Ancient people had a holistic view of health. The history of medicine and archaeological findings give us a foundation to compare this holistic view of health to our modern, more reductionist approach.
“Just how far back in human history the actual origins of holistic healing may lie is not known. It is likely that for many thousands of years before the written records, healing information was passed on from the master practitioner to the initiate through oral traditions. The first generally accepted use of plants as healing agents were depicted in the cave paintings discovered in the Lascaux caves in France, which have been radiocarbon dated to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C. However, there is evidence that Neanderthals living 60,000 years ago in present day Iraq used plants for medicinal purposes.”
Not only did ancient people recognize the healing power of plants, but they understood energy as a healing force.Not only did ancient people recognize the healing power of plants, but they understood energy as a healing force.Click To Tweet
They recognized a fundamental interconnectedness between physical and spiritual that is all but lost in modern times.
“… in ancient times life was perceived as being an interconnected whole, and energy was understood as a force which permeated the entire system. However, as science developed and religious outlooks shifted, especially in the West, certain things came to be designated as clearly spiritual or of the spirit world, while all the rest were clearly material or of the physical world. The spiritual and material no longer penetrated and mingled with each other as described for thousands of years in indigenous cosmologies, mystery schools, and sacred texts; instead, they had become separated (Angelo 4-5).”
When considered in the context of human history, modern medicine (also known as “allopathic” medicine) represents a relatively new way of thinking about health.
“The roots of allopathic medicine came into medical dominance only recently, in the early twentieth century, and can be traced back to the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes believed that the basic principles ruling nature could be obtained by a combination of pure reason and mathematical logic. With his words Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), he introduced the concept of dualism: We sense our environment with our brains but regard it with our minds…”
While Descartes made valuable contributions to scientific thinking, it is important to keep his contributions in context and recognize their strengths and limitations.
“[Descartes’]… approach was analytic and involved breaking down a problem into its parts and arranging them logically, a technique which is still constantly at use in science. This method of operation is termed reductionism, because its basic assumption is that we can reduce a phenomenon to a collection of independent components. If we can understand each of the components taken independently, we can then understand the entire phenomenon, in a way that is similar to our understanding of the operation of a machine. Holism, the opposite of reductionism, assumes that some phenomena, if not all, can only be understood as integrated wholes, and so cannot be broken down into independent parts (Slavin 7).”
Today’s integrative approach to health is neither fully reductionistic, nor exclusively holistic, but blends the best of both worlds. The history of medicine provides an important context for understanding the holistic view of health.The history of medicine provides an important context for understanding the holistic view of health.Click To Tweet
What aspects of the history of medicine are most fascinating to you? What are some of your favorite resources for exploring the history of medicine? Please leave a comment below.
Angelo, Jack. Hands-On Healing. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1997
Last updated: 6-28-2020