Philosopher File: Alcmaeon of Croton

Alcmaeon was one of the earliest thinkers to systematically address questions of health and illness.

Will Buckingham
Mar 12 · 5 min read
Image: “The infant Asclepius, god of healing, discovered by shepherds,” by R. Dadd. Public Domain: Wellcome Institute via Wikimedia Commons.

Life

According to Herodotus’s Histories, as far back as the sixth century BCE, the city of Croton in the south of Italy was famous as a centre for medicine. And so perhaps it is no surprise this was the home of one of the ancient world’s most famous philosophers of medicine, Alcmaeon.

Hanging out with the Pythagoreans

Some later writers have suggested that Alcmaeon was a pupil of Pythagoras or a member of the Pythagorean philosophical school. This is not entirely unlikely: Croton was the centre of the Pythagorean community, and so Alcmaeon would have come into contact with Pythagoreans. But the evidence that he was a follower of Pythagoras is dubious. Aristotle hedges his bets, never explicitly identifying Alcmaeon as a Pythagorean, although he wrote in the Metaphysics that, “For Alcmaeon was a young man in Pythagoras’ old age, and his system was pretty much like theirs” [1].

Philosophy

On Nature

Several early Greek philosophers, including Anaximander, are said to have written books with the title On Nature. Alcmaeon’s own On Nature does not survive, but like many ancient texts, it is possible to piece together some of its contents from the quotations of later writers, and what emerges is a systematic view of health and sickness.

Sickness and the gods

In the works of Homer, sudden sickness was often attributed to the gods Apollo and Artemis, with Artemis — according to the translator Emily Wilson — being associated in particular with the deaths of women.[2] There is a good example of this in the Iliad. When the Greek army outside the city of Troy is struck down by sickness, Homer attributes the cause to Apollo’s anger at Agamemnon. Supernatural sicknesses require supernatural cures. So the Greeks consult the diviner Calchas, who tells them how to mollify the enraged Apollo; and when they do, the plague subsides.

Greek vase painting of Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow. c. 500 BCE. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The birth of naturalistic medicine

Alcmaeon broke with this theological understanding of illness. His most significant innovation was that he produced a systematic theory of sickness and health that had no need for the gods. A later account of his theory, recorded by the philosopher Aetius (1st — 2nd century CE) explains it like this:

Knowledge and inference

Another important idea attributed to Alcmaeon is the idea that human knowledge proceeds by inference. For some Greek philosophers such as Parmenides (and perhaps also Socrates), there is something divine about human knowledge. But for Alcmaeon, understanding is something that we gain incrementally through abstracting from our experience. At the very beginning of his book On Nature, Alcmaeon wrote:

Notes

[1] Aristotle: Metaphysics, trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (Penguin Books 1998). p. 41

Further Reading

Books

James Longrigg’s Greek Rational Medicine: Philosophy and medicine from Alcmaeon to the Alexandrians (Routledge 1993) is a great read if you can get hold of it.

Online Resources

Although this paper on Alcmaeon is almost 90 years old, it gives one of the most complete translations of English of his fragments. [Download PDF]

Looking for Wisdom

Philosophy for the insatiably curious

Will Buckingham

Written by

Writes nonfiction & fiction. PhD in philosophy. Next book “Hello, Stranger” (Granta 2021). www.willbuckingham.com www.lookingforwisdom.com.

Looking for Wisdom

Philosophy for insatiably curious: the greatest philosophers and the most intriguing philosophies from across the world.

Will Buckingham

Written by

Writes nonfiction & fiction. PhD in philosophy. Next book “Hello, Stranger” (Granta 2021). www.willbuckingham.com www.lookingforwisdom.com.

Looking for Wisdom

Philosophy for insatiably curious: the greatest philosophers and the most intriguing philosophies from across the world.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store