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Friday, April 24, 2015

100 B.C.: The beginning of the decline of wisdom

In order to understand the medicine of a given point in time, it's essential to understand the people of that time.  So here is a glimpse into the era of ancient Rome at the time when Christianity was just forming.

The ancient Greeks significantly advanced wisdom for the ancient world, and this knowledge was a gift handed to the Romans. The problem was that the gift was only available to the chosen few, while the majority continued to live in abject poverty.

This is key here, because the way the Roman majority was treated by the ruling class would help set up the entire structure of the Jewish way of life. This lead to the planting of the seeds of Christianity, which slowly grew into a full and flourishing tree that provided hope to the majority, although at the expense of wisdom.

So, life for the majority was not very good. This was explained best by medical historian Thomas Lindsley Bradford in his 1898 book "Quiz questions on the history of medicine:"
Draper tells us that just before the coming of Christ Rome was very wicked. Rome then contained two millions and a quarter of inhabitants, but of these only about ten thousand were of the gentry, the upper ten; there were about one hundred and twenty-five thousand populace or plebs. The plebs were often paupers in feeling, many of them were given public alms; they had cheap board, free admission to the theatres and gladiatorial shows, where the combats of the gladiators was not calculated to impress with fine feeling. There was about a million slaves, held as chattels, in the most abject misery. They might be killed at the will of their masters, and sometimes they were horribly mutilated, the physicians often having to perform these acts. There was no middle class at Rome. All these were kept in order by the numerous guards, generally mercenaries and foreigners. In Caesar's time, Rome the city which ruled the world was terribly depraved. Politicians had become demagogues; the concentration of power and increase of immorality proceeded equally. The Roman power included one hundred and twenty millions of people. Wealth was the only standard of social distinction. Law was of no value; the suitor was compelled to deposit a bribe before a trial could be had. Draper in his intellectual development of Europe says of this period of Roman history: The social fabric was a festering mass of rottenness. The people had become a populace; the aristocracy was demoniac; the city was a hell. No crime that the annals of human wickedness can show was left unperpetrated—remorseless murders; the betrayal of parents, husbands, wives and friends. Poisoning was reduced to a system; adultery degenerated into incest, and crimes that cannot be written. Women of the higher class were so depraved, lascivious and dangerous, that men could not be compelled to contract matrimony with them; marriage was displaced by concubinage; even virgins were guilty of inconceivable immodesties; great officers of state and ladies of the court of promiscuous bathings and naked exhibitions. In the time of Caesar it had become necessary for the government to put a premium on marriage. He gave rewards to women who had many children; prohibited those women under forty-five years of age and having no children, from wearing jewels and riding in litters, hoping by such social distinctions to correct the evil. It went from bad to worse, so that Augustus in view of the general avoidance of legal marriage, and resort to concubinage with slaves, was compelled to impose penalties on the unmarried—to exact that they should not inherit by will except from relations.The Roman women reckoned the years not from the consuls but from the men they had lived with. Gluttony was carried to loathsomeness. It was said of them—they eat that they may vomit, and vomit that they may eat. At the taking of Perusium, three hundred of the most distinguished citizens were solemnly sacrificed at the altar of Divius Julius by Octavius. Moral principle was extinct, it was a nation of atheists. Religious sentiment was entirely effaced. It was skeptical thought that governed the minds of the scholars; Varro, one hundred and ten years B. C, said that the gods were to be received as mere emblems of the forces of matter. Lucretius recommends that the mind be emancipated from the fear of the gods; Cicero was a skeptic. Some thought a virtuous life should be lived; some were cynics, some stoics. Epictetus (55-135 A.D), the slave and philosopher, taught that suicide was man's privilege. Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.) said that time is our only possession, and that nothing else belonged to man. And we may well understand the influence all this must have had on the medical doctrines of the physicians of that time.
Bradford then posed the question: "What effect had Christianity on medicine?" His answer:
Rutherford Russell says that it is likely that Christianity must at first have acted injuriously on medicine. Jesus Christ was celebrated as a healer; he went about healing the sick and restoring to life. To the people of his time his principal occupation was the healing of the sick. This power possessed by the Saviour was given by him to his disciples. Luke had been a physician; but how could he prescribe after the manner of men, when he was able to heal by the grace of God? Thus medicine based as an art on the natural order of things, was for a time superseded by the preternatural power of certain men. But between religion and science there was a barrier great and unsurmountable.
So while Christianity did help to improve the plight of the poor, it did so (at least initially) by taking away from the aristocracy the gift of wisdom from the Greeks. It would be another thousand years before wisdom would come back to the civilized world, and another 1700 years before a system was created to encourage common folks to use their wisdom to improve medicine for all the masses.

  1. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey
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