The Foundations of Greek Medicine
Of all the forerunners of Hippocrates, Pythagoras was certainly the most fabled and legendary. His life is the provinde of legends, myth and miracles. Pythagoras had a famous school for philosophers at Crotona, and many were his pupils.
Pythagoras was a mathematician, and believed in the harmony of numbers. He discovered the whole number ratios at work in musical scales and intervals, and their healing effects on the organism. And so, Pythagoras' name is frequently invoked by music therapists.
Pythagoras was indeed a seminal thinker, but because his life is so shrouded in myth and legend, it's hard to say with any degree of certainty exactly which basic concepts of Greek Medicne were actually his. Many feel that the concepts of critical days, and perhaps even the basic notion of the humors, may have originated with him.
Pythagoras kept a very strict diet and health regimen, and many way that he was a lifelong vegetarian. Believing that meat eating impaired one's faculty of judgement, he advised judges to abstain from eating meat before trying important cases. As a mystic, Pythagoras believed in metempsychosis, which is reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls.
The theory of the Four Elements is generally attributed to Empedocles. According to this theory, everything in the universe, including the human body, is composed of the Four Elements: Fire, Air, Earth and Water - in varying proportions.
Empedocles had a theory of building up, or synthesis (anabolism) versus breaking down, or analysis (catabolism). The physician's job was to assess the patient to see which aspect of metabolism predominated, and then bring them back into balance.
Another Four Element theorist was Thales, who had a theory of biogenesis. Reasoning that everything that now exists had to come from something, he tried to figure out what was the original source element for all life. After some thought, he concluded that it must have been Water. This is more than just wild speculation; biologists now agree that all biochemical reactions essential to life must take place in water, and that all life evolved out of the primordial oceans.
As a physician, Thales received his medical training in Egypt. In order to bring Greek medical theory more into line with that of Egyptian Medicine, Thales proposed adding a fourth humor, black bile. This brought the humors into line with the Four Elements.
Alcmaeon of Crotona was a younger contemporary of Pythagoras, and quite possibly his disciple as well. He had a theory of isonomia, which means the perfect harmony of all substances in the metabolism. The body was healthy as long as this metabolic harmony was maintained; disease resulted from its disruption. Disease was cured by restoring metabolic balance and harmony to the organism.
Modern nutritionists and physiologists see in isonomia the precursor of all modern metabolic theory. More specifically for Greek Medicine, humoral physiology and pathology evolved from the concept of isonomia.
Greek Medicine, as codified and systematized by Hippocrates, came together from many diverse strands of scientific, medical and philosophical thought. This rich diversity of conceptual background has given Greek Medicine much resiliency, versatility and adaptability as a medical system, and openness to continued growth and change.
Traditional Greco-Arabic and modern Western Medicine: Conflict or Symbiosis?
by Hakim Mohammed Said Copyright 1975 by Hamdard Academy - Karachi, Pakistan
pp. 14 - 15, 20