In 1862 J.C. Bucknill and Daniel Hack Tuke, two of the most illustrious (British) psychiatrists of their day, published their great textbook: A Manual of Psychological Medicine. In it, they offer a rather poignant description of those who
“have lost their faculties by reason of old age, and are illustrations of Senile Dementia — which in some instances may be truly called ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’.”
Bucknill and Tuke’s case-study example of ‘senile dementia’ was the much beloved “poet [laureate] Southey”: they clearly felt that the best of the country could be taken by this condition, and that their ‘nobility’ was by no means diminished with it.
I loved this notion, and the phrase “the last infirmity of noble minds”, but I has a sneaking suspicion that dementia had not always been the “infirmity” in question. I decided to dig a little deeper.
Thanks to google – and to my nan’s awesome ability to remember stuff she read at university despite not knowing what she did yesterday – I traced the phrase back to antiquity. Then, the well-know saying was
“The desire for fame is the last infirmity of noble minds”,
and it was in this guise that it travelled up the ages. John Milton wrote in Lycidas
“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise (That last infirmity of noble mind)To scorn delights, and live laborious days”.
The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (and I’m sure many others) picked up on the phrase in his own musings on the love of fame.
By the nineteenth century it seems that many celebrated pontificaters were playing around with the “last infirmity of noble minds” but no one seems to have been able to agree what exactly that infitmity was. J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote that “Ambition is the last infirmity of noble minds”, while critic John Ruskin said that
“That thirst (for applause) if the last infirmity of noble minds, is also the first infirmity of weak ones”.
“The last infirmity of noble minds” have clearly been part of common literate parlance in Britain for several centuries, but apparently more often referring to fame and ambition than to senile dementia. In fact, I have only found one other reference to dementia in relation to this phrase, from another celebrated psychiatrist, James Crichton Browne, in 1874:
“Senile dementia has been called ‘the last infirmity of noble minds’, but experience will convince you that it is also the infirmity of minds which have no pretensions to nobility whatsoever.”