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Friday, February 20, 2015

500 B.C.: The Pythagorean Theory of Opposites

One of the themes in our asthma and respiratory therapy history is that asthma and asthma-like conditions were rarely considered important enough to be studied. For this reason the tree of asthma wisdom was ever so small for most of history, growing ever so slowly through the passing years.  Why this occurred may be best explained by the Pythagorean Theory of Opposites.

Consider that for most of history there were far more apparent and deadly diseases than asthma, such as influenza and tuberculosis.  Plus asthma was thought to be a rare disease that killed very few of its victims.  So if you had asthma, chances are you suffered privately, leaving little or no impression on society of the disease that plagued you.

The Pythagorean Theory of Opposites was made famous around 500 B.C. by a famous philosopher by the name of Pythagoras (535-475 B.C.  The theory states that in order to understand something you have to have experienced its opposite. Since few experienced asthma, then few would understand it, and few would have empathy for the plight of the asthmatic.

However, while Pythagoras is often given credit for the theory, it may have actually been created by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475).  

Heraclitus believed the world was not static but dynamic.  He was a follower of the Pythagorean School, and he was one of the first philosophers of ancient Greece, one of the first people who stated that there was more to the world than that it was just created by the gods.

He believed in the unity of the world, and he believed the essential element of change was fire.  Where fire is involved, great changes occur.  Fire in the body causes sickness just like fire in a home destroys the home. He thus believed fire created air, water and earth.

He believed everything came along due to tension and strife, which can be produced by fire.  A good example is war, which is one of the major causes of change.  He believed that all things are moved by an innate force, and from opposite tensions results harmony.

It was by this theory, some believe, that he developed the theory of opposites. He believed everything had an opposite, and when these two opposites were in harmony you had peace. He believed that all things are moved by an innate force, and from opposite tensions results harmony.

Thus, it is in opposites, he believed, that we become aware of things.  By seeing the sick we appreciate health.  By seeing the dead we appreciate life.  By sleeping we appreciate being awake.  By seeing evil we appreciate goodness.  By seeing antagonists we appreciate protagonists. By seeing hunger we appreciate satiation. By seeing asthma we appreciate breathe.  

When changes occur to one or the other opposite, then this is where your conflict occurs. For example, when both hot and cold are balanced in the body, the body remains healthy. Yet when the heat of your body is increased, you become sick. The same can be said of dry and moist, sweet and bitter, and rest and weary.

It was this same theory that was adapted by the Hippocratic writers when they wrote the Hippocratic Corpus.  They used this theory of opposites to describe how disease was created, and how such imbalances can cause the four humours to become imbalanced, thus resulting in sickness.  So the Pythagorean Theory of Opposites may have been the birth of humoral medicine.

The premise of this theory is that in order to understand the plight of mankind, you have to have walked in their shoes.  In order to understand their suffering, you have to have had exposure to their suffering.

It doesn't have to be a major exposure either. For example, you don't have to get asthma to appreciate the person with asthma; all you have to do is meet an asthmatic, or read about his plight.  

  1. Sigerist, Henry E, "A History of Medicine: Early Greek, Hindu and Persian Medicine," Volume II ", 1961, Oxford University Press, pages 88-99
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