Against the Physicists / Physicians

  • Does anyone have any idea why both Epicurus and Metrodorus seem to have dedicated not just one but a collection of writings to a long critique of "the physicians"? Were the ancient Greek physicians a school of philosophy, or did Greek physicians have particular views that inspired an attack by them?

    Metrodorus wrote THREE books, and Epicurus an epitome of objections against them.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • The physicians (if by that we mean 'doctors') of Ancient Greece were informed by the cultural belief that ailments could generally be referred to the supernatural—either a curse, or the dissatisfaction of the gods, or the machinations of fate. They may have been sincere, but it's not difficult to imagine that in such an environment many of these were outright charlatans. I'll look later through some of their writings. Excellent topic!

  • Surely there must be some academic notes about that, but I don't see anything at first in Bailey's "Extant Remains"…d-1926#page/n155/mode/2up

    Maybe there is something in "The Greek Atomists and Epicurus."

    But are we sure we are talking about "physicians" or "physicists" because I have the impression that referring to physicists may be a reference to hard determinism such as from Democritus but I am not sure at all.

    Good question / let's look into this.

  • This is from the RD Hicks translation of Diogenes Laertius and Epicurus' list of books - "Physicists"

    But a different word was given in the list of Metrodorus' books:

  • DeWitt seems to be considering physicists and physicians separately here, so that would be firm indication of a distinction as I would think DeWitt would not have used this phrasing if he considered them the same:

  • In case this helps someone who is good with the Greek, I have these two clips from the latest academic reworking of the text that I am aware of, by Tiziano Dorandi published by Cambridge in 2013.

    Epicurus' books:

    Metrodorus' books:

  • But are we sure we are talking about "physicians" or "physicists" because I have the impression that referring to physicists may be a reference to hard determinism such as from Democritus but I am not sure at all.

    Good question / let's look into this.

    The Physicians. Meaning, the doctors, or whatever passed for medicine back then.

    I wonder if Hippocrates lived before Epicurus, and if so, did his teachings and his famous "oath" have philosophical implications that inspired a critique?

    Laertius just mentions that these works against them were written by Metrodorus and Epicurus, which means they must have had MANY and LONG conversations about them, or exchanges with them.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • aaah, here is the Hippocratic oath:


    I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

    To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture; to impart precept, oral instruction, and all other instruction to my own sons, the sons of my teacher, and to indentured pupils who have taken the physician’s oath, but to nobody else.

    I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even, verily, on sufferers from stone, but I will give place to such as are craftsmen therein.

    Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free. And whatsoever I shall see or hear in the course of my profession, as well as outside my profession in my intercourse with men, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets.

    Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I gain for ever reputation among all men for my life and for my art; but if I break it and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me.[6] – Translation by W.H.S. Jones.

    which strikes me as fairly innocent and useful, I remember Philodemus associating piety and oaths and saying that they were solemn and had to be upheld

    Here is the biography of Hippocrates himself, which reminds me that ancient people, when they got sick, used to visit the TEMPLE OF ASCLEPIUS and sleep there, believing that through dreams the god would heal them. There MUST have been an Epicurean critique of this, which was a very common practice of his day, as well as any type of reliance on oracles for healing.

    So I'm pretty sure some of what occupied these critiques may have been natural explanations of diseases and of dreams, which could easily be recreated today.

    Now, Hippocrates denied supernatural causes to diseases, BUT had a wrong theory of them. Wikipedia says


    However, Hippocrates did work with many convictions that were based on what is now known to be incorrect anatomy and physiology, such as Humorism

    (article on humorism is here: - and it's possible that Metrodorus and Epicurus produced a critique of this theory from an atomist perspective, maybe arguing that microbia the size of small particles cause diseases.)

    Do we see in Lucretius at least a brief mention of the germ theory? If so, this may have been inspired in those reasonings.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • Also, the Hippocrates essay says:


    Hippocratic medicine was humble and passive. The therapeutic approach was based on "the healing power of nature"

    Obviously, this doctrine of there being a "healing power of nature" is confirmed by the existence of an immune system, and we know much more about this today. But an Epicurean critique to the passive method of Hyppocrates (and ancient physicians) would have been to propose ACTIVE measures that could be taken for one's health. After all, health is a natural and necessary pleasure.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • Lucian may be relied on here for a further insight;


    The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquility, and independence of mind it produces, [...] of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.

    "Torches and squills" must refer here to some kind of traditional sham medicine?

  • So far I would say that the Lucian quote backs up the deductions that Hiram is suggesting, but also so far it seems to me that we are still on speculative and thin ice until or unless we find something even more specific in an Epicurean text. I would be cautious against inferring anything that is not obvious (such as what Lucian is saying, which would be pretty obvious).

    I would expect that Epicurus would say in medicine that "whatever works" is the ultimate test, and in medicine we know whether the patient heals through direct observation, so its not quite the same thing as attacking theories about the stars which cannot be verified directly.

    Anyway, I hope we will find more to work with.

  • I also think Cassius is on to something; without having looked into the Greek, is it possible we're dealing with works Against Physicians, and works Against Physicists? We use the term "pre-Socratics" to refer to Democritus, Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander, etc. Is that a modern convention (as I presume), or a Roman one, or something else? Because all of them developed competing physical theories.

  • oh yes I feel sure that we are dealing with the "physicists" due to their presumed advocacy of determinism.

    I am much less sure that there was an attack on "physicians" as it is less clear what their error would be, unless as Hiram says its a subset of attacking religion.

  • I've looked into the Greek.

    The translations posted above are correct; Epicurus wrote against "The Physicists". This is fitting, since physics was the grounding of his whole system.

    To Metrodorus he gave the task of writing against "The Physicians";


    From Ancient Greek ἰατρεία (iatreia, “healing, medical treatment”), from ἰατρός (iatros, “doctor”).

    NB: This word is the root of the ending -iatry; psychiatry, podiatry, etc. See Cassius' fourth post in this thread for the Greek, under "Metrodorus' books", first line in the list.

    So we are definitely dealing with three books by Metrodorus against physicians, as in doctors or healers.

  • Lucian may be relied on here for a further insight;

    "Torches and squills" must refer here to some kind of traditional sham medicine?

    Very likely.

    I also remember that the fragment "Friendship dances around the world …" was inspired in a traditional medicinal practice where people danced around the patient, that there was a curative ritual of a sort. I wonder if the argument that the founders were making was that It is FRIENDSHIP that offers the medicinal placebo effect.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • I also think Cassius is on to something; without having looked into the Greek, is it possible we're dealing with works Against Physicians, and works Against Physicists? We use the term "pre-Socratics" to refer to Democritus, Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander, etc. Is that a modern convention (as I presume), or a Roman one, or something else? Because all of them developed competing physical theories.

    It's modern, and highly critiqued by modern Epicureans like Michel Onfray:…er-history-of-philosophy/


    Onfray starts with Plato himself, who never mentions Democritus directly, although his entire philosophy is a war-machine against Democritus. Plato’s tactic here is to ignore, to omit, to silence the enemy, so as to diminish and disregard his value. In one passage discussing Aristoxenus, Onfray narrates how Plato once insinuated that the works of Democritus should be burnt, but two Pythagoreans persuaded him not to burn them. At all times, Onfray convicts Plato of knowingly engaging in an ideological battle, a problem which is made worse by the fact that in the “official” history of philosophy, there haven’t been enough attempts to find the real voice of his opponents.

    The academic world has adopted the Platonic narrative and delegated Democritus in the history books to the status of a “pre-Socratic”, which trivializes his intellectual achievement as the inventor of atomism, although Democritus lived at the same time as Socrates. Democritus was born in 460, Socrates in 470. Perhaps it’s easy enough for historians to fit facts and people into neat categories, but the myth of the “three classical philosophers”–Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–has been perpetuated unthinkingly ad nauseam by academia, and has attributed an unfair amount of importance to these three to the detriment of all the others.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • Without having any context into this, I wonder if Epicurus' polemic against "The Physicians" was based in a critique against Humor Theory (which was heavily inspired by Emedocles' Four Classical Elements). Empedocles seems to have taken a cue from an older theorist named Alcmaeon of Croton, who seems to have had some relation to the Pythagoreans, and was also known to practice astrology. Humor Theory reduces nature to four (sometimes five) immutable elements (Air, Water, Fire, and Earth) and posits that all phenomena emerge from an interaction between these primary elements. I understand that the "Physicians" (Hippocrates being our prototypical example) applied this theory to medicine, thus, we have the Four Fluids (Blood, Phlegm, Yellow, and Black Bile), each of which correlate with one of the Four Temperaments (Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric, and Melancholic). These basic elements were later correlated with four seasons, four ages, four organs, and four qualities.

    Though I have limited knowledge on the subject, it seems clear that this over-generalization of nature is incompatible with atomism, and would be a good starting place for any Epicurean to begin a polemic.

  • Maybe the ideas and teachings of Aclepiades of Bithynia (c. 124/140 BCE - 40 BCE) can help us in this regard? It's not known exactly how much he was inspired or deviated from Epicurean and Democritean theory, however, it's also said that he was very acquainted with philosophy. But it's very clear that he rejected humorism and other leading theories from his time.


    Asclepiades began by vilifying the principles and practices of his predecessors, and by asserting that he had discovered a more effective method of treating diseases than had been before known to the world. He decried the efforts of those who sought to investigate the structure of the body, or to watch the phenomena of disease, and he is said to have directed his attacks particularly against the writings of Hippocrates.

    Discarding the humoral doctrine of Hippocrates, Asclepiades attempted to build a new theory of disease, and founded his medical practice on a modification of the atomic or corpuscular theory, according to which disease results from an irregular or inharmonious motion of the corpuscles of the body.[6] His ideas were likely partly derived from the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus. All morbid action was reduced to the obstruction of pores and irregular distribution of atoms. Asclepiades arranged diseases into two great classes of Acute and Chronic.[11] Acute diseases were caused essentially by a constriction of the pores, or an obstruction of them by an excess of atoms; the Chronic were caused by a relaxation of the pores or a deficiency of atoms. Asclepiades thought that other mild disease were caused by a disruption in bodily fluids and pneuma. He separated illnesses into three separate categories: status strictus (too tightly held), status laxus (too loosely held), and status mixtus (a little of each). He also believed that there were no critical days of diseases, meaning that illnesses do not end at a definite time.

    Asclepiades' remedies were, therefore, directed to the restoration of harmony. He trusted much to changes of diet, massages, bathing and exercise, although he did employ emetics and bleeding.[6] A part of the great popularity which he enjoyed depended upon his prescribing the liberal use of wine to his patients,[12] and upon his attending to their every need, and indulging their inclinations. He would treat all his patients fairly and did not discriminate based upon gender or mental illness. He believed treating his patients kindly and amicably was essential to being a good physician. Cito tuto jucunde (meaning to treat his patients "swiftly, safely, and sweetly") was a motto that he followed.[13] This contrasted with the behaviour of other physicians who practised during his life time who it was said had a tendency to be uncaring and have a lack of sympathy towards their patients.

    Metrodorus and Epicurus may have written against the ritualistic approach to disease and illness as was common in their days. Bear in mind that Epicurus' mother was something of a shaman or "witch doctor" who would cite prayers and incantations with charms. The only possibility I see (from current surviving sources) is both a critique of humorism and the magical/religious approaches to medicine not focused on the physical body. Whether or not the two built their own theory of medicine I can't say, but its clear that they would've been against healing rituals and charms that kept away disease.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Against the Physicists” to “Against the Physicists / Physicians”.
  • I have messaged Takis Paniagotopoulos in Greece about this. His initial reaction was that the issue is determinism, but he said he would check further and I will let you know if he comes up with anything. He also mentioned Asclepiades and he is no doubt right that part of the answer will involve discussing him, as he was considered to be associated with the Epicureans if I recall correctly.