of the Energetics of Western Herbs
An Interview with Jeremy Ross by Bob Quinn, May 1999
as someone who practices acupuncture and Chinese
herbal medicine, I have always been struck
by the rich theory that I have to draw upon
in building Chinese herbal formulas. I've had
a strong interest in the use of Western herbs
for quite some time as well. When I look at
the current scene in Western herbal medicine,
it seems there is not a similarly rich theory
to draw upon to inform our selection of herbs
when we are building a formula. Can you address
this issue with some historical perspective?
Jeremy Ross: You've
pinpointed the absolute basic challenge in herbal medicine:
How do you make an herb combination? What are the principles
of combination you use? It's quite true that in Chinese
herbal medicine there are precise and clear principles
as to how you combine herbs to treat a specific disease.
BUT, and this is the fascinating thing that people
don't generally know---there is a rich traditional
heritage in the West. The West has its own principles
of herb combination, but these things have been lost
over the last century or so. It's a matter of where
you want to start with this, but I would say that in
the West you could really go back to the time of the
BQ: Could you give
us a rough date on where you're starting?
JR: If you wanted
to look at that from the point of development of theories,
perhaps we could start with the development of the
theory of the four elements. This was proposed by Empedocles
who lived about 490-430 BC. He suggested that everything---
the whole universe and all the workings of nature---
is composed of four elements: earth, air, fire and
water. Now this wasn't a medical theory; it was a general
theory. It's interesting to note that it's very close
to the same time as the general theory of the Five
Elements was systematized in China by Zou Yen. He lived
about 350-270 BC. They're within a hundred years of
one another. It's important to say that the four elements
weren't seen as building blocks of some sort, like
we have tomatoes, bacon and baked beans and so on.
We're talking about principles. Here are the four principles
of transformation for the Greeks, and the five elements
were seen in a similar fashion in China.
BQ: Connect the
elements then to herbs. How did all this affect the
practice of herbal medicine?
JR: In the next progression,
the Greeks linked what they called the primary qualities
with the elements. The primary qualities are hot, cold,
moist and dry, and they are absolutely basic to the
prescription of herbal medicine. This actually goes
back to Aristotle about 384-322 BC. He linked these
primary qualities with the Four Elements.
BQ: Sounds like
JR: It sounds incredibly
like Chinese medicine. We're looking at basically the
two aspects of Yin-Yang. First of all we've got hot
and cold, which is one parameter. Then you have moist
and dry which is the second. It's difficult to know
who came first on this one but the Yin-Yang theory
in Chinese medicine goes back way before the Five Elements.
The idea in all the cultures of fire and water is absolutely
basic. What we're looking at now is how that developed
into prescription ideas.
BQ: As I'm recalling
things I've read on Greek medicine, it was also based
on four humors. Can you bring that piece in and explain
how it fits?
JR: This is also comparable
to Chinese medicine because the humors were like body
fluids or essences of the body. They're very comparable
to what you call the Substances of Chinese medicine:
Qi, Blood, Jing and Shen. You can say that the theory
of the humors developed around 460-370 BC. One of the
founding fathers of all this was Hippocrates. The general
idea at the time was that the human body was composed
of four humors: black bile, yellow bile, blood and
phlegm. What was interesting with these humors was
how they linked to the ideas of hot and cold, moist
and dry. Not only was each of the humors linked to
one of the Four Elements---for instance fire was linked
to yellow bile, and black bile was linked to earth
and so on--- each humor had two of the primary qualities.
For example, the phlegm humor was linked to the two
primary qualities of cold and moist; yellow bile was
hot and dry; blood was hot and moist; black bile was
cold and dry. These four humors were the basic essences
out of which the body was composed.
BQ: So if one humor
dominated, how did that influence what herbs were used?
Were the herbs of opposite energetics chosen to counter
JR: Because we're
in Seattle we ought to consider the example of the
humor of phlegm. The humor of phlegm is cold and moist.
Therefore the last thing such a person needs is more
foods or more herbs or more climate that are cold and
moist. That's why somebody from Seattle is going to
want to go someplace like Arizona where it is hot and
dry to balance this whenever they can. In other words,
the appropriate herb or food is going to be hot and
dry to counterbalance that moist and cold. On the other
hand, if yellow bile, which is associated with the
element of fire (hot and dry), dominated, then you'd
want food, climate and herbs---maybe even a partner---
that were cold and moist. You could advertize it in
BQ: A new sort of
JR: Yes, something
like AC-DC, cold and moist. What is fascinating though
is that this led to the idea of temperaments. So, we
basically have the concept of what the humors are,
but with the humors went the temperaments. Temperament
here doesn't necessarily just mean the emotions---but
certainly they include that. As an example, yellow
bile was associated with the choleric temperament,
and this is associated with anger. If you went into
astrology you would connect it with the planet Mars
and its fiery, angry, aggressive, assertive energy.
If you're of the phlegmatic temperament you're going
to be placid, slow, peaceful, pleasant; it's very similar
actually to the Spleen type in Chinese medicine.
BQ: Could we use
the word constitution here when we're talking about
the Greek temperaments?
JR: You could use
the word constitution. The temperament is a mix of
physical constitution and personality type. The crucial
thing for herbal medicine is that it gives an indication
of which diseases a person is likely to have, and therefore,
which herbs are likely to be good for them. So, we're
looking now at the key aspect of herbal medicine: It's
classifying not only the person and the disease into
hot and cold, moist and dry, but then you have the
corresponding classification of the herbs into these
same categories. So you're picking a hot and dry herb
to counter a cold and moist condition. You have to
classify both the diseases and the herbs. This is what
people don't realize has been done in Western herbal
medicine. Just like in Chinese medicine, we do have
these rules of classification in the Western herbal
BQ: The similarity
to Chinese medicine is striking. The idea of opposing
the disease process with the herbs---cooling herbs
used to oppose a hot condition for instance. It seems
obvious to us now that this makes sense, but really
it is not at all obvious that that is the way the system
would be set up. I could well imagine a different system,
for instance, that tried to match hot herbs with hot
JR: Yes, it is not
at all obvious. What is fascinating is that the Western
herbal classification---so far apart in space from
China, although not so far apart in time---developed
this same system of hot and cold as in China to classify
the diseases and the herbs. And also certainly in Europe
and in China to a lesser degree, moist and dry were
used to classify the diseases and the herbs.
BQ: What about the
materia medica of this traditional Western medicine?
How were they set up?
JR: Yes, let's look
at the materia medica. In ancient Greece there were
materia medica written before Dioscorides, who is the
one most frequently quoted. For example, there was
Diocles in about the 4th century BC, but only fragments
of this remain. Dioscorides is the sort of main man
in this. We're talking now about the first century
AD. He was a Greek living in the Roman Empire who served
as a doctor with the Roman army. Now the Roman army
went everywhere, and wherever it went it had to have
herbs to treat various diseases. Dioscorides recorded
all this. What's interesting is that he didn't only
record it, but he began to classify the herbs in terms
of hot-cold and moist-dry. It would be true to say
that he didn't do it in a very systematic way, but
nevertheless he did make reference to herbs that affected
the four temperaments, and it was classified in that
basic system. Another interesting thing was what occurred
in China also in the first century AD. There the Shen
nong ben cao jing, the Classic of the Materia Medica,
was written by unknown authors, and traditionally attributed
to Shen nong.
BQ: That's very
JR: Yes, they're from
the same time. What is weird in this is that you consistently
get the similar ideas or developments---the Four Elements
or the Five Elements and the main materia medica of
the Greeks and Romans and Chinese---happening either
in the same century or within one century of each other.
It's almost too much for coincidence.
BQ: Are you saying
you suspect there was something moving along trade
routes or are you saying there was something more metaphysical
JR: I would say there
are various aspects to this thing. There is the obvious
thing---the trade routes have always been the equalizer
in herbal medicine even going back to 1500 BC. Secondly,
it's very obvious there seems to be some kind of parallel
human thinking; it's partly due I think to the nature
of human beings that they will try herbs and make similar
concepts. But then there really does seem to be some
other kind of link of some sort that is difficult to
explain; I don't know if it is metaphysical or not.
How can you explain this pulse of energy in the 6th
century BC, when the philosophical breakthroughs came
in Greece and at the same time in China, and another
pulse of energy in the first century AD when the materia
medica arose in the West and in China. There seems
to be---I wouldn't necessarily call it metaphysical---some
sort of historical input or impulse of energy both
in the East and the West. So, it seems there are three
BQ: You talked about
Dioscorides' work not being particularly well organized.
The Ben Cao Jing had three classes of herbs if I recall
correctly. This would say there was not a simplistic
one-to-one correlation, so it was just a simple translation
of concepts from one language to another, but rather
a sort of a generalized move to systemization without
arriving at identical systems.
JR: I think the first
thing to note is that neither Dioscorides nor the original
version of the Ben Cao Jing had systematized to the
later degree, for example, temperature. This came somewhat
later in both cases. The systemization of diseases
with herbs in the West was done by Galen's time around
about 150-200 AD. It was done in China a little bit
later; not until about the sixth century AD did one
of the annotators and editors of the Ben Cao Jing systematically
classify in terms of temperature and taste. So in both
Chinese and Western herbal medicine it was somewhat
later that this systemized structure became prevalent.
In the West it was Galen; this was his huge contribution
and also his curse as it later turned out. He systematized
so thoroughly---diseases and herbs were classified
in terms of temperament, in terms of moist and dry,
in terms of hot and cold, organs entered and everything
you could possibly think of. Before you could use a
herb you would have to consider if it was a hot herb
for a cold condition, an herb for the phlegmatic temperament
and so on.
BQ: That sounds
a bit rigid, and it locks out any chance for an empirical
use of an herb to find its way into the system. Can
you talk a bit about where empiricism can fit into
JR: Yes. I think there
are two complementary but opposing threads in herbal
medicine---almost like Yin-Yang. One is empiricism,
and the empiricists will say:
"We don't know how it works, we
can only tell you that it does work. For instance,
use this herb for bronchitis because it works for that.
We don't know why, we don't care why, we can only tell
you that it does."
This approach could be very simple---from
a peasant or a nomad society---and it still has use
BQ: And what is
the opposing view?
JR: The opposing thing
is the logical approach that says:
"We don't really want to use herbs
unless we know why they work; we don't want to use
herbs unless we classify the diseases and the herbs
and can then make a nice match of herb and disease.
It's intellectually attractive, and if we can't do
that, it's very boorish and peasant-like."
Both approaches have application. The
disadvantage of the empirical approach is if you are
treating, let's say bronchitis, how do you treat all
the types of bronchitis with just general bronchitis
herbs. If you use a classificatory system you can say:
"This guy has a low body temperature,
he's got bronchitis with white phlegm---here is a warm
herb for cold bronchitis." This makes it more
specific and more effective. That's the great strength.
BQ: And what do
you see as the weakness of the logical approach?
JR: The great weakness
is that, unfortunately, the medical professions always
tended to have a sort of mental fossilization take
place. They've always tended to be terribly conservative
and follow the information from the classics. What
happened was that two to three centuries after Galen
was the fall of Rome. Then Europe suffered a continuous
set of invasions from barbarians --- the Goths, the
Visagoths, the Vandals, and God knows who else. It's
population actually dropped, and its economy went right
down. The only people who were literate were those
in the church, and at that time the church was so concerned
with keeping things stable, they had a very rigid mental
approach---and they were the only seat of learning.
And so you get the incredible situation where somebody,
a young novice, goes to the abbot and says:
"Quick, quick, Father Abbot, out
there we have sun spots, black spots on the sun." And
the abbot doesn't even bother to look up from his great
big ledger and says:
"My dear child, I have read all
of Aristotle and nowhere does Aristotle mention sunspots.
Please go and change your glasses."
It was a rigid tradition. They implicitly
believed Aristotle. The medical fraternity implicitly
believed Galen. And for all those 15 centuries after
his death he ossified Western herbal medicine which
was probably not his intention, but it happened because
of what was happening at the time. So it was only when
we start to get people who really wanted to simplify
things, like Culpeper, that we start to break out of
BQ: Yes. You talk
about 15 centuries roughly. That is a very long time
in human history. It brings us forward quite a bit,
and now we have arrived at Nicholas Culpeper. Can you
tell me how he saw herbal medicine? Was it strictly
along the lines of Galen? Or if he broke away from
galenic medicine, in what way did he do that and what
did he retain?
JR: Well, I think
the thing to remember about this huge 15-century gap
is that each of the different European countries had
its own Culpeper, so to speak, in its own language.
England had no monopoly on herbal medicine. The contribution
of Culpeper was great because he combined at least
five different things. First, he simplified the incredibly
complicated medicine of the day. He translated it from
Latin into English so ordinary people could read and
BQ: A very political
JR: It was a very
political move. He also wanted to get cheap medicine
to ordinary people, which meant that he broke away
from the complex formulas that the West had inherited
from the Arabs. The Arabs had followed Galenic medicine
and embroidered it with a huge pharmacy from all over
the world. Culpeper broke away from that. He said:
"If we have to have elephant's tusk and Arabian
pearl and Chinese muskrat or whatever it is---this
is lunacy; it will cost a fortune, it's too complicated.
We can grow herbs right here in London in our own backyards."
BQ: Again, that
sounds political to me.
JR: Yes. Basically
he's saying: Remove the mystery, remove the complexity,
take it out of the hands of a privileged few, make
it cheap and available to the ordinary person and understandable
by the ordinary person. It was a revolutionary step
in that direction.
Third, despite the fact that he was
interested in simplifying and popularizing herbal medicine,
he was in fact the one to translate Galen's principles
into English. In one edition of his book, which is
still widely available, it gives his translation of
the Galenic principles.
His fourth contribution was that he
was a very clear and vivid writer. His book is still
one of the most clinically useful texts to this day
because he was such a practical man.
The last important contribution was
an odd one---and that's why many of the medical herbalists,
naturopaths and medical people shy away from Culpeper
to this day--- he was also an astrologer. This presents
a difficulty for people who are trying to make herbs
scientific because they think: "Oh my God we can't
talk about this." But what's actually extremely
useful is that his astrological descriptions actually
give the energetic characteristic of the herbs, and
you don't need to understand much about astrology to
For example, Culpeper says that rosemary
is ruled by the sun. Being ruled by the sun means two
things: First of all, it means the herb warms you,
and secondly, it means it has an expansive or centrifugal,
outward moving energy that will break through blocks,
that will open the stuck and the contracted. This concept
is very useful because there are similar concepts in
Chinese herbal medicine: Herbs that have an upward
direction, a downward direction, an outward or centrifugal
direction, an inward or centripetal direction. To take
it a bit further, herbs ruled by Jupiter would not
necessarily be warming like the sun, but they'd certainly
have an expanding outward direction.
BQ: Because it rules
JR: Yes. The opposing
principle would be Saturn. Saturn was seen in Greek
mythology to be the planet associated with contraction,
rest and the inward or centripetal flow. You would
give herbs governed by Saturn to people ruled by Jupiter
and vice versa.
BQ: So Saturn and
Jupiter are a Yin-Yang pair?
JR: Yes. They are
a Yin and Yang pair, and the sun and moon are a Yin
and Yang pair. The sun is warming and drying, the moon
moistening and cooling. And Venus is the opposite of
Mars. So we have this series of complementary opposites
which give a fascinating insight into the direction
of the herbs.
If we take it into modern biochemistry,
going back to the original example of rosemary, two
of the important constituents of rosemary are the monoterpene
aromatic oils borneol and camphor. These have a stimulating
and warming, outward moving effect. They're partly
responsible for rosemary's circulatory stimulant, antidepressant
and warming action. So we have a link between Culpeper's
Western astrology, the Chinese concept of the direction
of the energy of the herb and modern phytopharmacy.
Culpeper is fascinating, but I think his greatest contribution
is above all his vivid writing. He reached people then
BQ: Let me jump
now to North America, because it seems with Culpeper
we have now reached the time when North America was
first settled by Europeans. Tell me something about
the herbal traditions of North America and how they
fit into this story.
JR: The Mayflower
landed in 1620. Culpeper's book was written in 1651
so it wouldn't have been available then, but I think
John Gerard's book was published in 1597, although
it was rather large to take on the Mayflower. There
would have been other herbals available at the time
in England, and those coming from Germany would have
had access to various materia medica. Some of these
would have included detail of Galenic principles and
some would have been simple herbal texts for the ordinary
person that would have just listed what herbs do.
It is fascinating to see the influence
of Culpeper on the classic naturopathic books of America,
such as Jethro Kloss' Back to Eden, written in 1939.
If you look at the example of rosemary, you'll see
a whole list of indications that are actually from
Culpeper. Another example is juniper. Culpeper recommends
it for cough, shortness of breath, consumption, pains
in the belly, cramps and convulsions. And so does Jethro
Kloss, using almost identical phrasing. I'm not saying
that he copied him. He may have had this from a series
of people who copied each other. What is fascinating
is that this heritage of Culpeper, which he was taking
from Dioscorides' materia medica and Pliny's materia
medica---again going back to the first century AD---were
transmitted from Culpeper to the basic texts in the
Again, if you look at John Christopher's
writing and the wording of his entries for different
herbs, you'll often find they again parallel those
of Culpeper. For example, he recommends juniper to
strengthen the brain, the memory and the optic nerve.
This is wording straight out of Culpeper. So somehow
this European heritage going back all the way to the
Roman and Greek times is being transmitted from Culpeper
and similar herbals into the basic American textbooks.
I really don't think many Americans are aware of their
links to Greek herbal medicine.
BQ: On this continent,
there was also the Native American tradition that the
pioneers and settlers were encountering. They had their
own approach and uses of plants, and they had some
unique plants here not listed in any European herbal.
What happened as these herbs came into use by the settlers
and pioneers and could you maybe discuss a few of those
JR: Yes, I think the
American continent made an enormous contribution with
first of all the herbs that grow here and then the
wisdom of the Native Americans in how to use them.
There is quite a long list of herbs. You could take
the absolute classics like lobelia and goldenseal,
but you also have black cohosh, blue cohosh, squaw
vine, Culver's root and so on. The pioneers, when they
came from Europe would find herbs that didn't grow
in their places of origin. They got from the Native
Americans herbs that were extremely effective, and
they incorporated these into the materia medica and
into the traditions.
One of the famous herbalists was Samuel
Thomson who lived 1789-1843. He was a mischievous soul
who loved to experiment when he was young by slipping
large amounts of lobelia into the food and drink of
friends just to see how long and how much they'd vomit.
I'm sure, even if not directly, that Thomson got that
information from Native Americans. But what is interesting
is not just the widening of the materia medica to include
the North American herbs, but also the theory of Physiomedicalism,
of which Thomson was one of the originators.
It was a very basic concept, but very
important nonetheless. It included not only a crude
concept of Yin-Yang-- for instance, he used capsicum
to stimulate and lobelia to relax---but also a concept
of Qi. This is something that later in the history
of herbal medicine got rather lost. The Physiomedicalists
called their approach vitalism, and they said the most
important thing in the human body was the vital force
or energy. In their view the most important thing in
treating disease was to restore the vital force or
energy. One aspect of this vital force was heat and
when people were ill, it was thought to be mainly due
to cold. This was Thomson---which is a very interesting
comparison with the Shang han za bing lun written in
China about 200 AD.
BQ: That's quite
a separation in time..
JR: Yes, way before
but now they are coming back to this concept that the
main cause of disease is cold. Therefore the main and
key principle of treatment is to warm, so that the
vital energy of the body is increased and will then
be able to fix the problem itself. Others tried to
develop the somewhat simple ideas of Thomson, like
Beech and Cook and Lyle and Thurston, but Physiomedicalism
unfortunately died out before the theory was fully
The later Eclectic movement was more
academic, and was concerned in looking at herbs in
much greater detail---in testing them, in proving them,
in looking at each facet of their different actions,
to build up an enormous body of knowledge. King's Dispensatory
by Felter and Lloyd would be an absolutely characteristic
example. This is the great contribution of the Eclectics,
not so much in working out a new theory of herb combination,
but with the extreme thoroughness with which they approached
the materia medica. What in the end killed the Eclectic
and Physiomedical movements was the strengthening development
of modern Western pharmacy and Western medicine.
BQ: Germ theory.
JR: Germ theory, and
a moving away from the theory of vitalism. People started
to see illness as created by alien creatures called
germs that must be destroyed. We are no longer talking
in terms of the ancient Greeks or in terms of Thomson
of increasing the vital force. So we're looking at
the concept, sadly, of alienation. In comes the concept
of alienation and the separation of the person from
themselves. So the disease then becomes the germ, which
is separate and is treated by medicine that kills the
germ, and not by increasing the vital forces. It was
a loss of the understanding of the theory of vitalism,
which is again a lot like that of Qi in Chinese medicine.
The theories of Qi and the vital force link people
to their environment, to other people and to themselves.
Once that was lost the whole thing fell into what we've
BQ: We've been talking
about North America. I'd like to backtrack a bit and
ask if the new American herbs found their way back
JR: Absolutely. I
think one particularly fascinating thing was the exchange
back and forth across the Atlantic. What was coming
from Europe in the 17th century over to America were
the European herbals and at some stage the information
from Culpeper, which got incorporated into the Physiomedical
texts. What then happened was in the heyday of the
Physiomedicalists and Eclectics some of them went over
to lecture in England. One of the famous was a man
with the name of Dr. Coffin who went to live in England.
I guess you'd call him a Physiomedicalist---not terribly
academic---but he was bringing concepts of the new
materia medica available in America to the herbalists
especially in the North of England who accepted it
with great interest. Later came Wooster Beech. So there
were both the concepts of the Physiomedicalists and
the concepts of the Eclectics.
BQ: Wooster Beech
being the Eclectic.
JR: Wooster Beech
is sometimes listed as a Physiomedicalist, but he was
actually the president of the Eclectic Association.
He was on the boundary of the two movements. What then
happened was you got the Eclectic and Physiomedicalist
concepts and the knowledge of the Native American herbs
and their tradition were transferred over to England.
The English herbalists incorporated
these concepts and this information on herbs from the
Americans into their own corpus of information. This
is why, if you look at that certificate over there
on my wall, it's absolutely fascinating. The National
Institute of Herbalists was founded in England in,
I think, 1864, and if you look at the coat of arms
you can see on the left you've got an ancient Egyptian
medical professional and on the right you've got a
Native American medicine man. These are the two integrated
aspects of that British National Institute. This was
unique to England because you don't find knowledge
of Lobelia or Caulophyllum or Cimicifuga in Germany
or France. There was a special exchange probably on
the basis of language. Actually Coffin went to France
and didn't get a good acceptance there, and he quickly
went to England. What is happening now in recent years
is the reverse---people from the British National Institute
are coming to lecture in America.
BQ: Bringing the
JR: Right. Bringing
it back. And sometimes the English surprise the Americans
by talking about things like Culver's root which many
of them have forgotten about because it's fresher in
the English minds because their training was in that
old physiomedical and native American stuff. Weird.
It's just weird cross currents.
BQ: The Institute
helped, it sounds like, to keep things alive through
this century in a different way than here where we
had an incredible dry period. It's probably where Dr.
Christopher served his greatest purpose along with
a few others. It seems like there were very few in
this country who just barely managed to keep things
going in terms of herbal medicine. Was it the same
JR: Yes, exactly the
same thing was happening in England. It was the dawn
of modern pharmacy and modern Western medicine. And
also the increasing tendency toward mechanistic thinking,
viewing man, society and even the environment as a
big machine. It causes a kind of alienation. And the
big thing that got lost was the concept of vitalistic
theory, as it was called in the West, and in the East
it was called Qi. In these concepts everything is linked
What happened I think with the National
Institute, was that the old principles of herb combination
tended to get played down because they were very much
trying to impress and be a part of the modern medical
and modern scientific world. So they tended to go down
the route of:
"We do our diagnosis by Western
medicine and we do our treatment in terms of what we
know of phytopharmacy." Unfortunately in doing
that what tended to happen was the loss of the contact
with the vitalistic theory on the one hand, and, on
the other hand, the loss of the contact with the Galenic
principles---hot and cold, moist and dry and so on.
BQ: What do you
think turned things around?
JR: The big boost
came when people in Europe started to get interested
in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine about thirty
years ago. It became apparent that Chinese herbalists
were making choices of which herbs to use, that were
not based on Western medicine. They did not do their
diagnosis based on Western medicine, and their herbs
are not classified in terms of biochemistry. In fact,
their herbs are classified in terms of hot-cold, organs
entered and so on---and so are the diseases. Thus you
can match the herb to the disease. There's no need
for the Western medicine in the diagnosis, and they're
not using phytopharmacy in the classification of herbs.
BQ: So, you seem
to feel that the introduction of Chinese herbal medicine
into the West has had an impact on the Western herbalists.
JR: Yes, very definitely.
What people began to think was that if we can do this
with Chinese herbs, why can't we do this with Western
herbs? And in fact maybe this classification already
exists? Suddenly these people start noticing that Empedocles
had a four element classification, and that Aristotle
was classifying in terms of hot and cold parameters,
moist and dry---like Yin-Yang.
Then they noticed that Hippocrates,
the father of Western medicine, was classifying people
in terms of the four humors---the body is made up of
four humors. Following from that, you get the four
temperaments. Then they noticed that Galen classified
diseases and herbs in terms of the four temperaments,
the four humors, the four elements, according to different
parts of the body, according to different actions,
according to hot-cold, moist-dry and, more than that,
he was classifying into 9 grades or degrees of temperature.
There was hot and cold in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th
degrees and temperate. It was very sophisticated.
And this lasted for centuries. But
then with the dawn of modern medicine, and a whole
pile of other reasons, it tended to get lost. We rediscovered
it I think mainly through the impetus of Chinese medicine.
So now we have a situation where we have three parallel
traditions. One of those traditions is the Chinese,
the other is the Western herbal energetics tradition,
which is staggeringly similar to the Chinese, and thirdly
we got the equally valuable Western biochemical and
phytopharmacological tradition. I think the challenge
now is to integrate those three together into a coherent
BQ: So we're arriving
now at a positive use of the science which we had discussed
before as having created a problem by disrupting the
flow of an energetic understanding. Now science is
here and you're talking about it as being able to inform
in a positive way our practice of herbal medicine.
Clarify that for me.
JR: Yes. I used to
be a research scientist in plant physiology, and while
I did the research, I became fascinated by the unity
I was seeing throughout biology. I was really interested
in seeing unifying theories developing in biology.
There is no paradox in using scientific material, providing
you use it in a flexible way. To believe in science
doesn't mean you can't believe in Qi. To believe in
science doesn't mean you can't believe in metaphysics.
They're not mutually exclusive.
The challenge for science is to use
this integrative approach within modern medicine. The
integrative approach is already in modern physics.
You can read Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. It's
already in mathematics. It's actually already in biology.
It's certainly in ecology. The usually conservative,
resistant, backward field---sorry to say this---has
been medicine. Medicine tends to follow the rules laid
down hundreds of years ago. Since the time when Aristotle's
word became law and Galen's word became law, medics
have always acted that way. What we have now is where
the integrative ideas of modern physics, the integrative
ideas of modern ecology, and the integrative ideas
of Qi theory, or in Western terms vitalistic theory,
are now slowly entering modern medicine so that it
begins to take in these philosophies.
It is no longer quite so separatist
and alienating. It's no longer wholly patient versus
bugs. You know, "Kill the bugs!" like aliens
in sci-fi movies. Medicine is slowly beginning to understand
it is from within the patient himself that the disease
originates. Yes, there are external environmental factors,
but until you support the vital energy, the Qi, and
reduce your concepts about killing the bugs- no matter
what the cost to the patient's constitution- medicine
won't change. But it is changing, and I think one of
the important contributions of Chinese medicine is
to bring this to the knowledge of Western doctors,
who strangely will accept this coming from Chinese
medicine, but they won't accept this coming from their
own Western heritage. Their own heritage comes from
Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen, but they'll only
accept it if it's from China!
BQ: Yes. That's
an interesting point. For the medical doctors, Greek
notions of humors are seen as archaic and embarrassing
to accept as their roots. They even take a Hippocratic
oath, but what Hippocrates said was embarrassing.
JR: It's like the
classic phrase in the Bible that a prophet is not known
in his own land. So I think that strangely Chinese
medicine has been some kind of Trojan horse through
which the ancient Western traditions are coming back
into medicine, slowly to be integrated not only into
herbalism but also into their own Western medicine
which was founded on these philosophies in the beginning.
It's very, very interesting.
BQ: Another thing
that strikes me is that you talk about the impetus
for this integration coming from Chinese medicine.
But something else about Chinese medicine is different
from our history. The Yin-Yang theory was not supplanted
when Five Elements arrived or Six Stages or San Jiao
JR: Yes, absolutely
BQ: All these theories
found a way to coexist. You can think one way for one
patient and another way for the next patient. But science
had to knock out the herbal medicine of the day. We
were different here in the West. But now it seems like
that is a lesson---you're talking now about the integrative
movement that is going on now and it seems like we're
learning something from the Chinese about avoiding
JR: I think there
are two things here. First, exactly what you say is
true, and secondly, there's something else coming from
this. Whereas the Chinese can use Six Stages, or Five
Elements or Extra Meridians as alternatives, maybe
we can go a step further. If we can make---and this
is a very Western concept---a unified field theory
of medicine, these alternative concepts can actually
be integrated together. This is for the future. But
my feeling is I always wanted to do this. I always
wanted to see the unity in this, bring it forward,
and in a flexible but empirical way, try to make some
kind of unified theory.
I don't think there is anything wrong
with this. We can keep a sort of balance between what
you're saying which is we choose this theory this time
and the next time another, and we can also try and
see if we can integrate the modern biochemistry with
the Chinese energetics and the Western herbal energetics.
I think this can be done in a new flexible way. And
I think this is absolutely fascinating for the future.
BQ: Thanks, Jeremy.
JR: You're welcome.