Saturday, June 16, 2012

Health, Economy and Freedom

In addition to Asclepius’ daughters Hygieia (the goddess of preventive medicine and healing) and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy), his daughter Aigle, the goddess of radiance and beauty, deserves mention. 

The offspring of Aesclepius’ union with Lampetia, the personification of light, Aigle’s name is derived from the word aegle, or aigle, meaning splendor, brightness, or radiance. “Fair-eyed Aigle” reputedly received her name from the beauty a human body in good health radiates - the beauty discussed in Plato's Gorgias, among other places. Among other things, this radiating energy finds corresponding expression in the Pythagorean and Stoic notion of a world soul, as well as in the Chinese concept of qi.

According to the Chinese philosopher Mo Di (470-391 BCE) early humans developed architecture, for among other reasons, to protect their qi (their health or vital energy) from the problem-causing moisture of the caves they had earlier inhabited. He also asserted that one could maintain one’s qi with adequate nutrition.

Mencius agrees with Mo Di that qi can be harmed by exposure to adverse conditions. He also taught that qi is necessary for activity, and is controllable by willpower. And, echoing the Stoics, the 4th century BCE thinker Zhuangzi wrote that “one qi pervades all in the world.” Among other things, traditional Chinese medicine teaches that diseases arise from qi that is blocked or interrupted. When it flows well, health results.

In many respects qi is comparable to Hippocrates’ notion of a ‘healing force.’ Hippocrates uses the word physis, which is sometimes translated as ‘nature’ and other times as ‘physic’ to refer to the body’s power to heal itself. Within medicine the term is often employed to designate ‘growing’, as in epiphysis, or symphysis.

According to Hippocrates, as long as bodies receive the nutrition and other supports they require they will heal themselves. As such, for Hippocrates a physician’s chief function is to remove obstacles to this natural generative tendency, allowing organisms to recover their own health. While Hippocrates may have been mistaken in thinking that such practices as bloodletting would aid the patient in recovering the balance of her or his “humors,” the notion of the nature of healing as a dynamic process of becoming as opposed to a static state maintains a respected position in contemporary efforts to understand these functions, as well as in his positing that diet, environmental factors and living habits contribute to the development of disease.

Among other things, Hippocrates’ notion of physis, this generative healing force, was associated with Asclepius. Akin to the Stoic notion of a world soul immanent to everything, this physis would also find expression in what would become known as the conatus. Derived from the verb conor (to undertake, venture, attempt), conatus is defined as a type of striving, an energy very much like the Stoics’ world soul as well as the Chinese qi.

Hobbes referred to the conatus both as a “will to survive,” as well as a ‘restorative force.’ Among other things, he described the ability of springs to resume their prior shape after being compressed – what is today known as elasticity – as an instance of the conatus.

Spinoza’s conceptualization of the conatus is elaborated beyond Hobbes’. Akin to Hobbes’ notion, the conatus for Spinoza is an inclination to increase in power, one that all beings possess as they “strive toward perfection.” 

In his Ethics, Spinoza writes that happiness “consists in the human capacity to preserve itself.” And that sadness is a result of opposition to this striving conatus. But where the conatus was for Hobbes a mental entity, for Spinoza it is material.

In Spinoza’s treatment the conatus assumes various forms. While in its physical, material form it is understood as conatus proper, in the psychological dimension it is referred to as Voluntas, or Will. When both the psychological and physical dimensions are together, as in sentient creatures, this is known as appetite. And when appetite is joined with consciousness of this appetite, Spinoza calls this Desire. As Genevieve Lloyd puts it, “in reflexive consciousness, the conatus is experienced as desire.”

One encounters articulations of this immanent striving throughout the history of philosophy. Approximations appear, for example, in Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's respective notions of the will, Freud's libido, and in Bergson's elan vital, as well as more recently in D. W. Winnicott's concept of creative impulse, and in Deleuze's notion of desire. All of these share affinities with the notion of the conatus, and the radiant impulse at its core.

A similar notion was suggested by Ludwig Wittgenstein when he wrote that “within all great art there is a wild animal, tamed.”  One can easily read this wild animal as the conatus, or the qi as described by Mencius, which needs to be focused into some pursuit. Likewise, in a letter written to his sister whose house he was at the time designing, Wittgenstein wrote: “but primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open – that is lacking… and you could say it isn’t healthy.” Here again we find a link connecting the conatus with health.

But while radiance is a necessary aspect of health - a constitutive part of Asclepius - it alone is not health. As with qi, it needs to flow well for health to manifest - or, rather, its flowing well is indistinct from health. But what does it mean to flow well? It is interesting that this brings our discussion back to not only suggestions of eudaimonia, but to the concept of qi, and that with which qi is closely aligned, Taoism. Emphasizing the harmonizing of one's will with nature, Taoism is also closely related to Stoicism. Each stress the importance of moving through the world in a harmonious manner - a manner described by William S. Burroughs in his comical short story The Discipline of DE (Do Easy).

Burroughs writes that, "DE is a way of doing. It is a way of doing everything you do. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE."

Burroughs' description of DE jibes very closely with the notions of harmony associated with taoism, qi, and stoicism. And it does not seem merely coincidental that the term ease is in many respects synonymous with health. Indeed, it is precisely the negation of ease that leads to dis-ease.

Also noteworthy here is the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's description of ease. In his The Coming Community, Agamben dedicates a chapter to the notion of ease. In this chapter, simply titled Ease, Agamben defines ease as, among other things, "the empty place where each can move freely", and "the free use of the proper" (Agamben, 25), connecting the notions of ease, or health, with freedom - and not merely the freedom from disease, coercion and domination, but the freedom to develop potentialities.

All of the above meanings have accreted onto the notion of health as liberating power, and they are consistent. Coercion, Domination, and even uninformed consent in the bioethical context, all constitute conditions of disease, against Liberating Power and conditions of health. Of course, there is a zone of indeterminacy between these two wherein each risks slipping into the other, as when playing devolves into fighting. However, there are certain things that contrast clearly, as a polluted stream does to a healthy one.

If, then, as the maxim has it, the Health of the People Is the Supreme Law, this implies as well that the dis-ease related to unnecessary difficulties, for example work that does not further health, or work that results in a diminution of one's health to the aggrandizement of another's (i.e. exploitation) is against the law. As such, irrespective of the waste and pollution it by design creates, the economic system of capitalism is against the supreme law. Not only does its commodification of resources alienate people from the conditions of health (for example, extracting rent from people in exchange for living on land that was only privatized by means of force), creating conditions of disease, its social relations - wherein domination is ever-present in relations of exchange - are structurally opposed to health as well. As such, in order for the health of the people to flourish, and for the supreme law to prevail, this economy of disease needs to be dismantled, and replaced with an economy of health.

No comments: