Hippocrates corpus

  1. Introduction to Hippocrates
  2. Notes
  3. Bibliography
  4. Return to Course Index

The Hippocratic Corpus

The class will study the writings associated with Hippocrates of Cos, whose life span was roughly coeval with that of Socrates of Athens (469-399 B.C.E.).

map showing the area of scientific and philosophical achievements in the vicinity of the Island of Cos: the Ionian colonies are to the north-east and the Doric states of the Hexapolis to the east and south- east.]

Although the corpus of Hippocratic writings does not contain one single composition

known for certain to have been written by Hippocrates, it does include a number of

early documents that were actually composed
in his life-time.
3 . The bulk of the

Hippocratic corpus comprises about sixty compositions
that are possibly the remnants

of book collections from a variety of sources:
some emanating from ancient medical

centres from the eastern Aegean,
some comprising general medical works of a

popular nature, and others composed
by individual doctors from various parts of the

Greek world. Most of these works
had probably already been gathered together and

edited in the Library of Alexandria
(Farrington 1966: 66-67). This may account for the

variety of sources involved.
However, in basic essentials, the Hippocratic corpus

probably originated in the island of Cos,
although some of it may also reflect the

teaching of the rival medical school in neighbouring Cnidos.
4 .

Traditionally, the keeper of these writings was
the guild of Coan physicians known as the 'Asclepiadae',

or 'Sons of Asclepius', God of Healing 5 . During the classical and the Hellenistic period,

Cos had long served as a cult and healing centre
dedicated to the worship of Apollo the

Physician (Ietros), Asclepius, his son -
as well as to the latter's daughters, the

Goddesses Hygieia ('Health') and Panacea
('Complete Recuperation' or 'Recuperation

for All'). However, there are very few references to this cult
in the Hippocratic

corpus itself.6 . For the moment, we may note
that the Hippocratic collection is

scientific, rather than cultic in tenor
and none of these practices form part of its


Nonetheless, the works of the corpus
do not advocate any single medical method -

nor do they all subscribe to the same physiological theory. Let us take as an example

two early works that examine the issue of medical theory each in markedly different


1) On Ancient Medicine (peri Archaies Ietrikes) is edited in Hippocrates 1923-1931: I

pp. 12-64.7 . It is in effect an attack on those physicians (ietroi) and philosophers

(sophistai) who claimed that no one could acquire the medical art who did not first

know what man is himself (cap. 20).8 . However, something very like the hypothesis

criticised here was ascribed by Plato to Hippocrates himself.9 In place of the

application of philosophic hypotheseis to medical science (cap. 1-2), the author

proposes to return to the empirical methods of "ancient medicine (archaia ietrike)"

(cap. 3-4), hence the title of his composition. For him, 'ancient medicine'

represents medical art before philosophers and theoreticians like Empedocles

interfered with it. The author admits that ancient medicine did not achieve

accuracy (akribeia), but adds that we need not abandon its procedure of inquiry

because of this (cap. 12). For him, ancient medicine belonged, as it were, to a golden

age in the past, but, at the same time, bequeathed a methodology that the author

applies to the empirical school of his own day. This methodology consisted mostly in

the diagnosis, prognosis and record of the course of the disease; any treatment was

of a mostly palliative nature.

2) On the Nature of Man (peri Physios Anthropou) is edited in Hippocrates 1923-1931:

IV. 2-41. It advocates a medical theory completely contradictory to the previous

work: the author believes in the influence of the humours on the physical

constitution (caps. 1, 8), in a theory of the relationship between mind, body and

disease (cap. 9), and in the influence of climate and environment on health (cap.

13-18). The nature of man is thus to be understood as part of the same cosmological

and physiological principle that governs all living creatures. In contrast to the

previous work, On the Nature of Man presupposes a medical hypothesis

independent of the examination of individual cases.

The book of Regimen (peri Diaites) I - edited in Hippocrates 1923-1931: IV. 224-295 -

embodies the type of philosophy attacked in On Ancient Medicine since it claims that

to discuss a healthy way of life properly "we need first understand the nature of man

as a whole" (cap. II). It attaches importance to philosophical terminology (caps. IV),

but its hypothetical assumptions are different from those of On the Nature of Man,

since it upholds a theory of health as a balance in temperature (hot-cold), fluidity

(cap. III) and diet-activity (cap. II).

Other works in the Hippocratic corpus are devoted less to medical theory per se, as to

the question of rational and empirical treatment of diseases and wounds - e.g., On

Affections (peri Pathon) and On Diseases (peri Nouson) I-II . Nonetheless, advice on

practical methodology is sometimes raised in their discussion. In On Affections, the

first duty of the doctor is to question the patient about his symptoms before

beginning the examination (Hippocrates 1923-1931: I cap. 37). In On Diseases I, even

questions of medical ethics are raised:

"The following are correctly and incorrectly done: incorrectly done is

to tell (the patient) that the disease is one thing when it is another; to

say that it is serious when it is minor - or minor when it is serious; to

deny that (a patient) will survive when he will - and to one about to

die, to deny that he will die" (Hippocrates 1923-1931: I 'On Diseases I'

cap. 6).

Other works in the Hippocratic collection discuss causes of specific disease and ill-

health. The early composition, On the Sacred Disease (peri Hieres Nousou) , for

instance, discusses mistaken and superstitious notions about the causes of epilepsy. It

is edited in Hippocrates 1923-1931: II pp. 138-183. Yet other works, like the first and

third books of Epidemics, comprise mere notes of case histories, but of a purely

empirical and descriptive nature with little, or no suggestions for treatment (edited

in: Hippocrates 1923-1931: I pp. 146-211, 218-287). Not always is the purpose of

composition of these works totally clear: they sometimes resemble lists and

procedural notes written by the doctor for his own use - e.g., Epidemics I and III

(Jones in: Hippocrates 1923-1931: I pp. 141-142). Others resemble fragments

reassembled out of the accumulated written experience recorded in a school's

archive.10 . Yet other texts may be lecture notes - and not all of them addressed to a

professional medical audience.11 .Some of them are composed with the well-read

layman chiefly in mind - the sort of person who was interested in learning about

health and disease.12 .

press for computerised map showing the area of scientific and philosophical

achievements in the vicinity of the Island of Cos: the Ionian colonies are to the

north-east and the Doric states of the Hexapolis to the east and south- east.]

The Hippocratic Tradition and the Beginnings of Rationalism

It is not pure chance that the Hippocratic tradition developed in Cos along the lines

that it did. There are two aspects that need be noticed: first the indigenous Doric

society in the island; secondly, its Ionic literary affiliation. Like its rival, Cnidos, its

medical school was situated in an area that was linguistically and socially part of a

Doric tradition (Schmitt 19912: 43-45). The original Doric Hexapolis once embraced

cities in the islands of Cos and Rhodes, as well as mainland Cnidos and Halicarnassus

on the opposite shores. However, the proximity of the Ionic cultural centres at

Miletus, Samos, Ephesus and Colophon, meant that not only did Ionic scientific and

philosophic thought reach Cos, but also a tradition of composing medical writings in

an artificial Ionic language. Close to Cos, there had also evolved a tradition of

preserving and analysing factual records, that culminated in the Histories of

Herodotus from neighbouring Halicarnassus (c. 484-420 B.C.E.). However, by classical

times, his native city of Halicarnassus had left the Hexapolis, no longer maintaining

its Doric religious and social obligations (Herodotus 1967: I. 144) and had adopted the

cultural traditions of Ionia (Schmitt 19912: 98-99). Consequently, it was in this dialect

that Herodotus composed his works.13 . To a certain extent, the Ionic dialect and factual

descriptions of the Hippocratic corpus can be said to have been preceded by prose

writers like Herodotus.

The early Ionic philosophers working in Miletus and Ephesus were described by

Aristotle as physikoi and physiologoi, those who give an account of nature

(physis).14 . The research and theory developed at Miletus by the 6th-5th century

physiologists, Thales, Anaximander and Anxaximenes, touched on questions relating

to nearly every aspect of nature - ranging from cosmology to the origins of the

humankind. However, there is no evidence that they examined questions of a purely

medical nature. It is true that the 5th-4th century Pythagoreans did develop a special

medical theory of their own, but it seems to have flourished in Italy, rather than in

Pythagoras' native Samos. What characterised philosophy at its earliest period was

the struggle to explain the universe in non-supernatural terms, by seeking a cause

(aitia) for cosmological, meteorological and terrestrial phenomena in a

rationalistic and consistent manner.

Scholars have understood the concept of a gradually emergent

rationalism in a variety of ways. Many have equated this process with

the 'scientific' (i.e., speculative) spirit of Ionia, although these two

developments should be clearly distinguished as far as the early period

is concerned. Mythologists like Hesiod speculated on the order of cosmic

creation no less than 'thinkers' like Anaximander. Others have pointed

to the abandonment of personification in early cosmological and

theological discussions as an indication of the distinction between the

thought of the early Ionians and the poetry of Homer and Hesiod

(Cornford 1957: 15-16). This tendency to offer a humanly subjective,

rather than objective account of the universe does not in itself

contradict the presence of a logical and rational process even in

mythopoeic thought (Frankfort-Wilson-Jacobsen 1964: 18-20). Neither

does it maintain that philosophers were ever pure rationalists right

down to the Hellenistic period (Dodds 1966: 254). Both approaches are

necessary to explain an emergent rationalism: an objective account of

reality as well as a process of ratiocination of some fashion. For this

reason, it has been suggested that the rationalism characterizing both

Hesiod and Ionian thought begins not only with apersonalization of

speculative accounts, but also with the ability to analyze, synthesize and

systematize complex accounts of the universe (Kirk-Raven-Schofield

19832: 72-73). I have my doubts, however, concerning to what extent the

early thinkers were aware of the revolution that they were innovating

(Lloyd 1987: 49) since the first book of Aristotle's Metaphysics goes out

of its way to stress the continutiy with the older thought of the

mythological poets. But a revolution there was in medicine as well as


When Xenophanes (c. 570-478 B.C.E.) of Ionic Colophon said, "What they call Iris

this too is by nature a bright, purple and yellowish cloud in appearance (Diels -

Kranz 1969 14: I. 21 B32), he was rationalising the Goddess Rainbow as a cloud and a

meteorological, cosmological principle (Kirk-Raven-Schofield 19832: Fr. 178). While

we hear of philosophers like Anaxagoras and Protagoras who were punished and

exiled for questioning the role of the gods in the universe, we do not hear of doctors

who suffered for seeking a rational rather than divine cause for disease. The author

of On the Sacred Disease argued that "man's body is not defiled by a god" (Hippocrates

1923-1931: II. cap. IV. 40-50) and that "this disease (scil. epilepsy) is in my opinion no

more divine than any other" (cap. V. 61). Similarly, the author of On the Art (peri

Technes) replies to "those who do not reason logically (ouk orthos logizomenoi)"

concerning the art of medicine (edited in: Hippocrates 1923-1931: II. pp. 190-217).15 .

He thus denies that the cause of recovery is spontaneous (automaton; cap. vi.10) or

due to chance (tyche; cap. vii). In his opinion, "the cures should be infallible, not

because they are easy, but because they have been discovered" (cap. ix.10).

Illustration 4 (Cos slide a):

Text to Illustration 4 ["The arrival of the God Asclepius at Cos, greeted by a Coan

and showing Hippocrates seated at a school exedra (2nd-3rd century A.D. mosaic). Cos

Museum. Photo: S. Stournaras"]

Cult Practice and the Medical Art

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3 The relationship of the corpus to the historic Hippocrates is problematic since the

testimonies of Plato and Aristotle concerning Hippocrates' medical theories do not

conform closely to the corpus. For general discussions, see: L. Edelstein 19792, s.v.

'Hippocrates'; Singer-Wasserstein 19792, s.v. 'Medicine VII'; Lloyd 1978, 9-12, 21-37.

4 Nonetheless, the opinions of the Cnidians are attacked in the early Hippocratic

work, Regimen in Acute Diseases (Hippocrates 1923-1931: II, caps. I- III).

5 On the various theories concerning the meaning of the term Asclepiadae, see: Jones,

in: Hippocrates 1923-1931: I pp. xliv-xlvi, II p. 335.

6 Exceptions are: 1) the famous Hippocratic Oath (text in: Hippocrates 1923-1931: I pp.

298-301) addressed to Apollo the Physician, Asclepius, Hygieia and Panacea - but as

an oath it is sui generis and not part of a treatment process; 2) the late pseudo-

Hippocratic Letter xv, written as a report of a supposed epiphany recounted by


7 This is an old composition (c. 430-420 B.C.E.), whose author is presumed to be "either

Hippocrates or a very capable supporter" (Jones, in: Hippocrates 1923- 1931: I p. 5).

8 Of the philosopher-medical writers that the author has in mind, he names only

Empedocles specifically. A later product of this school is Regimen I (discussed


9 Plato 1964: Phaedrus 270c. For background, see: Hackforth 1952: 151. This, of course,

would mean that On Ancient Medicine was composed by one of Hippocrates'


10 As in the book of Precepts (Parangeliai) - edited in: Hippocrates 1923- 1931: I. pp.

312-333. In the editor's opinion, it represents a collection of jottings derived from

works of differing methodologies and theories (Jones in: Hippocrates 1923- 1931: I.

pp. 305-307). We may also compare the more famous seven books of Aphorisms

(Hippocrates 1923-1931: IV, pp. 98-221), with their gnomic parabolizing form,

famous for the saying 'Life is short, the (medical) art is long etc.' (cap. I).

11 The early composition, On Breaths (peri Physon) is described by its editor as "a

sophistic essay, probably delivered to an audience" (Jones in: Hippocrates 1923-

1931: II p. 221).

12 Cf. On Affections cap. 1 (Hippocrates 1988: V p. 6), that opens in this fashion: "An

intelligent man who considers health of importance to humans, will have an

understanding of disease. He need understand what doctors tell him and what they

intend to do to his body, having a lay knowledge of these matters".

13 The question of the actual spoken language of Halicarnassus - as opposed to its

Ionian literary and inscriptional veneer - is still undetermined since many of the

inhabitants were of mixed Carian stock. The spoken language may well have been

some patois.

14 The original application of these Greek terms is thus much broader than the

modern derivations of 'physiologist' and 'physician'.

15 Many consider this work to be the product of a sophist who had studied some


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Bibliography for the notes of this section

  1. Aristotle, 19752 On the Soul, Parva Naturalia , On Breath (trans.-ed. W.S. Hett), Cambridge, Mass.
  2. Dodds, E.R. 1966 The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley-L.A.
  3. Diels, H. - Kranz, W. 1969 14 Fragmente der Vorsokratiker I-III, Dublin-Zurich
  4. Edelstein, L. (19792) in: Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford, s.v. 'Hippocrates'
  5. Farrington, B. 1966 Greek Science., Harmondsworth
  6. Galen 1952 On the Natural Faculties (ed.-trans., A.J. Brock), Cambridge, Mass.
  7. Grant, F.C. 1953 Hellenistic Religions, Indianapolis-N.Y
  8. Guthrie, W.K.C. 1968 The Greeks and their Gods, Cambridge
  9. Cornford, F.M. 1957 From Religion to Philosophy A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation
  10. Frankfort, H. & H.A., Wilson, J.A., Jacobsen, J. 1964, Before Philosophy
  11. Hackforth, R. 1952 Plato's Phaedrus, N.Y
  12. Herodotus 1967 Herodoti Historiae, Oxford
  13. Hippocrates 1923-1931 Hippocrates I-IV (ed.-trans. W.H.S. Jones), Cambridge, Mass.
  14. Hippocrates 1988 Hippocrates V-VI (ed.-trans. P. Potter), Cambridge, Mass.
  15. Hippocrates 1996 Hippocrates VII (ed.-trans. W.D. Smith), Cambridge, Mass.
  16. Hippocrates 1996 Hippocrates VIII (ed.-trans. P. Potter), Cambridge, Mass.
  17. Jones, W.H.S. 1979 Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece, Chicago
  18. Kirk, G.S. - Raven, J.E. -Schofield, M. 19832 The Presocratic Philosophers Cambridge
  19. Knox, E.D. 1953 Herodes, Cercidas and the Greek Choliambic Poets, Cambridge, Mass.
  20. Lloyd, G.E.R. (ed.) 1978 Hippocratic Writings, Aylesbury
  21. Lloyd, G.E.R. 1979 Magic, Reason and Experience, Cambridge
  22. Lloyd, G.E.R. 1987 The Revolutions of Wisdom - Studies in the Claims and Practice of Ancient Greek Science (Sather Classical Lectures, 52), Berkeley
  23. Plato 1964 Platonis Opera (ed. J. Burnet), Oxford
  24. Rice, D.G. - Stambaugh, J.E. 1979 Sources for the Study of Greek Religion, Scholars Press
  25. Schmitt, R. 19912 Einführung in die griechischen Dialekte, Darmstadt
  26. Singer, C. - Wasserstein, A. 19792 in: Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. 'Medicine VII', Oxford

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