ALCMAEON (Greek ’Αλκμαιον ‘Κροτωνιατης), Alcmaion, Alcmeon, son of Peiritos—a Pythagorean philosopher and physician in Croton (south Italy). The dates of his birth and death are not known. According to Aristotle he was a young man when Pythagoras was already old. He would have been at the height of his carreer at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth century BC.
He was the author of a work called On nature (Περι φυσεως [Peri physeos]). This was the first scientific treatise devoted to the art of medicine, but the work itself has not been preserved; the work’s contents and chief findings were passed on by his doxographers: Aristotle and Theophrastus Aetius. He was the author of a theory about the equilibrium of opposites, a theory that was later developed by Philolaos of Coron. The equilibrium of opposites was described by later Pythagoreans as harmony (’αρμονια). In this theory, opposites such as warm and cold, dray and wet, do not exist separately in the world but together in definite pairs (δυο ταυ πολλα των ’ανθρωπινων [dyo ta polla ton anthropinon]). This produced the definite things and states of the phenomenal world in equilibrium. Alcmaeon thought of things and states as regular structures; if the equilibrium of the structure was upset by the predominance of one opposite, the structure would collapse.
Alcmaeon was author of the first conception of man in Pythagorean philosophy. Man has a mortal body and an immortal soul; Alcmaeon formulated the first form of proof for the immortality of the soul. He thought of the soul as a substance which is identical to the perfect and divine substance of the souls of the celestial bodies (the stars and planets). The perfect and divine substance is in eternal motion, which is proper to the nature of this substance. The souls of the celestial bodies because of their magnitude can impart immortality to their bodies, but human souls are too feeble, and so man as a composite structure undergoes biological death. Alcmaeon thought that the brain is the seat of the soul.
In Alcmaeon’s philosophy we also find the first Pythagorean doctrine of knowledge and the first model of inductive inference: man differs from beast that experience sense impressions because he thinks (ξυνιησι [ksyniesi]). He associates this function with the brain as the seat of the soul. Impressions are registered by the particular senses and reach the brain through nerve canals (ποροι [poroi]). We perceive things and phenomena by the principle of “contraries by contraries’. Memory and opinion arise in the brain out of sense impression, and knowledge arises from memory and opinion. In Alcmaeon’s theory of knowledge he mentions two regions: apparent things (τα θνητα [ta thneta]) that can be viewed by the senses, and the sphere of things that do not have an appearance (τα ’αφανεα [ta aphanea]) which man knows by inference from signs (τεκμαιρεσθαι [tekmairesthai]). Alcmaeon’s model of induction was based on his medical experience where he diagnosed illnesses on from symptoms. Alcmaeon’s medical findings were a result of his philosophical conceptions. He described health as “a balanced mixture of qualities”, namely an equilibrium of opposites in the body, and he called this state a political isonomy (’ισονομια), while illness is an upset of this equilibrium due to the predomince of one of the opposites over the other, which was a monarchy (μοναρχια). Therapy consisted in the restoration of equilibrium; Pythagorean medicine continued to use these methods in later ages, and Alcmaeon’s theory had a great influence on scholars in the tradition of Hippocratic medicine.
J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, Lo 1892, 19524; Diels-Kranz I–III; A. Maddalena, I Pitagorici, Bari 1954; G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, C 1957, 19832 (In Polish: Filosofia przedsokratejska, Wwa-Pz 1999); Pitagorici. Testimonianze e Frammenti (ed. M. Timpanaro-Cardini), Fi 1958; W. Burkert, Weisheit und Wissenschaft. Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos und Platon, Nü 1962; J. A. Philip, Pythagoras and Early Pythagoreans, Tor 1966; J. Gajda, Pitagorejczycy [Pythagoreans], Wwa 1996.