I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on and pay tribute to the life and achievements of this extraordinary man, which are almost without precedent in the history of science. For as far as I know, homeopathy is the only extant methodology for medicine or any other learned profession that was conceived and brought forth fully-formed from a single human brain, and that has continued to grow and develop, yet remained essentially intact for a period of two hundred years.
Similarly, there is no other profession that I know of in which those who carry on its work are content and even proud to acknowledge their greatest achievements as basically footnotes to the books he wrote and the principles he enunciated so long ago. Nor is there a more precise or suitable measurement of the gulf which still separates the homeopathic viewpoint from that of conventional medicine. While the latter rightly prides itself on its readiness for change, its astonishing capacity to remake itself on short notice, not only the Law of Similars, but the “Vital Force,” the Totality of Symptoms, the Single Remedy, the Minimum Dose, and other basic principles remain as fresh and timeless today as when the Master first discovered them.
In part the uniqueness of Hahnemann’s achievement lies in the fact that what we have come to know as “homeopathy” actually comprises two radically different projects in a single package, each closely bound up with the other, and both rightly bearing his name. To the public, it is best known as a set of techniques for healing the sick, a methodology that includes detailed instructions for interviewing patients and for preparing, investigating, selecting, and administering medicinal agents. Indeed it is at this technical level that Hahnemann continued to experiment throughout his career, and where homeopathy has always seemed utterly strange and even improbable to most people, and thus controversial and vulnerable to its many detractors as well. And it is here, too, that its practitioners are most grateful to him at that moment of truth when we get to place a tiny bit of fairy dust on a patient’s tongue and to savor that look of incredulity that precedes the miracle to come.
But to those of us who practice it, homeopathy is also a philosophy, not only in the ordinary sense of a set of ideas and opinions about health and disease, but also technically, as a coherent system of principles that all follow logically from a few axiomatic premises that cannot themselves be proved, in the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s whimsical definition:
. . . the point of philosophy is to start with something so obvious as not to seem worth stating, and to end up with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.1
Not only the Law of Similars, but also the materia medica, the single remedy, the minimum dose, the “Laws of Cure,” and the other cardinal principles of homeopathy all seem to follow inevitably from the concept of the “vital force,” without which they make very little sense, and the “totality of symptoms,” its applied or clinical aspect, upon which the methodology itself depends.
Homeopathy owes its peculiar longevity to this happy conjunction of both elements, of philosophy and method. Gifted thinkers have always left behind enduring philosophies that still speak to us across the centuries, but without a practical method of applying them in the world they survive only as ideal possibilities as yet unrealized. Conversely, modern physicians and scientists have contributed a wealth of technical innovations that by transforming medical knowledge and practice have also engendered new operating principles to keep pace with them.
Only homeopathy, Hahnemann’s brainchild, has managed to sustain itself without fundamental change, because it is both philosophy and method, such that even its practical applications, while reflecting and keeping abreast of technical progress, remain firmly grounded in principles that still generate relevant and valid conclusions, and are therefore still operative to tht extent. While it does not qualify as “hard science” like physics and chemistry for precisely that reason, because the “Law of Similars,” the “Vital Force,” and the “Totality of Symptoms” are not subject to experimental proof or disproof like ordinary hypotheses, homeopathy remains thoroughly scientific in its attitude and subject matters, and is entirely amenable to objective, scientific, and even experimental corroboration by means of the consistency, accuracy, relevance, and predictive value of the system as a whole.
Its closest analogue in modern history if Freudian psychoanalysis, which was likewise conceived and developed by a single great mind, and which not only combined a rigorous analytic philosophy of experience with a detailed methodology for professional practice, but also gave rise to a disciplined and committed movement that still plays an important part on the world stage.
The similarity becomes even closer and more fruitful when we consider the practical difficulties that have beset homeopathy from the very beginning and are still very much in evidence today. For Hahnemann as for Freud, his tireless quest for immutable Laws of Nature, his overriding ambition to see his discoveries made good in the world, and the sheer force of his intellect all conspired to found a sectarian movement, based on strict adherence to his principles, that demanded the absolute loyalty and obedience of its adherents, and that thus increasingly fortified itself against and isolated itself from dissenting cultural influences from outside.
In spite of his distinguished reputation as an expert chemist and authority on the preparation of medicines, Hahnemann’s unorthodox discoveries and often strident claims were greeted with silence from most of his colleagues, and aroused active opposition from the local apothecaries, whose very livelihood seemed threatened above all by his insistence on the single remedy, and on the physician preparing his medicines himself.2
Even after his success in treating epidemic diseases earned him a lectureship and made him famous throughout Europe, Hahnemann continued to be ridiculed and even persecuted for his heresies until 1822, when a wealthy patron gave him shelter and a stipend to publish his writings.3 In addition to the Organon of Medicine, his original text, which ran to six editions, and the Materia Medica Pura and Chronic Diseases, his other major works, he wrote dozens of technical articles and monographs, as well as maintaining a voluminous correspondence, and continuing to teach, practice, and conduct experimental research until the very end of his long life.
In his old age he remarried and moved to Paris, where at last he enjoyed wealth and celebrity, and died secure in the knowledge that his students and followers were practicing quality homeopathy throughout Europe and in America. Over fifty years after his death, his remains were finally laid to rest in the Père Lachaise, fitly crowned by his own epitaph, Non inutilis vixi, which means “I have not lived in vain.” Driven by ambition and gifted by intellect, he left us an elegant philosophy of health and illness and a practical methodology of healing the sick that have stood the test of time.
At the same time, his autocratic style and imperious temper not only alienated many promising students, but also inadvertently encouraged a a profusion of opposing factions and interpretations, each claiming legitimate inspiration and descent from some aspect or phase of his thought. The unending flood of invective against faint-hearted prescribers who still cling to allopathic philosophy, use several remedies at a time, or treat the disease category rather than the patient all originated with diatribes emanating from the pen of the Master himself.
Defending the principles of homeopathy as sacred, quasi-religious truth, Hahnemann and his disciples were, as indeed many still remain, harshly intolerant of all who appear to deviate from his vision, creating an absolutist dogma that still expects and indeed attracts persecution, as well as a tradition of internecine ideological warfare that has continued to divide the movement through periods of success as well as decline. A tragic example was the abortive career of the Leipzig Homeopathic Hospital, a project which Hahnemann had long cherished, and which would probably have succeeded had he not turned the Law of Similars into a kind of loyalty oath by insisting that anyone claiming the title of homeopath be made to swear allegiance to it.
In 1832, physicians of the Leipzig Homeopathic Union put up the money to establish a hospital and medical school, and selected Dr. Moritz Müller, a prominent, reputable clinician and enthusiastic supporter of homeopathy, as acting Medical Director. It was understood that Dr. Benjamin Schweikert, an experienced classical prescriber, would eventually relocate to the area to take over the post, but the latter refused to serve without pay, and then backed out entirely when the original sponsors voted to admit all interested physicians, even if they were not yet ready to practice homeopathy exclusively.4
This seemingly well-meaning compromise infuriated Hahnemann, who turned on Müller and the “Half-homeopaths” of Leipzig in a scathing letter to the local newspaper that not only ruined the former’s long and notable career, but also effectively insured the failure of the hospital itself. I quote a few choice passages:
I have heard that some in Leipzig who pretend to be Homeopathists allow their patients to choose whether they shall be treated homeopathically or allopathically. Whether they are not as yet thoroughly grounded in the true spirit of the new doctrine, or lack due benevolence to their species, or do not scruple to dishonor their profession for the sake of sordid gain, at least let them not expect me to recognize them as true disciples!
Bloodletting, the application of leeches and Spanish flies, the use of setons and mustard plasters, salves and aromatics, emetics and purgatives, destructive doses of mercury and quinine: these and other quackeries, combined with the use of homeopathic remedies, identify these crypto-Homeopaths as surely as a lion is known by his claws. Let such be avoided, for they regard neither the welfare of the patient nor the honor of the profession. Practice honorably as an Allopath, as yet ignorant of anything better, or a pure Homeopath for the welfare of mankind. But as long as you wear this double mask, you will be a contemptible hybrid of a physician, of all the most pernicious.
From now on, he who hesitates to prove himself a Homeopath in word and deed should never come to me expecting a friendly reception. We are considering an institution for demonstrating the efficacy of pure Homeopathy on the sick before the eyes of the whole world. Therefore I solemnly protest against the employment of such bastard Homeopath either as teacher or attendant. Should any false doctrine be taught in the name of Homeopathy, or patients be treated with any imitation of Allopathic practice, I will raise my voice and warn the world against such treachery.5
Hahnemann’s all-too-human character flaws need not detract from the greatness of his achievement. It does us as little credit to blame him for the intransigence and fanaticism of our debates today as to abdicate responsibility for how we behave by writing it off to abusive parents or a difficult childhood. Indeed it must be admitted that if Hahnemann or his disciples had been any less zealous about preserving his principles, it is quite likely that neither the method nor the philosophy that we find so elegant and beautiful today would have survived in the face of both the persecution and the seductiveness of conventional medicine, which tried for so long and so powerfully to destroy it and very nearly succeeded not so long ago.
To understand our own sectarian mentality, we have to re-examine that part of Hahnemann’s legacy that still rings true to us, and that we still reaffirm today, for reasons of our own. What has always divided us amongst ourselves and from the medical profession as a whole is simply a logical consequence of the absolute moral force we do in fact accord to the basic principles of homeopathy, first as an objective law of health and disease, and above all as a prescriptive guide to our conduct as health professionals, which does indeed imply the right and even the duty to set standards for ourselves over and above those of our various licenses.
It should occasion no surprise or undue disappointment if Hahnemann was a human being like ourselves, with his full quota of human failings and unattractive qualities. We can still be thankful for his mastery of the healing art, and for his having used his splendid gifts so long and so well for the improvement of our understanding, the development of our practice, and the benefit of mankind. He left us an art that is still beloved throughout the world, and a philosophy of health and illness that will endure long after the homeopathic method as we now know it becomes obsolete. For these great blessings we remain deeply grateful.
1.Russell, B., “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” in Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901-1950, Allen and Unwin, London, 1968, p. 193.
2.Bradford, T. L., Life and Letters of Hahnemann, Boericke & Tafel, Philadelphia, 1895, pp. 113-116.
3.Ibid., pp. 120-134.
4.Ibid., pp. 292-313.
5.Ibid., pp. 300-302, passim.