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This chapter is from the book

Milestone #1 Getting real: diseases have natural causes

  • “[Epilepsy] appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases... Men regard its cause as divine from ignorance and wonder.”
  • Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease, 420-350 BC

Until the time of Hippocrates, the most commonly accepted explanation for the cause of essentially all illness was refreshingly simple: Punishment. Having been found guilty of some misbehavior or moral failure, the gods or evil spirits exacted their justice through sickness. Your redemption, or “treatment” as we call it today, might include a visit to a nearby temple of Asklepieios, where the local priests attempted to cure your malady with incantations, prayers, or sacrifice.

At some point early in his career, Hippocrates changed the rules. Distancing himself from the Asklepian priests and their theocratic approach to healing, Hippocrates insisted that diseases were caused by natural forces and not the gods. No statement better summarizes his view than the frequently quoted passage from one of the books attributed to Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease. The title of this book—the first to be written about epilepsy—references the belief at the time that seizures were caused by the “sacred” hand of a displeased god.

Hippocrates begged to differ:

  • “It appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause like other affections. Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder, because it is not at all like other diseases. And this notion of its divinity is kept up by their inability to comprehend it... Those who first referred this disease to the gods appear to me to have been just such persons as the conjurers and charlatans... Such persons, then, using divinity as a pretext and screen of their own inability to afford any assistance, have given out that the disease is sacred...”

In this and similar writings, we hear in the voice of Hippocrates not only the adamancy of his view that disease arises from natural causes, but the exasperation, if not contempt, he holds for the “charlatans” who would claim otherwise. Thus with such statements, and nothing more than his own mortal powers, Hippocrates wrestled disease from the supernatural and placed it squarely in the world of the rational and natural.

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