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DID SOCRATES HAVE THE SACRED DISEASE? WILLIAM NASO and CHRISTIAN VERA * I am subject to a divine or supernatural experience . . . It began in my early childhood—a sort of voice which comes to me, and when it comes it dissuades mefrom what I am proposing to do, and never urges me on. — Socrates (Apology 3Id). [1] The ancient Greeks were familiar with epilepsy. Thought to be a divine dispensation, it became known as the "sacred disease" [2]. Plato and Hippocrates argued against a supernatural origin for epilepsy, offering pathophysiologic explanations for the etiology ofthe disease. Plato proposed that epilepsy arises when white phlegm "is mingled with black bile and dispersed about the courses of the head" (Timaeus 85a). Hippocrates agreed with a phlegmatic origin for epilepsy and further detailed its various physical manifestations, including postictal paralysis (Sacred Disease V-XIV) [2]. He described dissociative states as well as the epileptic's aura (Sacred Disease XV) [2]. Although Taxil in 1602 listed both Socrates and Plato as epileptics, Temkin discounted this view [3] . Aristotie (Taxil's source) had called Socrates and Plato melancholies; but although Aristotle considered epilepsy a melancholic disease, he never explicitly identified either philosopher as an epileptic. "There is no reason to assume," Temkin wrote, "that . . . Socrates and Plato suffered from epilepsy" [3]. Socrates' divine sign, an actual voice present since childhood, was well known. Both Plato and Xenophon wrote of it. For his enemies, its existence supported their claim of Socrates' impiety, an accusation that led to his execution [5]. Plato also described the Socratic "fit of abstraction" (Symposium 174d). More interestingly, Socrates relates a profoundly ecstatic experience in the Symposium (210e-212a). We propose that Socrates did suffer from the sacred disease, and that his famous divine voice, fits of abstraction, *Department of Neurosurgery, The Medical University of South Carolina, 171 Ashley Avenue , Charleston, SC 29425-2272.© 1996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/96/3903-0959101 .00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 39, 3 ¦ Spring 1996 373 and probable ecstatic experiences were all manifestations of a complex partial seizure disorder. Socrates and His Divine Voice The son of Sophroniscus, Socrates died at the hands of the Athenian democracy in 399 b.c. [5, 6]. The official charges were impiety and corrupting the youth (Euthyphro 2c-3b; Apology 19b, 24c). Although we have no extant writings of Socrates, his philosophy and personality survived through his greatest student Plato. Socrates was the quintessential philosopher , the "lover ofwisdom" who rejected the pleasures of the physical for the gifts of the soul. Yet his pursuit of truth was a passionate one, his language often bordering on the erotic. Physically unattractive, Socrates is compared to grotesque mythologie figures by Alcibiades in the Symposium (215b). Plato wrote of Socrates' "snub nose" and "prominent eyes" (Theatetus 143e, 209c). And Xenophon implied that Socrates had hypertelorism, with prominent orbital ridges and an increased interpupillary distance (SymposiumV) [4]. He also described flared nostrils and large lips (SymposiumV) . Socrates' physical vigor was well known, however. He wore the same clothes in winter and summer, and endured the harsh winters barefoot (Symposium 220a-b). In the Phaedo, an account of Socrates' last hours prior to his execution, we learn that he would leave two small children behind despite being at least 70 years old at the time of his death (116a-b). The Socratic voice was well-known among his contemporaries. Euthyphro cites it as the basis for Socrates' detractor's charge of impiety (Euthyphro 3b) . It is mentioned several times in the Apology, as well as in the Republicana Theatetus, and in Xenophon's Memorabilia. Significantly, Socrates claimed that it began early in his childhood. According to Plato the voice was only dissuasive, although Xenophon maintained that it also gave positive direction (Memorabilia Li.4) . We have no indication of any precipitating stimulus; the Socratic voice would often intrude in mid thought or action. In the Phaedrus, for example, Socrates is suddenly visited by his divine voice: At the moment when I was about to cross the river, dear friend, there came to me my familiar sign—which always checks me when on the point of doing something or other—and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 373-379
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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