PHILOSOPHY AND MEDICINE

12 May

Shamanistic,  religious, and empirical approaches to healing seem to be universal  aspects  of  the  history  of  medicine.  Where  Greek  medicine appears  to be unique is in the development  of a body of medical theory associated with natural philosophy,  that is, a strong secular tradition of free enquiry,  or what would now be called science. Scholars  have sug- gested  that  the  fundamental difference  between  Greek  and  Chinese thought was  the  competitiveness  of  early  Greek  political  and  intel- lectual life. Whereas Chinese thinkers sought consensus, Greek thinkers openly  criticized  their  teachers,   rivals,  and   peers.  Unlike   previous civilizations,  the Greeks  were not  primarily  organized  around agricul- ture  and  a  strong  central  government   or  priesthood. The  city-state became  their  unit  of organization and,  because  Greece  was relatively overpopulated  in  relation   to  cultivatable   land,   trade,   colonization, and industry  were encouraged.

The earliest Greek natural philosophers were profoundly interested in the natural world and the search for explanations of how and why the world and human beings came to be formed and organized as they were. Natural philosophy developed first, not in the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but on the Aegean fringes of the mainland  of Asia Minor. By  the  sixth-century   B.C.E.,  Greek  philosophers  were  attempting to explain  the  workings  of the universe  in terms  of everyday  experience and  by analogies  with craft  processes rather  than  divine interventions and  supernatural agents.  Many  of the earliest Greek  philosophers are known  only  through  a few fragments  of their  work,  but  enough  has survived to reveal their ingenious theories as the seed crystals that  were to stimulate  the subsequent  evolution  of Western  physics, astronomy, biology, and medicine.

Pythagoras of Samos (ca. 530 B.C.E.)  is said to have been the first Greek philosopher with a special interest in medical subjects. Although the Pythagorean concept  of a universe composed  of opposite  qualities is reminiscent  of  Chinese  yin-yang  philosophy,   the  Pythagorean ap- proach  was apparently inspired by mathematical inquiries. Just as num- bers formed  the two categories,  ‘‘odd’’ and ‘‘even,’’ so could all things be divided into pairs of opposites.  The harmony, or proper  balance  of pairs  of qualities,  such as hot  and  cold, moist and  dry, was especially important in matters  of health and disease.

Although  the  medical  theories  of Alcmaeon  of Croton  (ca.  500 B.C.E.) have much in common  with those of Pythagoras, the exact rela- tionship  between  them  is uncertain.  Both  Alcmaeon  and  Pythagoras believed  that   pairs   of  opposites   were  the  first  principles   of  exis- tence. Health,  according  to Alcmaeon,  was a harmonious blending  of each of the qualities  with its appropriate opposite,  such as moist  and dry, cold and  hot,  bitter  and sweet. Disease occurs when one member of a pair  appears  in excess; an  excess of heat  causes fever, an  excess of cold causes chills. The idea that  the systematic dissection of animals would   provide   a   means   of   understanding  the   nature   of   human beings  was  attributed to  Alcmaeon.  Despite  the  loss of  most  of  his writings, Alcmaeon  was one of the first physician-philosophers to exert a  significant  influence  on  the  course  of  Greek  medical  and  scientific thought.

A paradoxical  blend  of philosophy  and  mysticism is part  of the legacy of Empedocles  (ca. 500–430 B.C.E.).  Echoing  themes common  to shamanism,  Empedocles boasted  that he could heal the sick, rejuvenate the  aged,  raise  the  dead,  and  control  wind  and  weather.  Numerous references to him in later medical writings suggest great fame and success as a healer,  but  it was his theory  of the four  elements  that  became  a major  theme  in  the  history  of  medicine.  According  to  Empedocles, all things were composed  of mixtures of four primary  and  eternal  ele- ments: air, earth,  water,  and  fire. Changes  and  transformations in the cosmos  and  the  human   body  were  simply  reflections  of  the  mixing and  unmixing  of the eternal  elements.

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