Reading Hippocrates

Rod of Asclepius

Rod of Asclepius

Classical Greek physicians tried to find natural explanations as to why someone got ill and died, what constituted health or illness and the nature and actions of contagion. To this extent they broke with many of their contemporaries working in other fields because they were not seeking supernatural causes .They were certainly synchronized with mathematics however.  This did not mean they lacked piety. It meant that the signs of nature were viewed as a sufficient source of knowledge, particularly when cataloged, documented and shared. In this respect we can see the roots of scientific methodology

At the same time, the Greek Pantheon included Asclepius the god of healing and his daughter, Hygieia from whose name we get the word hygiene. It’s fair to say that the Greek Pantheon was in fact a system of archetypes and so the attributes of the god of healing should be those of the enlightened physician.

Hippocrates was among the first to make the shift from making supplications to the god towards embodying the healing qualities represented by Aesculapius. We really have no way of knowing how conscious this change was, but it produced a very different and highly effective form of medicine which was practised beyond the Renaissance and still has relevance today.

Asclepius & Hygieia

Asclepius & Hygieia

Until Hippocrates, Epilepsy was known as the “sacred disease” with supernatural origins and therefore could not and should not be considered an illness in any physical sense of the word.

Hippocrates is first and foremost concerned with the applications of medicine when diseases are said to be of supernatural origin and that those origins are to blame if the patient dies or fails to recover. The physician can take all the credit if the patient does recover, allowed for a systemic practise of fraud which prevented physicians from learning about the condition as it really is.

He writes “It is my opinion that those who first called this disease ‘sacred’ were the sort of people we call witch-doctors, faith healers, quacks and charlatans. These are exactly the people who pretend to be very pious and to be particularly wise. By invoking a a divine element they were able to screen their own failure to give suitable treatment and so called this a ‘sacred’ malady to conceal the ignorance of its nature.” Medical Works. Trans. John Chadwick (Oxford) pp. 179 180

Hippocrates carries this line of thought to its absurd conclusions such as blaming Poseidon if the cry of the patient was high pitched

If we return to the archetype model, we can see that Hippocrates does not go against it at all. What he does do is bring his practice in line with reading the signs of nature which have a divinity of their own, but not a catch all excuse for bad medicine.

Those who have a familiarity with Plato will recognize the trope. In the Pheadrus, there is a passage that that lies at the centre of Platonism and Neo Platonism.  At first glance it might appear that this mystical vision is at odds with Hippocrates:

“Beauty it was ours to see in all its brightness in those days when, amidst that happy company, we beheld with our eyes that blessed vision, ourselves in the train of Zeus, others following some other god; then were we all initiated into that mystery which is rightly accounted blessed beyond all others; whole and unblemished were we that did celebrate it … steadfast and blissful were the spectacles on which we gazed in the moment of final revelation; pure was the light that shone around us, and pure were we, without taint of that prison house which now we are encompassed withal, and call a body, fast bound therein as an oyster in its shell ” Phaedrus 249d-250c.

They are however perfectly compatible. Hippocrates is not a ‘materialist’ and Plato has no interest in ‘super-naturalism.” In their own ways they are overwhelmingly concerned with the return of the body and soul to its natural state.

Plato, Aristotle and their students hold Hippocrates in the highest regard. His specific spiritual beliefs are unclear except that he clearly shunned a religious cosmology in the usual sense of the term was a fallacy. The fact that Plato specifically mentions him in the Phaedrus certainly indicates they were of a similar mind.

The Pheadrus is among other things an allegory of a charioteer of the same name. He is the Soul and the two horses represent Spirit and Mind. Succinctly, the quality of the Soul and horses and the Souls’ ability to command them affords us a trinity of  being.

The theme of the chariot in Hellenistic astrology is well known. Here, the first horse is obedient, capable and noble while the other is “a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” (253 e.)

The Chariot of Apollo - Odilon Redon

The Chariot of Apollo – Odilon Redon

It’s very easy to understand this in the context of traditional astrology. The different elements of our being, their condition and relatedness,  determine what we begin with. The chart shows this clearly, but it takes a skilled astrologer to read it fully and to know where to begin. Traditional Astrology and Traditional Medicine are very similar insofar as they look to the signs of nature, catalog findings and point to ways the body, soul and intellect can best be nurtured to their optimal, *natural* state.

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