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Meaning of Health

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

by Paul A. Lee

The depiction of Hygieia in the mural devoted to medicine at the University of Vienna, by Gustav Klimt, expresses the artistic and cultural background that formed Paul Tillich as a German philosopher and theologian. Vienna was the center for the “fin-desiecle,” as well as the center for many of the prophetic visions and movements of the century to come, expressed in the Viennese novelists and satirists Karl Kraus, Musil, Kafka, Brock, Von Dodderer. Freud discovered psychoanalysis there, when, as a latter-day Heraclitus, he searched for himself, like a deep-sea diver, and began the process of self and other-analysis, which, along with Existentialism and Expressionism, became the form-breaking powers of the 20th century. As the daughter of Asclepias, Hygieia is the bearer of healing power, particularly in her priestess and hieratic pose in Klimt’s rendering. Bearing snakes, the ancient symbol of the convergence of poison and medicine (where dosage determines the difference), Hygieia heralds “the unity of life and death, the interpenetration of instinctual vitality and personal dissolution.” (Schorske). The snakes of Asclepias, wound on the staff, the caduceus, were said to come out at night and lick the wounds of those who came to sleep in the temples in a practice known as “incubation,” where the God would appear in a dream omen announcing the prospects for a cure.

In his comprehensive discussion of Western modes of healing, Tillich mentions how Asclepias vied with the Christ as the preeminent bearer of healing the Great Physician of the ancient world. When I was a young graduate student at Union Theological Seminary, I heard Tillich deliver the Bampton Lectures at Columbia University-Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, where he overcame the Humpty Dumpty problem in Western religion by putting the two cultures together again in all of their dialectical tension Athens and Jerusalem. While at Union, I discovered the essay–The Relation of Religion and Health and copied it out longhand. As the son of a doctor, I had decided against medicine and for theology and philosophy as a career. Tillich restored to me the lost unity of these two subject matters, as well, by placing the theme of ‘healing’ and the meaning of health in its old cosmic frame, within the context of salvation and its etymological origins. Healing is restored to its religious dignity. Tillich shows this ancient unity of powers and functions before their historical separation. He anticipated the longing for their mutual convergence as currently expressed in the Holistic Health Movement now sweeping the country in all of its varied forms. As a thinker on the boundary line, Tillich was able to negotiate territory neglected by others who remained bound to the confines of their own viewpoints and specialties. He was able to show the deep associations between otherwise seemingly separated fields. Therefore, the current split between industrial medicine and traditional medicine, as practiced worldwide in non-industrial nations, as well as ethnic groups in rural areas everywhere, is an unfortunate consequence of a trend of a century and a half. When biochemistry isolated the active ingredients of natural medicine to synthesize artificially from inorganic sources, biochemistry undermined the botanical foundation of medicine. Tillich’s discussion reviews the long historic development and sets the stage for re-evaluating the contribution of neglected and rejected styles in the healing arts burdened by their association with religion and a vitalist approach to health and disease. In “The Religion of Health and Tillich” sketches out the background for what he carried through in “The Courage to Be.” I have come to call it “The Thymos Doctrine,” the old Homeric word Tillich translated as “The Courage to Be.” When I found out that the word for the herb thyme and for the gland thymus were cognates, thymos became the theme for my life’s work.

In my judgment, Tillich anticipated the development of modern immunology in “The Courage to Be”. Once one follows  through the meaning of ‘thymos’ in the discovery of the thymus and the central role of the thymus in immunology, as well as the classic herb thyme in the rediscovery of the healing properties of herbs and the significance of traditional or herbal medicine worldwide, “The Courage to Be” is seen as an essay in theological and philosophical immunology, a discourse on the vital dynamics of self-affirmation in the face of all that would undo and destroy us, where our constitutional defense is called into play, otherwise known as our immune system. Tillich gives us a spiritual biology of the immune system, where “The Courage to Be” is our thymic vigor. After reading in the field of immunology for the last ten years, it is possible to mount a new argument for the existence of God based on the infinite diversity of antibody response to antigens (anti-body generating). As though to fulfill the vision of Leibnitz that we live in the ‘best of all possible worlds,’ immunology is now discovering that we have the best of all possible immune systems. With his unerring facility for language and theoretical formulation, Tillich picked just the right word for his pursuit of the meaning of health and the relation of religion and health begun here in these two essays as the background for “The Courage to Be.” The Thymos Doctrine is sketched out here in his effort to construct a theoretical model of the human self for the purpose of determining a complex of relations necessary for any discussion of the meaning of health. This model, although the term’ thymos’ is not mentioned, should be read as the theoretical background for the subseql’ent elucidation. To read these two essays as a preparation for “The Courage to Be” provides the student of health with a rich historical and theoretical background. It is appropriate to introduce this material into the current discussion for the sake of supporting the quest for models of wholeness that overcome the bifurcation of the healing arts into technical specialties with everyone lost in their own niche. It is time for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. To think through the cultural modalities of the healing arts in order to restore the full dimensions of human health is the task we all share in this late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society. Tillich points the way, as he tried to do in everything he thought and wrote, as one of the great fighters against the demonic ‘structures of destruction’ that would destroy life as we know it on this earth, whether through synthetic simulation or radiation and pollution. Healing, again, can become a religious vocation, when the medical arts and sciences join with the priest and the prophet, the curendero and native healer, in the mutual acknowledgement of converging domains, where wholeness is the consequence of a new “planet medicine.” This “planet medicine” is the avowed goal of the World Health Organization.

In 1978, upon the successful completion of the campaign to rid the world of smallpox, Dr. Halfdan Mahler, the Director-General, announced the goal for the year 2000 “Health For All” through the promotion and advancement of traditional medicine worldwide. For someone like myself, a student of Tillich’s, and a spokesman for the medicinal herb renaissance in America, this goal strikes me as the basis for one of the most creative and promising dialogues of the next two decades. When I met a second year Stanford Medical School student a native American Indian who told me about his initiation into the herbal medicine of his tribe, I thought I had encountered the best example of the new ‘cross-fertilization of cultures,’ which the dialogue between traditional, basically herbal, medicine and modern industrial medicine entails. In such figures, we may hope to see the confluence of themes and trends, styles and models of medicine and health, developed in different times and in various climes, brought together, for the benefit of all. In this way, the healing arts and sciences and their history, so richly reviewed here with all of their problems and complexities brought to light, may contribute again to the history of salvation.


A Woman’s Herbal, by Jeannine Parvat, Freestone Collective, 1978. AS C LEP lAS, by Karl Kerenyi, Bollingen Books, Princeton University Press.

FIN-DE-SIECLE, by Carl Schorske, Random House, 1981. HYGIEIA,

IDENTITY AND THE LIFE CYCLE, by Erik Erikson, Psychological Issues 1,1, International Universities Press, New York, 1979

PLANET MEDICINE, by Richard Grossinger, Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1980.

THE BIOLOGY OF ULTIMATE CONCERN, by Theodosius Dobzhansky, New American Library, New York, 1967.

““The Courage to Be””, by Paul Tillich, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1952.

THE DOUBLE FACE OF JANUS and Other Essays in the History of Medicine, by Owsei Temkin, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1978.

THE METAPHORS OF CONSCIOUSNEss, ed. byRonaldS. Valle and Rolf von Eckartsberg, Chap. 25, “Thymos as Biopsychological Metaphor: The Vital Root of Consciousness,” by Paul Lee, Plenum Press, New York, 1981.

“Wholeness and Totality,” in TOTALITARIANISM, C. J. Friedrich, ed., Harvard University Press, 1954.

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