Ecological Lessons From History: Hippocrates Puts It All Together

Everything is not as ecologically sound as it looks.

How in tune were our ancestors with being good stewards of the planet? Things were better in the old days. People were more in tune with the natural world, the air was cleaner, the land less harassed by our demands upon it. The world was, in short, greener. We’ve all heard it before – but is it true? Of course it is – except when you start looking at the details. Don’t go putting our ancestors up on a pedestal of eco-friendly excellence before you know a little more history.

So we’ve looked at prehistoric forest clearances, Roman smog, Greek soil erosion and Byzantine plague.  Not a glowing picture – but it’s not universally bad. Consider the words of this man in the 5th Century BC:

Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year, and what effects each of them produces for they are not at all alike, but differ much from themselves in regard to their changes. Then the winds, the hot and the cold, especially such as are common to all countries, and then such as are peculiar to each locality. We must also consider the qualities of the waters, for as they differ from one another in taste and weight, so also do they differ much in their qualities. In the same manner, when one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun; for its influence is not the same whether it lies to the north or the south, to the rising or to the setting sun.

From these things he must proceed to investigate everything else. For if one knows all these things well, or at least the greater part of them, he cannot miss knowing, when he comes into a strange city, either the diseases peculiar to the place, or the particular nature of common diseases, so that he will not be in doubt as to the treatment of the diseases, or commit mistakes, as is likely to be the case provided one had not previously considered these matters. And in particular, as the season and the year advances, he can tell what epidemic diseases will attack the city, either in summer or in winter, and what each individual will be in danger of experiencing from the change of regimen. For knowing the changes of the seasons, the risings and settings of the stars, how each of them takes place, he will be able to know beforehand what sort of a year is going to ensue.

 – Airs, Waters and Places, Hippocrates

Hippocrates of Kos, known today as the “father of Western medicine” and from whom we get the famous Hippocratic Oath, was a man with an eye for the big picture. For him, everything was interconnected – and human beings were as deeply plugged into their environment as the crops and the animals the ancient Greeks relied upon to survive.

Is it a stretch to consider him the first ecologist? It’s true that Greek philosophers of the time had what we would now deem outlandish ideas – personal health being considered a matter of the balance of these 4 “humors” – but Hippocrates was well ahead of his time in considering the climate a vast, interconnected system of causes and effects, paving the way for the development of biological science.

Further reading:

On Airs, Waters And Places – provided by the Internet Classics Archive.

Image: a.drian

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.