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Then of the venome handled thus a medicine I did make;
Which venome kills and saveth such as venome chance to take. Glory be to him the graunter of such secret wayes,
Dominion, and Honour, both with Worship, and with Prayse.
O poison, which is not cured save by poison!
Homoeopathy—as distinguished from allopathy—is a system of medical treatment through minute doses of substances which cause in healthy people the same symptoms as those produced by the disease in question. In contrast to “ordinary” medicine which aims at curing the outward symptoms, it aims at healing the disequilibriums in the “vital” structure which permit entrance of the disease in the first place.
There is a freely confessed ignorance, with both practitioners and patients who have verified and experienced the efficacy of homoeopathic healing, as to exactly why or how it works. Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) himself, the German founder of what has henceforth been termed the homoeopathic system of medicine, said: “It matters little what may be the scientific explanation of how it takes place; and I do not attach much importance to the attempts made to explain it” (Organon of Medicine, 5th & 6th Ed., New Delhi, n.d., Sec. 28).
Harris L. Coulter, one of America’s foremost lay exponents of homoeopathy, uses the established term empirical medicine to describe the Hippocratic system of prognosis followed in homoeopathic practice; and indeed, Hahnemann developed his therapeutic knowledge of drugs through the experimental procedure of testing their properties by so-called “provings” on healthy persons.
But proven effects presuppose commensurate causes, and no science can enhance its standing through the admission that its efficacy is based on hit-or-miss procedures. Not that homoeopathy lacks laws to go by: there is the Law of Similars, Hering’s Law (concerning the evolution of symptoms), the Avogadro Law (concerning dilutions), the Law of the Minimum Dose, and that of the Single Remedy—to cite but a few. Yet these laws concern contingencies within a medical perspective which leaves begging the question of fundamental origins.
Here Hahnemann combines apparent evasiveness with that note of vanity frequent among innovative practitioners convinced by obvious results but always on the defensive against their more orthodox colleagues. “In this investigation I found the way to the truth, but I had to tread it alone, very far from the common highway of medical routine,” he writes in his Preface to the First Edition of the Organon. In Section 62 of the same, he states that the efficacy of homoeopathic treatment is a thing “which no one before me perceived.” Again, “I was the first that opened up this path” (Sec. 109). “Homoeopathic dynamizations…were unknown before me” (Chronic Diseases, Philadelphia, 1896; Calcutta, 1975; Part 5).
The founder of homoeopathy prudently stressed that he had fallen upon nothing new, in that a therapy effective now must have been equally so throughout human history: “For truth is co-eternal with the all-wise, benevolent Deity” (Org., Introd., 5th Ed., p.25, n.). But apart from a passing reference to Hippocrates, and the naming of several later physicians who had fleeting premonitions of cure by analogy, Hahnemann credits a sole Danish army physician in the eighteenth century by the name of Stahl with having briefly come anywhere near to the similia similibus principle. “But it was dismissed with a mere passing thought, and thus the indispensable change of the antiquated medical treatment of disease…into a real…healing art, remained to be accomplished in our own times” (Introd., p.30).
By no means, however, does the evidence fully support this contention. Hahnemann was a widely-read scholar, with a working knowledge outside his native tongue of Greek, Latin, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldaic, and Sanskrit.The medical views of the most illustrious among his Renaissance predecessors could hardly have escaped his attention—a supposition corroborated by his motto, simila similibus curantur “like is cured by like”, which comes from the Swiss physician and alchemist, Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, born on 17 December 1493 at Maria-Einsiedeln near Zürich and died in 1541), whose outstanding medical contribution was to disclose the curative powers of mineral substances when reduced to their quintessential properties. This work in iatrochemistry was developed by the Belgian chemist, physician, and alchemist, Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644) into a pharmacological system. It was Hahnemann’s genius to rationalize the elements of this materia medicainto a praxis based on the Law of Similars, the Minimum Dose, and the Single Remedy. Why, then, the seeming dissimulation about the sources from which he must have drawn his knowledge?
The answer most probably lies in the character of the age in which he lived. The Renaissance had replaced the otherworldly stamp of the Middle Ages with a Titanesque humanism; the civilization that emerged in the wake of the Black Death during the fourteenth century was irremediably impoverished spiritually, although figures like Marcilio Ficino, Thomas à Kempis, Nicholas of Cusa, and Pico della Mirandola amply testified to a spiritual legacy in the fourteen hundreds still very much alive. And amidst the ferment of the Reformation came a certain flowering of the sacred with esoteric doctrines re-emerging in new quarters. But the climate of scientific enquiry gaining ground in the seventeenth century struck a mortal blow, and one can say that this century really was in its way the “end of a world”, with a phenomenon like Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) towering as a watershed between two cosmic views—the ancient and the modern: a colossus in the scientific domain, while concurrently a secret alchemist with deep religious convictions.
By the time of Hahnemann’s birth the rationalist mentality was well entrenched with the materialistic and self-sufficient complacency of its “one-world syndrome”. Higher orders of reality now counted for little save in the monasteries, and homoeopathy’s founder faced the paradox of having to promulgate in scientific fashion a medicine based on “prescientific” principles. To have invoked an alchemical source for his procedures would have been like a biologist in our days presenting for his doctorate an emanationist—let alone creationist—theory of the universe.
In a three-volume work entitled Divided Legacy: A History of the Schism in Medical Thought (Washington, D.C., 1977), Coulter traces the descent in the West from classical times to the present of two roughly parallel but inimical schools of medical theory and practice. The first stems from the semi-legendary Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 B.C.) and is called empirical, in the sense that it is an open system based on observation and prognosis; it regards the human organism as being governed by a physis or vital principle, which is the true physician that the doctor only aids. Morbific influences are handled by “coction”—an old medical and alchemical term defined in theOxford English Dictionary as “The ‘ripening’ of morbific matter, which fits it for elimination from the living body”—a process the physician stimulates through the administration of what are termed “similars”. This is expressed by a Law of Cure attributed to Hippocrates, which states: “Through the like, disease is produced, and through the application of the like, it is cured.”
The other current derives from the Greek physician Galen (fl. 2nd century A.D.), the reputed founder of experimental physiology, and is known as rationalistic, being a closed system based on diagnosis; the organism is regarded as determinate, and not spontaneous or autonomous, in its behavior. Here the physician treats illnesses through the administration of what are called “contraries”, the aim being to suppress morbific influences through the administration of agencies that counteract the symptoms of the illness. Hahnemann invented the term allopathy for this system to distinguish it from his homoeopathy.
The Galenic method views things ab extra: it works by analysis; the word anatomy itself is from the Greek anatemein to dissect. Disease is considered as an “entity” attacking the organism from without. The Hippocratic method by contrast sees things ab intra and works more by intuition. To these Empirics or Empirici (a word that has come to be equated in orthodox medicine with quacks, charlatans and imposters), the communia or general symptoms of a disease are less interesting than the propria—the unique symptoms of a given patient. From their perspective the illness (within the relative standpoint of sickness) is the afflicted person himself, whose aggregate of idiosyncrasies identifies his disease, and by consequence the corresponding remedy.
Holistically speaking there need be no fundamental incompatibility between these two schools of medicine. Indeed, each secures its legitimate sufficiency from its interpenetration with the other, although this is more crucially the case with the Galenic than with the Hippocratic therapy, since the former discipline de principio admits only mechanistic causes, while the latter being vitalistic has no reasona priori and de facto to deny the physiologically evident. In actual practice, however, the Galenic current anticipates the methodology of modern scientific enquiry by categorically rejecting all causes which do not have verifiable origins; while the Hippocratic persuasion for its part tends to draw into its orbit, along with those who are highly endowed intellectually, a fringe element of absolutists, occultists, and sectarians of divers hues. It must be stressed that Galen himself, a genius in anatomy, was an Aristotelian and a pneumatic physician by lineal descent, and is no more responsible for the limitations later attaching to his name medically than can Aristotle be held to blame for the aberrations of rationalism that developed in later European philosophical systems.
The synthetic approach of the Empirics to medicine is attested by Plato (Phaedrus, 270 c):
Hippocrates the Asclepiad says that the nature even of the body can only be understood as a whole.
And that Plato supports this view is confirmed in Charmides (156 D ff.):
As you ought not to attempt to cure the eyes without the head, or the head without the body, so neither ought you to attempt to cure the body without the soul; and this is the reason why the cure of many diseases is unknown to the physicians of Hellas, because they are ignorant of the whole, which ought to be studied also; for the part can never be well unless the whole is well… The great error of our day in the treatment of the human body [is] that physicians separate the soul from the body.