Where philosophy and medicine overlap

Mariami Shanshashvili
Tbilisi, Georgia

 

Achilles bandaging Patroclus’s wounded arm.
Ink drawing after an Attic cup by the potter
Sosias, c.500 B.C. Achilles bandaging
Patroclus’s wounded arm. Ink drawing after
an Attic cup by the potter Sosias, c. 500 B.C.
Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

In Plato’s Charmides there is a remark by Socrates that is neither distinctively impressive nor remarkably original but interesting for the notably broad range of references, including the perception characteristic to ancient Greeks, the origins of the Greek medicine, and the philosophy of Empedocles, Alcmaeon, and other Pre-Socratics.1 In this passage young Charmides, who has a headache, addresses Socrates with the hope of a cure. Socrates responds that one should not attempt to cure the head without the whole body, or the body without the soul, because one cannot cure the part without curing the whole.2

It is not by accident that Socrates takes as a priori judgment that health and well-being are grounded in wholeness and unity. Holistic perception is a signature of Greek mentality in general. This holistic attitude is best and most vividly crystallized in kalokagathíā (“beautiful and good”)—a Greek ideal of attaining both physical and spiritual perfection. Such holistic perception had not only been a familiar concept in the beginnings of rational Greek medicine, but also played a crucial part in its development. Another essential motif is a philosophical teaching of Empedocles, which could be regarded as a core of Greek medicine. Empedocles was not only a philosopher but also a physician.

The philosophy underlying the origin of Greek rational medicine modeled the conceptual basis for the future growth of medicine. It is important to remember that the two disciplines developed side by side and are connected by multiple common threads. The dynamics of each discipline’s development helps us to comprehend them with greater clarity what they give to each other and to the common task of knowledge.

The first notable intersection of medicine and philosophy can be found in Alcmaeon of Croton, an early Greek medical writer and philosopher who deserves particular attention because he contributed major ideas to both disciplines. In Alcmaeon’s thought are the influences of Anaximenes. According to surviving testimonia (DK fragment 212, 2014), Alcmaeon considers air, Arche (“first principle”) of Anaximenes, as an active vital element. Air, becoming pneuma, was transmitted directly to the brain. This explains why Alcmaeon considered the brain as the most powerful organ: it hosted reason, the strongest capacity, and was reinforced by pneuma, the most powerful building block.3 It is interesting that Alcmaeon imagined the brain as the seat of reason (this opinion was later adopted and developed by Philolaos of Tarentum). Here we find a possible parallel with Plato. In Phaedo (96b) Socrates states that as a youngster he was curious as to whether it is the brain that gives sensation, from which come memory and opinion and finally, knowledge.4 Even though Plato disagreed with this theory, if we assume that there is some kind of reference to Alcmaeon, we can draw meaningful conclusions. Alcmaeon has long been regarded as the father of neuroscience. Relying on aforementioned fragments and assumptions, we could even discuss the epistemological connotations of his theories.5 And that would provide the best illustration of overlap between philosophy and medicine.

Alcmaeon also thought the human body was constituted by opposite elements: hot and cold, wet and dry, etc. If these elements are balanced, the body is healthy, but domination of any one element causes sickness.6 It would be a natural reaction to first think of Heraclitus and his “unity of opposites,” but this idea is associated more closely with Empedocles and his theory of elements. It is unclear how Alcmaeon and Empedocles were related, but similarity between their tracks of thought is apparent. According to Empedocles, the entire world was built by four original elements: water, air, earth, and fire. To maintain life, two powers, “love” and “strife”, which control the elements, need to be balanced. The human body was also constructed by these elements, coherence of which lead to health and discord of which lead to sickness. We see reception of four-element theory in Philistion of Locri and also and more importantly in The Hippocratic Corpus, the medical magnum opus of antiquity.

Before turning to Hippocrates, there is one more parallel between Empedocles and Alcmaeon. Empedocles viewed blood as a perfect physical substance. Like Alcmaeon, he believed that breath was conveyed by blood, but as opposed to Alcmaeon, Empedocles put higher meaning in blood as he considered it to be a seat of consciousness.7 Heraclitus believed the seat of reason was the stomach’s second layer.8

A few more words should be said about pneuma: Diogenes of Apollonia, who was more influenced by Anaximenes and Anaxagoras rather than Empedocles, considered air to be not only a vital force, but a divine and intellectual principle (reference to Anaxagora’s “cosmic mind”).9 Each organism lives by breathing and dies because of air deficit. For Diogenes, even reproduction was linked with air.10

The next and most important medical work is The Hippocratic Corpus. Even though it is unknown which parts of the Corpus belong directly to Hippocrates, we can boldly claim he was the protagonist behind this work. The whole collection is infused with one essential theme—reflective connection between microcosm (human) and macrocosm (universe). The human body and the whole universe depend on the same principles, a motif adopted from Pre-Socratic philosophy and its findings (for example Heraclitus, who thought the same Logos directed man and the universe). Plato in Phaedrus attributes to Hippocrates an opinion that nothing can be known about the body alone without the knowledge of “the whole.”11 It is debatable whether “whole” here stands for the whole universe or just the whole body. If the first is the case, then we will have a meaningful reference to the Hippocratic micro-macrocosmic paradigm.12 One should note that Hippocratic medicine imagined the healthy body as a balance of four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, each having its own characteristics. The parallel with Empedocles’ four elements is evident.13 An overabundance of each humor resulted in a certain diseases, such as melancholy. But interestingly enough, the term “melancholic” seems to have been coined by Aristotle’s school rather than Hippocrates’.14

Several other medical assumptions are found in Pre-Socratic philosophy, such as Heraclitus saying that drunkenness was caused by dampening of the soul15 and Empedocles thinking the eye was fiery.16 But all of these examples convey an important message: the range of thought of ancient philosophy is much broader than some imagine. Roots of science, politics, medicine, and many other disciplines emerged from Pre-Socratic philosophy. Galen, an influential medical author, wrote that the best doctor should at the same time be a philosopher.17

Connections with medicine are not limited to philosophy. In Before Sunrise Mikhail Zoshchenko notes the relationship between ancient healing temples and modern psychoanalysis: in the temples of Asclepius, priests healed the patient according to his dreams.18 Modern psychology also makes the connection between dreams and the subconscious. As stated by Zoshchenko: “Science has only recently figured out mechanisms of our brain, when the idea of finding that, which is unleashed during sleep dates back to the origins of human culture.”19

Nowadays, when separate sciences are endlessly branching into new subdivisions, we more than ever need to remember that all of them come from the same seed: the solemn day when Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse of the sun.20

 

End notes

  1.  Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, The collected dialogues of Plato (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016): 102-103
  2. Ibid.
  3. Michael Boylan, The Origins of Ancient Greek Science (New York: Routledge, 2015): 10 URL: https://books.google.ge/books/about/The_Origins_of_Ancient_Greek_Science.html?id=rm1KCAAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y.
  4. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, The collected dialogues of Plato (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016): 78.
  5. Harold W. Miller, “Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece”, The Classical Journal Vol. 44, No. 5 (Feb., 1949): 309-310.
  6. Huffman, Carl, “Alcmaeon”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/alcmaeon/.
  7. სავლე წერეთელი, ანტიკური ფილოსოფია (თბილისი: უნივერსიტეტის გამომცემლობა, 1968): 141.
  8. Ibid., 81.
  9. Peter Adamson, “Good Humor Men-The Hippocratic Corpus”, in Classical Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, The collected dialogues of Plato (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016): 516.
  12. Harold W. Miller, “Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece”, The Classical Journal Vol. 44, No. 5 (Feb., 1949): 312-313.
  13. Peter Adamson, “Good Humor Men-The Hippocratic Corpus”, in Classical Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  14. Philip J. Van Der Eijk, Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 139-140.
  15. S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd, C.D.C Reeve, Ancient Greek Philosophy (Indianopolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.): 35.
  16. Peter Adamson, “All You Need is Love, and Five Other Things-Empedocles”, in Classical Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  17. Philip J. Van Der Eijk, Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 11.
  18. მიხაილ ზოშჩენკო, მზის ამოსვლის წინ (თბილისი: განათლება, 1986): 127-128.
  19. Ibid. (The translation is mine).
  20. S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd, C.D.C Reeve, Ancient Greek Philosophy (Indianopolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.): 1.

 


 

MARIAMI SHANSHASHVILI is a nineteen year old amateur writer and translator. Winner of The Georgian Civic Education Olympiad 2017 she is passionate about philosophy, logic, and literature and is planning to earn a PhD in philosophy. She used to practice chemistry as a hobby and developed an interest in medicine during these years. She believes in the importance of viewing separate fields of knowledge—including philosophy and medicine—as interconnected and devoted to the common task of knowledge.

 

Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Antiquity