Ancient Philosophy and Ancient Religions by Stanley Wilkin at

Ancient Philosophy and Ancient Religions

Ancient Philosophy and Ancient Religions

written by: Stanley Wilkin



This paper first examines the commonly, if erroneously, accepted beginnings of Western Philosophy in ancient Greece, with its celebrated focus upon the natural world and the special place given to ancient Greek society in the development of ideas and the separation of rational and irrational thought processes that underlie modern science. In addition, it identifies the roots of Presocratic Philosophy, through the work of Kirk and Raven, in commonplace perceptions of the world of the time and in religion. The Hippocratic Corpus, this paper asserts, demonstrates rural antecedents as well as the influence of religious, rather than rational, ideas.  An attempt is here made to define rationality, finding it in the day to day practices of ancient Greek lay medicine. The connection, if any, between Greek, African and Near Eastern medicine is considered, predominantly through the recent work of Markus Asper, and the correlation between Didactic Wisdom Literature of the ancient world and the ethics of the Hippocratic Oath. This paper will then trace the connection between philosophy and medicine, and the flaws in thinking that remain within the profession. Finally, the roots of Western philosophical thinking will be traced to the lexical lists of Sumeria, and their construction of reality based upon identification of properties through naming.

Presocratic Philosophers:

The accepted view of the emergence of Ionian philosophy concerns the development from mythos to logos, a view used to justify the superiority of Western culture, espousing a sudden intellectual transformation that gave credence to later European political and military dominance. In this narrative, mythos, a form of untruth, gives way to logos, a real and calculable truth. Along with this, exampled by many modern authors referenced in this paper, goes the idea of the supreme intelligence of ancient Greeks and their intellectual separation from their Near Eastern compatriots. In fact, this involves the creation of a myth in order to substantiate the demise of myth as a method and means of understanding cultural change. Contrary to this supposed demise, myth/mythos remains as potent a source of intellectual engagement as before the cherished, so-called emergence of rationality, continuously feeding science, politics, academia and medicine.

Chiara Bottici  demonstrates that Aristotle first defined Presocratic Philosophers as natural philosophers in order to validate his own work, and that the word commonly used for the Presocratic Philosophers was sophoi, connecting its protagonists to wisdom, indicating a different role in which the emergence of logos played little part. In essence, the Presocratic Philosophers appear to have been seen as occupying a role between shaman and poet, as those excelling in knowledge, concerned with both the gods and the natural world.  According to Bottici the term mythos only became connected to fictitious narrative with the advent of the sophists, professional teachers of wisdom-although it seems that the Presocratic Philosophers were little different, making careers out of their ideas. Only the delivery perhaps changed, the persuasive form altered from description and exposition to classification.

Logos accordingly represents a move towards abstraction, from, for example, Hot as a personification of an environmental phenomenon, to ‘to be Hot’, or to heat, requiring agencies and properties. The problem here is to what extent ordinary people considered the natural environment in the former terms, or whether they understood that a process was involved, i.e. that specific, chosen actions of their own produced fire and heat. Perhaps, they viewed it as a bicameral process, with fire attributed to the attributes of a god as well as produced mechanically by human beings.

The development of logos appears rooted in semantics, a process of argumentation, distinct from narrative, from something that takes action to one in a process of being. Bottici attributes the idea to the Sophists, and that a clear division between mythos and logos is not discernible in Presocratic Philosophers, nor in those who followed their methods or what they perceived their methods to be. Bottici correctly sees a change in presentation, not necessarily in thought processes.

Theogony and cosmology:

Kirk and Raven (1957)  have closely studied Presocratic Philosophers’ ideas on cosmology, finding a connection between early scientific thinking and ancient Greek, African and Asian theogony.  Xenophanes’s understanding for example (page 11) of the earth and heavens mirrors the views of Homer and Hesiod, showing a mantle of air between earth and sky, an aither, fiery domains above the air, the earth and beneath it Tartarus. Both models appear to be the same, except that Xenophanes leaves out the mythological narrative and locationing. Xenophanes of Colophon wrote attacking Hesiod and Homer’s presentation of the gods as immoral, demonstrating how each race constructs gods like themselves, and that a supreme god must be abstract. Like Ptah, this supreme god, an archetype of oneness, operated through thought, eliminating the actions that, for Xenophanes, defined the Greek gods.

Kirk and Raven connect ancient Greek mythology with that of ancient Egypt and Sumeria. Although not exactly alike, all turn upon ideas of separation in which the cosmos begins with the splitting of earth and sky. The sun appeared after this split, giving both light and life. The authors show that this can also be seen in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where Shu, the air god, is spat out by Re, lifting the sky god Nut from the earth god Keb. The Presocratic Philosophers, born in Asia, need have looked no further than the Hittites for their cosmological models,  as discussed by Kirk and Raven in the Hurrian-Hittite ‘Song of Ullikummi’, where Upelluri, a counterpart of Atlas, says: ‘When heaven and earth were built upon me I knew nothing of it, and when they came and cut heaven and earth asunder with a cleaver I knew nothing of it.’ This nevertheless is probably a version of the Sumerian creation myth (s), revitalised in Babylon, whereby Marduk splits the body of the primeval water-goddess Tiamat and makes one part into the sky, the other into Apsu, the deep, and Esharra, earth or land.

Pherecydes’, from Syros, who was active in the 6th century BCE, was connected to Pythagoras. The same miracles were ascribed to both. He was possibly a contemporary of Anaximander. He seems rarely if ever to have extended his insights beyond religion. His statement that Zas (Zeus) and Chronos (Time) and Chthonie (Earth) always existed (Kirk and Raven, 1957:49) can, if desired, serve as both a theological and scientific statement as it on the one hand settles a possible theological argument on the beginning of separation, or, if you will, creation, but also presents a possible theory to that beginning. In this, it can be seen that the philosopher is employing the images and concepts of the age, and not exceeding those images and concepts. Although Aristotle (Met. N4., 1091b8) claimed Pherecydes examined the gods objectively, this may merely indicate his distance from Hesiod. Kirk and Raven (p 72) suggest that he was at times close to oriental sources (p 65) but as he attempted to interpret the world as a whole his methods were similar to Thales and the Ionian philosophers-highlighting also the association of their insights with religious theorising.

Several Presocratic Philosophers.

Thales, held commonly to be the first Presocractic Philosopher, was probably born in Miletus and was considered by Herodotus to have had Phoenician ancestry. Aetius (Vetusta Placita) describes him as having practised philosophy in Egypt where he learnt (according to Proclus: Kirk/Raven: 1957: 84) geometry. Although it was traditional to ascribe Egyptian connections to ancient Philosophers it is highly possible that Thales spent a period in Egypt, probably at the Naucratis, the Greek colony there.  He initially became famous as a consequence of predicting an eclipse, although he may have not known anything of the reasons for such events, but simply had access to Babylonian records detailing solstices for religious purposes. In all, Thales seems mainly to have utilised eastern and Egyptian religious practices for practical ends. Thales’ belief that the earth floats on water and that water is the origin of all things seems simply a rewrite of similar views in all cultures of the period. It is closest to the Egyptian concept, which no one claims as scientific, of the earth as a flat, rimmed dish floating on water.

Kirk and Raven (1957: page 98) hold that Thales must be considered the first philosopher because he abandoned mythic formulation. Is the advent of science merely about changes in philological values, whereby earth is separated from mythology but becomes linguistically continuous, reflecting material and subjective values unattached to deities? This series of papers, ‘An Unusual Power’, asserts that mythic formulation has become more subtle and discreet and is not thereby absent from science, or claims to scientific formulation.

Dobson holds (2005:p103) that Ionian philosophers were interested in explaining everyday experience by reducing or breaking events into different parts, a Sumerian trait, and describing them as a series of ‘physical’ relationships among ‘impersonal’ objects from a single principle or arche. So by perceiving water as the essence of everything Thales was acting as a scientist, behaving distinctly differently from a theologian. For Thales water has its own properties unlike, the thinking goes, the vast oceans of Egyptian and Sumerian mythology, which form part of an overall religious cosmology. Water becomes thereby an object that affects and/or constitutes other objects. Accordingly, Thales understanding of the essential nature of water for life came through experience. And yet, the same observation, along with descriptions of its destructive capacities, surely underlies its prominence in Egyptian, Sumerian and Akkadian literature? The belief here is that Thales considered only the material properties of water, without acknowledgement of its symbolic properties, in the manner of other neighbouring societies, and that this reductionist approach, focused on directly experienced phenomena and at the same time limiting linguistic values, produced a clearer, measurable experience. He then proceeded to extrapolate on that experience and produce conclusions that did not connect with the original nature of the observed experience.

‘Anaximander named the arche of existing things the apeiron (the boundless, the unlimited). Things perish into those out of which they have their being according to necessity; for they make just recompense to one another for their injustice according to the assessment of time.’

Anaximander son of Praxiades, of Miletus , according to Kirk and Raven (1957: page 100) attempted to explain all aspects of man’s existence. Legend has him introduce sun-dials, gnomon, to Greece, produce world maps and an all-embracing philosophy. He may have been the first to employ the term arche, that is originating cause or first principle, that which pre-existed.  Anaximander conjectured that behind all forms, by that he meant substance or properties, lay an infinite or indefinite form that allowed different properties, fire and water for example, to co-exist. It appears that by observing seasonal change, Anaximander assumed that opposites were in continuous conflict in order to obtain balance. Although the employment of abstractions such as hot and cold may not have been by Anaximander but instead he may have used concrete rather than abstract terms. Thereby, the properties of fire are determined by hot rather than a combination of processes and effects. For Anaximander, although flame has indefinite properties linking it to other substances, it also has its own substance which exists temporarily. Further arguments on the nature of Anaximander’s thoughts, such as by Atomists and by Theophrastus, may not rightfully be attributed to Anaximander.

Although demonstrating a weakness in Presocratic Philosophy through only a small number cannot be considered conclusive, nevertheless the problems of their thinking, irrespective of the huge subsequent benefits, can be examined and connected to the present day. In this work, to medicine. Geoffrey P. Dobson (2005) concludes that the separation of nature and the gods, in fact defining nature for the first time, was revolutionary, even if limited to a few groups in Anatolia. Physical causation was postulated for phenomenon not mythopoeic linkages to the divine, see above. And yet, the physical appears to exist within a mythic or proto-divine substance or identifying property that discriminates towards the separate identification of phenomenon, turning human reactions into archetypes. Anaximander’s perception of the infinite or indefinite appears based upon the chaos of Hesiod, or the Egyptian belief in the divine as one.  For the ancient Egyptian, the world resulted from an original cause or substance. Anaximander’s infinite or indefinite is therefore an abstraction of concrete Egyptian propositions of creation, with perhaps possible Buddhist or Hindu influences.

This paper will lastly consider Heraclitus, who came from Ephesus and introduced logos into thinking, which some have considered a technical term with metaphysical meaning. Barnes (1979) believes that it meant simply ‘account’, as in what someone says (legei). Kirk, Raven and Schofield (1983) assert that he was alluding to measure, reckoning or proportion-that is, the proportionate method of the arrangement of things. If Heraclitus had a metaphysical intention, it may have been no different to that of Ptah, the structuring of thoughts and ideas through and from words. Of course, he might actually have believed that language underlie reality, which certainly would have been interesting. Likely, he noted what many others around the Near East and Africa noted, that thoughts, actions and structure rely on words and narrative. Later commentators held that Heraclitus implied divine reason (Kirk, Raven, Schofield: 1983) that has similarities to consciousness or to the concept of Wisdom in Genesis, a disembodied being connected to but not part of god. Anyway, some of the above ideas can also be found in Genesis, or remnants of these. It was probably part of the intellectual koine of the age.

Heraclitus is equally known for his Theory of Flux, that everything is constantly changing, although the cavalcade of opposites, or Unity of Opposites, is built upon a Oneness that reflects that of Anaximander and the Milesians as a whole. This concept is also built upon the belief in conflict, of hot and cold, which probably came out of the bones of ancient religions or from commonly held perceptions of the time. His sayings: ‘It is not possible to step into the same river twice’ and ‘We both step and do not step into the same rivers: we both are and are not’ (1982) contains the belief in constant change, but also the continuance of form. His final contribution, here at least, was his belief that fire is the prime stuff of the world, bearing some possible connection to Zoroaster. Fire was the one, the single god. His assertion that fire turns into water; and water eventually reverts to fire, the proportions remaining constant, may reflect the process of fire extinguished by rain, its properties dormant until wood or grass dries, and fire begins again. This suggests a focus upon unchanging, continuous properties governed by unchanging (sic) contingency. Strangely, he appears not to have concerned himself with the changes wrought by death, unless this was really his concern.

This seems a confused output, perhaps reflecting his relatively long life, veering from one principal condition to another, but may reflect as much his sources. It has long been common to believe that the ancient philosophers were extraordinary originals who sparked with ideas, but perhaps they were simply conduits within a world dealing haphazardly with Eastern ideas. He may have started from simple observations, common to everyone: ‘Cold things grow warm: warm grows cold: wet grows dry: parched grows moist’, believing that change is inexplicably wrought, rather than rendered. Its concept of opposites closely resembles Anaximander’s but places the emphasis on a different dynamic, occupying the same space through natural processes rather than with balance in mind, properties altered rather than form. As with all, doxographical tradition may have added to each philosophers’ originality and complexity.

It would merely be an act of superciliousness to dismiss Heraclitus. Johnathan Barnes (1982: p77) notes his attack on the value of perception as a means of obtaining the truth about the substance, nature/phusis of an object, that is ‘given by its fundamental constitution, by those features or that structure which explains the remaining properties of items of the sort and which which nothing is an item of that sort’ (Barnes, 1982:p77). Barnes appears influenced by Heraclitus’ assertion early in his career that he was concerned to ‘divide up each thing according with its nature, and say how it is.’ This seems strangely similar to the taxology of ancient Sumerian scribes. Although Heraclitus might have intended more than the fashioning of knowledge and reality, predicting, according to Barnes, the science of modern times in an attempt to see beyond what is presented to the senses. Barnes is concerned to raise Heraclitus above the ranks of mystery-makers, a telling phrase, and place him among the great philosopher-scientists.  Certainly, it is possible to see in Heraclitus’s declarations that opposition defines the properties of opposites. Like the Sumerians, nevertheless, he made lists to confirm the reality he perceived, and how that reality was structured.   And surely, his understanding of opposites keeping the world stable, albeit forever changing, is similar to many religious views-such as in the powerful narrative of Horus, Osiris, Isis, where life and death constantly interact, order and disorder, direct opposites, and played out within the construct of continuance-i.e.  kingship.  Or, for example, the death of gods, often temporary, that brings about renewed life. Here, life and death are opposites that again ensure the continuance of the universe.

Certainly, the religious aspects of Presocratic thinking has been largely lost, in the sense that they did not seek to reject god but to redefine god in the face of the amoral adventurers of Hesiod and Homer. Astronomy for example was deeply connected to religion, even in Greece.


Medical Acculturation: How rationality was defined.

Markus Asper in ‘Medical Acculturation?: Early Greek Texts and the Question of Near Eastern Influence’  notes that although in sixth to fourth century BCE Greece certain peculiar forms of discourse emerged, concerned with medicine and zoology, but also with astronomy and mathematics’ sharing a modern-looking obsession with truth and modern looking interest in method argument, explanation, sometimes even proof, and refutation terms such as science and theory’ are anachronistically applied. According to the author, the long held view of the singular and revolutionary nature of Greek discourse has been shattered by the debate about orientalism and a clear cultural divide held by those who imagine the Greeks to have been exceptional.

Asper examines the above position through ancient medicine and the likely, but unproven, connection between the Near East and Greece. In Mesopotamia and Egypt professional medicine and its associated literature have a history extending back to the third millennium BCE. Over such a length of time, Asper suggests that there must have been contact and acculturation in the field, as there exists in writing and metallurgy.

Before the 5th century BCE, the practice of the healing arts in Greece was restricted to members of cults, such as those of Asclepius and Pythagoras. According to Nutton (2004), the evidence in Homer of Greek medicine, which predates Hippocrates/Hippocrates corpus, during this period was already displaying sophisticated medical skills. The treatments administered by Machaonin in the Iliad, who appears to be a professional healer as well as a warrior, suggests an efficient method of dealing with blood poisoning as the consequence of war wounds. Nevertheless, in Homer the gods still play a part in healing processes.

Although theories as to the reason for disease and illness may have changed, many practices may not, for example the healing of broken legs, usually done by a bonesetter, or to the curing of commonplace ailments. Nutton (2001: pp 87-88) describes a profession in which the members were required to compete vigorously in order to gain a living. Although Herodotus writes of a system of public doctors in Aegina and Athens in the late 6th century there is little evidence again of this development until Hellenistic times.

Hippocrates of Cos, probably active in the 5th century BCE, appears to have instituted a method that consisted, according to Plato writing in Phaedrus, of applying logic/reason to how the body functioned. He decided that the body functioned as a Whole, but whether in a holistic sense or in the sense that pains in the patient’s arms resulted from or were dependent on the health of the entire body is difficult to say. Aristotle in Politics writes that Hippocrates was an Asclepiad, a member of a family that claimed descent from Asclepius, and that he taught medicine for money. The Hippocratic Corpus, including the Hippocratic Oath, is unlikely to be all by him, but includes work by those who shared his methods. Already, the body is seen as an object for the physician’s gaze. Evidence from the pre-Alexandrian Anonymous Londinensis papyrus indicates that Hippocrates mirrored Anaximander’s idea of conflict, and believed that variations in breath caused disease, thereby applying an arche or, at least, a common cause. From the Corpus (An Unusual Power: The Cultural Construction of Madness: 2014: p8), he believed that opposites caused illnesses, and environmental agencies (moisture for example) also cause illness. In these, he was following Anaximander. Although probably employing the apparent advantages of observation, looking for signs and associations, clearly the body remained a container of myths/mythos reflecting the cosmos.

Near Eastern and African Medicine:

To clarify his argument on the influence of Near Eastern medicine, Asper points to the Cnidian sub-group in the Hippocratic Corpus, which focuses on descriptions and classifications of diseases, adopting an impersonal, non-polemical style, free from arguments and elaborate etiological speculation. Some commentators believe these sections may preserve the content of earlier pre-Hippocratic, non-speculative Greek medicine. Consequently, Assyriologists have searched for parallels in contemporary Mesopotamian medical literature. There are a few, but only a few, parallels between De morbis 11 and late Babylonian medicine. One of these is the tendency to arrange lists of symptoms, wounds, treatments, the a capite ad calcem still employed today. In fact, Asper demonstrates (page 25) the textural similarities of Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek descriptions of naming, providing symptoms, therapy and prognosis. Nutton (2001) does not deny the possible influence of Egryptian and Mesopotamian medicine on ancient Greek medicine, but points to the lack of evidence in the tablets discovered from these areas. He holds that any influence was in specific practices rather than theories, as if this was not, in the end, a compliment.

It is worth nevertheless looking at some of the evidence from Egyptian medicine. For example, the Edwin Smith papyrus, its purchaser, which may have come from the same tomb as the Ebers papyrus, the longest medical papyrus found. It possibly originates from the Old Kingdom, indicating the age of such knowledge. Unlike many other Egyptian medical papyrus, it takes a logical approach, describing forty-eight cases of trauma. It functions as an instruction book, rather than one of remedies. The book consists of examination, diagnosis and prognosis, and treatment, beginning with injuries to the top of the head and working downwards. The papyrus contains a great deal that relates to current surgical practice. The Ebers papyrus, also purchased by Edwin Smith, and dated to 1534 BCE, contains spells, recognition of symptoms, use of ointments, drug treatment for migraine, eye diseases, bites by both man and crocodile, relaxation of metu, tendons, muscles or blood-vessels, and a more accessible portion on surgery. Other medical papyrus cover gynaecology, magical treatments for headaches, diseases of the anus treated with enemas, pregnancy and conception. As with Greek medicine, logical methods of treatment work best when the results of treatment are clear, such as surgery.

Asper enlarges on his argument by demonstrating that many healers attacked within the Hippocratic Corpus, a device frequently employed, show evidence of being advocates of purification rites of the Near East, called numburbi-ritual, with which the rationalist/empirical healers were in intense competition.

Asper concludes that the oldest forms of Greek medical discourse are examples of the Orientalizing Revolution (Burkert) . The polemics of many ancient Greek medical writers construct not only the healers they are attacking, but also construct, over time, their own healing practices in a competitive market-place. They present evidence of epistemic technologies of trust, that is persuasive arguments, rather than social technologies of trust, based upon social authority. At present, medicine uses both technologies, with a greater concentration on the latter.  Lastly, he concludes, that although Greek medical writers and healers acknowledged the importance of Egyptian and Mesopotamian predecessors, they did by through the creation of an imagery past and wrote Eastern medical practitioners out of their cultural history. Asper asserts that typically Greek rationalist medicine, which joins the early Philosophers as an exemplar of science, are a case study of Greek acculturation (see above), of absorbing Near Eastern knowledge into Greek society. In a final argument, he suggests that rational Greek medicine (and Greek mathematics) reflects not an East-West divide but a break within Greek culture, brought about perhaps by increasing competition between groups with the displacement or fall of aristocratic elites. He believes that this can be traced back to Mycenaean palace cultures in which Near Eastern medical practices dominated. Extrapolating on this view, it is possible that empirical Greek medicine developed out of lay medicine in the same fashion that modern medicine grew out of the non-graduate doctors’ medicine of the Early Modern Period.

The three traditions, noted above, demonstrate the same concept of disease as an entity, defined by observable symptoms, caused by external factors, with the same trajectory in all patients and general prognosis.

Connecting philosophy and medicine:

Nutton (2001) holds that the combination of philosophy, religion and medicine goes back to Parmenides, although the author shows that the career of the later Empedocles, who flourished around the middle of the 5th century, demonstrates the first clear mixing of medicine and philosophy. This paper asserts that it was intricately entangled with the earliest Presocratic Philosophers. The writer of Ancient Medicine duly attacked Empedocles  for mixing medicine and philosophy. Certainly, he believed in the four basic elements-earth, air, fire and water. He held that blood was an almost perfect balance of the four elements, and from blood was formed flesh. The eye contained all four elements, but vision depended on fire and water alone. Heat, which Parmenides equated with life, figured large in Empedocles understanding of the human body, accounting for differences between the sex, men are hotter and better cooked than women. It is not difficult to see these arguments displayed amongst illiterate farmers and shepherds, or tossed around in eating places in cosmopolitan Greek towns. The belief that an inadequate combination of elements caused health problems became extremely common it seems by the 5th century. By the time of Alcmaeon of Croton in Southern Italy, the notion that health depended on a balanced mixture, although his concept was different in that it involved the blending together of the body’s forces rather than elements, appears to have been accepted.


In medicine, rationality was just another way of publicising methods and attracting custom. Opposition to older, mainly Near Eastern medicine, which may have combined empirical and religious methods, accentuated the development of rationality based upon observation not on divine intervention or interpretation through the divine. Again, competition was perhaps the key. Disputes and disagreements between different professional groups, played out in written texts that could be reflected upon and argued against, allowed for the exchange of ideas and development of vocabulary necessary to science. The need for prominence and money fuelled the debates.

Sorting out the nature of rationality, the apparent invention of the Greeks, is difficult, except that it involved not alluding to the gods but relying on observation and experience. This is scarcely evident in many of the examples provided above, which often appear a reforming of religious ideas or thinking. While claims are rightly made for medicine, it seems the rational elements proceeded by the possible commonplace cures of ordinary people, noting what methods cured and which did not. It is nevertheless perhaps a method we are dealing with, the capacity to analysis and reduce experience and material objects, providing names for various properties in the process-an advance on but similar to Sumerian construction of reality. Plato approved, it seems, of medicine for its empirical practices, although he suggested it could be improved by true reason, bringing into play the conflicting forces of conceptualisation and practice that powerfully continued well into the 19th century, and is still evident in the present day. Are physicians artisans or philosophers, mechanics or college lecturers?

Greek philosophy was part of the intellectual traditions of the Near East and Egypt and its differences can be understood as those common to periphery civilisations, those on the edge of a dominant culture.  Humours came from the ideas of the Presocratic Philosophers fusing the categorising tendencies of the Near East with exclusion or perhaps reimagining of the divine, which were not repressed or rejected but transformed into archetypes that reflected divine properties. Hot, for example, might well be the name of a god whose presence had certain effects on the human body. As with war and peace, the properties of each represented by a specific god, Hot is opposed by Cold. The Storm God of the Hittites has been replaced by Cold Air as an accepted agency. This extension of the thought of Anaximander and Heraclitus into medicine marked myth-making within medical science, while other older influences marked its logical (observation, categorising, pattern formation) strands.

Egyptian and Near East Wisdom Literature: balance in all things.

It is to be noted how many of today’s perceptions and attitudes can be found in earlier periods of urban re-construction of the environment. Although religion no longer plays a part in medicine, considered barbaric and pre-scientific, myth-making does. Ideas on the nature of the world, ultimately reflect the medical care we give and receive.

Aristotle’s Ethics played a part in the construction of modern Western thinking, but again were preceded by Near Eastern Didactic Wisdom Literature. Ancient Egyptian literature was, at times, concerned with the ideal life. Both Aristotle and Plato thought that the virtues were practical skills, believing in the mean between two extremes, reflecting Anaximander and ideas common at the time. Henry Sidgwick states that what Aristotle gave us was: ‘the Common Sense Morality of Greece, reduced to consistency by careful comparison: given not as something external to him but as what ‘we’-he and others-think, ascertained by reflexion.’   To obtain this he employed categorisation, the naming of parts, isolating the distinct properties of the parts, and reflecting on each one. Balance and common sense are crucial for the understanding of ethical puzzles. For example, Theognis, lines 335-6:

‘Try for nothing excessive. The middle degree is best. So, Krynos, you will win virtue, a thing difficult to attain.’

Apart from the application of this view to health (An Unusual Power: The Cultural Construction of Madness), which is bound up also with ideas on the influence of lack of virtue and extremes of climate on health, it was a concept not exclusive to Greece, as the author quoted appears to feel. The extrapolation of balance into problems of the soul, common still in descriptions of mental health, and of the four humours may be Greek in origin, but the initial concept comes from Egypt and the Near East. These perceptions, it should be noted, are still with us. It should also be noted the possibility that views on the effects of climate, for example, on personality had a basis in common perspectives of the day.

According to Michael V. Fox , Egyptian wisdom literature tended to instruct young men (never women) in the skills of leading a good and virtuous life; that is according to retributive and distributive community values. The values of the market place. They concerned ultimate values, allowing a student to comprehend rh, the nature of the ideal life. The wisdom texts can be divided into two groups: the didactic genre, and a group of more reflective compositions, in common with the Near East, critical or speculative, with terms such as mhj –take thought for-and nk-meditate . Both forms clearly affected ancient Greek thinking. According to Jean Bottero, a prominent scholar of Ancient Mesopotamian civilisations,  ‘all ancient Greek philosophers worked exactly within the path outlined by the earlier mythographers of Mesopotamia,’ although he thereby ignores the literature. The Hippocratic Oath that propounds the belief that a doctor should act to the best of his ability, and not ‘heal, or, at any rate, not to harm,’ keeping confidential any information acquired on or from a patient and pure actions, if you like, towards women and boys, reflects not only the practical ethics of Near Eastern and Egyptian Didactic Wisdom but also the form in which they were written, that is through advice and instruction. As with early Mesopotamian Wisdom Literature, although similar oaths are not otherwise evident, it is wisdom based on experience.

Didactic Wisdom Literature consists of pedagogical texts that ‘instruct and acculturate boys’ into their specific culture, social caste and religious group. They emphasis qualities of character-comportment, practical talents, ethics and religious bearing, which the individual will transmit to others. The books often take the form of a father to a son or sons. In Egypt, these books extend from the Old Kingdom, about 2,600 BCE, to the Ptolemaic period, third or second century BCE. The goal of Egyptian Wisdom Literature was to inculcate Ma’at, that is both justice and truth. It wished to continue ideal harmony between human beings and gods, maintained by Pharaoh.  Although probably created by scribes, reflecting many of their concerns, they were also examples, as are Greek philosophy, of urban attitudes.

Prominent amongst these books is that of vizier Ptahhotep, who created 37 maxims for his son and successor concerning proper behaviour for various levels of officialdom, good relations with others, superiors, inferiors, wife, friends and friend’s wives. He emphasises moderation, generosity, honesty and modesty. These characteristics are reflected in the Hippocratic Oath and Aristotle. Fox shows how the New Kingdom Instruction of Amenemope (approximately 1000 BCE) has connections to the Hebrew religion, emphasising trust in the will of god, and the importance of moral and religious virtues. These, social in nature, include composure, reserve, honesty, kindness and protection of the weak. The great sins are dishonesty, lack of self-control, characterising the ‘hot man’, and greed. These are the qualities of management, including the first priority of managing oneself. Several of the proverbs in the Torah appear to have originated in Amenemope. The millennium before BCE saw a move away from human instruction, to that of gods, ushering in violent punishments and intolerance.

Sumerian Didactic Wisdom Literature began earlier than Egyptian Didactic Wisdom Literature, approximately 3,500 BCE. According to Fox, it tends to have had a practical rather than ethical emphasis, teaching the reader how to get on in life. As often this came down to self-discipline, care in speech, resignation to the gods’ will, and calm and controlled behaviour, it amounted to much the same. Ethics here can be seen as merely the transmutation of practical habits into traditional ideals that allow an individual to be respected and cherished, conforming to values placed upon individual members of urban communities. Treating others well encourages them to treat you well, evoking positive redistribution allowing you an untroubled existence and social success, allowing you to achieve your ambitions. In other words, found first in Egyptian Wisdom Literature, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ In the Sumerian Enki-Ninhursag creation myth (around 2,800, but probably earlier) Enki becomes the Sumerian god of wisdom, revealed as an organiser, someone who implements ideas.

Hebrew Wisdom Literature, found mainly in Proverbs, were it seems composed over centuries, reflecting different environments, such as countryside and city. Some appear to have been written by women. Although here Wisdom is connected to moral character, ideas of sexual immorality appear, perhaps for the first time. Fox emphasises the social setting of the Proverbs, with morality introduced to inform and continue social balance. Proverbs indicate that punishment can result by not developing social cohesion, unlike the others here that emphasise merely social failure.

Didactic Wisdom Literature, although acknowledging the presence of god or gods, is secular in nature, often framed within a deed-consequence nexus, in which recompense arises automatically and invariably from the deed, but also empirical, based upon individual and group experience. It employs the balance/wisdom connection favoured by the Greeks that is reflected in constructs of health and treatment. Such embedded constructs remain in present-day medicine, influencing, in particular, psychiatry.


These papers, collected together under the heading An Unusual Power have reached so far the end of the 18th century, providing evidence of global change and extensive interaction between cultures at considerable distances from each other. It has considered the impetus to knowledge of the New World conquests that provided Europe with economic dominance and freed it from the presence of Islam. While the Enlightenment offered new perceptions of the world, medicine largely developed internally, its exponents growing more powerful. It gained the authoritative, policing aspects that we are familiar with today, organising itself and developing its knowledge within newly-created hospitals, beyond the regulatory influence of society. But did physicians’ thinking progress beyond the flawed empiricism noted above? If it were not for advances in public health and the scientific discoveries of the 20th century, would medical treatments still be ineffective and physicians influence based largely on social technologies of trust and authority?

Empiricism in medicine:

Empirical/rational healing was then as now a means of defining one powerful group, although in both instances the rational elements were interwoven with irrational, that is pursuit of external, unconnected ideals and group social and political imperatives. Science holds that phenomena can be observed in an ideal, an uncorrupted state, recording its interactions with other phenomena. These are subject to measurement and predicted further interactions. Initially, phenomena must be named, categorised and separated. In the above instances, although Anaximander’s perception of balance as consequent in change, the processes employed came out of religious contexts, reliant on anthropomorphic and agency understandings of material forces. This affected medical evaluations.

The separation of humankind from deities occurred first in the Near East, seen in the Gilgamesh epic where the hero fights and defeats supernatural beings, including Inanna. The Greeks then bestowed upon humankind certain attributes taken from Greek city-state communities of the time. Although these are common urban traits, categorised within early Sumerian literature, they were absorbed from Didactic Wisdom Literature of Egypt and the Near East. Gilgamesh, for example, as his personality lacks balance and he has become arrogant and dominant, must be removed from the city state until he acts again like a man/human being. The concept of balance was common in the ancient Mediterranean world and in the Near East, as also occasionally was the use of opposites in forming a whole. Duality can be seen in The Book of Job, god and the devil, god and Job, and is a repeated motif in the Gilgamesh saga.

The Presocratic Philosophers engaged in naming, fitting observation and experience to create new philological constructions or re-constructions formed from religious insights, and/or religious experience. This may or may not have been connected to commonplace perceptions of the time. Heraclitus’ notion of Logos, if it was a metaphysical construction, is one example of this. This was not an ancient Greek invention but can be found millennium before in the Near East. According to Gwendolyn Leick , ancient wisdom entailed the knowledge of names and words, exampled by the lexical lists. In fact, the connection between words/naming/ intelligence/wisdom grew out of the development of writing with its early tendency to record and the later tendency to embellish, describe, and speculate. The lexical tradition began in the Later Uruk period, developed it seems from the early seals, common in the Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia that preceded Uruk, which were used as recording, naming and recognition device, served to record the names of birds, fish, cattle, pigs, trees, wooden objects, cities, regions, professions and titles, in hierarchical order. The important feature of the lists (Leick: p73) which determined the context was a graphic marker, called determinative, which preceded each entry. The lists also deal with sub-categories and associative fields, thereby providing an integrated overview of both natural and human worlds. So, (Leick (2001) under date-palm in a list comprising tree and wood terminology there are listed all the properties of the date-palm, from crown to roots and bark, stages of growth and decay, but also the uses to which they can be put.  At the city of Shuruppak thematic or encyclopaedic lists were discovered, grouping together the names of bovine, fish, birds, plants, containers, textiles, metal objects, arranged in order. There have also been discovered lists of mathematical and economic terminology. Each list begins with the animal, man-made object or natural phenomenon according to symbolic importance and/or practical importance to Mesopotamian culture. It is possible that the Milesian philosophers at least knew of the ancient Sumerian lists, although they had to be aware of lexical lists through the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and the list of Greek ships in Homer.

Leick (2001: p75) asserts that the lexical works for not just systematic series of graphemes for scribal training, but were also a  ‘conceptual tool for the intellectual understanding of reality through the process of finding a name for everything and to gain some sort of magic power through the evocation of the named.’ She continues, declaring that that which was not named had no existence and is unfathomable. Leick goes on to assert that human beings employ names to construct a meaningful relationship with their environment, and also by arranging these names into classificatory systems which define human beings place in the world. Early cave paintings achieved the same or a similar result by animal images within a relationship to the cave wall, painter, viewer, and other animal images. Magic was also probably involved here as well. In Mesopotamian taxonomies human-beings are central to the world, with the environment bearing a relationship to human-beings, while in Palaeolithic culture human beings were just another living form amongst many others.

Although Leick suggests lexical lists limited Mesopotamian abstract and rational thinking, the capacity to separate and define, to identify properties and assign relationships between objects, leads to both. The world is conceived of as connected and integrated. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is in narrative and dramatic form, it is a form of Didactic Wisdom Literature that reconstructs human relationships with the gods and also with themselves. Gilgamesh as well as acknowledging his greatness, has to come to terms with his human limitations; the god’s limitations are demonstrated; as is the correct way to rule others. Also, the Dialogue of Pessimism in which a servant succeeds in justifying alternative behaviour, predicting Socrates dialogues, reflecting thereby on the difficulty of distinguishing between good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Although many (Bottero, 1992:  259) perceive this as predominantly a social satire the questioning of perceived wisdom surely takes it to a higher level? Finally, The Wisdom of Supe-Ameli, which, at the conclusion of the deathbed advice of a father to his son, the son rejects all his father has told him concluding that as death takes all with it, wealth has no meaning.

A society on the periphery of such dominant thought-processes may use similar methods to create other naming examinations. The list of ships in the Iliad constructed the sense of Greek brotherhood, rarely borne out by events. In this fashion, the Greek koine was created. Reality was, as Heraclitus may have said, constructed through narrative and naming. The Greek capacity for rational thought was of a mixed variety, and needs greater examination.



This piece considers afresh the nature of Ancient Greek philosophy teasing out its religious roots.

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