This article first appeared in The SoH Journal, The Homeopath
“I asked the boy beneath the pines
He said, ‘the master’s gone alone,
Herb-picking somewhere on the mount
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”
Chia Tao (translated by Lin Yutang)
Hahnemann, the first master of homoeopathy, stepped alone into the mystery of chronic disease and returned with observations that became known within homoeopathy as ‘mismatic theory’, a consolidation of an idea that had prevailed in ancient Egypt, India and China i.e. that diseases such as cholera, plague, leprosy and malaria were caused by ‘bad air’, a toxic ‘fog’, or ‘mouldy vapours’. By the nineteenth century this line of thought had generally evolved into the Germ Theory of disease, as championed by Pasteur and Koch.
Hahnemann’s masterly text, The Chronic Diseases, Their Peculiar Nature and Their Homoeopathic Cure may well be the earliest treatise on what is now known as Epidemiology. It was first published in 1828 some twenty one years before John Snow published his paper, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, which is more generally regarded as the founding study in the science of Epidemiology.
Hahnemann’s work contains much that should be of value to the modern homoeopath. Alas, many of us appear not to have engaged with it very thoroughly, preferring, perhaps to pay attention to the more overtly spiritual views of JT Kent or simply seeing miasm as an un-necessary irrelevance. This may go some way to explaining why the whole subject has remained misunderstood, wreathed in mist, ‘cloud-hidden’ and foggy. Scholten has written that ‘miasm is used in many different ways in homoeopathy’ (1). This is patently true and whilst our refusal or inability to decide on a common definition might have been useful to encourage developments within homoeopathy, it has not been helpful in our conversation with those outside of the profession; the people we really need to be talking with.
There may be a way out of the fog. Epigenetics is a relatively new stream of science which appears to have the potential to offer a significant validation of Hahnemann’s work on miasm, and even to begin to explain it. Meaning ‘upon genetics’, this stream refers to external influences that are capable of modifying DNA, and turning genes ‘on’ or ‘off’. These modifications do not change the DNA sequence but they do affect how cells ‘read’ genes. Epigenetic changes may occur in one person for life, or may be passed on to future generations. This begins to sound like an echo of Hahnemann’s ‘acquired’ and ‘inherited’ miasms.
For epigenetics to be useful to the evolution of homoeopathy the strong suggestion is for the profession to finally decide exactly what is meant by the term, miasm. Such clarity could connect miasmatic theory with epigenetics and provide common ground between mainstream and homoeopathic medical practitioners, ground upon which an equal and mutually beneficial conversation may be possible. This of itself could contribute to an increasing validation of homoeopathy as a viable and rational therapeutic modality and, in addition, might well improve the quality of homoeopathic treatment. If, and I acknowledge this might be a big if, we can arrive at a consensual definition then maybe we could work together with our more orthodox medical colleagues, in an integrated manner, on developing an understanding of the epigenetics of chronic disease. Homoeopathy has, I believe, much to contribute to such a conversation. Do we want to participate? Are we willing to reconsider our view of miasm? If so, where do we begin?
‘Start close in
Don’t take the second step
Or the third,
Start with the first thing
The step you don’t want to take’.
Let us begin with Hahnemann. In his Lesser Writings (written in 1831) he wrote about the development of Asiatic cholera:
“The most striking examples of infection and rapid spread of the cholera take place, as is well known, and as the public journals likewise inform us, in this way; on board ships in those confined spaces, filled with mouldy watery vapours, the cholera miasm finds a favourable element for its multiplication, and grows into an enormously increased brood of the excessively minute, invisible living organisms so inimical to human life, of which the contagious matter of the cholera most probably consists.’
A miasm was not a concept to Hahnemann, it was a real living thing, a natural phenomenon. Throughout his writings he used terms like ‘miasmic animalcules’, ‘germs’, ‘disease parasites’. He also used the terms ‘infection’ and ‘contagion’ to support his idea of the life force being ‘dipped into’ or ‘spoiled’ by an external impinging potence. He wrote of psora as being a ‘half spiritual miasma’ which ‘like a parasite seeks to inroot its hostile life in the human organism and continue its life there’. ‘Inrooting’, like ‘impinging’, is dynamic and can only occur when the organism is susceptible.
In his Chronic Diseases Hahnemann wrote clearly about the process of infection and disease.
Firstly, ‘the infection with miasmas takes place, without doubt, in one single moment’ at a time when the organism is most susceptible. The impingement is communicated dynamically to the whole of the life force ‘in the same moment’ so that the dynamic mistunement is instantaneous.
Secondly, there is a period of time ‘during which the entire organism is being penetrated by the disease’. I understand this to be the time taken for the dynamic mistunement to become embodied. Within orthodox medicine, this is referred to as the prodromal or incubation period.
Thirdly, the mistuned life force engenders symptoms as an expression of its mistunement, and also as its best attempt to preserve the integrity of the organism. An acute disease will then run its course, often through a fever, a crisis and an eruption, and the organism will either recover or die.
In the case of a chronic disease the primary symptom is external and local. These primary symptoms include an itching vesicle (psora) a tubercle (tuberculosis) a chancre (syphilis) a fig wart (sycosis). This is representative of the internal disease and acts as a safety valve for it, helping to ‘alleviate and soothe’, keeping it ‘latent and confined’. At this stage the disease ‘is most easily cured’ with appropriate homoeopathic treatment.
All of this equates with what we have learned about microbial infection by external impingeing potences now known as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. In the past certain homoeopaths have dismissed this idea as being materialistic. Yet Hahnemann was not a materialist, he was a dynamist and understood that each microbe has a purely dynamic (‘half-spiritual’) aspect, its own dynamis or organizing principle (2). It is clear to me that Hahnemann was alive to the energy of microbes, to their potency, to what is now known as virulence.
It follows that each individual miasma or impingeing potence or microbe will induce a characteristic and recognisable mistunement and symptom complex within an individual human and within humans as a collective. (This is similar to the process in a proving when a medicinal potence impinges upon a healthy human life force to induce its own characteristic and recognisable mistunement and symptom complex).
To conclude on Hahnemann, he writes that ‘chronic diseases arise from dynamic infection by a chronic miasm’ adding that they are ‘implanted (in people) through infection or heredity’ (3).
Let us pause and consider some definitions of miasm.
The word MIASMA is Greek in origin and means stain, pollution or defilement.
A standard English dictionary definition will describe miasm as ‘infective material’ or ‘noxious vapours formally believed to cause diseases such as cholera etc.’ Ortega suggests ‘a predisposition to a characteristic form of illness’ (4). Vithoulkas defines a miasm as ‘something that can infect the human body and, after that, can be transmitted from one generation to the next’ (5). So far we have common ideas of infection and inherited disposition. Kent describes Psora as a ‘spiritual sickness’ whilst Sankaran uses the term for a way of feeling and reacting to a basic sensation; these do not appear to acknowledge the infective element yet hint at the inherited susceptibility or state. Jevtic seems to suggest that miasm is a powerful force or influence in the social evolution of the human species; ‘Psora saved humanity from remaining bound too closely to the natural food chain’(6). I understand this to be a thoughtful contribution to the discussion about changes within human susceptibility yet it has moved a long way from the original meaning of the word miasm. If we are going to use the word then I think it is important to be mindful of its actual meaning.
In aphorism five of his Organon Hahnemann asserts that the fundamental cause of a chronic disease mostly rests upon a chronic miasm. I am offering that a modernising of this assertion still makes good sense: the fundamental cause of a chronic disease mostly depends upon the effects of a preceding infectious disease (especially if suppressive treatment has prevailed) in an individual or ancestor. Consider the degree of suffering caused to humanity by leprosy, the plague, tuberculosis, syphilis etc. and the number of people killed by smallpox, influenza and malaria. Over millennia, through hundreds of generations and many millions of people, these diseases have ravaged the human organism. The inherited miasmatic attunement or inherited predisposition (the epigenetic consequence) is the effect and current expression of that ravaging.