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Atoms, Science, Medicine and Journalism

A contemporary of Anaxagoras, Leucippus, is credited with a theory of atoms. He founded a school at Abdera, in Thrace. His student, Democritus (roughly 460-370), is said to have systemized his theory. An apple, Democritus reasoned, can be divided with a knife because it has air in it. He labeled as an atom that which had no air, that which is too dense to be cut, that which is the smallest and the most dense of matter. Democritus moved beyond Anaxagoras' view of elements: he theorized that atoms collide and combine with each other and that in combining they create visible substance. Like Heraclitus, Democritus believed that some things are developing and other things decaying. He believed that heavenly bodies sometimes collide with each other and that the Milky Way consists of unresolved stars.

Democritus believed that sense perception is not just illusion. He believed that human flesh, bones and bodily fluids were elements found elsewhere in nature, that the human brain is functioning matter, that people are matter organized in a way that allows them awareness and self-directed movement.

Another who looked at the human body scientifically was Hippocrates, also born around 460 BCE. He was the son of a priest-physician from the Greek island of Cos. He revolted against medicine tied to religious dogma, medicine that attempted to cure by use of charms, amulets and incantations. Diseases, he claimed, were subject to nature's laws. He wanted healthcare to be built upon observation. He sought to improve diagnoses by examining symptoms. Seeing the human body as influenced by materiality as opposed to spirit he advocated principles of public health, including building a patient's strength by a good diet and by hygiene. And recognizing the damage that could be done through acting on ignorance, his first rule was do no harm.

The move in the direction of science included a change in chronicling events. Just as Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine, Thucydides, also born in 460, is considered the first modern journalist-historian. He surpassed Herodotus in recording events with precision and impartiality. He was an Athenian from a wealthy family and had been educated in rhetoric and philosophy. He made a record of the course of the Peloponnesian war, approaching his subject with observations and questions rather than preconceptions, and he wrote down the exact speeches of participants in the war. He discarded poetry in favor of the precision of prose, acknowledging that his prose would have less appeal. He tried to clarify issues with lengthy descriptions.

An older man who also believed in sense perception was Protagoras (490–420), a Greek from Thrace. Drawing on observations during his travels, he took a position that was advanced for his time: he spoke of peoples from different areas of the world as sharing a common humanity.

Protagoras created a modern political philosophy, claiming that by criticizing tradition a better society could be created. In the place of the rule of gods and their representatives he advocated laws made by and for people. This is what he was referring to with the line that "man is the measure of all things." (See Karl Rove's interpretation, note29.)  Protagoras lectured that people could become good citizens not by obedience to traditional authority but by learning what is just and right.

During the Great Peloponnesian War, city officials in the imperfect democracy of Athens followed the old politics. These were men many of whom believed in power over others – in empire and slavery. They restricted what could be taught, and Protagoras defied their repression. At the home of the famous poet and playwright Euripides, Protagoras read aloud from his book and claimed that gods were the figments of people's imagination. City officials put him on trial. In their drive against atheism and other thoughts they considered dangerous, they had books burned – the first known official book burning. Then Protagoras was sent into exile, and he was lost at sea.


Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle, edited by Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd and C.D.C. Reeve, 1995

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

Wisdom of the West, Chapter 1, by Bertrand Russell, 1959

A Short History of Medicine, by Edwin H. Ackerknecht.

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