A History of Health

 We have always strived to understand what causes problems in our bodies and what we need to do to preserve our health. Humanity’s position also has changed: from a person passive before threats to an active person who controls their health.

Health as holiness and cleanliness. Since ancient times, people have tried to expel illness from the body through different methods: through practices of exorcising spirits or demons, atoning for sins, and “unclean” actions. Illness was considered an evil spirit or a divine punishment for breaching specific rules. Such a perception of diseases has deep evolutionary roots.

For early mammals, their sense of smell played an essential role in survival: they learned to find and assess their food by smell. If something smelled bad, it had to be avoided. Good smells caused positive emotions, while bad, dirty, and dangerous ones caused negative emotions. It so happens that our higher nerve centers formed in place of ancient centers dedicated to the sense of smell.

For higher primates, including humans, the sense of smell does not play such an important role. However, the brain still perceives the environment through the prism of smells. When we recognize smells, we identify “good” and “bad” things. We also discuss and assess things and people as if we want to eat them. Listen to yourself when you talk about something “bad”: it’s dirty, unclean, nauseating, etc. It causes aversion, desire to avoid it. However, we talk entirely differently about “good” people or things: they are clean, fresh, juicy, tasty. It makes you want to own it. The emotional assessment of “clean” and “dirty” is also built into our sense of self. It is called psychological pollution when we feel dirty, unclean, or bad-smelling.

Psychological pollution can be a result of trauma or stress, a symptom of depression or low self-esteem, or emerge as a consequence of criticism, humiliation, or betrayal. The source of this feeling is our own actions or the actions of others, not some “real” pollution. You can feel dirty even after shallow contact with an unpleasant person. You will want to wash your hands and bathe to ease the feeling of guilt or aversion. By the way, do you feel better after showering?

A typical example, in this case, is Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, who, during Christ’s trial, performed traditional Jewish ritual handwashing as a sign of noninvolvement with the murder. The development of drama in Ancient Greece is connected to the cleansing of another kind: dances, music, and songs served as medicines for the soul, helping to achieve catharsis, or purification from anxiety, confusion, and unrestrained passions to return self-control.

The feeling of “dirtiness” is emotionally unpleasant, and, of course, anyone wants to get rid of it. Religions and spiritual practices used cleansing symbolism in their rituals. The bloodletting of “rotten” or “excessive” blood was a popular method that cost the lives of a large number of people, and just as many diseases were treated with colonic irrigation. Now, the concept has changed: people wash away slags instead of sins and are tormented by aliens or parasites instead of demons.

Various detoxes offer to clean one’s bowels, liver, blood, etc. Of course, the body of a healthy person is perfectly capable of removing metabolic waste products, while real intoxication or kidney diseases require specialized treatment methods. We perceive health as cleanliness, whether physical or emotional.

Health as a balance. Ancient Greek philosopher and doctor Alcmaeon of Croton thought that “health is a harmonious mix of opposite qualities.” The idea of health as a balance of elements in the organism is popular both in the West and in the East: the balance of “five elements,” “yin and yang,” “fluids,” “dosha,” “prima materia,” “juices” — these notions were similar in different cultures. Each school assessed and offered to correct imbalances in its own way.

For example, the aforementioned bloodletting was also used to relieve the body from excessive “fire,” where blood was let during fevers for “cooling.” This procedure noticeably reduced the chances of survival. The personal doctor of U.S. president George Washington prescribed bloodletting for practically each of his diseases; the attempt to treat pneumonia this way had possibly led to the politician’s death. However, a blood donation is actually beneficial for many people, and if a person’s organism has excess iron, it is even necessary. Later, the idea of balance rekindled the understanding of health as an “accord of soul and body,” the equilibrium between an individual and their environment.

Health as salvation. A number of philosophical and religious doctrines have stated that most of the suffering in human life is caused by ignorance and the inability to handle life challenges. Physical and psychological health was perceived as a derivative of mental effort and considered a result of self-development.

From the perspective of stoics, the key to everything is knowledge of “logos,” the search for reason, while evil is a result of ignorance. Practicing stoicism entailed self-discipline and life according to the laws of nature. “Living in accordance with nature” is important not only in adherence to physical laws but also to the laws of thinking. In Buddhism, life trials and desires lead to suffering, and illness is one of the earthly sufferings that cannot be avoided completely. Moderation, self-discipline, and freedom from passions help to alleviate suffering.

A critical detail: mental discipline is possible in Buddhism only by adhering to strict lifestyle rules that include diet, moderation, meditation, minimalism, humanity, compassion, and avoidance of addictions. From a Buddhist perspective, escaping illness is good, but it would be perfect if other people also learned to escape from suffering and diseases.

Questions and Assignments

1. To feel better, you often need just to clean all the waste from your house, phone, and head, clean everything, bathe yourself, and dress in clean and beautiful clothing. Hygiene — mental, social, physical — is a foundation of health, so let your cleansing reflex take care of you.

2. What throws you off-balance? Which of your features or passions do you consider unbalanced? How can you balance them?

3. Do you agree that “ignorance is the root of all evil”? Do you know enough about your mind and body?

5. The Antique Concept of Personal Health, or “How to Diet”

In my bookcase, books of certain antique authors take the place of honor. Their ideas are still relevant today, their jokes are still funny, and their problems make you think. Antiquity has become an example for all future eras, forming an ideal of a person — beautiful in mind and body, a citizen, a warrior who takes responsibility before themselves and the people. For Greeks, health was not a tiring obligation but an indispensable part of self-development and self-knowledge. So, in addition to the flourishing arts and emerging science and philosophy, a new understanding of personal health arose.

Naturalness of health. The naturalness of health is following your own nature and the nature of things. It was no accident that the pediment of the ancient Greek temple of Apollo in Delphi had the inscription, “Know thyself.” Naturalness included harmony and proportionality of body and mind, the balance of powers that act in the organism, and also a harmonic relationship with the environment. Following your nature and being in accordance with all that surrounds you was considered important.

Intelligence of health. Intelligence is the key aspect of achieving health: to support it, a person has to make rational decisions, be reasonable, and control desires. An important component is what we today call stress-resilience — “staunchly enduring hardships and disasters,” and autonomy — “not relying on fortune and outside influences.” Stoics had stated that, even in unfavorable circumstances, a person could be healthy because they are free to choose their lifestyle. For this, they need to reconcile their decisions with their specific features and preferences and live in agreement with nature using their common sense.

Self-acceptance. Addressing yourself is a condition for a healthy and full existence. The energy for self-development should be found inside, which requires self-respect and adequate self-esteem. The ability to see your own strengths and weaknesses is an important sign of health.

Harmony with the world. The inner structure of a healthy person is similar in constitution to the perfect structure of the universe and presents an embodiment of the “Universal Higher Order.” A healthy person should not oppose their own nature, and since this nature is similar to the nature of the universe, a healthy person should not have implacable confrontational relationships with the world.

Personal responsibility for health. The philosopher Democritus noted that “men in their prayers beg the gods for health, not knowing that this is a thing they have in their own power.” It was in antiquity that the idea of personal responsibility for one’s health formed. Work and training of body and mind were required to achieve it. Only then could you talk about a truly healthy person?

Ancient Greek diet. The word “diet” in recent years has been painted in a somewhat negative light, linked to eating disorders, openly unscientific and harmful trends, and multiple headlines in media. That’s why we often perceive the term “diet” as something short-term and unhealthy, characteristic of people with compulsive behavior. However, for almost three thousand years, diet (Greek: δίαιτα) meant “way of life, lifestyle, routine,” meaning the lifestyle of a patient that leads to their recovery. Ancient Greek science about changing one’s lifestyle was called “dietetic.” That is the origin of the modern diet.

The philosophers of medicine of the Greek city-states thought that their appearance should embody their values. That’s why they monitored their nutrition, engaged in sports, and practiced moderation. Athlete Iccus of Tarentum received an Olympic wreath in the pentathlon in 444 BCE, and after his victory, he gained fame as the best athletic instructor and the “father of the sport dietetic.” When preparing for competition, he practiced sexual abstinence and strict eating moderation: the term “Iccus’s dinner,” apparently, meant an empty plate.

In those times, amid the cult of sports and healthy bodies, overweight people had it hard. For example, the ruler of Heracleia, Dionysus (4th century BCE), was so ashamed of his obesity that he received others while sitting in a barrel (not to be confused with Diogenes!), from which only his head was sticking out. Sparta did not have fat people at all: overweight men were whipped and exiled from the city. Eating alone and overindulging was challenging due to the rule of public meals (syssitia), where whole crowds gathered.

The later word “diaeta” (“diet” in Latin) began to be interpreted in a wider sense — as moderation in everything. For example, the medieval treatise Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (14th century A.D.) states: “A proper diet is one of the foremost goals of medicine. Attend to your diet, otherwise you foolishly direct your efforts and take care of yourself badly. What kind? When? How much? How often? Where should it be given? These things a doctor should quickly take note of while prescribing a diet.”

Questions and Assignments

1. Do you know yourself well? Interview five of your different friends, and ask them to describe you. Does it correspond with your personal feelings?

2. Who is responsible for your health? Who is to blame for your health problems: bad genetics, oppressive government, negligent parents, damaged ecology? Do you passively accept everything as it is, or do you make a conscious choice about your health?

3. Do you accept your weaknesses? By rejecting our special features, we also ignore the opportunities for change. Accept yourself, as you don’t have another self. How can you turn your weaknesses into strengths?