Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

By R. J. Hankinson | Go to book overview

II
Science and Sophistry

1. RATIONAL MEDICINE

(a) Naturalistic Explanation

Medicine is practised in every society. In the Homeric poems we find the healers Machaon and Podalirius; Greek myth speaks of Chiron the surgical centaur; and Greek doctors liked to trace their ancestry back to the divine founder and patron of the art of medicine, the god Asclepius. Yet a remarkable development begins to take place in medical practice towards the end of the fifth century BC. The old methods and prescriptions of the temple doctors (the wearing of magic amulets, divination on the basis of dreams experienced while sleeping in sacred sanctuaries, prayer) were challenged by a new, rational medical paradigm. Medicine has already played a role in philosophy; but it is in the group of treatises associated with the semi-legendary figure of Hippocrates1 that the revolutionary aspects of the new medicine are most clearly visible.

The archaic notion of disease parallels early accounts of other physical phenomena; typical is the celebrated description of the pestilence visited on the Greek army at Troy by an angry Apollo ( Iliad 1-187). That may be contrasted with Thucydides' description of the great Athenian plague of 430 BC in The Peloponnesian War (2. 47-54). It began in Ethiopia, spreading through Libya and Egypt into the Persian empire, but

61 as to the question of how it could have first come about or what causes can be found adequate to explain its powerful effect on nature, I must leave that to be treated by other writers . . . . I shall simply describe what it was like and set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized should it ever break out again. (2. 48)

Medicine was powerless (doctors in particular suffered through their contact with the sick); but

62 nor was any other human art or science of any use at all. Equally useless were prayers offered in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so on; indeed, in the

____________________
1
The historical Hippocrates himself was a rough contemporary of Socrates. Of the treatises preserved under his name, none ascribable to and several cannot have been composed by him. On the 'Hippocratic question', see G. E. R. Lloyd ( 1975c); Smith ( 1979).

-51-

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Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • Note on Citations xv
  • Additional Note xvi
  • Introduction 1
  • I- The Presocratics 7
  • II- Science and Sophistry 51
  • III- Plato 84
  • 6- Conclusions 124
  • IV- Aristotle- Explanation and Nature 125
  • V- Aristotle- Explanation and the World 160
  • VI- The Atomists 201
  • VII- The Stoics 238
  • VIII- The Sceptics 268
  • IX- Explanation in the Medical Schools 295
  • X- The Age of Synthesis 323
  • XI- Science and Explanation 364
  • XII- The Neoplatonists 404
  • Appendix List of Abbreviated Principles 449
  • References 455
  • Index of Passages Cited 477
  • General Index 485
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