Science and Sophistry
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