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Avicenna, the father of modern medicine

The philosopher Avicenna, also known as Ali Sina, was born in 980 in a town of the Persian empire, Bukhara, present-day Uzbekistan. His legendary story tells us that he knew poetry, music and natural sciences since his adolescence; he was skilled in arithmetic and had learned the Koran by heart at an early age. In fact, Avicenna has been recognized as the most complete and versatile mind of the Islamic tradition.

Avicenna’s hermeneutic of Aristotle’s metaphysics was elaborated thanks to Al-Farabi, an ancient Persian philosopher, who combined a synthesis between Aristotelian and Platonic thought.

The works of Avicenna that most influenced the West are “The healing”, a science summa, and “The canon of medicine“, and both have been textbooks for Arab medicine for centuries. The “Canon” made Avicenna “the father of modern medicine”: its principles are still taught in different universities around the world.

In medicine, Avicenna conceives health and disease as a loss. Among the causes of health and illness there are both “material causes” and the subject’s “temperament” and the “vital and psychic faculty”. Avicenna observed the close relationship between emotions and health, stating that music had important effects on patients. In his view, illness is not the appearance of a symptom but the alteration of a state of intimate and global well-being .

This conception has guided the most recent neurological findings, and is now proved by the most modern brain studies. Avicenna’s contribution and philosophical influence was handed down over the centuries. Through the work of Plotinus, Avicenna succeeded in granting instances of the Koran and logic of Greek philosophy. And it wasn’t an easy mission.

Both islamic and biblical God created man and nature by intentional act and are described as omnipotent: good and evil depend on Him. But plotinian God overflowes with ontological fullness and abundance springs out  until earthly world is created.

Therefore a series of intelligences depart from Him that justify the ontological dispersion in the phenomenal multiplicity. Thus God is necessary, while the world of matter could be fulfilled or not, it could exist or not but it is only in God that essence and existence are identified. Like Plotinus, that of Avicenna is an emanationist metaphysics, charged with mystical tension.

Avicenna has managed to reconcile dogma and intuition, faith and rationality, a poetic sense of the divine and the logic of His irresistible necessity, intellectual hypostases and sidereal descent into matter, into a grandiose metaphysical architecture. Avicenna will remain famous for the distinction between essence and existence.

Today we proudly doubt what we do not grasp with our senses, we strenuously defend the reliability of the senses: while in more ancient times we grasped more naturally that what really existed was not matter in its different forms but the core energy from which it manifested itself .

Today, quantum physics have demonstrated  that matter is only an aggregation of energy but while this energy exists, matter is rather a temporary phenomenal appearance. If we went back to Avicenna’s texts we could surely find inspirations that could guide intuitions in today’s research.

Image: Avicenna visiting a patient, London Wellcome Collection, in Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY

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