Dr. Heidegger's Experiment

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," what was the moral of the story?

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The moral of the story is to learn from one’s experiences so as not to repeat past mistakes. When Dr. Heidegger invites his friends, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Gascoigne, and Widow Wycherly to his study to drink waters drawn from the “Fountain of Youth,” each of them reacts in an almost predictable manner, after drinking off the waters—Mr. Gascoigne gets all political, “ranting about patriotism, national glory, and the people’s right,” Colonel Killigrew gets to ogling Widow Wycherly’s full figure, Mr. Medbourne is all business and talks about “supplying the East Indies with ice” through some strange means, and Widow Wycherly is vanity itself, preening for hours before the mirror. One would expect that, given the chance to be youthful once more, each of Dr. Heidegger’s visitors would tread through life more carefully. It is almost like each one of them is asked the question: if you were to go back in time, would you do things differently? The four subjects have all accumulated a lot of experience about life, and one hopes that they have learned from their experiences. Mr. Medbourne lost all his wealth, in his prime, to a “frantic speculation” and lives like a beggar in his old age. Colonel Killigrew suffers from poor health because of a youth wasted on the “pursuit of sinful pleasures.” Mr. Gascoigne’s brand of politics has driven him into oblivion in his old age, and Widow Wicherly lives a “secluded” life, having involved herself in scandalous relationships with the wrong kind of men.

It is important to note Dr. Heidegger’s statement as he fills the glasses of his four friends: “For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again. With your permission, therefore, I will merely watch the progress of the experiment.” The doctor knows that “growing young again” has its problems. This is why he carefully selects the subjects of his experiment, ensuring that each has a yearning for youthfulness. He would like to observe, however, if they are willing to redeem themselves from past mistakes, given the chance.

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The moral of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," relates to the development of a person's moral character and feelings about old age.  In Dr. Heidegger's  experiment, in which he gives four friends a youth potion, he sees that, despite warnings and despite lessons about life, his four friends all reclaim their various character flaws along with their reclaimed youth.  In addition, he sees that the youth fades without having imparted anything of value to the friends' lives.  Heidegger also notes that their discontent with old age is amplified along with their heretofore partially dormant (due to the limiting restraints of old age) character flaws and they immediately concoct and pursue and impractical, wasteful scheme, that of finding the fountain of youth from which the water came.

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In "Dr. Heideggers Experiment," what is Dr. Heidegger's Moral Philosophy?

Dr. Heidegger has a bust of Hippocrates in his lab and the narrator says that...

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he would "consult" Hippocrates regarding difficult cases. Given the connection to the professionalism of Hippocrates and his "Hippocratic Oath," we might conclude that Heidegger is an upstanding physician who does the best he can for his patients. This is a moral code of professionalism.

But it is rumored that Heidegger also engages in mystical and magical experiments. These could be rumors and/or the creations of a "fiction monger" but they could be true as well. In either case, true or not, Heidegger uses the notion of magic in this particular experiment. Whether or not  that magic is real is irrelevant. The experiment, from his perspective, is not to see if these people become young again. It is to see how they will react and if they will learn anything from it. Since they have not learned from the mistakes of their younger days, Dr. Heidegger impresses upon them to learn something this second time around:

"Before you drink, my respectable old friends," said he, "it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!"

In the end, Dr. Heidegger learns to accept the passage of time. Of Sylvia's flower, he says he loves it now (withered) as much as when it was fresh. But his four subjects do not learn this lesson.

On one hand, we might conclude that Dr. Heidegger knew these people well and might have assumed they would remain vain and mentally immature. On the other hand, he might have actually been trying to teach them to accept old age and, with it, wisdom. If this is the case, then he would certainly be upholding the Hippocratic Oath because his intention would have been to help these people to learn from their past mistakes and to accept the wisdom of old age. If this is the case, in this particular experiment, his moral philosophy is based upon helping people overcome vices, regret, and depression.

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