Poem: On First Reading Avicenna

Last night, I delved into a book called The Traditional Healer’s Handbook, by Hakim G.M. Chishti, which is a partial modern re-imagining of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, which was THE medical textbook from the Ganges to the Straits of Gibraltar, from Oslo to Kerala, for about a thousand years.  Avicenna is only the most famous of the proponents of the “four humours” theory of the body, in which disease is the result of interactions with the environment becoming imbalances of the four humours.  These imbalances are cured first with diets and particular exercises, second with rest, third with medicine, and fourth with philosophy.   This book, which unfortunately is not Avicenna, is nonetheless based on his work.

Oft have I wandered between woe and weal,
refusing medicine though ached and pained,
for mostly I thought the body would heal
any portion that felt broken or strained.
Yet no foundations did I feel beneath
my bland decree that no drugs would I take;
til Avicenna, crowned with laurel leaf,
caused feckless mind from sluggish dreams to wake!
For in these writings of an ancient sage
I saw the elephant I had touched blind,
how heated digestion cools as we age;
and in the pulse of blood can healers find
the signs of all our ills. At once I saw clear
how crowds seek in vain for something quite near.

This of course, is 2/30 for April…  I did much better today than I did yesterday.  And curiously enough, it had to do with learning some new things, namely about the four humors and the pulse-diagnosis system.  It doesn’t come across in this poem, of course, which is only a taste of Avicenna — and only based on reading one of his modern-day disciples, rather than the Prince of Physicians himself —  but the notion that doctors should have an idea of what healthiness is, and what it looks like, and know how to diagnose imbalances away from that healthy image using only three core tools, a very particular range of cooking spices, and a small range of simple medicinal plants… wow.  I was impressed.

It also gave me a sense of what alchemy is for.  I’ve made some spagyrics, which are tinctures of various herbs with the ashes/salts added back in, according to ancient alchemical formularies. Some haven’t gone so well, but they’re interesting objects and tools for understanding something of ancient chemistry and medicine.  However, I’ve never had a sense of why one should bother, except as manifest thought experiments. However, once one compares Avicenna with the methodologies of Paracelsus and Avicenna, though, one discovers that there’s an underlying theory of health and disease, and an underlying theory of diet and the uses of medicine, which is part and parcel of a view of the universe quite different to modern scientific materialism — that produced effective-enough results for a thousand years.  Hakim Chishti doesn’t say “don’t go to Western/allopathic doctors” or any such nonsense.  Rather, he says, “for many of your basic health issues, there’s a range of remedies in your grocery store that work to maintain heath so that you don’t have to go to the Western doctors quite as often.”

There’s a lesson in here somewhere, actually, for schools, too.  Maybe it belongs in the history curriculum for a World History class, or maybe in a science class.  But I can’t help thinking that I’d love to teach a World History class that teaches Geomancy from West Africa, a guide to basic health and diet from Islam, Geometry and Architecture from a western European point of view (ad quadratum geometry), astronomy/degrees from a Sumerian/Babylonian perspective, and so on.  Teaching some (im)practical arts from past cultures might be much more effective at helping to fix ancient and medieval cultures in the minds of our students.

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