Module 2: Philosophy and Medicine


  1. Students will gain an understanding of the historical and cultural context of early natural philosophy through selected readings in the PreSocratics.
  2. Students will understand how Love and Strife operate as metaphors for physical and biological tenets of the natural world and how the principle of binary opposition becomes an important heuristic in Greek thought.
  3. Students will encounter scientific thought across different genres and will understand the unique advantages and limitations of different generic forms.


Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, Introduction: 116-117; 120-121 (The Introduction is 24 pages.  This is critical reading for anyone who has not studied the Presocratics. Students will see the connection to the multicultural readings in the Gods and Medicine module. In the section First Philosophy, Barnes outlines the genius of the Presocratics and why we can now turn our attention to Greek scientific thought.  Here, he also outlines important terms such as logos, phusis, arche, etc. In the section, The Evidence, Barnes reviews the texts and their fragmentary state.  He concludes his Introduction with a summary of the book.  This is very readable for undergraduates and highly recommended.) (Pages 116-122 include fragments of Empedocles.  The first fragment on page 116 illustrates the need for balance in nature and mentions illness specifically.  Fragments on pages 118-119 address his beliefs about the senses and knowledge.  This can be tied back to the case studies from the Edwin Smith papyrus, where healers must use their senses to gain information about the wound.  Pages 120-22 have fragments regarding the four elements and the two forces, Love and Strife.) (For additional reading on Love and Strife you can assign the section beginning on page 131) (For additional reading on other Presocratics, I would recommend Heraclitus, as he is mentioned in several later readings and Alcmaeon.)

Vegetti, “Culpability, Responsibility, Cause” (A. A. Long, Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, Ch. 13) I would not recommend assigning this reading to undergraduates.  It requires a knowledge of Greek terms and references other Greek sources with which they may not be familiar.  However, it is a valuable resource for teaching the above material.  It also points to Presocratic philosophers outside of Empedocles who influenced medical thought.

Assignment: Conduct a word study using Arboreal for primary terms addressed in the Barnes Introduction.  How do the Hippocratic texts use these terms?  How do the Archaic texts use these terms?

Assignment: Create your own present day allegories for health and disease.  Explain why you chose these images.

Hippocratic Texts

Nature of Man (Only counting the English, this is 20 pages and is included with On Regimen.  For the sake of clarity, you may want to assign page numbers [3-41].  This is a good text to read alongside the Presocratics.  Right from the beginning it addresses the theories proposed by the Presocratics, then moves on to discuss the theory of the four humors (I-X).  There is a detailed description of the vascular system and types of fevers.)

Assignment:  Break up the second half of the text by the paragraphs and assign a group/student to each one, and have them report on the diseases and cures described in their paragraph.

Assignment: Learn about Rudolf Steiner’s Four Temperaments and describe how the theory of the four humors influenced his own work.


Speech of Eryximachus in Plato’s Symposium (185c – 189b) This reading is about 7 pages. Some context for the Symposium is needed before students are assigned this material, particularly what Pausanias has said before Eryximachus (180c – 185c) because Eryximachus builds upon it.  This speech calls back to religion, diet, Asclepius, and the idea of balance supported by the Presocratics and Nature of Man.  This is a brief and amusing reading that will pull together much of what they have already read, while looking forward to the mind-body connection in the Timaeus)

Selections of the Timaeus (heart, thorax, and midriff, 69a – 72d) (This is a short reading, only 3 pages, however it is very complex.  The students will need to have a summary of what has come before and the frame of the dialogue.  The construction of the body is in synch with the organization of the soul.  It may be interesting to read Galen’s synopsis of this section of the Timaeus in Book 9 of De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis, in order to see how it was viewed by later medical thinkers)


On the Parts of Animals, Book 1 (selections) (This reading is 11 pages.  They will need some basic Aristotelian knowledge on categories, causes, coming-into-being, etc.  Reading Aristotle is an art in itself, so I would suggest urging them to read slowly and pause after each sentence to make sure they understand before moving on.  You may want to model this for them in class before they try to take on Aristotle by themselves.)

Assignment: Give each student a paragraph or two to outline from the Aristotle selections, then put them all together and follow the argument with the master outline.


You may want to use Frede’s Introduction in Galen: Three Treatises on the Nature of Science (xii-xiv) as an introduction to the life of Galen.

On the Capacities of the Soul (This reading is 35 pages, but the footnotes take up half of the pages.  You can direct the students not to read the footnotes unless they need clarification.  This text shows Galen’s in-depth knowledge of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and so it may be too dense for undergraduates.  You can excerpt passages, but at the very least some introduction in class, preferably including an explanation of Plato’s tripartite soul, is necessary.  These are the sections I would recommend for the mind-body connection: “Problems for Plato’s view of immortality” (pp 381-4), “If Plato is right that the soul is immortal…” (pp 390-2), the second half of “Citations to refute the view that Plato…” (pp. 400-404), and “Relation of the argument to ethics” (pp. 405-6).  These sections can stand on their own with a short introduction to the Platonic soul.)

Michael Frede, Essays in Ancient Philosophy“Philosophy and Medicine in Antiquity” (225-242). This is 17 pages and fairly readable for undergraduates, especially with an introduction.  A list of names to know might be helpful, as Frede throws out a lot of names they might not have seen before, and it would be easier to read if they knew they did not have to worry about all the names.  This article also prods students to think about the doctor in society, which is addressed in the final module. Frede also points out why medicine was a field of experimentation and discovery, which looks forward to the next module. The debate between the Rationalists, Empiricists, and Methodists is clearly outlined here as well (235-240).  At first glance, it may seem that this belongs at the beginning of the module as an introductory piece, however, it will be easier for the students to understand once they know more about philosophy and medicine and it looks forward to future modules.

The Best Doctor is Also a Philosopher (This is a short reading, only 5 pages.  This is an excellent argument for a well-rounded education. Galen argues that other disciplines inform medicine and knowledge of these subjects makes one a better doctor.  He also points out that the study of ancient wisdom is a way to quickly gain knowledge that one can then build upon.  Galen emphasizes logos, phusos, and ethos as part of an essential education for a doctor.  It may also be interesting to address Galen’s encouragement not to pursue money, while accumulating large sums of it himself.  This is an essential reading for this module. A companion piece to this would be Galen’s Exhortation to Study the Arts, Especially Medicine.  This work is much longer, about 5,000 words.  However, the comparison of followers of Mercury and followers of Fortune is interesting and relevant.  This could easily be broken up into the professions addressed: gentleman, male prostitute, and athlete (much longer than the other two).  It ends with suggestions on how to chose a profession, which students might find interesting, especially medical students.)

Assignment: Have each student write a short essay on how another discipline has informed their chosen field.

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