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Galenic Medicine Essay

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To what extent was Galenic Medicine a part of the broader Aristotelian World View?

In this essay I will strive to show the extent upon which Galenic medicine was incorporated in to the predominantly Aristotelian world view, concluding that Aristotelian philosophies underpinned the majority of Galenic theories and concepts. To achieve this I will primarily demonstrate the perceived link between medicine and natural philosophy that existed at the time. I will continue with a description of the Aristotelian Form, Matter and Substance theories, which formed the basis for the Aristotelian world view. After considering the concepts that formed the Aristotelian philosophy, form, matter and substance, I will take a closer look at the Galenic theories. I aim to display how these Galenic principles relied on Aristotelian concepts and further how they were integrated into the broader world view. There was integration between medicine and natural philosophy from the earliest history of Greek science.[1] It was important for all medical students to study natural philosophy, as ‘logic provided the would-be-medical student with the major tool of medical scientific enquiry.’[2] From Hippocrates the term ‘Philosophical Physician’ developed and Galen suggested that ‘the best physician is also a philosopher’[3]. Physicians had to advise patients on how to live in harmony with nature. This was key to health, as both body and nature sought to balance together. The job of physicians within the Renaissance was as much to maintain the health of a patient in order to prevent illness, as it was to treat disease. This maintenance of health was achieved through regulations in diet, exercise, rest, balanced environmental conditions and the patients overall physiological well being.[4]

This idea of balancing the body originally came from Hippocrates, who believed that everything could be cured by the application of reasoned remedies, drugs, surgery or dietary regulation. This balance between health and illness was predominantly between the two humours of bile and phlegm. The balance was believed to be achieved in one of two ways; either there was a flux that had to stay within a certain region to maintain health, almost like scales, if it tipped then the patient would become ill. Or, the body remained balanced until an internal or external factor changed this.[5] Galen refined this theory, believing that all disease was the result of irregular or unbalanced humours. It was from these ideas and the philosophical concepts of both Aristotle and Plato that Galenic Medicine originated. Aristotelian philosophy had its roots in logical and reasoned thinking and formed the dominant knowledge of the Renaissance. Galenic medicine was reliant on the Aristotelian concepts of form, matter and substance, which were adapted from Plato, and formed the structural frame for the Aristotelian worldview. ‘Substance’ was the composite of form and matter; it was the identification of whether something was truly real or had ultimate existence. Individual objects could be considered as truly real according to Aristotle, as they all represent ‘substance’. A grammatical definition would be that ‘substance’ was that which could serve as the subject, but never as a predicate, thus a table is truly real.[6] An alternative meaning for ‘substance’ concerned descriptions of reality. In Aristotelian philosophy, objects have various properties, those that are ‘essential’ and those that are ‘accidental’. The universal essence or the ‘substance’ of all tables is ‘tableness’, the property of the table being in the kitchen is ‘accidental’, as if the table were moved it would no longer be a property. The ‘substance’ or ‘essence’ of a table is something that the table maintains consistently and without exception. ‘Accidental’ properties then refer to the quantity, quality or place of an object, without affecting its essence. ‘Substantial Form’, defined the characteristics of a thing which makes it what it is.[7]

The ‘Form’ of an object was due to the qualities it held, which were responsible for its appearance and specificity. The ‘form’ carries or provides qualities and bestowed them on objects to make them what they were. Certain forms were subordinate to others and this created a hierarchy of forms which resulted in a controlling or a noble form.[8]

Matter is the thing which takes on form. All change in the universe is the result of opposition between contraries, in this case between the three primary principles of, ‘privation, form and matter’. The theme of opposition between contraries ran through many Aristotelian theories, such as the primary qualities. Matter lacked form and was suitable to receiving all forms. Privation was simply the absence of form and the potentiality of acquiring new form.[9] Through this process of privation, form and matter, elements had the ability to transform in to each other, within Aristotle’s elemental matter theory.

Form and matter cannot exist separately, although in thought they can be considered as two separate things. The function of form was to, ‘inform matter and determine a particular kind, giving specificity and distinction from other kinds; and finally to furnish and bring about all activities.’[10] Matter, form and substance are exemplified in the Aristotelian theory of elements, which was the basis of the Galenic humoral theory.

Aristotle believed all bodies and objects in the sub-lunar world, or the world beneath the moon, were made up of fo...

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