The Hippocratic “Crisis”

Another important concept in Hippocratic medicine was that of a crisis, a point in the progression of disease at which either the illness would begin to triumph and the patient would succumb to death, or the opposite would occur and natural processes would make the patient recover.

From the entry “Hippocrates”, Wikipedia

It is apparently the case that the term “crisis” originates with Hippocrates, indicating a crucial turning point in the progression of a disease. That appears to be corroborated by the etymology of the Greek “krisis” (from the verb krinein meaning to sieve, discern, distinguish, separate, also related to crux, crucial, perhaps even Christ and chrysalis through the Indo-European prefix “*krei, signifying “to cut”, “to separate”, “to choose”, “to judge”, and thus also to the idea of de-cision as a “cutting away”. The decisive moment is not only saying our “yes” to one path, but also to cut away another. It’s interesting, though, that this idea of crisis as the decisive moment, the crucial moment, originates in medicine, and with the issues of disease and recuperation or convalescence from disease. The Hippocratic “crisis” is very akin to the Heraclitean notion of enantiodromia, or the point of reversal of a dynamic at the extremity of an action.

Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” (460 – 370 BC) may have been, in fact, influenced by Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC), since there are references to Heraclitus in the Hippocratic Corpus. The authorship of some of the medical treatises in the Hippocratic Corpus, however, is questionable, as some may have been written by subsequent followers of Hippocrates rather than Hippocrates himself. In any event, the Hippocratic “crisis” has a notable affinity with Heraclitus’ philosophy of enantiodromia.

Hippocrates also has a quadrilateral or fourfold conception of the human form, expressed in terms of the four “humours” and preserving the proper balance or equilibrium between them, an early conception of the principle of homeostasis

The therapeutic approach was based on “the healing power of nature” (“vis medicatrix naturae” in Latin). According to this doctrine, the body contains within itself the power to re-balance the four humours and heal itself (physis)

The “humours” are, of course, those elements or factors we associate today with respiratory, circulatory, nervous, and metabolic processes of the body.

The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health. Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed. Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess, or is separated in the body and not mixed with others.

Entry under “Humorism”, Wikipedia

Disease, in these terms, is a deficiency of the relative equilibrium of these four, while recovery and recuperation is the restoration of a relative equilibrium between the four. The Hippocratic crisis is, then the turning point between complete disintegration or a natural reintegration of the four “humours”. This is interesting because it is pretty much how Blake describes the relations between his “four Zoas” of “Albion divided fourfold”.

Here, again, the image that leaps to mind in Hippocrates’ depiction of the human form is a mandala. Moreover, the Hippocratic sense of “crisis” or the crucial pretty much informs Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy and quadrilateral logic as well, as rendered in his symbol of “the cross of reality”, where social crisis is also the loss of dynamic equilibrium between the four directions of the cross, represented by subjective and objective of the spaces inner and outer, and the trajective, and prejective states of time as past and future.

The Hippocratic method is less, then, about fighting the disease than strengthening the natural processes leading to convalescence, an idea that has resumed in Nietzsche, for example, also very influenced by Heraclitus. Even today, death is technically defined as “homeostatic failure” — the disintegration of the main bodily functions, a loss of relative equilibrium. This is also the danger that Blake ascribes to “Single Vision” or what Gebser calls “the one-sided attitude”.

Until recently, I knew of not direct or subtle connection between Hippocrates and Heraclitus. This is intriguing, given that Nietzsche seems to have been very indebted to both. His notions of crisis, of sickness and health (and perhaps even “will to power”) are very Hippocratic, and definitely Heraclitean.

You might think that this isn’t all that relevant for today’s crises. But this continuing influence of the past upon the present matters very much, especially for the prospects of integral consciousness, for the recovery of historical memory, especially in terms of deep time, presents a major problem for integration of time into consciousness. One sees, for example, the continuing reluctance, even denial and refusal, of Christian fundamentalists to acknowledge the reality of deep time. As noted in earlier posts: the more we delve into the deep past and uncover its secrets, the more also we reanimate those ancient legacy ways of consciousness and perception still resident within us as our human evolutionary heritage. This creates of problem of integration of such knowledge with our present consciousness structure, and this is what Gebser and Blake are all about. That is, what we think of as the remote and ancient past becomes once again presence. This is what Gebser calls the process of “presentiation” or concretion of all that remains “latent” within us still, and it is a form of a renaissance, and even an apocalyptic one.

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3 responses to “The Hippocratic “Crisis””

  1. Steve says :

    Orange man bad, orange man bad! Fair play to the Guardian for reporting on this. These hypocrites should be strung up and beaten.

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