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  Disease Process and Medicinal Plant

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By: Wilhelm Pelikan
It is necessary to get a real understanding of the nature of disease in man, and confront it with a corresponding concept of the nature of the medicinal plant. Will we be able to think that which is the medicinal plant, and not merely determine it empirically?

We may consider it one of the great, universal insights given to us by Goethe that disease, pathology, should not be ascribed to something from outside, but must be seen and understood from within, from the viewpoint of what is absolutely healthy and normal. The forces and causes, the archetypal possibilities for all abnormality, all disease, must be looked for in the normal. A healthy organism is in balance with itself, with all the many different forces and impulses that make it up, differentiate it, and harmoniously combine all parts into a whole. In consequence it will also be in balance with the environment surrounding it.

According to the point of view we are discussing, a diseased organism contains the same forces and impulses as a healthy one, but these are no longer able to stay in balance. They have come to a crisis which might, for instance, be a crisis of development. Development, a process inseparable from human nature represents the transition from one state of balance to a new one that has to be achieved. An old equilibrium is given up so that a higher one may be attained. However this may be, in whatever form the crisis may present itself: through the disruption of the balance some parts of the whole are given an advantage, others put at a disadvantage. Some wilt, others flourish and develop in excess. Harmony, the very expression of wholeness, is deeply disturbed, and the whole is "hurt," it is ill. Not only is it at war with itself, in one way or other, depending on the nature of the disturbance in equilibrium, it also loses its healthy relation to the forces of the world outside. This will either come in too strongly, or it will not be properly mastered. And so damage from outside is added to disruption within. The internal imbalance establishes the disposition to disease, and the outside world gives rise to secondary effects, e.g. the development of bacterial infection and the like.

Goethe did not develop this further for human pathology, but he did so for that of plants. The study of malformations in plants showed him that here the same form-giving forces were at work as in the normally developed plant, except that they were in the wrong place or at the wrong time. And indeed, to him such malformations did not become objects of horror, but a place where one might immediately perceive forces which are not perceptible, because they are held in balance by other forces. Now they are overshooting the goal, breaking through set limits – and become visible.

Seen this way, the pathological is not just an inexplicable fact to be recorded, a painful imperfection in creation, but a sphere where the nature of health becomes clearly apparent – something to marvel at as we see it. Disease – as a brilliant aphorism by Novalis put it – becomes a musical problem, a dissonance that must not be allowed to fall back into the harmony which preceded it but must be resolved into a better harmony that is to follow, an illness properly gone through will lead to better health. The idea of disease and its justification, indeed its necessity, in a world of beings who are developing further, is becoming apparent, and from this one can then work towards an idea of healing.

But this "idea of disease" can only lead to a concrete notion of the nature of the various individual diseases if it is linked with the concept of the human organism as a threefold entity. In this threefoldness we have two spheres of function that are totally opposed and yet necessary to each other. The system of nerves and senses, formed to meet the sense organs and through them the world of external impressions, surrendering to these and passing them on to the sentient soul, must keep down its own organic life to make room for a higher form of life, that of consciousness. The outside world reflected in the sense organs becomes the subject of a striving for perception and knowledge. Physical development must be brought to a halt at an early stage in these organs, so that such a development of the higher faculties becomes possible. The metabolic system actually ingests the outside world, but it overcomes it, forces it to nourish it. The outside world is destroyed in the process and must become inner world. Organs filled with a strong life of their own, enclosed inside, bring this about. Unconsciousness covers them all.

A third, centrally situated, system is needed to relate and balance such polar opposites. Through it, the opposites are united into a whole. Here rests the essential being of health, its rhythms guarantee it. The system of nerves and senses, indispensable though it is to the human being as a whole, does in itself represent paralysis of life, and disease for the rest of the organism; for consciousness, for thinking, it has to pay the price of degradation, hardening, weakening of vital activities. Conversely the metabolic system, if acting on its own, acts as disease, because it can only develop its excessive vitality in a state of dampened-down consciousness, with the soul asleep. Complete health for man lies only in the right interaction of all three systems. This is something dynamic, therefore, not static. The human being is made to be in unstable balance, in every respect. His walk and upright posture express this externally, like a symbol. It is on such instability in all directions that the ability is founded of being in constant further development.


The rhythmic system passes the anabolic processes of the "lower" organiza­tion on to the "upper" one, thus continually balancing the destructive processes which this upper organization must of necessity undertake, in order to fulfill its function within the organism as a whole in the right sense. If, however, metabolic activity becomes excessive, for some reason or other which we cannot go into here, the result may be inflammatory, dissolving processes. Conversely, excessive development of the upper organization will find expression in phenomena of hardening, in a damming up of metabolic activity, in excessive deterioration. Just as the archetypal phenomenon of the development of color is revealed to us in a double phenomenon, a polar pair of colors – yellow and blue – so the archetypal phenomenon of disease, which has its roots in the nature of the organism itself, is manifest in the polarity of inflammation and tumor, of dissolution and hardening. This applies to the whole of the organism, but also to each individual organ, for each organ has a characteristic balance of nervous and sensory as well as metabolic activities, and this must be maintained.


Plant life, too, everywhere contains those two opposites: dissolution and hardening. One belongs to the sphere of activity of the root, the other to the flowering processes. And in the plant kingdom, too, the two activities are brought together, brought into rhythm, through a middle entity, the leaf function. But, a predominance of one or the other of these polarities does not lead to the development of pathological plant processes. On the contrary, in the world of plant forms this is a creative principle. There are forms which make it immediately apparent that the harmonious, primary plant element is "distorted" towards one pole or the other. The "idea" of the plant, the spiritual reality that lies behind all plant life (Goethe tried to grasp this in his Archetypal Plant), appears in a very one-sided physical form in many plants. We come across plants that are practically nothing but root, with leaf and flower development stunted. Others form enormous blossoms, with hardly any root or leaf to them. Or any other organ may be overdeveloped, without moderation: the stem, the cotyledons, or the whole plant becomes predominantly leaf. The development of stamens may be hypertrophy at the cost of the stigma, and there are innumerable other possibilities.

Rudolf Steiner was the first to point out that the medicinal plants, in particular, have a tendency to develop one part, or part of a process, in excess, making it the outstanding characteristic in their appearance. It is the abnormality which makes the plant a medicinal plant. Often one can see very clearly how one part wants to become the whole, to proliferate, or at least to preponderate, stunting the other parts and thus distorting the "archetypal image" of the plant.

By understanding the way in which this "distortion" has arisen, therefore, one may discover the direction in which the plant could serve medicinally. And on this it should be possible to base a "rational" materia medica of plants.

The question now arises why such a process of "distortion of the archetypal image," with one part and its functions so predominant, should lead to illness in human beings but not in plants. By following this up we can gain some deep insights into the essential nature of both. It is only possible to touch on the subject here; details may be found in the pertinent works of Rudolf Steiner.

A principle which in the plant kingdom causes "distortion" and produces the interesting, individualistic forms of medicinal plants -- this same principle stands for disease in the human sphere. It does not produce new forms, or new species of human beings, but pathological conditions. It goes hand in hand with pain, with a threat to life, but also with advancement in inner de­velopment, purification, the achievement of a higher state of health. Quite different levels of existence are apparent in this.

To get closer to the mystery, let us consider the fact that the plant does not progress to a true development of organs and does not possess a system of nerves and senses comparable to that of man, nor a comparable metabolic system with the requisite internal organs (such as liver, kidney, gall-bladder, etc.). The well-springs of the "archetypal phenomena" of disease in man, inflammation and tumor, do not flow for the plant, are simply outside its sphere. The rhythmic system of man, the essence of archetypal health, is the only system which is fully reflected and has a counterpart in the plant. The leaf system is the only form of organ produced by the plant, all other parts of it are also only leaves. It has no brain, nothing comparable to eyes and ears, nor any form of viscera. The states of being which in man constitute disease in the true sense — and which must be bound up with the states of being through which we may experience disease — cannot become part of this plant, remain for ever outside it. Disease is bound up with that which actually makes man a human being, through which he is more than that pure life structure, the plant. Being only a life structure — while man is more than that — the plant shows as characteristics of its external form what in man is pathology, change in his inner, psychic form. It becomes a medicinal plant for man when he is a bearer of disease and it may be used with healing effect on man, thanks to those projective archetypal relations which exist, quite generally, between plant and man. In the first chapter we have tried to describe these, as they find expression, in one and the same way, in the threefoldness of both.

To gain further understanding, it will now be necessary to see in what way man is more than the plant. When the creative forces of nature cause such variation in the archetypal image of the plant that hypertrophy on one part overcomes all others, producing, for instance, the monstrous root form of a bryony or a mandrake, or the leafy one-sidedness of a fern, the excessive floweriness of the elder, of dodder or even rafflesia, the stem structure of the horse-tail, the giant fruit of the pumpkin — all these one-sided structures are nevertheless perfectly healthy. And even if some of it does look misshapen to us: root forces breaking through into spheres normally reserved for the leaf, the flower, or conversely the root region being flooded with flowering processes — examples of this being yellow gentian in the first instance, and the carrot in the latter — all this is wholly viable and never gives itself discomfort or pain anywhere.

But when in man metabolic processes encroach too much upon the region of the nerves and senses, or possibly the brain, this may be an extremely unpleasant experience, an inflammation of the nerves or migraine, for example. The hardening impulses belonging to the skeletal system will be most painful in the blood vessels. In man, such shifts between forces do not lead to the development of new forms, possibly giving rise to a race of giant heads, barrel chests, fleshy feet, long arms, etc.; at the most there will be only hints of this. Such shifts between forces remain entirely in the dynamic sphere in man, they do not become form. Man — this is now becoming obvious — has a different relation between form-giving forces and physical body than the plant has. Quite obviously the form-giving forces are used in a different direction by man, so that they are not channeled into physical form to the same extent as they are in the plant. The plant lives much more in giving expression to form, its form is never finished, is constantly kept going. There must be growth with the plant, or it is finished. Man concludes formative activity quite early, reaching a finished form, and with that really only begins his existence.

The plant must end its existence or it ceases to produce form. That growth comes to a conclusion can be seen very clearly when the plant enters into the flowering process. Vitality decreases, the living green disappears, leaves become short-lived and fragile. At the same time the plant touches upon the sphere of life that lies above it, the animal sphere, both internally and externally. Externally by taking into its life scheme certain animal activities, for instance in the form of pollination or the distribution of seeds through butterflies, bees, ants, birds, etc. (There are orchids with flowers so similar to animals that certain butterflies take them for females and treat them accordingly.) But at this point of transition, plant life dwindles away, the plant breaks off its existence and contracts again into its point of origin, the seed. Animal and man are beings "beyond the plant." They have made something part of themselves which the plant must leave outside. For this they have sacrificed the ability to continue to produce new shapes, have brought this process to a stop in a permanent form. But the animals have retained the ability to form species; in them, seen as a whole, another sphere of being has remained fluid and finds expression in the development of thousands of species, whilst there is only one species of man (the various races are only variations of one human species).

It is the creative nature of instinct which finds expression in the abundance of animal forms, giving them the very form apparent to the senses. The fear of the hare, the patience of the lamb, the mental apathy of the sloth, the greed of the wolf, the fury of the tiger, the anger of the lion — these are features of the soul, but they are inseparably bound up with the bodily forms that go with them. Animal bodies are the symbols of psychic qualities become flesh. If the much-used phrase of the oneness of soul and body has any justification, it is here. Man also bears within him these forces of the soul, but they are dampened down, they are governed by a higher principle. On the one hand this suppresses the development of unbridled instincts, on the other it prevents them from entering into the form-giving elements of the body. The abundance of flowing, living, form-giving forces in the plant is held up and fixed into a single, permanent shape to produce the animal form; in the same way the abundance of body-forming psychic instincts is hemmed in, held back from the processes which give rise to the body, and so the human stature arises. This form does not express psychic qualities and drives. The instinctive life is not given the opportunity of expressing itself in the shaping of the individual body. The human soul contains all possibilities of psychic experience. The human body also contains in one archetypal form all the specific ways in which bodies are formed in the animal kingdom. It is the spirit which contains the whole soul element. And the human body does not reflect soul quality, but is a bearer of spirit.

But it is only possible to touch on these things very briefly here. They are described more fully in a study of animal nature and of man based on spiritual science.

What has been discussed may be summarized as follows: the full projective relation of man to plant – and above all of disease in man and the nature of medicinal plants — demands not only that one should consider their threefold polarity, but also calls for an evaluation of the differences in nature between plant and man. The members which constitute both have to be outlined at least briefly. Starting points for this may be found all along the road we have so far covered.

*Translation by R.E.K. Meuss, reprinted by kind permission from the July 1970, British Homeopathic Journal.

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