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Therapeutic nihilism is a contention that curing people, or societies, of their ills by treatment is impossible.
In medicine, it was connected to the idea that many "cures" do more harm than good, and that one should instead encourage the body to heal itself. Michel de Montaigne espoused this view in his Essais. This position was later popular, among other places, in France in the 1820s and 1830s, but has mostly faded away in the modern era due to the development of provably effective medicines such as antibiotics, starting with the release of sulfonamide in 1936. A variant of the belief is still held by many people who practice homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine.
In society and politics
In relation to society, therapeutic nihilism was an idea, with origins in early 20th-century Germany, that nothing can be done to cure society of the problems facing it. Its main proponent was the novelist Joseph Conrad, whose writings reflect its tenets.
In politics, therapeutic nihilism is a defining principle of modern conservatism. The so-called "Father of Conservatism" Edmund Burke's imputation of "unintended consequences" – the implicitly inevitable and undesirable results of political engineering, and Peter Viereck's assertion in "But I'm A Conservative!", his also-definitive essay in the April 1940 issue of the Atlantic magazine, that socialists are naïve to believe that society can be improved, are two prime examples of conservative arguments for therapeutic nihilism.
The phrase therapeutic nihilism is also included in a modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, traditionally taken by physicians upon graduation. The statement is "I will apply for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism."
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