by Adam Tate, September, 2019
‘Two natural principles of life are laid down by the Chinese,
viz. vital heat and radical moisture, of which the
Spirits [Qi] and the Blood are the vehicles.
They call the Vital Heat Yang, and the
Radical Moisture Yin’.
(The Chinese Traveller, 1772)
One of the great attractions to Chinese Medicine are some of the foundations at its very core: Yin and Yang, and Qi, Shen (Spirit) and Jing (Essence), known as San Bao, the 'Three Treasures'.
These apparently unique concepts to Chinese Medicine are some of the foundations every Chinese Medicine practitioner learns, and yet even the wisest old master still bases his whole practice on the foundations and principles of Yin, Yang, and Qi.
What if, then, we found that the same basic concepts were apparent in the Western Tradition, incorporating Ancient Greek, Roman, European and Middle Eastern medicine?
Semantics often hide the most basic of concepts, or rather, mask them, by causing something to seem to be something different from what we already know.
The Western Tradition regularly talks of Radical Moisture and Innate Heat; two opposing concepts, mutually interdependent, which form the basis of substance and activity of the body. Galen talked of the Radical Moisture and Innate Heat as being like a lamp: the Oil analogous to Radical Moisture, the Flame to Innate Heat. Galen also related the basis of Fevers as being due to a lack of Radical Moisture. (1)
But it was the Arabs, and Avicenna in particular, who fully elevated this concept and perhaps increased the importance clinically. They believed that Fevers, decay, consumption, old age and death could not adequately be explained by Humoral Theory, but instead, insisted it was due to diminishing Radical Moisture and/or Innate Heat.
Avicenna explained that Innate Heat slowly consumes the Radical Moisture, and in return, Radical Moisture slowly decreases Innate Heat due to its excesses. This process is aggravated because the more it happens, the weaker the digestion becomes, which hinders replenishing Radical Moisture and Innate Heat.
Further, Radical Moisture is depleted either by Innate Heat, or putrefaction of the Humors. The first is natural, and happens with age. The second is pathological and requires preparing and cleansing the putrefied Humors, and increasing digestion.
Parmenides (late sixth or early fifth century BCE) is credited with perhaps being the first western philosopher to recognise Natural or Innate Heat (2). He noted that dead creatures were cold while living creatures are warm. Empedocles (490–430 BCE) expanded upon this by saying ‘sleep comes about when the heat of the Blood is cooled in the proper degree, death when it becomes altogether cold’. (3)
Hippocrates said ‘the belly is by nature the hottest in the winter and spring, and sleep is the longest. And in this season food ought to be given plentifully. For there is plenty of innate heat and plentiful nourishment is needed. Those in the prime of life, and athletes, are evidence of this’. (4)
Aristotle followed by saying the Innate Heat is responsible for the power of digestion and that the Heat was cooled or rather moderated by air inhaled. (5)
Galen talked of a work of his specifically on Innate Heat. (6) This work of his has not survived, and so what is known about what Galen said regarding Natural Heat is only what is found scattered throughout his vast works. He, along with Hippocrates and Aristotle placed great importance on Innate Heat, believing it was imperative for digestion, growth, generation of Humors, and distribution of nourishment. He stated that Innate Heat forms the Fetus, that children grow because of it which is why infants were said to have most of it as growing creatures require more. He also stated that as we age, Innate Heat withers and when exhausted, we die.
Avicenna in his Canon often talks of the Innate Heat. He closely associated it with ‘Vitality’. He noted that when breath wanes the Innate Heat lessens, and when Innate Heat is increased due to Nutrition, the breath increases. (7)
The Innate Heat is that responsible for separating the impure from the healthy humors, that is, the digestive Fire which enables proper digestion and separates the pure from the excrement. He also stated that in disease the breath is not in harmony with the formation of the Humors and toxic by-products (acidic or corrosive–the Ama of Ayurveda) are formed, and this is either from improper Innate Heat or a conflict between Innate Heat and pathological Heat.
‘The Innate heat, therefore, is the instrument of nature for combating the injurious action of extraneous or foreign heat. By its means, the Breath [Qi] gets rid of it, expels it, disperses it, and oxidizes its material basis. Further, it combats the injurious action of foreign Cold, expelling it by contrary’.
‘Innate Heat is that which protects the natural humors from being overruled by foreign calorific agents. If the Innate Heat is strong, the natural faculties are able to work through it, upon the humours, and so effect digestion and maturation, and so maintain them within the confines of the healthy state. The Humors move according to its ministration ...
If the Innate Heat is feeble, the Natural Faculties are harassed in the regulation of the Humours. For the instrument–the intermediary between the Natural Faculties and the Humors–is enfeebled. Stagnation sets in and foreign heat now finds the humours no longer opposed to its action. It overcomes them. It utilizes them in its own way, and imparts a foreign movement to them; and the result is what is known as “putrefaction”.’
‘Hence it is clear that the Innate Heat is the instrument of all the faculties, whereas coldness can only help them secondarily. That is why one speaks of ‘Innate Heat’, but not of ‘Innate Cold’. (8, 9, 10)
Radical (or Intrinsic) Moisture
Radical Moisture in the Bible:
Psalm XXXII ... ‘For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my
moisture was turned into the droughts of summer Selah’. (11)
In his Annotations Upon the Five Books of Moses Ainsworth states in reference to moisture: ‘the chief sap, or radical moisture, which is an aiery and oily substance, dispersed through the body, whereby the life is fostered, and which being spent, death ensues’. (10)
‘There is a certain Stock of Radical Moisture to be observed within the Body of every man, which diffuses it self throughout each minute particle thereof, and without which ‘tis impossible for any due Temperament long to be preserved; or for the Soul and Body to be held in a State of Conjunction one with another’. (12)
In the Western Tradition, it was the Arab physicians who were responsible for developing and refining the concept of Radical Moisture. Rhazes, Haly Abbas and Serapion all referred to it, but it was Avicenna who gave the most detailed account.
Avicenna gave the metaphor of the oil lamp showing the balance and interaction of the flame (Yang, Innate Heat) and the Oil (Yin, Radical Moisture). But he was not the first to use this metaphor; in fact Galen had even used this metaphor (De ferbris differentiis) and it likewise appears in Chinese Philosophy.
The Radical Moisture is analogous to the Chinese concept of Yin. It is a highly refined part of the process of digestion, not only liquid, but thin, oily and subtle by nature.
There is a part of the Radical Moisture which is acquired from our parents at conception and a part which is replenished from the food we ingest. The small amount of the finest essence of the creation of the Four Humors replenishes our Radical Moisture.
Radical Moisture is associated with
1. The special fluids of the Organs and Glands.
2. The growth and maturation over time.
3. Associated with Humoral Immunity.
4. Longevity (with Innate Heat).
‘We see that ... the moisture of the body, must inevitably come to an end, and the Innate Heat become extinguished–and the sooner if another contributory factor to its destruction be present; to wit, the extraneous excess of humor arising out of imperfect digestion of food. This extinguishes the Innate Heat (a) by smothering it, enclosing it, and (b) by providing the contrary quality. This extraneous humor is called the “cold serous humor”.’ (13)
‘This is the death of “nature” to which every person is destined, and the duration of life depends on the original temperament, which retains a certain degree of power to the end by fostering its intrinsic moisture’. (14)
Radical Moisture is lost in the male every time he ejaculates. The Tantric arts of withholding the sperm at ejaculation enables the sexual act with minimal or no loss of Radical Moisture.
Female Radical Moisture is mostly lost during pregnancy and childbirth, or with excessive menstrual bleeding. Women that have many children, or especially have too many children too close together, or when too old lose their Radical Moisture more quickly.
In addition, the act of Love in lovemaking helps restore the Radical Moisture, especially of the Heart. So sex with a loved one is far more wholesome than sex for the sake of sex, or self pleasure.
Interaction of Radical Moisture and Innate Heat
Avicenna recognised the Innate Heat to continually consume the Radical Moisture much like the flame consumes the oil in the oil lamp. He also stated that the Innate Heat is lessened because it is continuously extinguished by extraneous moisture (damp) which accumulates due to weakening of the digestion. This latter is the putrefaction of the body fluids. Thus, the first reason for loss of Innate Heat is physiological, the second, pathological.
Lazarus Rivire (1657) gives a useful explanation:
‘Aristotle defines life to be the dwelling of native Heat in certain moisture, that therefore this heat, the Author and preserver of life, may long continue in the parts, it wants certain fuel, no less than our fire, to keep it from extinction. But moisture being two-fold in our body, one waterish, the other fat and aiery, this vivifying heat cannot be fuelled by the waterish, but by the fat and aiery moisture, as a lamp or candle lighted is not inflamed by waterish, but oily and pinguedinous liquor... this native and genital humidity, according to its copiousness is more useful and commodious to the exercise of all functions and the prolongation of life’.
‘It derives its original from the first principles of our generation, viz. from the seed, and maternal blood [at conception]’...
‘Native heat is a quality proper and familiar to all living creatures, by the help of which they live and act’.
Daniel Sennert had several worthwhile things to say regarding Natural Heat and Radical Moisture (15):
- The Natural Heat is ‘proper to living creatures’.
- ‘This heat is otherwise called both by Physicians and Philosophers, by the name of the within seated Spirit, or the Native Spirit’.
- ‘with the Radical Moisture is the next and immediate subject and domicile of the Soul’.
- ‘This Innate Heat consists of three things, which make up its essence, Radical Moisture, the within Seated Spirit, and Heat’.
- ‘This Innate Heat, and Radical Moisture is founded in the parts which are fashioned in the first generation of an Embryo; but the greatest plenty of it is in the Heart’.
- ‘This inborn Heat, is the chiefest instrument of the Soul, by which it perfects, undergoes all the actions of Life and whatsoever healthy thing in us, and profitable in generation, in nutriment, or in expulsion of a disease, is performed by that’.
- ‘From this benefit and excellency of Innate Heat, some have taken it and the Soul for the same thing, and have called it the Essence of the Vital Faculty; the faculty governing us, the substance of the Soul, and the Author of all our actions; but since the Innate Heat is neither the Soul, nor the chiefest cause of our actions, it is only the chief instrument in performing the actions of the Soul’.
- ‘These three Heat, Spirit, and Moisture are linked together by the nearest conjunction in the world; for since that heat ought to be (as it were) governor and ruler of our lives, it is only of an aerious or spiritual nature, and so by itself moveable and separable, or apt to be dispersed, it could not subsist alone, but that life may be prolonged, and ought to subsist in a more stable, moist and durable body, more permanent; namely, not a thin and watery body, but a fat and oily body which is inserted within the fibers of the similar parts, and is called the Radical Moisture’.
Putrefaction makes the fluids unsuitable for use by the body, in other words they are not able to become nutrition, and are therefore termed extraneous.
To prevent the putrefaction of fluids requires sufficient Innate Heat, whereas excess Innate Heat will more quickly consume Radical Moisture. Thus, the delicate balance between Innate Heat and Radical Moisture (Yin and Yang) are dependent on the effect of age on the body, and from this, it can be seen that the Acquired Radical Moisture inherited from our parents is more relevant to living a long life than the restoration of Radical Moisture due to the food eaten. That is why we see some people who smoke, drink and have an average diet sometimes far outlive those who are very health conscious.
Ancient and Natural Philosophy extends back before written records. All peoples from all ancient lands developed a rich understanding of their reality, originally largely based on observation of nature.
With development and trade came the sharing and blending of knowledge, and since ancient times, the Silk Road was a highway of trade in both commodities and knowledge.
The enormous similarities in concepts of Qi (Pneuma), Spirit, Soul, Innate Heat (Yang), and Radical Moisture (Yin), among others, makes it implausible that these advanced concepts were achieved independently. Rather, they were disseminated. I wonder if there was not perhaps a common source for a lot of ancient knowledge.
Regardless, from a practical viewpoint, the fact that these fundamental concepts of traditional medicine are largely synonymous and common makes it easier to accept a concept of ‘Traditional Medicine’, rather than TCM, Ayurveda, Tibetan Medicine etc.
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1 Galen, De febrium differentiis
2 The Vital Heat, the Inborn Pneuma and the Aether, Friedrich Solmsen, The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 77, Part 1 (1957), pp. 119-123
3 The Vital Heat, the Inborn Pneuma and the Aether, Friedrich Solmsen, The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 77, Part 1 (1957), pp. 119-123
4 Hippocrates, Aphorisms 1:15
5 Aristotle, De partibus animalium
6 Kuhn, Claudii Galeni opera omnia, 1821–1833, vol. VII 823.12 (repr. Hildesheim, 1964/65) 7 Avicenna, Canon, 141
8 Avicenna, Canon, 484
9 Avicenna, Canon, 485
10 Avicenna, Canon, 486
11 Annotations Upon the Five Books of Moses, Henry Ainsworth, 1639.
12 A-la-mode, Phlebotomy, No good fashion, Griffith, 1681
13 Avicenna, Canon, 60
14 Avicenna, Canon, 61
15 Daniel Sennertus, The Institutions or Fundamentals of the Whole Art, both or Physick and Chirurgery, in 5 Books, 1656