Hippocrates’ Psychology

Of the many creative undertakings of classical Greece, surely Greek medicine must rank as high as any, and the Hippocratic School takes the laurel. That biological cast of thought reflected in Aristotle’s works certainly benefited from the background influences of the Hippocratic School and from Greek science in general.

Hippocrates is not easily dated, nor can the Hippocratic medical writings be traced to any such person. They were developed over the course of more than a century and vary greatly in quality and content. Hip­pocrates came from Cos and thus is said to have fathered the Coan School of medicine. Plato’s dialogues make reference to Hippocrates’ disciples, so the work ascribed to Hippocrates was earlier than the dialogues, and it is customary to assign his lifetime to about 400 BCE. His teachings are preserved in a number of works, especially in the treatises of Galen (c. CE 130-200). Consistent across the various accounts is the empiricistic method of inquiry. The followers of Hippocrates reasoned that the body itself, and especially the humors of the body, required a delicate and harmonious balance. It was not uncommon for delirium and fits to be treated through the combination of specific foods and music. Diet was especially integral to therapy. In the Hippocratic works on Epidemics there is frequent reference to fever and cold, to “fluxes,” or storms, of the humors. Similarly, remedies focus on sleep and rest, quietude and temperance.

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The Hippocratics established clinically that injuries to either side of the head resulted in spasms on the contralateral side. There are also Hippocratic treatises on the venous supply to the brain and a nearly modern respect for the role of the brain in perception, movement, and any number of psychological processes and functions. The Hippocratic humeral theory of psychological dispositions accorded an unchangeable phlegmatic nature to some people (and therefore to their children); a bilious one to others, a choleric one to others. The justification for such attributions was not rigorously empirical but was surely based on family resemblances in the matter of temperament. Indirectly, such a genetic-type theory of personality lent support to the eugenic theories of Plato’s Academy. Still, in the main. Hippocrates and his followers come close to the modern spirit of experimental science and clinical observation. They specifically rejected that Platonic version of “hypothesis.” according to which all discourse must begin with self-evident truths, regarding such hypotheses as antithetical to the good care of patients and an understanding of their diseases. In place of these the Hippocratics compiled a veritable handbook of symptoms, therapies, and results. In the process, and through the translations and the influence of Galen, they had an effect on the practice and theory of medicine for over two thousand years. More subtly but just as surely, they required of any psychological philosophy that it address itself to the biological facts of human life and to the relationship between those facts and any theory that might be advanced to explain a psycholog­ical process.