Unit 4 - The Relation of Philosophy and Medicine in Antiquity
University of Thessaloniki (EL)
We try to explain how at the very beginning medicine was exercised by philosophers and was considered as a kind of science/knowledge that concerned man, his body, his soul, his health and his illness.The first philosophers, the presocratics, tried to understand and to write about the physiology of the functions of the human body, and so to understand what made a body healthy or ill. In this very early period, these wise men, who wished to acquire possession of every knowledge, to acquire “universal” knowledge, were employing the philosophical method in their research. And they assumed that this one method that aimed to reduce all principles to only one principle was the right one not only for philosophical research but also for medical research. It was not, however, before too long that Hippocrates supported that medicine has its own independent method, it is, in other words, an autonomous field of research that has nothing to do with philosophy. As he puts it, very clearly, if philosophy has to do with human nature in general, medicine has to do with the nature of this particular man and how it is affected by the cheese he is eating, the exercise he is taking etc. As a consequence, at some early stage of civilization, medicine was closely related to philosophy, but we owe to Hippocrates that he pointed out successfully that the two employ different methods and they are therefore different fields of research.
However, medicine’s relation with philosophy was not completely cut off from philosophy. During its anthropological stage philosophy also influenced medicine but in an entirely different way. It was clear by now that the two employed a different kind of methodology; but the common element between them was that both focused on man: his body and soul, whether healthy or ill. And they both attempted to keep man’s soul and body healthy, however, admittedly by employing a different methodology. Gradually, both philosophers and physicians admitted that the therapy of the body, something more practical, was the physician’s job, whereas the therapy of the soul was mostly, if not entirely, the philosopher’s responsibility. We understand, therefore, why and how now during this second, anthropological period of philosophy, philosophers intervened in the medical process in order to protect patients from unconscious physicians and bad medical professionals. They wished to secure that the medical professional who approached the patient would only benefit him and not harm him. In this second period of philosophy we have the development of ethics (or moral philosophy) that operates as a shield for those who are in need, the patients included. And this is how a particular branch of philosophy appeared then, i.e. medical ethics or medical deontology, which enabled the ethicist or the moral philosopher, as we call him today, to check the medical professional whether he is treating his patients with due respect and compassion responding to the trust they show him when they submit to him the most precious thing they have, their life.