Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 36.djvu/571

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

commends the test of Lord Bramwell, contained in the questions: "Could he help it? Was the lunatic free to choose, or under the duress of disease?" And there is no doubt that the power of self-control is an essential element in the question of responsibility. We may even admit that "impairment of will or loss of self-control, more or less pronounced, is the first, last, and universal element in insanity." But impairment of will is found in all human beings, the sane and the insane. A heathen poet has confessed: "Video meliora probogue, deteriora sequor." [I perceive the better things, and approve them; I follow the worse.] And a sacred writer declares: "The good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do." Loss of self-control, then, is not at all peculiar to insanity, and the degree of this loss has no measure in medical science. Plainly, the proposed test is quite without value, and, indeed, is no test at all.

Again, it is proposed to make "a condition of insanity" the test of responsibility. But the term insanity is so extremely vague and indefinite, even a3 used by medical men and experts, that it is worthless for such a purpose. It is applied to every kind and degree of chronic mental disorder, without reference to the element of responsibility. About fifty years ago a law was enacted by the Legislature of New York in these words: "No act done by a person in a state of insanity can be punished as an offense." But Chief-Judge Beardsley (in the Freeman case, 4 Denio, p. 27) held that the natural construction of this act "would indeed be a mighty change in the law, and afford absolute impunity to every person in an insane state." He refused, therefore, so to construe it, and held to the principle of the English law, which has ever since been adhered to by our courts.

It is plain, indeed, that insanity may exist in a degree calling for medical treatment, and even for confinement in an asylum, without bringing with it irresponsibility for crime. In the case of Speirs, a patient set fire to the Utica Asylum to revenge a wrong done him by the authorities. The act was found to be a sane one, and the lunatic was sentenced to a long term in the State prison. It is safe to say that in most asylums there will be found at least ten per cent whose degree of insanity is less than that of the notorious Guiteau. But the jury were able, under the common-law test, to find that Guiteau's motive was a vicious one, and that he had the power to refrain from his crime.

So indefinite, however, is the line between sanity and insanity, and so hard to be drawn in cases made still more difficult by passion and prejudice, that the plan of a permanent commission, of lawyers and physicians, to visit those who have escaped punishment on the ground of insanity, and report, from time to time, on their condition, should be commended to our Legislature. In this way, perhaps, some light may be thrown on the question of a legal test of insanity, and upon the true value of expert evidence. At present, in view of the law which forbids a physician to disclose on the witness-stand any information acquired by him in a professional capacity, thus often withholding facts of the utmost importance, the necessity of expert testimony in lunacy cases must be admitted. It remains, however, to define more exactly who are experts, by whom they shall be called, and what questions they shall answer. Upon these points, also, the suggestions of Dr. Crichton-Browne are most practical and valuable.

L. A. Tourteillot, M.D.

Utica, N.Y., November 30, 1889.




EDITOR'S TABLE.


USEFUL IGNORANCE.

MR. HERBERT SPENCER, in a well-known essay, has discussed the question, "What knowledge is of most worth?" It is perhaps time to begin the discussion of the question, "What ignorance is of most value?" There is a story told of the great philosopher whom we have just named that, on one occasion, in reply to a question upon some rather minute point of history or archæology, he expressed a devout thankfulness that he knew nothing whatever about it. The capacity of even the greatest minds is limited; and the man who would make the best use of his powers of memory must exercise a wise discretion as to the things he undertakes or tries to remember.

If any principle in education ought to be clear, it is that there should be no overcrowding in the mind of the pupil, but that each portion of knowledge imparted should have room to define itself, to assume distinctness and to grow. Where there is overcrowding there will be no sense of order and no