Contributions of Hippocratic Medicine and Plato to Today’s Debate Over Health, Social Determinants and the Authority of Biomedicine

Article Summary by Susan Levin

Though the portion of the USA’s gross domestic product allocated to healthcare vastly surpasses that directed to other major areas of societal concern, outcomes for life expectancy and infant mortality are highly disappointing. By such measures, the USA also fares poorly in international comparisons. One’s impression that, by giving pre-eminence to healthcare as health’s protector, the USA is doing far less than it could to safeguard health is strengthened by mounting evidence that health impacts of ‘social determinants of health’ besides healthcare, such as education, are actually more salient than it. The entrenched supremacy of professional medicine as health’s protector is, thus, increasingly and rightly questioned. This state of affairs offers a valuable opportunity for a shift in template for addressing health. To take advantage of this opportunity, we must appreciate that, although revisiting the question of how healthcare’s relationship to health should be conceptualised is important, it is not the core question that needs posing today. My paper’s investigation of Plato’s competition with Hippocratic medicine for authority on health and human nature supports the view that our answer to this, fairly specific, question depends on our responses to much larger queries: ‘What type of human good is health, and where does it reside in importance?’ ‘How should health be construed?’ and ‘What contributes importantly to health, thus construed?’ Despite our and the Greeks’ differing historical and cultural situations, on the deepest level, the human stakes of how we choose to answer these queries are essentially the same. The Greeks, thus, model for us a valuable methodology for approaching the topic of healthcare’s fitting relationship to health. In addition, on the plane of content, exploration of Plato’s engagement with Hippocratic medicine supports a contemporary shift away from a biomedical template for addressing health to a view that embeds our valuing and pursuit of health in the larger pursuit of human flourishing.


Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.


Portrait photograph of Susan LevinSusan B. Levin is Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. In addition to numerous articles in both bioethics and ancient Greek philosophy, she has published Posthuman Bliss? The Failed Promise of Transhumanism (Oxford, 2021), Plato’s Rivalry with Medicine: A Struggle and Its Dissolution(Oxford, 2014), and The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited: Plato and the Greek Literary Tradition (Oxford, 2001).

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