Hippocrates and Holism

Sculpture of Hippocrates.

I was at the URHP Summer Conference last week, and lucky enough to be sat on the same lunch table as Vicki Pitman, author and Minutes Secretary of the Herbal History Research Network. After a few moments of silence, she intoned with her delightful American drawl “You know Andy, I wrote a book on Hippocrates…” Well, needless to say I was interested and became inspired to write this blog.

The book Vicki mentioned was her Nature of the Whole: Holism in Ancient Greek and Indian Medicine (Motilal Barnasidass Publishers, 2006)[1] , which as it turns out was a very readable summary of her MPhil dissertation in Complementary Health Studies from Exeter University.

The Hippocratic Institute is named after the Father of Western Medicine for good reasons. We know he was the inspiration for the Hippocratic Oath but probably did not write it. We explore the oath in its various forms on our N.D course as part of medical ethics and philosophy, tracing these principles to the present-day Naturopathic Physician’s Oath, Principles of Natural Medicine, the IFM Functional Medicine Characteristics, and the Hierarchy of the Therapeutic Order. We know Hippocrates subscribed to the principles of “let food be thy medicine” and “first, do no harm” but Vicki really nails it in chapter 2 of her book entitled A Survey of Evidence of Holism in the Hippocratic Corpus and Caraka Samhita.

Hippocrates and Holism
Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes (1792).
Oil on canvas painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson.
Under public domain license.

How do we know Hippocrates was a holistic physician? From several sources:

  1. Although the medical school of Kos did not acknowledge non-material factors in health & disease and eschewed charms and superstition, the general philosophical outlook of the time was accepting of an underlying divine principle. This can be found in various Hippocratic treatises which refer to air (aer or pneuma), soul (psuche) and nature (phusis).
  2. Nature (phusis) is often mentioned in Hippocratic writings as being the essence of the divine principle. Nature was understood to be a divine force which was inherently intelligent.
  3. Disease was understood holistically by Hippocrates. Although there are many diseases, their one basic cause is the inharmonious flow of vital force.
  4. The body is automatically self-healing. Ponos (suffering, pain, toil, work) is the intrinsic capacity for self-repair. Fevers were seen as an example of the healing effort, and the body cleanses itself to remove impurities.
  5. Mind-body-spirit are connected and directly affect physical health. Mental and emotional considerations were incorporated into therapy. Hippocrates said “Labour is food for the joints and the flesh, sleep for the intestines. Intellection is a stroll for the soul in men.” (Epidemics 6.5,5).
  6. Health was regarded as following the order and cycles of nature. Anything which upset the natural harmony of the body could cause disease (including stress, to which the Hippocratic physicians showed great awareness).
  7. Hippocratic treatments (such as diet, exercise, massage, botanical and other drugs, baths, bloodletting, etc) were used judiciously to cleanse the body and expel secretions and excretions. They were whole-body treatments aimed at restoring balance.
  8. Employing disciplined principles of living which accorded with the natural order of the universe, many Hippocratic physicians walked their talk and practiced lifestyle medicine.

In an age when the Hippocratic Oath is becoming unfashionable for medical school graduation ceremonies, it is not hard to see why.[3] The principles of Hippocratic medicine are at odds with the practice of modern technological medicine, which is increasingly focussed on fixing an offending bodily part or molecular pathway without seeing it in its wider context. At the Hippocratic Institute, we celebrate simple and time-honoured healing methods which, when used in a personalised manner, can galvanise our innate self-healing capability and form the basis of a naturally healthy life.



[1] Pitman, Vicki., 2006. Nature of the Whole: Holism in Ancient Greek and Indian Medicine. Motilal Barnasidass Publishers, Delhi.

[2] Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes (1792). Wikimedia Commons.

[3] Dossabhoy, S. S., Feng, J., & Desai, M. S. (2018). The Use and Relevance of the Hippocratic Oath in 2015-a Survey of US Medical Schools. Journal of Anesthesia History, 4(2), 139–146. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JANH.2017.09.005