the pleasures of the table and to the enjoyments of life, he concentrated all his means upon his experiments in physics.” As a matter of fact, it is absurd to suppose that Marat made a statement that could have been immediately refuted, if it had been either untrue or seriously exaggerated.

Amongst Marat’s earliest publications were two medical pamphlets, one entitled An Essay on a Singular Disease of the Eyes, and some time later An Essay on Gleets. From the preface of the last-named, we quote the following, as showing Marat’s repudiation of those tricks of the quack which at that time even qualified medical men did not in all cases disdain to employ. Speaking of his method of treatment of the malady in question, he says: “A man of mercenary principles would no doubt keep it a secret; but a liberal mind is above such interested practices. To promote the good of society is the duty of all its members; besides, what an exquisite pleasure it is for a benevolent heart to lessen as much as possible the number of those unfortunate victims who, without hope of relief, labour under the many evils to which life is subject! Thus, not satisfied with relieving the patients who resort to me, I wish I could relieve many more by your hands.” Both pamphlets were written in English, whilst Marat was practising in Church Street, Soho, London, and the last mentioned is dedicated to the Royal College of Surgeons, to whom a superscription and the above preface are directed.

A third medical publication was of larger dimensions. We refer to the Mémoires sur l’Electricité médicale, issued as an octavo volume in Paris in 1784, having been previously “crowned” in manuscript by the Royal Academy of Sciences at Rouen in August of the previous year. The conclusions of this work were attacked by the learned Abbé Bertholon, who, under the pseudonym of the “Abbé Sans”, wrote a criticism of it in No.16 of the Année Litteraire. Marat published a reply under the pseudonym of “Monsieur l’amateur Avec”, with the title Observations of M. l’amateur Avec to M. l’Abbé Sans on the indispensable necessity of having a solid and luminous theory before opening a dispensary for medical electricity. The brochure was ironically inscribed “Epidorus and Paris”, and was issued in 1785.

We now pass on to consider Marat’s pre-revolutionary activity as political writer and pamphleteer.


Last updated on 14.10.2005