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Influence Of Christianity On Altruism And The Healing Art

Essenes--Cabalists and Gnostics--Object of Christ's

Mission--Stoics--Constantine and Justinian--Gladiatorial

Games--Orphanages--Support of the Poor--Hospitals--Their

Foundation--Christianity and Hospitals--Fabiola--Christian

Philanthropy--Demon Theories of Disease receive the Church's

Sanction--Monastic Medicine--Miracles of Healing--St. Paul--St.

Luke--Proclus--Practice of Anatomy denounc
d--Christianity the

prime factor in promoting Altruism.

The sect of the Essenes embraced part of the teaching of Christianity

among their other beliefs. They conceived that the Almighty had to be

propitiated by signs and symbols. Words, they considered, were the

direct gift of God to man, and, therefore, signs representing words were

of great avail. Hence arose the use of amulets and cabalistic signs, or,

rather, the common use, for they had been in evidence long prior to the

foundation of this sect. Amulets were worn on the person. The Jews had

phylacteries or bits of parchment on which were written passages from

the Scriptures. In the first century after Christ, Jews, Pythagoreans,

Essenes, and various sects of mystics combined and formed the

Cabalists and Gnostics. Their creed embraced the magic of the

Persians, the dreams of the Asclepiads, the numbers of Pythagoras, and

the theory of atoms of Democritus. The Sophists of Alexandria actually

regarded magic as a science. A section of the early Christians were

Gnostics, and were imbued with the philosophy of the Orientals.

According to the beliefs of the Cabalists and Gnostics, demons were the

cause of disease. These sects interrogated evil spirits to find out

where they lurked, and exorcised them with the help of charms and

talismans. Various geometric figures and devices were held to have power

against evil spirits. One of these figures was the device of two

triangles interlaced thus [Symbol: David's Star]. This was used

as a symbol of God, not only by Cabalists and Gnostics, but also

by Jews. The great majority of the early Christians opposed the

Gnostics, and repudiated and abhorred their strange mixture of

the Christian religion with Eastern philosophy.

Christ came into the world at a time when the evils of slavery were

probably at their worst. He did not directly condemn slavery, and the

reason of this is to be found in the study of the nature of His mission.

He came to regenerate the individual, and not, primarily, society. "His

language in innumerable similes showed that He believed that those

principles He taught would only be successful after long periods of time

and gradual development. Most of His figures and analogies in regard to

'the Kingdom of God' rest upon the idea of slow and progressive growth

or change. He undoubtedly saw that the only true renovation of the world

would come, not through reforms of institutions or governments, but

through individual change of character, effected by the same power to

which Plato appealed--the love-power--but a love exercised towards

Himself as a perfect and Divine model. It was the 'Kingdom of God' in

the soul which should bring on the kingdom of God in human society....

And yet ultimately this Christian system will be found at the basis of

all these great movements of progress in human history. But it began by

aiming at the individual, and not at society; and aiming alone at an

entire change of the affectional and moral tendencies."[33]

The moral teaching of the Stoics, second only to that of the Christian

religion, had an effect in preparing the way for the introduction of

humane principles of treatment for the bond and the oppressed. But the

Stoics, like many of the Christians, did not always make their actions

accord with their principles. Seneca tells of a Stoic who amused himself

by feeding his fish with pieces of his mutilated slaves. Juvenal, who

wrote when Stoicism was at the height of its influence, asks "how a

slave could be a man," and Gaius, the Stoical jurist, in the reign of

Marcus Aurelius, classes slaves with animals.

Constantine, in his own character, did not display the beauties of the

Christian religion, though his advisers who framed his laws acted under

the influence of Christian teaching. This emperor passed laws in

reference to slavery. He wrote to an archbishop: "It has pleased me for

a long time to establish that, in the Christian Church, masters can give

liberty to their slaves, provided they do it in presence of all the

assembled people with the assistance of Christian priests, and provided

that, in order to preserve the memory of the fact, some written document

informs where they sign as parties or as witnesses." In pagan times

there was a somewhat similar system of a master being able to redeem a

slave and register the redemption in one of the temples.

The laws of Justinian, influenced largely by the teaching of

Christianity, did a great deal to relieve the burdens of slavery. "We do

not transfer persons from a free condition into a servile--we have so

much at heart to raise slaves to liberty." In the words of one of the

Early Fathers of the Church, "No Christian is a slave; those born again

are all brothers."

Gladiatorial Games were condemned by the Stoics, but these

philosophers did not influence the common people. Constantine, in the

year before his acceptance of Christianity, gave a multitude of

prisoners as prey to the wild beasts of the arena. In A.D. 325 he

promulgated this law: "Bloody spectacles, in our present state of

tranquillity and domestic peace, do not please us; wherefore we order

that all gladiators be prohibited from carrying on their profession."

Human sacrifices, which at one time took place in Rome, even in the time

of Pliny and Seneca, were abolished under the same influence as checked

gladiatorial sports.

Constantine passed laws against the licentious plays and spectacles

which flourished in Greece and Rome in pagan times.

Seneca wrote: "Monstrous offspring we destroy; children too, if weak and

unnaturally formed from birth, we drown. It is not anger, but reason,

thus to separate the useless from the sound."[34] Julius Paulus, a

Stoic, in the time of the Emperor Severus (A.D. 222), held that the

mother who procured abortion, starved her child, or exposed it to die,

was, in each case, equally guilty of murder. The Christian Fathers, in

opposing these evils, were acting in accordance with the teaching of

their founder, and they incessantly condemned these evil practices, and

with greater and more far-reaching power than the Stoics. Although the

Stoics anticipated many of the reforms of the Christians, Stoicism

never had any penetrating effect on the masses of the people, and

differed in this respect from Christianity. The chief obstacle to the

prevention of the exposure of children was the great amount of pauperism

which prevailed in the Roman Empire, and Christian emperors and councils

had no choice but to allow many of these unfortunate children to be

taken as slaves, rather than that they should perish from cold and

hunger, or be torn by ravenous beasts. The pagan emperors, it is true,

had done something to found orphanages, but these institutions were not

common until the Middle Ages. Trajan in A.D. 100 supported 5,000

children at the expense of the State, and endowments were created by him

for this purpose. Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius made similar

benefactions, and Pliny endowed a charity for poor children.

In the pre-Christian period, social clubs existed for the purpose of

people having meals together, helping one another, and providing burial

funds. The Emperor Julian condemned the Christians for supporting not

only their own poor, but also poor strangers outside their faith. For

ages the Church took charge of the poor. Her enemies said that as much

pauperism was created as was relieved, and, no doubt, as is usual in the

distribution of charity, the good done was not unmixed with evil.


With reference to the important question of the foundation of hospitals,

there are two opposing opinions--one, attributing their foundation

almost entirely to Christianity,[35] and the other denying to

Christianity any pre-eminent influence.[36] The truth lies between these

two conflicting views, but nearer to the statement of Mr. Brace than of

Mr. McCabe. The truths and influences of Christianity, in the mind of

the latter author, are obscured by the many errors of the Church,

especially in the Early and Middle Ages; and it is of the utmost

importance to distinguish, where necessary, between the teaching of the

Founder of Christianity as disclosed in the New Testament, and the

teaching of the Church which made many very evident errors, and whose

practice soon became different from that inculcated by its Founder, so

that at times the Christianity of the Church was as different from

Christ's teaching as the vine of Sodom from the grapes of Eshcol. The

fact that Christianity emerged from this eclipse points to it as

something more than a humanly devised system.

In very early times, the sick were allowed to remain at the temples for

the treatment of their diseases, and medical students also attended for

instruction. This system was the hospital system of later times,

although the temples were not hospitals in the present sense of the

word. The system in vogue in the temples of AEsculapius in Greece and

Rome has already been described in this book, but the temples of Saturn

served the same purpose in Egypt four thousand years before Christ.

Professor Ebers of Leipzig, a high authority on the subject, says that

Heliopolis undoubtedly had a clinique in connection with the temple. The

Emperor Asoka founded many hospitals in Hindustan, and Buddhists and

Mohammedans both possessed hospitals ("Encyclopaedia Britannica").

Patients were attracted to temples, not only by receiving the services

of the priest-physicians, but also in the superstitious belief that

special virtue attached to the precincts of sacred buildings. Thus, in

the temples of AEsculapius, sick people tried to get as near to the altar

as possible. "It may fairly be surmised that the disuse of these temples

in Christian times made the necessity of hospitals more apparent, and so

led to their institution, in much the same way as in this country the

suppression of monasteries, which had largely relieved the indigent

poor, made the necessity of poor laws immediately evident."[37] During

Hadrian's reign the first notice of a military hospital appears.

The iatria, or tabernae medicae, described by Galen and others, were

not for in-patients, but of the nature of dispensaries for the reception

of out-patients. Seneca refers to valetudinaria, rooms set aside for the

sick in large private houses. The first hospital in Rome in Christian

times was founded by Fabiola, a wealthy lady, at the end of the fourth

century. Attached to it was a convalescent home in the country.

Pulcheria, later, built and endowed several hospitals at Constantinople,

and these subsequently increased in number. Pauline abandoned wealth and

social position and went to Jerusalem, and there established a hospital

and sisterhood under the direction of St. Jerome. St. Augustine founded

a hospital at Hippo. McCabe states justly: "In the new religious order a

philanthropic heroism was evolved that was certainly new to Europe. In

the whole story of Stoicism there is no figure like that of a Catherine

of Sienna sucking the sores of a leper, or a Vincent de Paul." It

appears evident that Christianity was an important factor in the

foundation of hospitals and charitable institutions, not directly, but

from its beneficent influence on the character of individuals; and the

Roman Church, in this respect, acted in conformity with the teachings of

the Christian faith.

Of greater importance is the consideration of the influence of

Christianity, and of the Church, on the investigation and elimination of

disease. In this matter the Church deserves the severest censure. It is

no exaggeration to say that she hindered the scientific progress of the

world for centuries. She applied to the explanation of the causation of

disease, the demon theories inherited from Egypt, Persia, and the

East. The Bible itself reflects the views on demonology current at the

time of the events recorded. If demons were the cause of disease,

logically the treatment of diseases should have been in the hands of

priests, not of physicians. The priests held that they were the proper

people to interpret the will of the Almighty; diseases were direct

dispensations of Providence.

"It is demons," says Origen, "which produce famine, unfruitfulness,

corruptions of the air, and pestilence. They hover concealed in clouds,

in the lower atmosphere, and are attracted by the blood and incense

which the heathen offer to them as gods."[38] "All diseases of

Christians," wrote Augustine, "are to be ascribed to these demons:

chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea! even the

guiltless new-born infants." Hippocrates, long before the Christian era,

wrote with great wisdom in reference to the so-called sacred diseases:

"To me it appears that such affections are just as much divine as all

others are, and that no one disease is either more divine or more human

than another; but all are alike divine, for each has its own nature, and

no one arises without a natural cause."[39]

The devil might be driven out in disgust, it was thought, by the use of

disgusting materials--ordure, the grease made from executed criminals,

the livers of toads, the blood of rats, and so on. The same belief in

demoniacal possession led to the most inhuman treatment of lunatics, and

the Church in this respect is put to shame when we compare its action

with the wiser and more humane practice of the Moors. This belief helped

to strangle medical progress for centuries, and is directly attributable

to the Church. As late as 1583, the Jesuit fathers at Vienna boasted

that they had cast out 12,642 devils. That God dispenses both health and

disease is a very different belief from that involved in "demoniacal

possession." Travellers in remote parts of the East at the present day

tell of alleged cases of demoniacal possession, but investigation does

not reveal any difference between these cases and epilepsy or acute


In the first centuries of the Christian era men demanded overt signs of

the favour of God, and the objects of veneration kept in the churches

and monasteries were held to be capable of curing disease. The Latin

Church had either a saint or a relic of a saint to cure nearly every

ill that flesh is heir to. St. Apollonia was invoked against toothache;

St. Avertin against lunacy; St. Benedict against stone; St. Clara

against sore eyes; St. Herbert in hydrophobia; St. John in epilepsy; St.

Maur in gout; St. Pernel in ague; St. Genevieve in fever; St. Sebastian

in plague; St. Ottila for diseases of the head; St. Blazius for the

neck; St. Laurence and St. Erasmus for the body; St. Rochus and St. John

for diseases of the legs and feet. St. Margaret was invoked for diseases

of children and the dangers of childbirth.

What the influence of Christ's life on earth on the medical art of His

time was is a difficult question. It must be remembered that He came to

save the souls and not the bodies of men, not to rapidly alter social

conditions nor to teach science. The eternal life of man was the

subject of transcendent importance, and it is no doubt true that many of

the early Christians neglected their bodies for the cure of their souls.

As against this, the gospel of love taught that all men are brothers,

both bond and free, and this led to mutual help in physical suffering,

and to the foundation of charitable institutions. In the times of

persecution of the Christians many of them welcomed suffering and death

as the portal to eternal bliss.

It has been asserted that the miraculous cures wrought by Christ for

His own purposes were an intimation to His followers to neglect the

ordinary means of natural cure, and that this placed a Christian doctor

in the position of having to abandon his calling. This is not so. To St.

Luke--a Christian physician and the writer of the third Gospel and the

Acts of the Apostles--the performance by Christ of miracles of healing

presented no difficulties, for he was the travelling medical adviser of

St. Paul, and accompanied him on three journeys, from Troas to Philippi,

from Philippi to Jerusalem, and from Caesarea to Rome (A.D. 62). St. Paul

wrote: "For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble

which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above

strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life, but we had the

sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves,

but in God, which raiseth the dead: who delivered us from so great a

death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that He will yet deliver us."

St. Paul exercised faith, but also used the means of cure prescribed by

"the beloved physician." In a very scholarly book published by the

Dublin University Press in 1882, the Rev. W. K. Hobart, LL.D., shows

that St. Luke was acquainted with the technical medical terms of the

Greek medical writers. St. Luke was an Asiatic Greek. Dr. Hobart writes:

"Finally, it should not be left out of account that, in any illness from

which he might be suffering, there was no one to whom St. Paul would be

likely to apply with such confidence as to St. Luke, for it is probable

that, in the whole extent of the Roman Empire, the only Christian

physician at this time was St. Luke." In later years the pretence of

performing miracles to cure diseases had a great effect in advancing

superstition and retarding scientific investigation.

Tacitus and Suetonius record miracles alleged to have been performed by

Vespasian. He is said to have anointed the eyes of a blind man at

Alexandria with the royal spittle, and to have restored his sight.

Another case was that of a man who had lost the use of his hands, and

Vespasian touched them with his foot and thus restored their function.

It is interesting to follow the career of Proclus, the last rector of

the Neoplatonic School, "whose life," says Gibbon, "with that of his

scholar Isidore, composed by two of their most learned disciples,

exhibits a most deplorable picture of the second childhood of human

reason." By long fasting and prayer Proclus pretended to possess the

supernatural power of expelling all diseases.

The priests of the Church denounced the practice of Anatomy, and so

changed the progress made by the Alexandrian School, and by men like

Galen, into the ignorance of a thousand years. The body was the temple

of the Holy Ghost, and should not therefore be desecrated by

dissection. "Strangers' rests" and hospitals were connected with the

monasteries, and were exceedingly useful, notably in the time of the

Crusades, but these Church institutions were in a very insanitary

condition, for the maxim that cleanliness is next to godliness had

little application among the religious orders of the Middle Ages. Dr.

Walsh attempts to show that the Reformers blackened the fair fame of the

Church they had left, and states that it is to "this unfortunate state

of affairs, and not real opposition on the part of the Popes to

science," that we owe the belief in "the supposed opposition between the

Church and Science."[40] That the Popes did something to foster medical

science in a spasmodic kind of way, that papal physicians were appointed

and that the Church exercised control over some seats of learning may be

freely admitted. That the monasteries preserved some of the Latin

classics that they were not all corrupt, and that all monks were not

ignorant and idle, are facts beyond dispute. No doubt, too, the enemies

of Christianity have overstated their case, but when all is said, the

fact remains that the Church enjoyed great opportunities for promoting

knowledge and investigating disease, and failed to avail itself of them

to such an extent that for ages no real progress was made. This is

certainly not an extreme opinion. It would be nearer the truth to say

that not only was no progress made, but that the advances made by

Hippocrates, by the school of Alexandria, by Celsus, and by Galen, were


In conclusion, in spite of the dreadful blunders and perversions of the

Church in the Early and Middle Ages, and the partial eclipse which

Christianity suffered, the teaching of its Founder slowly but surely

ended the harsh and cruel ways of the pagans, and was the prime factor

in promoting the altruism of later times, of which medical knowledge and

medical service form a very important part.