Dualism Set Medicine Back in the West

9 July 2017

In the first few centuries of the Christian era, medi­cine devel­oped more rapidly in the East than in the Latin West. The author of this paper presents the suggestion that, in great part, the differ­ence lies in the respective concepts of what actually constitutes the human person.

While the Orthodox Christian Church was con­vinced of the unity of body and soul, which mutually comple­ment each other, the Latin West became influenced by the Gnostic  and Platonistic  concept of “dualism “— the idea of a radical dichotomy between body and soul in the human person. This Gnostic  idea tends to see an enmity between body and soul, indeed, between all matter and that which is said to be spiritual. It conveys the idea that the body is a sort of prison of the soul, and that the soul is liberated from the body by death (or, at least partly, by extreme asceti­cism), whereupon, it experiences new freedom, rises to new heights, experiences new discoveries and wanders freely, now that it is, accord­ing to Gnosticis­m , free of its sinful body. In Gnostic  thought, the body and soul are seen as separate entities and, indeed, in many of the Gnostic sects, the soul was thought to have a “subtle physical body”1 of its own. This is the source of the unscriptural notion that the soul of a deceased person becomes an angle, with a complete, though subtle, physical body. Such an idea negates the general resurrection, as well as the Second Coming and Last Judgment by Christ.

In some extreme cases, the Gnostic  and neo-Platoni­st­s  con­cluded that, since the soul has a “subtle body,” the general resurrec­tion is only metaph­orical, for there would be no reason for God to reunite the soul with its old enemy, the body.

Among the Gnostic sects and neo-Platonists , there developed a separate “ascetic theology” which is generally at odds with major principles of the “patristic theology” of the great Church fathers. The very term “ascetic theology” can often be a syno­nym for “Gnos­tic sect.”

The development of bio-medicine (and of the psychologi­cal sciences) was greatly hindered by such concepts, because the body was conceived as being almost at odds with the soul, and therefore had to be treated separately, and in a lesser manner or not at all. Active research into physical illnesses and their treat­ments was not so important, since the destruction of the body was beneficial for the soul. Some element of this idea of dualism  was still present when Descartes (1596-1650) erroneously separated the mind from the body and asserted that the body could function quite well without the mind.2 Such dualism appears also in the epistemology of John Locke, one of the fathers of modern democracy, as well in the thought of several other Western philosophers. From them, it entered into the general consciousness of the West. Protestantism appears not to have comprehended the danger of such teachings.

In the Orthodox Christian concept, expressed by the holy fathers, soul and body are a single, harmoni­ous unit which together make up the “person” __ the human being. Thus, treatment of the illnesses of both soul and body were equally sacred acts and desirable. Christ Himself often cured one by treating the other. Thus, the healing of a bodily infirmity might be accomplished by the forgiveness of sins (Mt.9:2-7 ). Christ and, following Him, the saints of the Orthodox Church had the concept of what in our own time is called “holistic medicine.”

It is interesting that even the concept of a so-called “partial judgment” at death and the “actual judgment” upon resurrection, directly reflects this Orthodox concept, so important to scientific medicine, of the unity of soul and body. The person cannot be judged and rewarded when he is dissolved into two compon­ents, body separate from soul. Therefore, the soul, which remains alive at the death of the body is only a part of the person, but not the person, and so it can only be assigned to a state proper to itself at death, that is, a condition of joyous expectation or of dread. No judgment can be passed or rewards received until, in the resurrection, soul and body are reunited as the “person.” This “assignment” of the soul is called a “partial” judgment precisely because it is dealing with only a part of the person. The Ortho­dox Church fathers  are especially adamant in declaring that the soul alone is not the person, nor is the body.3 Thus, there is a “partial” judgment , which consists only in the soul becoming aware of its condition and the destiny it will share with the body in the resurrec­tion, and an actual judgment  can come about only when the reunion of soul and body restores the actual person.

Gnostic sects (such as the proponents of a separate “ascetic theology”) are inclined to the pagan idea that the soul, having, they suppose, a “subtle body” of its own, actually constitutes the complete person, and the body is only fictionally necessary. While this Gnosticism  appears period­ically among some monastic writers in the Orthodox Church (usually those under the influ­ence of Augustinian­ism ), it actually entered into the general theology of the Latin West. There one can also trace it to the influence of Plato ‘s Timaeus and Phaedros.

Nevertheless, eventually, the medical theories of the ancient Hellenic physi­cian Galen were dogmatized in the West, and exposure to the Islamic schools in Moslem Spain, and during the Crusades, spurred on Western medicine. The rise of humanism in the West also compensated for the problem of Gnostic dualism, and the awakening of the Western mind to science brought constant developments in medicine to the fore. After the destruction of Constantinople by the Crusaders in the 1200s, Byzantine learning was eclipsed by both Islam and Western Europe as all theEastern Empireexpended all of its energies on the struggle for survival and efforts to stave off its political and economic decline.

This article was originally published as the “Preface” in Archbishop Lazar’s book The Impact of Orthodox Christian Thought on Medicine (Synaxis Press, 2006).  It is posted here with permission.


1. Ironically, one or two of the holy fathers, in refuting certain of the Gnostics, also used the term “subtle body” in relationship to the soul. However, the fathers were using this term to refute the teaching of certain Gnostics that the soul was a “pure spirit” like God. Unlike the Gnostics who were attempting to assert that the soul is the actual person and, having a subtle body, does not need the physical body, the holy fathers used the expression “subtle body” simply to assert that the soul is not a pure spirit like God, but belongs to the realm of the created, material order. For the Gnostic, the term “subtle body” was intended to teach a total self sufficiency of the soul, while for the holy fathers, it was used to assert that the soul is created and not a pure, eternal spirit like God Himself.

2. René Descartes (1596-1650). see Damasio, Antonio, Descartes’s Error, (Grosset/Putnam, N.Y., 1994). Interestingly, Rene Descartes’s radical dualism was opposed by his student Princess Elizabeth of Palatine.

3. see The Soul, The Body and Death, (Synaxis Press, 1996) chapter 11