The Thought of Hippocrates

Author: Hippocrates

The Thought of Hippocrates


Sec. I. 1. Life is Short, art is long, occasion sudden, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult, Neither is it sufficient that the physician do his office, unless the patient and his attendants do their duty and external conditions are well ordered.

6. In extreme diseases extreme and searching remedies are best.

13. Old men easily endure fasting, middle-aged men not so well, young men still less easily, and children worst of all, especially those who are of a more lively spirit.

14. Those bodies that grow have much natural heat, therefore they require good store of food or else the body consumes, but old men have little heat in them, therefore they require but little food, for much nourishment extinguishes that heat. And this is the reason that old men do not have very acute fevers, because their bodies are cold.

20. Those things that are or have been justly determined by nature ought not to be moved or altered, either by purging or other irritating medicine, but should be let alone.

Sec. II. 3. Sleeping or walking, if either be immoderate, is evil.

4. Neither satiety nor hunger nor any other thing which exceeds the natural bounds can be good or healthful.

24. The fourth day is the index of the seventh, the eighth of the beginning of the week following. But the eleventh day is to be considered, for it is the fourth day of another seventh. And again the seventeenth day is to be considered, being the fourth from the fourteenth and the seventh from the eleventh.

51. It is dangerous much and suddenly either to empty, heat, fill, or cool, or by any other means to stir the body, for whatever is beyond moderation is an enemy to nature; but that is safe which is done little by little, and especially when a change is to be made from one thing to another.

Sec. III. 1. Changes of seasons are most effectual causes of diseases, and so are alterations of cold and heat within the seasons, and other things proportionately in the same manner.

Sec IV. 37. Cold sweats in acute fevers signify death, but in more mild diseases they mean the continuance of the fever.

38. In what part of the body the sweat is there is the disease.

39. And in what part of the body there is unusual heat or cold there the disease is seated.

Sec. VII. 65. The same meat administered to a person sick of a fever as to one in health will strengthen the healthy one, but will increase the malady of the sick one.

Sec. VIII. 6. Where medicines will not cure incision must be made; if incisions fail, we must resort to cauterizing; but if that will not do we may judge the malady incurable.

18. The finishing stroke of death is when the vital heat ascends above the diaphragm and all the moisture is dried up. But when the lungs and heart have lost their moisture, the heat being all collected together in the most mortal places, the vital fire by which the whole structure was built up and held together is suddenly exhaled. Then the soul leaving this earthly building makes its exit partly through the flesh and partly through the openings in the head by which we live; and thus it surrenders up this cold earthly statue, together with the heat, blood, tissues, and flesh.

Among the latter Greek scientists, Aristarchus made a shrewd guess that the earth goes around the sun, but his theory remained only an unaccepted guess.

Euclid, born 300 B.C., one of the world’s great mathematicians, analyzed our ideas of space and developed a geometry that differs but little from that used in high schools today. For this reason it need not be illustrated here. Thus the Greeks put this science on a firm basis.

Archimedes, who was born in Sicily about 287 B.C., proved, among many things, that the contents of a sphere is two-thirds of the circumscribed cylinder. He discovered the principle of the lever, that weights which are inversely proportional to their distances from a fulcrum will balance, and invented a system of compound pulleys. He found, too, that a body in water displaces its own bulk of the fluid, and applied the principle to prove that there was not enough gold and too much silver in Hiero’s crown. He also invented a screw for the pumping up of water, and the story will not down that he used concave mirrors to set fire to the Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse. His results were not only tangible but proven and, few as they may seem in the bare statement of them, make him one of the world’s greatest thinkers. The discovery of even one natural law is enough to give a man the right to eternal fame.

The following are some of his theorems:


Archimedes to Dositheus, greeting:

Formerly I sent to you the studies which I had finished up to that time together with the demonstrations, which were to show that a segment bounded by a straight line and a conic section is four-thirds of the triangle on the same base as the segment and of the same height. Since that time certain propositions as yet undemonstrated have come to my mind, and I have undertaken to work them out. These are: I. The surface of any sphere is four times the surface of its greatest circle; 2. The surface of any segment of a sphere is equal to the surface of that circle the radius of which equals the straight line drawn from the vertex of the segment to the circumference of the circle which serves as the base of the segment; 3. That a cylinder with a base equal to the great circle of a given sphere, and a height equal to the diameter of the sphere contains half the volume of that sphere and its surface is equal to half the surface of that sphere.

These propositions, of course, were always true of these figures, but they were hidden to the men who studied geometry before my time. Therefore, since I have discovered that these things hold true of these figures I do not fear to place them alongside my own previous results and the most thoroughly established theorems of Eudoxus, such as: any pyramid is equal to one-third of the prism of the same base and height, and any cone is equal to one-third of the cylinder of the same base and height.



First Postulate. Supposed that a fluid is of such a character that when its component parts are undisturbed and in immediate contact the part which is subject to the less pressure is moved by the part which is subject to the greater pressure; and that each part is forced in a perpendicular direction by the part above, if the fluid is compressed.

Proposition 1. If a surface is always cut by a plane passing through a given point, and if the section thus formed is always a circle whose center is the given point, the surface is that of a sphere.

Proposition 2. The surface of any still fluid is always the surface of a sphere whose center is the center of the earth.

Proposition 3. Those solids which are of the same weight as a fluid in proportion to their size, when sunk in that fluid will be submerged in such a way that they neither extend above that fluid nor sink below it.

Proposition 4. A solid which is lighter than a given fluid will not sink below the surface when placed in that fluid, but part of it will extend above the surface.

Proposition 5. A solid lighter than a given fluid will, when placed in that fluid, be so far submerged that the weight of the solid will be equal to the weight of the fluid displaced.

Proposition 6. If a solid lighter than a given fluid be forced into that fluid the solid will be driven upwards again by a force which is equal to the difference between the weight of the fluid and the weight of the amount of fluid displaced.


Proposition 1. If a solid lighter than a given fluid rest in that fluid the weight of the solid to the weight of an equal volume of the fluid will be as the part of the solid which is submerged is to the whole solid.

Erastosthenes, born about 276 B.C., was a geographer. He acted on the theory that the earth is round, and realizing that at the equator the day and night are equal in length, first mapped out a parallel of latitude by pointing off the places whose longest day was fourteen and a half hours. Drawing a line perpendicular to this parallel, he mapped out a meridian of longitude, running through Alexandria and Syene. He found that at the time of the summer solstice the sun was exactly overhead at Syene, but a little over seven degrees toward the south of the heavens at the same time at Alexandria. Hence he argued that the distance from Alexandria to Syene must be a little more than 7/360, or about one-fiftieth of the circumference of the globe. He found this distance to be somewhere near 5,000 stadia and thus made the circumference of the earth about 250,000 stadia. The stadium was equivalent to about 600 English feet, and his total estimate to about 28,700 miles, which is very close for the first rough solution.

Hipparchos, born about 160 B.C., was one of the greatest of the ancient astronomers. He catalogued a thousand of the stars, and calculated the time of the eclipses of the sun and moon. He also discovered that the sun crosses the equator each year a little further to the west. This is called the precession of the equinoxes.

Ptolemy (70 A. D.—150 A. D. ) was also an astronomer. He mapped out some of the apparent motions of the planets, noted some of the inequalities in the motions of the moon, and advanced the theory that the apparent motions of the sun, moon, and planets could be accounted for by supposing them, while going round the earth, to have a small circular motion also, the result of the two motions being that they would cut the same sort of a figure as a given point on the edge of a spinning top would mark out if the top should itself spin round a center which represents the earth. The theory came so near accounting for the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies that it was very difficult to overthrow. The notion that the earth was the center of the universe was adopted by the Church and the whole question foolishly mixed up with religion, so that a great deal of persecution grew out of it, but this was the fault not of Ptolemy, but of dogmatic theology.

After Hippocrates, the next to make any decided advance in the study of the human body were Erasistratus and Herophilus. The work of Hippocrates had been mostly in tracing the course of the disease. They put more emphasis on the study of the body. Their work laid the first foundation of the science of anatomy. They made many observations upon the body’s structure, traced the nerves, described the brain, examined the muscles and pulse, but failed to correlate the details they noted into any dynamic physiological theory.

The greatest of the Graeco-Romans in medicine was Galen. He was born in Pergamus about 131 A.D. He first visited Rome in 164 A.D. Marcus Aurelius made him the medical guardian of Commodus. Besides being a physician, he was a philosopher and logician. He extended the study of anatomy, made a careful study of the bones, distinguished the motor and sensory nerves, showed that the veins contain blood, classified diseases, and in brief brought medicine to a height from which it greatly declined during the dark ages, except perhaps among the Arabians, until the time of Versalius. The difficulty in quoting from his work is the one that is met in exemplifying the beginnings of any study that has not advanced far enough to understand and explain the workings of nature in its field. A descriptive enumeration of details is the inevitable concomitant of investigation into a new subject but a science can hardly be said to have been established before some genius has discovered some of its principles.

Characteristic fragments of his work are the following:—

There are in all three branches of the study of medicine, in this order. The first is the study of the result by analysis; the second is the combining of the facts found by analysis; the third is the determining of the definition, which branch we are now to consider in this work. This branch of the science may be called hot only the determining of the definition, but just as well the explication, as some would term it, or the resolution, as some desire, or the explanation, or according to still others, the exposition. Now some of the Herophilii, such as Heraclides of Erythrea, have attempted to teach this doctrine. These Herophilii and certain followers of Erasistratus and of Athenaeus, the Artallian, studied also the doctrine of combination. But no one before us has described the method which begins with the study of the results, from which every art must take its beginning methodically; this we have considered in a former work.

Chap. 1. Medicine is the science of the healthy, the unhealthy, and the indeterminate, or neutral. It is a matter of indifference whether one calls the second the ill, or the unhealthy. It is better to give the name of the science in common than in technical terms. But the healthy, the unhealthy, the neutral, are each of them subject to a three-fold division: first, as to the body; second, as to the cause; and third, as to the sign. The body which contains the health, the cause which affects or preserves the health, and the sign or symptom which marks the condition of the health, all these are called by the Greeks hygienia. In the same way they speak of the bodies susceptible to disease, of causes effecting and aiding diseases, and of signs indicating diseases, as pathological. Likewise they speak of neutral bodies, causes, and signs. And according to the first division the science of medicine is called the science of the causes of health, according to the second, of the causes of ill-health, and according to the third of the causes of neutral conditions.

Chap. 2. The healthy body is simply that which is rightly composed from its very birth in the simple and elementary parts of its structure, and is symmetrical in the organs composed of these elements. From another point of view, that is also a healthy body which is in sound condition at the time of speaking.

It will be seen from the above that the Greeks noted many facts in astronomy, but were unable to settle upon the correct conception of the universe to account for them; that they developed ordinary geometry almost as far as possible without the aid of the analytic method of Descartes or the calculus of Leibnitz or Newton; that Archimedes made a good beginning in applying mathematics to physics; that in medicine they realized that the causes of diseases are natural and not divine, and brought together many truths concerning the human body without having a correct idea of its workings; and that they developed the atomic theory in many important details, but could not force its acceptance by proof. This means that they knew nothing more than isolated facts in astronomy; physics, including electricity, light, sound, heat, and mechanics (except the theorems of Archimedes), chemistry, geology, botany, biology, physiology, or psychology.

In the preceding volume we showed the scientific ideas of the early Greek thinkers; in this volume we illustrate the ideas of the time in medicine; and the work of Archimedes; give Lucretius’s exposition of the atomic theory; and exemplify the scientific conceptions of the period in the encyclopedia of Pliny the Elder.

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Chicago: Hippocrates, The Thought of Hippocrates in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 286–292. Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: Hippocrates. The Thought of Hippocrates, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Vol. 3, Milwaukee, WI, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 286–292. Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Hippocrates, The Thought of Hippocrates. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, WI, pp.286–292. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from