Views & Reviews Between the Lines

A fully rational life

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 14 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b74
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    Theodor Gomperz (1832-1912) was a great Austrian classicist who impressed and was impressed by Freud: indeed it was he who commissioned Freud to translate a volume of John Stuart Mill’s work into German. Gomperz’s son, a philosopher, was a patient of Freud’s for a time.

    Gomperz devoted a chapter in his great four volume history of classical philosophy to the Greek doctors, especially to Hippocrates and the school of Cos. He was extremely complimentary about them, seeing them as forerunners not only of rational medicine but of a properly empirical and scientific approach to the phenomena of nature as a whole.

    To Gomperz primitive medicine was merely absurd: “As well as magic spells, amulets, and various ceremonies, medicinal plants and ointments were used, and it was not rare that a single, unique remedy was used against the most diverse diseases.” There was certainly nothing rational about it:

    The fantastic element was so great that the choice of medicines was determined as much by an association of ideas as by actual experience. The red colour of haematite seemed to have destined it for haemostasis. In Egypt, it was believed that the blood of black animals would prevent hair from turning white; while today in Styria, as once in India, Greece and Italy, the bodies of yellow birds were thought to expel jaundice.

    Gomperz compares this farrago of nonsense with the rationality of the Hippocratic corpus. Praising the author of Airs, Waters, Places, he says:

    The author is a man whose foot had trodden the soil of southern Russia as well as that of the Nile Valley, whose scrutinising eye had surveyed an infinite and inexhaustible variety of scenes and whose powerful mind tried to combine this immense mass of detail into a single pattern. But his precious observations, and his numerous but premature conjectures on the relation between climate and health, between the succession of seasons and the course of illnesses, were as nothing compared with the immortal honour of having been the first to try to establish a causative relation between the character of peoples and the physical conditions in which they live.

    He likewise praises the author of On the Sacred Malady (epilepsy), who denied the divine nature of the falling sickness and who wrote: “The nature and cause of this illness derives from precisely the same divine principle that gives rise to all the rest. None is more divine, none is more human, than any other.”

    For Gomperz this was a great advance in rationality, because if everything was equally divine it followed that everything could be investigated with equal empirical rigour.

    Not having lived to see the first world war, Gomperz believed that empirical knowledge inevitably led to “a fully rational life,” a better existence, which perhaps explains why the question of whether the Greeks actually benefited from Hippocratic rationality at the time of Hippocrates never so much as crossed his mind. It seemed sufficient to him that Hippocrates was an intellectual forerunner, albeit a distant one, of the current state of enlightenment: but when we read the medical texts of Gomperz’s day, with their floating kidneys leading to nephroplexy, and their autointoxications leading to hemicolectomies, we realise how far rationality had to go before it reached its apogee—in us, of course.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b74

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