THEOSOPHY, Vol. 37, No. 4, February, 1949
(Pages 163-169; Size: 22K)
AVICENNA'S "CANON OF MEDICINE"(1)
AVICENNA, philosopher, alchemist and physician, opens to the theosophist an extremely important "line laid down" in the Theosophical Movement. Five hundred years before the cycle that brought Europe "the greatest Occultist of the middle ages" -- Paracelsus -- Avicenna was nurturing the seed-ideas planted in the minds of men, and reviving the science recorded in the philosophical traditions of India. Avicenna was a scholar in the theosophical sense, that is, his study of fundamental principles enabled him to correlate investigations in all the great fields of knowledge with his own search for truth. Students of The Secret Doctrine know how H. P. Blavatsky ranges, within a few pages, from astronomy to biology; from religious symbols and myths to the science of electricity; from Sound as an occult force to pyramid-building, resuscitation, and Keely's Etheric Force. Training multiple rays of human thought on one theosophical proposition after another, Mme. Blavatsky demonstrates the true method of comparing ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences. Where ordinary scholarship collects evidences to prove a theory "belonging" to one particular field, The Secret Doctrine sets forth fundamental postulates by means of which the student can penetrate to the living truth in any of its forms, aspects, or encasements. Therefore, it is correct to assume that the Theosophical Movement is furthered by any mind that succeeds in tracing a "branch of learning" to the "Tree of knowledge," and that finds within the several sciences the life-science of which all are derivations.
Avicenna is one such discoverer of the science of life: to him all fields of knowledge were hospitable, for he sought to know man the microcosm, and he knew that man and Nature are only to be understood together. To read the first book of his Canon of Medicine is to see the healing art as the practice of all forms of knowledge by which man has learned something of his own nature. Like the "materia medica" of pre-historic India (reprinted at length in The Theosophist, 1879-1881), which is virtually a closed book to modern scholars, much of Avicenna's work is outside the purview of present-day "medicine": even the most unusual cures and panaceas of modern times do not exceed in strangeness and "unorthodoxies" (save the mark!) some of the treatments mentioned in the Canon. The problem is to determine which methods Avicenna was recommending literally, which are for the psychic nature and which for the physical organism. "Half, if not two-thirds of our ailings and diseases are the fruit of our imagination and fears," wrote H. P. Blavatsky, and a certain proportion of Avicenna's remedies seem to belong to the category of tokens and talismans -- powerful symbols calculated to capture and give another bent to the imagination and to loosen the toxic grip of fear. Such apparently oblique curatives are probably successful to the degree that they operate the law of correspondences (see H.P.B.'s article, "Black Magic in Science," THEOSOPHY, XXX, 492). [Note: A link to it has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]
Only the barest outline of the Canon of Medicine can be given here, but some notion of the scope of the subject-matter can be gained from a sampling of the factors considered by Avicenna. There is, for example, the idea that the "pivot of function" in the human body moves from one compound to another as matter is assimilated into the system. Avicenna's concept of the breath and the vital faculty cause the translator, Dr. O. Cameron Gruner, to include notes on the astral body, prana, and the Hindu teaching on the chakras or centers of energy in the body. In one passage reminiscent of Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms, and of the Aphorisms on Karma, Avicenna states that miraculous cures can be effected by sudden change in polarity, or breath, by the will of the patient, or by the influence of the physician. The effects of the various emotions -- listed by the Chinese physicians as seven: joy, fear, anger, hatred, concupiscence, sorrow and delight -- are discussed, and Dr. Gruner explains that with Avicenna, state is primary, and disease is secondary. Avicenna describes how diseases may turn into other diseases, either "good" (if affecting less important organs) or "bad" (if reaching the nobler organs) and mentions the transmission of disease through the eyes, "when one person gazes closely at another."
A characteristic of the science of medicine as expounded in the Canon is the consideration of what may be termed cosmic factors in relation to the life of man. Avicenna discusses in detail the influence of the seasons on the atmosphere, and the celestial factors -- the effect of the sun, planets, constellations, etc. There are curious references to "ground-water," "ground-fire," and "ground-air," and again it is pointed out that by "air" is meant the atmosphere including all four elements -- from which it may be inferred that the "Four Elements" had several aspects in Avicenna's philosophy. One section of the Canon is devoted to the problem of building a house in the way that will make the best use of the terrain: a house built with doors and windows opening east and north will give entrance to the sun in the most favorable part of its cycle, and the same preference for the morning sun would dictate also that mountains, if any, should be to the west.
Pre-natal influence was of course understood by Avicenna, who gives other instances of the influence of "phantasy" on the bodily state. "Considering red things" is one example of an ailment, mentioned in passing, and Avicenna warns physicians that "a pain may persist after the pain is gone." When describing how diagnosis may be made from outer signs (short fingers suggest a small liver), Avicenna shows how the form of the body members indicates the person's temperament. He also points out that each emotion tends to generate its own type of breath, and that blood states are likewise correlated to emotional changes.
More valuable than any specific directions or treatments outlined is the undercurrent of Avicenna's medical discourse. At the opening of the Canon, and frequently thereafter, he states that physical science is not sufficient for the physician. The use of logic and inference must be understood, and the relation to other sciences constantly considered. "In this manner," says Avicenna, "one passes up step by step until one reaches the very beginnings of all knowledge -- namely, pure philosophy; to wit, metaphysics." After discussing one phase of health and disease, he remarks, "The physician is again reminded that he must seek an explanation of the deeper intricacies of this subject in [esoteric] philosophy, for they are not self-evident." Again, "I purposely omit referring to certain other problems relative to the humours, because they pertain to philosophy and not to medicine," and "This completes all we propose to say at present about the humours and their mode of formation. There are other aspects of the subject whose discussion and justification pertain to the philosopher." Dr. Gruner's comment on the concept of the "humours" will bear repetition:The idea belonging to the doctrine of the humours is not affected by biochemistry or cytology, any more than the theory of "four elements" is really affected by modern chemistry. To retain the idea is to claim a practical value in drawing a distinction between "humours" and the body-fluids. In [item] 101 Avicenna speaks of the blood as a product of the liver, the material for its manufacture being derived almost directly from the food itself. As to the blood-cells, had he known of them he might justly still regard them as incidentals; as forces accresced for a time, and always changing in substance. After all, they are importations into the blood; whatever tissue be their real source, whether their origin is local or widespread, they are not the real trouble in anemia. Remedies will increase their numbers, but do not touch the real disorder. From Avicenna's point of view, it might be said that the glamour of the revelations of the microscope has only diverted attention from the real "sanguineous humour" and its ultimate sources and similar subtleties, thereby leading treatment away to "attacks" on the red and white cell forming organs. For the blood is itself living -- not a mere chemical conglomerate. Hence in this field there is a need for reverting to the old paths. The constant endeavor also to reduce everything to terms of cellular individualities, as opposed to one single complex -- the human being, the one single MF [matter and form] -- inevitably carries errors in its train.(2)Dr. Gruner's commentary points up the radical difference between an integral view of man and the human form, and the modern theories which are so often a result of over-specialization in techniques. He observes, for example, that "The intimate structure of the body is always changing although the anatomical structures appear to remain unchanged. Hence it is possible to see in these structures merely a locus for the various faculties and functions pertaining to the physical, mental and emotional life of the individual. Compared with his existence in the scheme of things, the anatomical details are mere 'moments musicales'." This passage is reminiscent of the doctrine of Nitya Pralaya --the perpetual incessant dissolution or change of atoms, molecules, and hence of forms -- which must have been known to Avicenna. Another illustration of the coordinated function of the body (possible because of the electromagnetic "guidance" by the inner, astral body) is the "harmonious succession of events, both in time and place" to be discerned throughout. The astral body (Gruner mentions this term as one used in "theosophical language," possibly from references in Hartmann's Paracelsus) also explains why Avicenna is found to speak of the organs, fluids and the like as transcending anatomical boundaries. The line between living and "dead" matter disappears when chemical elements are "followed" in and out of organic life. Following Avicenna, and filling the gap between the teachings of the Canon and the modern concept of food assimilation, Dr. Gruner manages to include at least two more of the human "principles" in the total cycle of transmutation:Anatomical structures depend for their existence on chemical structure. Water, for instance, may be said to come into visibility in the form of an anatomical structure. Conversely, other substances are only visible as long as they are not yet an integral part of the living substance of the body, and others are visible because they have ceased to be such.An even more transcendental aspect of this cycle is contained in The Secret Doctrine statement of the third line of evolution (I, 181). The body, writes H.P.B., "serves as the vehicle for the 'growth' ... and the transformations through Manas ... of the finite into the INFINITE, of the transient into the Eternal and Absolute."
As soon as microscopic visibility is attained, the visible thing has ceased to be "living." Stability of form entails the stagnation of certain substances, and also implies that they have been rejected from the cycle of life in order to provide the substrate or platform or points d'appui for the actual living substance (i.e., the life-principle) to manifest its faculties during a certain (often limited) period of time.
A few citations from Avicenna's Canon on the subject of diet will be of especial interest to present-day readers, for the eleventh-century physician gives credit to a still more ancient source of some so-called "modern" theories on foods and health. The following extracts are derived from several different items, as the numbers indicate:761. A person should not eat unless hungry. Nor should he delay his meal until the appetite has passed off....We may take leave of Avicenna with a final quotation which intimates, perhaps, the nature of his hikmat-al-ishraq, or "philosophy of illumination." He has been discussing the various degrees of living beings and organisms, and comes to the proposition that "the mingling of substances in the compound bodies accounts for their ability to receive life." In the passage that follows it is difficult to escape a correlation with the doctrine of the incarnation of the Manasa-putras, "Mind-born Sons," whose presence in man makes the human form, potentially at least, the "temple of the living god." The man who can perceive the inner deity by the "light" of the higher mind is fully "his own physician" -- as every philosopher has been. In Avicenna's words:
765. No meal should be bulky enough to completely satisfy the appetite. One should rise from the table while some appetite or desire for food is still present....
769. The countries in which people live have also their own natural properties, which are distinct from the ordinary rule.... Thus, a food which is often used, though injurious to a certain degree, may be more appropriate for a given individual than a food which he does not often take, though its character be good.
795. Incompatibilities between foods.... Indian observers and others have long taught that (1) milk must not be taken with sour foods; (2) fish must not be taken with milk -- for in that case chronic ailments such as leprosy may develop; (3) Pulse must not be taken with cheese or radishes or with the flesh of flying birds; (4) a polenta of barley-meal should not follow on a dish of rice made with soured milk; (5) eatables should not have oil added, or oil which has stood in a brass vessel; (6) fleshmeat should not be taken when it has been roasted over live coals (with certain herbs).
796. To have several courses to a meal is injurious in two directions: (a) the rate of digestion is diverse, for the part that digests more speedily is admixed with a part which is not yet digested; (b) a person may eat too much of one dish. Already in ancient times, too, persons who had been exercising themselves [or undergoing "Yoga" training? --Editors] avoided this error, being satisfied to partake of meat alone in the morning, and bread alone at supper-time.The more harmonious the blending [of substances, as in a temperament], the more adapted is the resultant compound for being the vehicle, not merely of life, but of a very particular kind of life. Perfect equilibrium and perfect balance renders possible the manifestation of the perfection of rational life which celestial beings possess. And it is just this kind of character which is to be found in the case of the human breath!Just as physical and psychic health depend upon sustaining the will to perform necessary action, so the "perfection of rational life" is the concentration of the will upon spiritual action -- and the two processes are essentially one. Moral balance, mental health, and physical or psychic "energy" are not separate and distinct accomplishments -- they are all phases of a single achievement, the perfection of self-induced and self-devised exertions. H. P. Blavatsky's article, "Psychic and Noëtic Action," [Note: A link to it has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.] suggests the occult side of health, a self-administered mental régime, and a theosophical canon of medicine might well begin with the thesis that every cell has not only a kind of consciousness and memory, but also its own psychic and noëtic action, determined by man's attitude of mind and mode of action. Psychic (or psycho-molecular) Force acts from without within, and may be said to include all "outside help" that any physician, healer, or psychiatrist can provide. The noëtic Force, "Spiritual-dynamical" in nature, works from within without, the impulse coming from the "Wisdom above," the Higher Ego. It is by means of this Force, the Spiritual Will, that man, in Avicenna's phrase, "approaches towards the likeness of celestial beings."
1091. The breath, then, is that which emerges from a mixture of first-principles, and approaches towards the likeness of celestial beings. It is a luminous substance. It is a ray of light.
COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:
When the ascetic has completely mastered all the influences which the body has upon the inner man, and has laid aside all concern in regard to it, and in no respect is affected by it, the consequence is a removal of all obscurations of the intellect.
[Note: Here is the link to HPB's article, entitled "Black Magic in Science", that was pointed to by the Editors early in the above article. And this is the link to her article, "Psychic and Noëtic Action", that was spoken of at the end of the above article. --Compiler.]
FINGER-POSTS OF THE MIDDLE AGES
JABIR OR GEBER
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FOUR (4) FOOTNOTES LISTED BELOW:
(1) NOTE.--Avicenna was the subject of "Finger-Posts of the Middle Ages" in the January THEOSOPHY. --Editors. [Note: Which is the article just before this one. --Compiler.]
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(2) Dr. Gruner, author of Studies in Puncture Fluids (1908) and Biology of Blood Cells (1913), evidently has particular interest in a comparison of modern and ancient methods of "research." Born in 1887 in England, he attended the London University of Oriental Studies, and became a pathologist at Leeds General Infirmary. In 1930 he published A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna (Luzac & Co., London), which is being quoted here, and in 1932 he transferred to cancer research at McGill university.
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 This is native frumenty and green grain (mostly barley), toasted, powdered, mixed with dates or sugar, and eaten on journeys when cooking is impracticable. (Gruner.)
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 This is milk artificially soured. It is eaten with rice, and is a component of salatah, cucumber salad.... "all nomads who live on milk never take it fresh." (Gruner.)
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