Recorded history of Greek medicine against the prevailing influence of natural philosophy

The recorded history of Greek medicine commences with its resistance against the prevailing influence of natural philosophy doctrines, which was just a manifestation of the significant and unavoidable upheaval that had effectively concluded at that time. From that point on, medicine was established based on an understanding of the principles that govern how the body responds to the influences of natural processes and the physical aspects of human life, both in typical and atypical circumstances.

Once this clear starting point had been established, it was straightforward to diverge from it in other directions: the Greek intellect, characterized by its inherent determination, sharpness, and rationality, embarked on a comprehensive exploration of every avenue of knowledge within the limits of its available experience. When the fundamental principles of natural philosophy were incorporated into medicine, it was inevitable that its cosmological conceptions would also be introduced, causing confusion among individuals. It has been noted that the subsequent natural philosophers, such as Empedocles, successfully overcame obstacles and acquired the ability to incorporate medical concepts for their own objectives.

This synthesis is similar to Empedocles’ amalgamation of empirical scientific philosophy with religious prophethood. The accomplishments he achieved as a practicing physician likely enhanced the reputation of his medical instruction. The enduring influence of his philosophical theory on medical research can be observed in the idea of the four fundamental qualities: hot, cold, dry, and wet, which persisted for centuries.

It either merged in an unusual manner with the prevailing medical theory of the essential bodily ‘humours’, or alternatively displaced all competing theories and became the exclusive foundation of medical doctrine. This example demonstrates the influence of philosophical ideas on medicine and the diverse responses they elicited. Some scientists readily embraced these ideas and started thinking in terms of hot, cold, dry, and wet. Others attempted to integrate this theory of qualities with the existing theory of humours, seeking a middle ground between the two. Meanwhile, some dismissed it as irrelevant or only of secondary importance to physicians.

It illuminates the profession’s intellectual acuity and its vigilance regarding all new developments in the understanding of nature. The rapidity with which the physicians of that era employed inadequately validated hypotheses to elucidate medical occurrences was only partially a flaw inherent in the Greek intellect. Primarily, it was a result of their lack of sufficient experience.

In the field of physiology and pathology, theoretical thinking was at an early stage of development. Consequently, it is not surprising that the Greek physician, who prioritized healing the sick and remained focused on that objective, exhibited remarkable speed and certainty in avoiding impractical speculation. This allowed for genuine progress in knowledge to be made.

Medicine by embracing meticulous empiricism and thorough examination of individual cases, clearly distinguished itself as a distinct art separate from natural philosophy, finally embodying its authentic essence. The anonymous author of the treatise “On ancient medicine” confidently asserts this claim. During that period, he was not the only one who had such belief; he represented a group of individuals that could be accurately described as a school.

The Coan school, named after Hippocrates, is considered the founders of medicine as an independent science, regardless of whether Hippocrates himself authored the book. The writer’s thesis posits that medicine does not require a new ‘hypothesis’ since it has already established itself as an enduring and authentic art.

Consequently he declines to endorse the doctors who assert that it is crucial for a genuine techne to possess a solitary principle and to relate all distinct phenomena to it, akin to how philosophers do in their theories. According to him, this notion will not liberate physicians from their lack of scientific certainty in identifying the origins of disease, and it will also fail to guarantee that every patient receives the appropriate treatment. It signifies the act of relinquishing the reliable foundation of knowledge and practice that the field of medicine has traditionally relied upon, in favor of an unproven notion.

Within the obscure realms of the unknown, philosophy may only find one conceivable path, albeit one that is uncertain and challenging. However, to embark upon this path, the physician must relinquish all the knowledge and expertise accumulated through the gradual, arduous, and reliable progress of medical science since its early origins centuries ago. He effectively conveys this evolution to his readers by beginning with the traditional notion that the doctor is the individual who advises us on our dietary choices.

Through gradual progression and extensive knowledge, individuals acquired the ability to consume nourishment that differed from that of animals, as well as to discern amongst different types of sustenance. However, the doctor’s recommendation of specific foods for the patient represents a more advanced level. This is because the food that is suitable for a healthy individual would be as harmful for an ill individual, just as animal food would be inappropriate for a healthy person.

The advancement enabled medicine to evolve into a genuine techne, as the term would not be applied to a talent that is universally comprehended, such as cooking. However, the fundamental concept of providing sustenance remains unchanged for both a healthy individual and an ill individual: each must consume what is appropriate for their condition.

However, appropriateness does not solely refer to the distinction between heavy and light foods, but also encompasses the need to determine specific proportions, which vary depending on individual constitutions. The sick individual can experience harm from both insufficient and excessive food consumption. The true physician is distinguished by their ability to accurately assess what is suitable for each specific instance.

He possesses the discernment to accurately select the appropriate amount for each individual. There is no universally accepted standard of weight or measure that can be used to establish amounts in a general manner. The task must be accomplished entirely through intuition due to the absence of a logical criterion. That is the primary domain in which practicing physicians commit the majority of their errors, and an individual who only sometimes makes minor mistakes can truly be considered a highly skilled professional in their field.

The majority of doctors exhibit similar characteristics to incompetent pilots. While their lack of expertise may go unnoticed when the weather is favorable, it becomes evident to everyone during a severe storm that they are incapable.