THEOSOPHY, Vol. 37, No. 3, January, 1949
(Pages 113-119; Size: 20K)

FINGER-POSTS OF THE MIDDLE AGES

AVICENNA

IF the founders of the present Theosophical Movement had presented the Third Object in the age-old direction, "Physician, heal thyself," the philosophy behind that aim might not have been so apparent, but its practical application would have been the same. "To investigate the hidden mysteries of Nature under every aspect possible, and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man especially," is to begin to observe the relation between the operations of consciousness and the balance or unbalance of inner and outer health. One who uses psychic and spiritual powers haphazardly will always be tempted to consider that he is the victim of Fate, whereas he is simply setting in motion the "unexplained laws of Nature" and experiencing the unexpected effects. In contrast, those who have investigated the mysteries of natural law under every possible aspect retain perfect consciousness of the cause in the effect, and the effect in the cause. Body, soul and spirit "all conscious and working in harmony" permit rule of the forces of nature by the direction of Will. Thus, "the adepts of Eastern magic are uniformly in perfect mental and bodily health, and in fact the voluntary and independent production of phenomena is impossible to any others. We have known many, and never a sick man among them," writes H. P. Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled (II, 595). Similarly, in the conditions pre-requisite for disciples in Eastern tradition, the first is "perfect physical health" (cf. "Chelas and Lay Chelas," THEOSOPHY XXXI, 199). [Note: A link to the article referred to here, written by HPB, has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]

The philosophical relevance of health is to be distinguished at the outset from the excessive self-concern or hypochondria so often encountered in religious and healing cults. Salvation is not, after all, attainable through the preservation of personal well-being, nor will a real comprehension of psychic laws and forces -- to say nothing of spiritual powers -- be gained by the individual whose motive, expressed or unexpressed, is bodily ease. Rather, the philosophical mind is one which can envelop all minor concerns in major motives, and regulate all lesser energies naturally by the presence of strong aspirations. In theosophical terms, it will be noticed that attention to the doctrine of the seven principles in man, and the attempt to identify the states of consciousness as planes of action, cause the student to light upon "karmic indications" in all phases of his nature, down to and including the "concrete" evidence furnished by his physical instrument. "Health" on all planes then becomes a matter for consideration as part of self-study, and an increasing recognition of the Ego as Causer illumines each perception of traits, habits, capacities and activities. "Man, know thyself" carries implicitly the force of that other direction, "Physician, heal thyself," but the body is healed when the mind is whole, and the mind is completed only by self-knowledge.

In our day, the virus of specialization has so benumbed intuition, and the cult of "experts" so paralyzed initiative, that skepticism and unbelief greet the view that man is competent to know and heal himself, mind and body, by studying nature as a whole. Modern scholarship is too often comparable to the backward-flying bird, that cared not where it was going, but liked to see where it had been. Life itself, the vital essence, slips out of the fingers of laboratory workers. Nature will not stand still for analysis, and man escapes to new unknowns before his old ones are fairly conquered. The chase from effects to causes grows every day more futile, and facts discovered are obsolete before they are learned.

The ancients, it appears, achieved a more leisurely pace, conductive to steady perception. Their aim was a metaphysical instead of a mechanical synthesis, and their faith that a natural synthesis existed saved them from constructing a procrustean bed of theory which the universe must be made to fit. Whatever the secret of their method, they showed a greater confidence in the possibility of wisdom and a surer vision of their goal, and those of later ages who have walked their way tell of a calmer motion, a more orderly progress toward the knowledge all men would wish to have.

There is, for example, the Persian Avicenna, born in the last quarter of the tenth century, A.D., one of the illustrious "Arabian" philosopher-physicians who are credited with virtually creating the science of medicine for the West. The Arabs drew upon ancient wisdom for their re-discoveries: Chambers' Encyclopedia (I, 366) mentions that to the Arabs "the oldest sources of knowledge -- that of the Indian physicians -- had been early opened," but how early it would puzzle modern scholars to surmise. In H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, the origins of "Arabian" culture retire thousands of years into the past, for it is recounted that the Arabs "are the descendants of those Aryans who would not go into India at the time of the dispersion of nations, some of whom remained on the borderlands thereof, in Afghanistan and Kabul, and along the Oxus, while others penetrated into and invaded Arabia" (II, 200). The beginnings of Persia may be even more remote, judging from scattered references in the S.D. (II, 609, 756, 328, 363 fn., and 394), that nation being one of those governed by the Divine Dynasties.

The exact antiquity of Avicenna's sources need not be determined in order for the theosophist to recognize in his ideas the "line of philosophical heredity" characteristic of the Theosophical Movement. For readers of English, Avicenna's philosophical treatises are virtually non-existent, an early essay, "A Compendium on the Soul," being apparently little more than an intellectual exercise in Aristotelian discourse. But, having in mind the relation of Plato and Aristotle, according to H.P.B., the theosophical reader will glean much from the statement that "the theories to which the Arabs give preference are precisely those that appear in Aristotle only in an obscure and secondary manner" (Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, II, 263). The Neo-Platonic influence is strong in Avicenna. Concerning the origin of the spheres, for instance, al-Farabi, Avicenna and their followers are shown "to maintain a Neo-Platonic emanatory theory: from the first principle emanates the first intelligence, and from this are derived all the nine spheres by means of successive triads always composed of intelligence, soul, and body, until one arrives at the final or active intelligence from which is derived all the material of the sub-lunar world."

Among the doctrines he classified as pertaining to Mysticism, Avicenna includes the theory of the soul's future state as dependent upon man's life on earth. Even in summary, as given in Hastings', Avicenna's doctrine has a quality that transcends mere theology:

After death, the reasonable soul attains perfection. To effect this, it must become conscious and intelligent, and receive within it the form of harmony and well-being which pervades the world of superior essences. It unites with this idea of perfection, and so becomes like it. Only the soul which has been prepared by the practice of the virtues enjoys this happiness. Otherwise its taste is vitiated; it cannot attain its end, and accordingly suffers. But if a man has lived a mediocre life, his actions never reaching the height of his intentions, his soul, when freed from the body, becomes the centre of a struggle between his pure desires and his bad habits. Only when purified by this grievous struggle does it attain perfect bliss.
Bon Carra de Vaux, writer of the Hastings' article, and himself the author of a study of mystic philosophy, has a curious note on Avicenna's mysticism. De Vaux observes, "It is doubtful whether Avicenna was really a mystic in the religious sense of the word. Here again he has followed the custom of the Neo-Platonic school, regarding mysticism as primarily a subdivision of philosophy. Ibn Tufail seems to say that Avicenna had a kind of esoteric doctrine called hikmat-al-ishraq, 'philosophy of illumination,' which really contained his true ideas. But we know from one of the treatises of Suhrawardi al-Maqtul that this philosophy is almost exactly Avicenna's own Neo-Platonism with a different nomenclature."

In histories of magic, Avicenna is remembered for his theory that the soul can make an impression upon "first matter" (astral matter?) by the vehemence of its affection and intention, and it is reported of Albertus Magnus that after he knew "that the work of the wise man is to make marvels cease" by scientific explanation of them, he searched the writings of authorities until he understood the causes of many marvelous works. He continued to be puzzled, however, by the binding influence of incantations, characters or signs, sorcery, words, and many common objects, until he found a plausible statement by Avicenna that there exists in the human mind a certain power of altering objects, and that other objects obey the human mind when it is aroused to a great excess of love or hatred toward anyone of them. (Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, II, 731.) Students of H. P. Blavatsky will correlate this with the explanations given in her works, as in "Transmigration of the Life Atoms" (THEOSOPHY XXXIII, 210). [Note: A link to the article referred to here has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]

Condensations and interpretations of a philosopher's teachings must always be unsatisfying, divorced as they are from whatever living power still resides in the thinker's own words, and therefore it is fortunate that one of Avicenna's works can be directly contacted by English readers. The first book of his famous Canon of Medicine was translated, with extended comments, by O. Cameron Gruner, M.D. (London: 1930) who aimed also, in the same treatise, "to present a study of its mystical philosophy (tassawuf), especially showing where this and modern biological knowledge are reciprocally illuminative." (Extracts from Avicenna will be presented in THEOSOPHY next month.) [Note: It is the very next article, the 5th one, in this compiled grouping that you are now reading. --Compiler.]

In respect to Avicenna as an historical figure, it should be said that the period from the eighth to the eleventh century in Arabia was an era of brilliant scientific culture. The eighth century was signalized by Geber, generally considered the pioneer in European Alchemy (see "Finger-Posts" in THEOSOPHY, May, 1948), who lived two hundred years before the time of Avicenna. [Note: The article about Geber is the 6th one in this compiled grouping that you are now reading. --Compiler.] Avicenna's Canon of Medicine was for a long time the only handbook on the subject, and for five hundred years his works were the chief guide for all medical studies in the universities of Europe.

Arabic civilization is remembered for its high polish, the Saracen culture in Spain far surpassing anything achieved in Christian lands. Draper in The Intellectual Development of Europe (1876), goes on, page after marveling page, listing the exotic provisions for personal comfort and esthetic pleasure, down to "the studied succession of perfumes from beds of flowers" (II, 33). The polite literature later cultivated in Europe arose among the Arabs, and "the luxury, the taste, and above all, the chivalrous gallantry and elegant courtesies of Moorish society found their way from Granada and Cordova to Provence and Languedoc." The Arabs, however, never produced any higher poetry, epic or tragedy, the luxuriance and abundance of their language, perhaps, inclining them to mechanical triumphs in rhyme and cadence. As may be gathered from the numerals they popularized, chronicles and statistics intrigued them, and the Arabian schools produced many celebrated grammarians. Draper writes, "Not one of the purely mathematical, or mixed, or practical sciences was omitted." (Another and more recent description of Saracen culture will be found in Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom, 1943.)

The aspect of luxurious materialism in Arabian culture reminds the theosophical student of H.P.B.'s remark (S.D. II, 623 fn.) on "medicine, the most materialistic of all" modern sciences, and this highlights Avicenna's contribution to the theosophical movement. Dr. Gruner, paraphrasing a passage in Hartmann's Paracelsus, contrasts modern theory with Avicenna's premises:

Modern medicine is based on the conception of the universe as a conglomeration of dead matter out of which, by some unexplainable process, life may become evolved in forms. To Avicenna the whole of the universe is the manifestation of a universal principle of life, acting through the instrumentality of forms. Or, again, in modern medicine, the forms are the source of life; to Avicenna they are the product of life. Space itself is an aspect of the one life. (A Treatise etc., p. 9.)
As remarked in The Secret Doctrine (I, 361), "the Arabs had their figures from Hindustan, and never claimed the discovery for themselves." The same is true of their science of medicine, and the broad, inclusive character of Avicenna's work is faithful to the spirit of that ancient science which regarded the universe as "a vast, complete, and perfect whole," and saw "no unsolvable mystery anywhere." Much research into the science of medicine in ancient India was reported in the early volumes of The Theosophist, the first theosophical magazine. Publishing in India, the Editors took full advantage of native stores of knowledge, and in pursuance of the Third Object of the Theosophical Society, the multiple relations between magnetism, mesmerism, occult powers and the practice of medicine were a subject of almost constant discussion. Brief mention may here be made of a few of the little-known phases of human experience explored in that journal.

Theosophist readers became acquainted with homeopathy and various forms of drugless therapy, including "metallo-therapeutics" -- use of the metal sympathetic to a particular person; electro-magnetic or wholly magnetic apparatuses for treatment of diseases (first popularized, apparently, in 1857, and in great vogue in both Europe and America in the 1880's); and electro-magnetic baths. Students of Isis Unveiled (the only one of H. P. Blavatsky's books then written) could make use even of such technical details as the two electrical currents used -- the constant or Galvanic for decomposition of tissues and cauterization, and the interrupted or Faradic current to stimulate and give tone to a particular part of the body -- for H.P.B. had written in Isis of the two kinds of magnetism and electricity (I, 178 and 188). Isis readers were also familiar with the basis for the theory advanced by one contributor, that magnetic apparatuses are superior to electrical ones because magnetism is retained by the body and electricity is not: Isis describes (I, 395) how "magnetic currents develop themselves into electricity upon their exit from the body."

A study of the elements in food and of the principle of vegetarianism is not as remarkable in our day of the vitamin-craze and endlessly varied "meat-substitutes," but The Theosophist consistently aimed to relate all such investigations to philosophy and to "supra-physical" welfare. The Editors had no intention of spawning countless new fads and health-régimes, but sought to awaken man to "correspondences, relationships and mutual attractions and repulsions in Nature, the existence of which scientific research is constantly making more apparent." The measure of truth in one writer's definition: "Medicine is a confused assemblage of inexact ideas, of illusory means, and of formulas as fancifully conceived as fastidiously put together" -- was explored, but at the same time the emphatic editorial declaration was made that "We by no means desire to deprecate the value of any system of medicine; we believe more in the physician than in his medicines, and we consider everything right, if applied at the right time and in the right place." The reader was advised "to study the nature of disease, and then practise that system which he understands best."

The above quotations suggest a theosophical basis from which to approach the Canon of Medicine, and to appreciate, it may be, the non-medical relevance of Avicenna as one who encompassed in the practice of medicine not only psychosomatics or psychology, but a metaphysics of man.

As to Avicenna himself, H.P.B.'s reference in The Theosophical Glossary leaves much to be pondered over. "Avicenna," she writes, is "the latinized name of Abu-Ali al Hoséen ben Abdallah Ibn Sina; a Persian philosopher, born 980 A.D., though generally referred to as an Arabian doctor. On account of his surprising learning he was called 'the Famous,' and was the author of the best and the first alchemical works known in Europe. All the Spirits of the Elements were subject to him, so says the legend, and it further tells us that owing to his knowledge of the Elixir of Life, he still lives, as an adept who will disclose himself to the profane at the end of a certain cycle."


[Note: Here are the links to HPB's two articles that were pointed to by the Editors in the above article: "Chelas and Lay Chelas" and "Transmigration of the Life Atoms". --Compiler.]

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