Was Hippocrates a Homeopath?
by Jan Willem Nienhuys
Some homeopaths claim that their art goes back to Hippocrates. This is not merely
the general ploy of alternative healers to date their art back to time immemorial.
Something like this can be found in the works of Hahnemann. But it is not true.
In at least one source (a booklet from 1899, written by a pharmacist named Knufman) one
can read that the first application of homeopathy is the case of the Greek king Telephos.
In Greek mythology Telephos was hurt during the preparations for the Trojan war,
by the spear of Achilles. Supposedly he was only cured after Apollo advised to treat the
wound with some rust from Achilles' spear. This of course predates Hippocrates, but it is
not certain that this story reflects effective clinical practice.
Hippocrates founded medical ethics. In his opinion, patients must be able to trust
physicians, and physicians in their turn must be worthy of that trust. They must be
careful and competent, help where possible or at least not hurt. They may not use the
methods of quacks, among which untruthful propaganda. In the eyes of Hippocrates diseases
have natural causes, and supernatural cures are nonsense. Medicine must rely on careful
In the beginning of the nineteenth century a patient usually was lucky if he or she could
stay out of the hands of doctors. Medical treatments (poisons and bloodletting) were often
very unhealthy. Hahnemann introduced three improvements in medicine, namely a thorough
anamnesis, monotherapy and medical nihilism. In other words, the idea that one should
administer to a sick person just one drug in a carefully measured dose, and preferably
nothing material at all is Hahnemann's. The third idea (not giving any medicine) was
practiced a century later by Ernst Schweninger, but it is still not very popular with
patients and pharmaceutical companies, and sadly, neither with many followers of
Hahnemann proposed the Similia principle. That says that to cure a sick person, one
should look for something that provokes similar symptoms in healthy people. This,
preferably diluted, will cure the sick person. Hahnemann supported his ideas by own
observations and rather fanciful quotations of experiences of older doctors, which he took
as proof that the ancients had sometimes been able to catch a glimmer of his truth. I
cannot resist mentioning that something like the Similia principle, namely treating wounds
caused by firearms by pouring boiling oil into them, was abolished by Ambroise Paré in 1537,
much to the relief of many soldiers.
Hippocratic writings comprise about 60 treatises, written by many authors. The most
complete edition dates from the nineteenth century: ten volumes of Greek text and footnotes,
index and French translation. There is nothing about the Similia principle in it. In the
Hippocratic view diseases are caused by too much or too little heat, cold, moisture,
dryness. Intestines are to be cleansed by hellebore. That is: the roots of the Christmas
rose or of Veratrum (a kind of lily), strong poisons that make the patient vomit or get
diarrhea so quickly that the patient often survives the treatment. For many centuries
these 'natural medicines' were used in combination with barley soup, wine, honey and
vinegar. Alum, saltpeter, oxides of lead and copper were used to 'dry out' wounds (stop
suppuration). In case of too much moisture, garlic, onions and leek were used (among
others), as diuretics. Women with halitosis were recommended to brush their teeth with
burnt rats and hares mixed with powdered marble. Burns were to be treated with chopped oak
roots boiled in white wine, or with ointments that had fat and loam as chief ingredient.
Many Hippocratic writings do not contain any specific medicines, and treatments usually
compensate the surmised lack or surplus of heat or moisture.
Two Hippocratic texts
Hahnemann quotes a passage from Peri topoon toon kata anthroopon (The places
in man), that runs as follows (my translation).
'Pains become healthy by opposites; for every disease there is something proper; so,
for what is warm by nature, but sickened by cold, there is something to warm it up, and so
on and so on. This is another way: by similar (homoia) matters a disease arises and
by administering similar things they regain their health from sickness}; for instance the
same (to auto) causes stranguria (i.e. difficult and painful urination) that wasn't there
before, and when it is there, the same will make it stop; likewise coughing arises, like
stranguria, and it stops by the same things (hupo toon autoon). The fever caused by
flegmasia (too much moisture) appears and disappears at one time by the same (hupo toon
autoon) and at another time by the opposite of its cause.'
An analogous quote stems from the treatise about the Sacred Disease, Peri hierès
nousou. The Sacred Disease is anything that can cause fits, delirium, shiverings and
foaming about the mouth, like pneumonia, epilepsy and many traumas of the brain, including
strokes, tumors and wounds. By the way, asthma and 'sacred disease' are both caused by too
much prenatal slime, the difference is that in asthma it goes to the lungs, and in 'sacred
disease' to the brain. At the close of the chapter we find:
'Each [disease] has its characteristic nature and force and none is intractable and
hopeless. Most cases can be cured by the same things (tois autoisi) as what cause them.
Because one is food for the other, but for something else again damage. So it is necessary
that the physician knows how he, when he notices the critical moment, in each case [of
sickness] will give nourishment to one and fortify him, and not give it to the other and
weaken [the disease].
In this disease as with others, it is necessary to not increase the disease but tire it
out quickly by applying the most inimical to it, and not [give it] something fitting that
it is accustomed to.'
I will try to explain these quotes, with the support of (among others) Joseph
Schumacher (professor in the history of medicine).
Hippocrates merely says that depending on circumstances something can increase or
decrease a disease. For instance stranguria (an affliction of a warm organ) is sometimes
caused by heat (inflammation) and sometimes a warm bath is a good treatment. Maybe the
passage also means that the same disease can have causes A, B etc., and that fighting
cause B may consist of treatment with A.
What is the cause of coughing? In Peri Fysoon (Winds) we find that winds
can disturb the circulation of fluids in the head, and these fluids will come out at all
kinds of places, for instance snot that flows into the lungs and causes coughing, thereby
inflammation of the throat. The throat attracts moisture because it becomes warm. In other
words: coughing is caused by too much bad moisture on the wrong place. And it is cured by
warm baths and drinking more fluid. So this is a case of driving out bad fluid by good
fluid, not of a therapy that would cause coughing in healthy people.
Similarly too much food can cause intestinal trouble for a weakened person, in those
cases food is still the best cure. The doctor should judge in each case separately whether
to treat diarrhea with fasting or with food. In all cases the physician must know the
deeper cause of the disease.
Some people think that 'homoios' and 'autos' merely means 'fitting', 'of the same
kind'. So the first quote above merely says that cause and remedy belong to the same
class. If the cause is 'too hot or too cold', the remedy must be of the same kind; wounds
however need surgical treatment and the result of wrong food should be solved by diet.
Three more quotes
The early editions of Hahnemann's Organon refer to a passage from Epidèmioon
to pempton (Epidemies V). It is about a man who vomited and also had severe
diarrhea (cholera?). This man was treated with hellebore, in combination with lentil water
and washing of his underbody. Then he recovered. An ordinary Hippocratic cure: lentil soup
is purifying, and hellebore likewise is supposed to drive out evil substances. So
Hahnemann thinks that this unfortunate Athenian was cured by the hellebore rather than in
spite of it.
In the book about internal diseases (Peri toon entos pathoon) a description is
given of dropsy caused by drinking a lot from a pool of stagnant rainwater during a long
walk. Part of the recommended treatment is letting the patient drink still more of the
same water, to upset his intestines and cause 'evacuation from below'.
Finally, the appendix of Peri diaitès oxeoon (Diet with acute diseases)
says: 'garlic causes flatulence, warmth in the breast, heaviness in the head, discomfort,
increase of chronic pain, but the good thing is, it increases urine. The best moment to
eat it is when one is going to drink a lot or is drunk [already]' Now you may wonder what
this has to do with the Similia principle. It seems some homeopaths explain this as
follows: drinking causes a hangover, garlic causes headaches, hence the advice 'garlic for
drunks' shows that Hippocrates applies the Similia principle. I think it merely shows
that some homeopaths can't read, because the text certainly doesn't indicate any conscious
application of the Similia principle, and whether garlic is beneficial to drunks is
doubtful; if it's really a diuretic one would think it makes a hangover worse rather than
The claim that Hippocrates applied the Similia principle is just as tenuous as the
proposition that Shakespeare ('to be or not to be') is the founder of existentialism.
Actually, the passages say that a doctor should not only look for symptoms, but also for
deeper causes. That contradicts the homeopathic method of looking for many symptoms of
Hahnemann's merits do not lie in critical analysis of old texts. His followers treat
his words as if it were some kind of holy writing. The mindless and careless copying of
quotations out of context are the hallmark of pseudoscience and occult nonsense. And the
proposition that Hippocrates has anything to do with homeopathy is just untruthful
Note for the Skepsis-site
This is a summary of a somewhat longer Dutch article written on the occasion of a
pamphlet distributed by the Royal Dutch Association of Pharmacists (KNMG), intended to
provide objective information about homeopathy. Among other things it repeated the
Hippocratic lie. Neither the Dutch, nor the English version has been published before.
Samuel Hahnemann, Heilkunde der Erfahrung. In: Kleine medicinische Schriften.
Gesammelt und herausgegeben von Ernst Stapf, Zweiter Band, In der Arnold'schen
Buchhandlung, Dresden und Leipzig, 1829. Originally appeared in: Journal der
practischen Arzneykunde und Wundarzneykunst (Hufeland's Journal), vol. 22 (3), 1805.
Samuel Hahnemann, Organon der Heilkunst, Zweite Auflage. In der Arnoldischen
Buchhandlung, Dresden, 1819.
Hippocratic Writings, G.E.R. Lloyd (ed.), Translated by J. Chadwick and W.N. Mann,
Penguin Books, London etc., 1983.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Homeopathy. In: Examining Holistic Medicine, Douglas Stalker
and Clark Glymour (ed.), Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1989, p. 221-243. Originally
two lectures from 1842.
Emile Littré, Les œuvres complètes d'Hippocrate, traduction nouvelle avec
le texte grec en regard (10 vols.), Paris, 1839-1861. Fotomechanical reprint Adolf M.
Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1979.
Arthur Lutze, Samuel Hahnemann's Organon der Heilkunst, Sechste Auflage, Verlag der
Lutze'schen Klinik, Coethen, 1865.
Guido Majno, The Healing Hand. Man and Wound in the Ancient World. Harvard
University Press, 1974.
Joseph Schumacher, Die Anfänge abendländischer Medizin in der griechische Antike,
W. Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart, 1965.