(GREEK PHILOSOPHERS before SOCRATES – continued)
A contemporary of Anaxagoras, Leucippus, is credited with a theory of atoms. He founded a school at Abdera, in Thrace. His student, Democritus, 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 was in conflict with Pythagoras and Plato. He 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 – as would modern science.
Another who looked at the human body scientifically was Hippocrates, who was born the same year as Democritus: 460 BCE. Hippocrates 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.
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 used 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, Protagoras, was a Greek from Thrace. Limited by the age in which he lived, he was not much of a psychologist or epistemologist: he failed to distinguish between perception and knowledge, as if knowledge does not require organizing the impressions one gathers through one's senses. But 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. He 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. He lectured that people could become good citizens not by obedience to authority but by learning what is just and right.
During the Great Peloponnesian War, city officials in Athens followed the old politics. They restricted what could be taught, and Protagoras defied the repression. At the home of the famous poet and playwright Euripides, he 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.
A Short History of Medicine, by Edwin H. Ackerknecht.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.