Tag: Science and medicine

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Following on from his presentation of his model society in The Republic, Socrates now asks those who were present for examples of practical applications of those ideas. Initially Critias tells of a time 9000 years earlier when ancient Athens had such a society (as recorded by the Egyptians, but now forgotten by the Greeks themselves) and fought a war against Atlantis; but before going into detail (which is covered in the next read Critias), Timaeus is asked to set the scene by a description of the creation of the universe and mankind, underlain by divine purpose, which traverses astronomy, atomic physics, psychology and philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and religion. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

My version is the Penguin Classic translated and introduced by H. D. P. Lee, published 1965.

Key points:  Unlike Plato’s earlier Socratic dialogues, this is more like a long lecture, and Socrates is content to take a back seat and listen. Firstly Timaeus describes the deliberate creation of the universe/world, with its own soul and intelligence, by a God, but notably not the supreme leader of the usual Greek pantheon Zeus. He then describes how this creator used the entirety of all four elements – earth and fire, bound together by air and water, into a perfect physical sphere complete with soul. (The only things which have independent power of movement are living, and living things have souls, therefore heavenly bodies in motion must be living and have souls as there is no evidence of an external force causing them to move)

The distant stars are placed on an outermost ring, (the Same) with the nearer Sun and planets on concentric rings (the Different) closer to the World. All these are gods, the whole creation infused with the Soul – the Same and Different rotating in different directions to allow us a measure of Time – day and night, month and year.

Of living creatures associated with the World, there are four types: gods (those known from traditional Greek mythology, made by the Creator), and birds, water creatures and land creatures. Plants are mentioned later as living, but with souls focused solely on appetite, and the perception of pleasure and pain (!). Mankind are included in the land creatures – made by the lesser gods and with a mixture of mortal (the body) and immortal nature (the soul).

Mankind has a soul placed in a spherical head (modelling the Universe), transported by a body with arms and legs. Daylight combines with the natural fire within the body that shines out of the eyes, to provide a sensation of sight to the soul. At night the lack of daylight renders the visual stream from the eyes ineffective and induces sleep, as the eyelids shut off the flow of the internal fire. And so on… not quite how Professor Orr explained it to us in Biology 100.

This leads to the rudimentary atomic theory using geometric solids formed of various triangles as the particles of the four elements, which can be broken down and transformed into each other or combined with each other e.g. fire and water can be combined in different ways to make wine, honey or acid.

Much of the description of how things work or are composed does make a sort of logical sense, and is often ingenious based on the limited information available at the time. It will be interesting to hear Aristotle’s thoughts on some of this, one generation further on.

The least logical belief is one of “de-evolution” : where the first generation of men who lived weak or cowardly lives were reincarnated as women (Plato’s words, not mine!!) , and then birds or four-legged animals if their thoughts or desires were misplaced, with the basest individuals brought back as sea creatures. Yet it does indicate a belief in every living creature having some fragment of immortal soul.

Favourite lines/passages:

The gods gave mankind sight to allow us to observe the movements of the Heavens, and thereby inquire into the nature of things and become philosophers. Likewise, speech and hearing are for the betterment of the intellect : music is to restore internal harmony, not “irrational pleasure”, while rhythm “was given us from the same heavenly source to help us in the same way, for most of us lack measure and grace”    page 65.

“This we postulate as the origin of fire and the other bodies, our argument combining likelihood and necessity ; their more ultimate origins are known to god and to men whom god loves.”                                                                                                                    page 72

“A man’s genitals are naturally disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that will not listen to reason, and will do anything in their mad lust for possession. Much the same is true of the matrix or womb in women, which is a living creature within them which longs to bear children. And if it is left unfertiised long beyond the normal time, it causes extreme unrest, strays about the body, blocks the channels of the breath and causes in consequence acute distress and disorders of all kinds”                                                                                                                                                                   page 120

Personal rating: Ingenious in its own way. 5/10.

Kimmy’s rating: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *leg twitch, snort* zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 Also in that year: Around this time, Rome is busy subduing its neighbours, while Philip II has become King of Macedonia (356 BC). Iron Age technology has reached sub-Saharan Africa.

Next : Critias by Plato.

69. The Hippocratic Oath and other medical writings (430-330 BC)

69. The Hippocratic Oath and other medical writings (430-330 BC)

Plot : A selection of medical writings from the Hippocratic Corpus depicting the perspective and understanding of the Ancient Greeks. Mostly dated between 430 BC and 330 BC, and written by a large number of anonymous medical practitioners but probably none by Hippocrates.

Reading the Penguin assortment Hippocratic writings edited by G. Lloyd (ISBN 0140444513)

My thoughts:

Firstly, the Hippocratic Oath (page 67). A one page statement which includes some familiar ethical points such as

  • The doctor will not do harm to a patient, nor condone euthanasia or abortion,
  • The doctor will not take sexual advantage of his patients
  • The doctor will not disclose confidential information about his patient

I use the masculine pronoun throughout as there is no mention of female doctors in this Age, who were probably called in as midwives.

Also of note is the requirement that a doctor will pass on ‘the Science’ to his sons, his master’s (teacher’s) sons, and approved apprentices but to no one else. Obviously there was a level of secrecy about the profession of practising medicine, probably to protect both the reputation and financial security of the doctor, and instill some mystery in the profession to impress the masses. Also surgery, such as it was, was already a distinct profession, as part of the oath was that doctors would not cut into the patient.

As for the rest of the writings, as they all seem to be written by different authors, I will simply mention what interested or intrigues me.

In Tradition in medicine (also called On ancient medicine) the author mentions how people departing from their usual dietary habit of either one or two meals per day will lead to illness. Those who only eat dinner will be ill if eating an unaccustomed lunch, while those used to a midday meal will be sick if they abstain (page 76) What happened to breakfast being the most important meal of the day? And I’m sure the Greek armies on the plains of Troy had a hot meal over their fires after a cold night beside their ships. A little further on, the author discusses how some people cannot eat much cheese as something in their bodies is inimical to it – lactose intolerance recognised in 400 BC?

Epidemics, Books I and III are part of a series of seven books in the whole set which record case studies.  The precise weather history for preceding seasons is described in detail, and then the various fevers and diseases following, with fevers in particular described by the periodicity of their relapses – tertian fevers have three day cycles, quartan with four day cycles, and so on. Daily observations and descriptions of individuals’ symptoms are very detailed, stretching up to eighty days in one case, and notice is taken of what common factors resulted in survival versus death. A lot of these case histories were of little literary interest to anyone other than a doctor so I skipped on to the next section.
The Science of Medicine takes up the defence of medicine as a science against its detractors, and includes some pithy one-liners which science lovers will embrace. My favourite was

“Every phenomenon will be found to have some cause, and if it has a cause, chance can be no more than an empty name”                                                                                                                                                page 142

Airs, waters, places describes how different locales, and their climate and geography will have a major effect on the illnesses suffered by the local population, and indicates that at least some doctors must have earned their living by traveling from village to village.

The next chapters, Prognosis and Regimen in Acute Diseases, contain far too many descriptions of unhealthy faeces, urine, vomit and breaking wind, so I acknowledged I never would have made a successful doctor, and move on to perhaps the easiest chapter to digest 😉 : Aphorisms which is a list of pithy phrases ideal for dipping into by the layman. Here are some choice examples that seem to speak beyond just medicine.

“Life is short, science is long ; opportunity is elusive, experiment is dangerous, judgement is difficult”  page 206

“In the case of athletes, too good a condition of health is treacherous … for it cannot quietly stay as it is and therefore … can only change for the worse … it is well to lose no time in putting an end to such a good condition of health…”

“Desperate cases need the most desperate remedies”   page 207

“In winter and spring, stomachs are warm and sleep longest”   page 208

“Do not judge the stools by their quantity but by their quality”    page 209

“It is better to be full of drink than full of food”

Next comes a chapter on The Sacred Disease, otherwise known as epilepsy. The author strongly argues that this was not visited on the afflicted by divine selection as was apparently the commonly held belief at that time, but criticizes the “witch-doctors, faith healers, quacks and charlatans” who insist on various dietary, behavioral and ritual purification cures. If the patient is cured, it is put down to their wisdom and skill, but any deaths are due to the Gods.

Before I finish this post (admitting I have only skimmed most of the remainder of the book), I must add a word on Dreams . It would seem that when the body is awake, the soul is devoted to various bodily functions, but once the body sleeps, the soul is roused and independent, and perceives all around it. If the dream reflect the usual daytime activities, then all is well ; but if there is conflict or victory over daily activities, than an emetic followed by a brisk early morning walk or even gymnastics are called for. Specific medical dreams to watch out for are trees that bear no fruit (sterility), rivers running irregularly (blood flow), springs and wells (bladder troubles), rough seas (bowels), floods (excess fluids), droughts (dehydration) and monstrous apparitions obviously denote madness.

And according to The Seed, human semen comes from the brain, traveling down to the testicles via the spinal cord and kidneys, and is the foam arising from the agitation of the most potent fluids from all over the body. Good to know, and explains why some of us always seem to have sex on the mind.


The obvious question is whether today’s doctors still take the Hippocratic Oath?  The modern equivalent is the Declaration of Geneva, formulated after the end of the Second World War. The modern version arguably tones down the strict criteria against euthanasia and abortion, stating that the practitioner will “maintain the utmost respect for human life”, and extends the confidentiality of knowledge gained about the patient even after their death. While there have been various amendments to the Declaration, there also appears to be alternate versions with even more leeway  in acting to end life.

 Personal rating: Just a 4 unless you are a medical student or enjoy a good plague.

Next: The ‘wisdom’ books of the Old Testament : Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon