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Observations placeholder

Cheyne, George - A mystic conversion and the healing path



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Dr Penelope Gouk – Music melancholy and medical spirits

The way that earlier humoral theories could simply be translated into the language of experimental philosophy and mechanics can be exemplified in the work of the Scottish medical practitioner George Cheyne (1671-1743).

 From the outset of his career, Cheyne (who was an Episcopalian) concerned himself with the religious and moral implications of medical thought. His Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion (London, 1705), for example, used Newtonian mechanics as a means of proving the existence of a deity, much as Richard Bentley and other Boyle lecturers were also doing around this time. In 1706, however, Cheyne experienced a conversion to mysticism that came to have a profound impact on his medical theories, which became increasingly vitalist. As Guerrini has noted, analogy now became for Cheyne the unifying principle between God and nature, a 'Simple, yet Beautiful Harmony, running through all Works of Nature in an uninterrupted chain of Causes and Effects'. It is not altogether surprising to find that Ficino's spiritus, in the guise of Newton's aether theory, now also came to play an important explanatory role in his work.

In his Essay on Health and Long Life (London, 1724), Cheyne was concerned to show the direct and causal connection between immorality and ill health. Here the six Galenic non-naturals, are equated with the seven deadly sins, so that the prevalence of nervous diseases (in his own practice at Bath, for example) is taken as evidence of overexcited passions. And while diseases brought on by the passions may be cured by medicine, Cheyne claims that the preventing or calming the passions themselves - which is the secret of long life - 'is the business, not of Physick, but of Virtue and Religion'.

It is notable that unlike Brocklesby, for example, Cheyne does not mention music as either a remedy or a cause of particular diseases in his discussion of the passions. It is, however, invoked as a means of conceptualizing the harmony between soul and body. First, Cheyne claims that the soul resides in the brain, 'where all the Nervous fibres terminate inwardly, like a Musician by a well-tuned Instrument'. On the basis of this analogy it can be said that if the organ of the human body is in tune, its 'music' will be distinct and harmonious, but if it is spoiled or 'broken', it will not yield 'true Harmony'.

Cheyne continues the analogy by suggesting that men who have 'springy, Iively and elastic fibres' for nerves have the quickest sensations, and 'generally excel in the faculty of imagination'. They are also, however, most susceptible to nervous diseases. By contrast, idiots, peasants and mechanics have rigid and unyielding fibres, which means that they have fewer passions and are therefore more healthy.

Cheyne developed this musical model further in his English Malady: Or a Treatise of Nervous Diseases (London, 1733). Here he considers that that elasticity of the nervous fibres might be due to an extremely fine and active spirit which

may make the cement between the human Soul and Body, and may be the Instrument or Medium of all its Actions and Functions, where material Organs are not manifest: And may possibly be the cause of the other Secret and Inscrutable Mysteries of nature, and the same (for ought I know) with Sir Isaac Newton's infinitely fine and elastic fluid or Spirit. ... To conclude this dark subject of animal Spirits if they must be Suppos'd, we may affirm they cannot be of the Nature of any Fluid we have notion of.

Few of Cheyne's medical contemporaries may have shared his beliefs that nature was the sensorium of God, that gravity and God's love were aspects of the same universal principle, or that body and spirit were part of a continuum and capable of changing into each other. Yet they implicitly endorsed his musical model of nervous action, and continued to wonder about the manner in which the mind and body interact.

The source of the experience

Cheyne, Dr George

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps