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PLATO'S PHYSICIAN MODEL WILLIAM B. NASO* All the better educated and inquiring physicians discuss the philosophy of nature and derive their principlesfrom it, and the most gifted philosophers almost always in the end lead up to the principles of medicine.— Aristotle [1] Aristotle's words reflect an understanding that reaches back to the very beginnings of both philosophy and medicine. He recalls the great Greek philosopher-scientists—Thaies, Anaxagoras, Anaximenes, Pythagoras , Alcmaeon, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, and Hippocrates— who each recognized that the line between philosophy and science may not be as distinct as modern professors sometimes proclaim. No clearer is this fact than in the writings of the ancients themselves, particularly in the works of the man at whose feet Aristotle himself sat—Plato. Careful examination of the Platonic corpus reveals a remarkably consistent view of medicine. Although Plato provides little empirical information for the modern physician, what he says about the medical art is timeless. He offers us, however, more than catchy phrases, epitomes, and aphorisms to live by. He establishes an ethical framework within which a physician from any age can act. He constructs a practical methodology , one which guarantees scientific medicine. In a word, he delineates the art of medicine. Philosophia means "love of wisdom." Significantly, the philosopher does not possess wisdom but pursues it; his quest is a dynamic one. Plato compares the philosopher's task to that of the physician. Yet Plato offers more than an analogy. He makes bold contrasts between the true and false physician, between simple and unnecessarily complex medicine. He stresses that distinctions ought to be drawn between the quality and the mere duration of life. He teaches that the physician must not only heal but also prevent sickness. Like the physiologist, Plato knows that one can never truly understand the body until one realizes that organ systems do *University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514.© 1990 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/90/3304-0691$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 33, 4 ¦ Summer 1990 | 589 not work in a vacuum. Disease cannot be treated properly if separated from the diseased. Because good medicine strives after knowledge of the whole, the Platonic physician considers his entire patient—body and soul. Out of a kaleidoscopic world of physical phenomena, Plato finds unity, wholeness. Like the spiritualist who recognizes a far greater realm than this earthly one, Plato believes in a transcendent reality. But even though he rejects the ultimate validity of the empirical world, he does not ignore it. This world which we touch, taste, see, and smell is a derivation of a truer transcendent world and therefore deserves some attention. The importance we give it, however, must always be tempered by a knowledge of the whole. To concern ourselves merely with the particulars is to remain ignorant. The true scientist, the true artist addresses the particular without forgetting the whole. Plato makes frequent reference to artists; but what he means by "art" is something altogether different from what we mean. For us, the artist is that person who enlists not reason but imagination in order to create some work. The antithesis of art is science. Whereas the artist creates, the scientist discovers; while one taps into his imagination, the other employs his reason. The modern university magnifies this distinction. The physical isolation of the art school away from the biology building underscores the greater gulf that separates the minds of artists from those of scientists. The neurobiologists and psychologists have divided the mind itself. We speak of the right- and left-brained people; the former uninhibited, spontaneous, creative, artistic; the latter cautious, calculating, analytical, scientific. Plato offers a radically different definition of art. He does not, however , merely bridge the gap between art and science. That action would be tantamount to admitting a difference between the two. Plato finds no distinctions between art and science; for him, they are one and the same. The art and science of medicine are identical. We can discover much of Plato's meaning if we look at etymology. The Greek word for art is techne, from which the English "technique" is derived. As...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 589-597
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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