Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Healthy Skepticism

Just finished "Clean: a History of Personal Hygiene and Purity" by Virgina Smith, which traces the cultural history of cleanliness, hygiene, and purity back to the neolithic era. The book examines the role of purification, cosmetics, and adornment with no small sense of wonder and examines what clean has meant in different places and times. This is far reaching work of social history (the modern earth goddess cult might be surprised to learn on page 58 that the fertility goddess fulfilled the same role to the ancients as porn stars do today), and Virgina Smith stresses that ideas about cleanliness, health, and beauty follow repeatable cycles.

The holistic and alternative medicine practices have a long history of being enshrined and intertwined with a transcendent spirituality and have a habit of reappearing and adapting itself to an era's dominant ideology. For example, the ascendant English Puritans embraced cleanliness and wove it into their view of God and the superiority of an intellectual life. I think this meant more cold baths.

What exists today as holistic medicine consists of the rag tag remnants of a multi-thousand year tradition that was unprepared for the discovery in the 19th century of pathogenic microbes. Suddenly seeking balance, purity, and beauty in life became less important than avoiding indifferent but deadly germ. Clean water supplies, sewers, vaccinations, and clean hands were now the key to a long and healthy life. Science was to become the determiner of health, not personal rituals.

This is not to say that we don't have a fascination with beauty. If anything, the cosmetics of the upper classes are now available for the first time for everyone. For my part, I am happy that cold baths and running around nude in the snow are now no longer mandatory.

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