Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Balance - part II

We depend on internal balances in our bodies to keep us alive, and some or many illnesses come from that balance slipping. What about balance in the universe around us?

The wider universe, astronomers physicists etc tell us, is a place of unimaginable power, randomness and (according to Hubble) beauty. Exploding supernovae, colliding planetary bodies and collapsing neutron stars, let alone black holes, are not places of balance - though just maybe there is a larger, all-encompassing balance in it all, I don't know enough physics to take that further; some would call such a balance God.

In our own planet, balance sustains us here too. Air pressures, water temperatures, ocean currents all move together, and when they are out of the usual balances, you get - hurricane Sandy etc. When the tectonic plates are not evenly balanced, you get movements to put them back in balance and - people suffer earthquakes.

A holistic view of medicine is almost a commonplace now - looking at the whole person to see where in her systems something is out of balance, rather than finding a magic bullet drug to deal with the symptoms of one problem. (Mind you, magic bullets are very useful sometimes!) The quest is to get the person back in balance, as far as possible.

In medieval and Renaissance times, it was taken as a commonplace that we are composed of four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.) OK, it's quaint - remember, they hadn't yet found out that blood circulates round the body, and they had little idea of what the brain did. They believed that if the four humours weren't in balance, you fell ill, or at best behaved oddly. Too much blood made you choleric, i.e. bad tempered. Too much black bile made you depressed. The work of Shakespeare and his pals is full of it - one of Ben Jonson's plays is called "Every Man Out Of His Humour." These people were not stupid primitives. They simply made wonderful work out of prevailing beliefs, which is all you can ask of any artist at any time, surely.

The four humours corresponded to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, and again, these elements were made to stand in for personality types, or even types of creature: Ariel, in "The Tempest," is all air. Caliban is all earth.

Furthermore (hang in there please, there is a point to all this) the elements and the humours were influenced by the motion of the stars and planets. Human affairs were thus affected by heavenly bodies. "When beggars die, there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." (Cue convenient comet...) And vice versa.

Before the great 17th and 17th century astronomers - Coppernickers, Galileo, Kepler and all - everyone thought the sun and the planets and the stars revolved around the earth. They were fixed on crystal spheres, which made impossibly beautiful music, if you were spiritually advanced i.e. holy enough to hear it - the music of the spheres. Outside the stars and planets was - God in heaven. The stars etc, and of course heaven, are unchangeable. Below the moon (i.e. on earth) all is change, all is mortal. On earth was mankind, higher than the animals but "a little lower than the angels." At the centre of the earth was hell, and at the centre of hell was - Satan himself. God-angels-mankind-animals-devils-Satan.

(This is all too neat, there were lots of variations...but for now...)

So what is sometimes called the Great Chain of Being linked God in heaven through the stars and down to mankind on earth, trying to be good so as to ascend to heaven. Stars etc affect our moods, our health, the events in our lives. It's all linked. The virtuous, healthy person keeps it all in balance; the sinful or just plain ill person has lost their balance. Huge injustices on earth will be mirrored in the skies, as happens when Julius Caesar is murdered, Macbeth kills Duncan.

OK, the universe, we learn from science, isn't like that. (Put God where you like, He's not the issue here.) Our bodies don't work like that. When awful things happen on earth, the stars couldn't give a damn - they are too busy being convulsed in beautiful and terrifyingly vast explosions.

But hang on - out of all this, lets pull The Balance. Because we are not just machines to be oiled by medicines. Emotions affect physical well-being affects emotions. The passage of the seasons affects us, via amounts of sunlight falling on us. Our brains are continually modified by how we use them, i.e. by the impact of The World on them - printed book, or X-Box? Both will influence the structural working of your brain. The world moves through us as we move through the world. 

The beautiful intimacy of the old Chain of Being myths no longer convince. 

But we generate and expend energy every day seeking The Balance, at which we will function best - healthiest, happiest. Millions of people go walking, listen to music, meditate, in order to feel balanced. When we run out of energy, our bodies give way, and we die. We have had to give up the balance through which we live.

The pre-Copernican universe, the view of our bodily workings pre-modern medical science, these myths were just rather lovely ways of trying to comprehend order and balance in the universe. We know enough now to maintain essential balances, which is just as well, because order and balance isn't inherent in the workings of the universe, in any physical sense. We know enough to hold the balance, but all too often we don't seem to be able to bring the knowledge to bear.

This isn't my clearest ever post, but there is something here I don't want to lose sight of.


  1. I agree. Balance. If only I had known I would have tried to achieve it much earlier in my life.

    The constant is balance. Balance leads to nobility, Nobility to what is above, What is above to the Way, The Way to the eternal. To the end of life There is no danger. (Tao Te Ching)

  2. Ah, but it is with you know, Arkers. You match my ramblings with the Tao and I therefore and hereby name you: Sage of The Balance.

    I wonder how much we can strive for the balance, and how much we simply have to allow it to settle - to move out of the way things that unbalance us?