Character Is Fate
Reduced in our day to an arcane and oft-misquoted pledge, the Hippocratic Oath was in its own time a shockingly practical vow. It called for its practitioners not to poison deliberately their clients, nor extract from them a pile of unearned wealth. Nothing before it had held so much sway; nothing after, such gravity. And gravity, so far as we moderns can tell, is but an awesome consequence of antiquity. Thus, when a profound thinker like Hippocrates ages with the slow march of time, his genius tends to stick. Having lived and practiced his art over two and a half millennia ago, that first of physicians certainly has the prerequisite quality of age. What’s more, his writings have the frank clarity, his students the devout fidelity, and his aura the weight and force that causes us to rank him still above all others in the medical field.
Or, perhaps I’d do better to call it the pre-medical field, or that open terrain which was daringly pre-scientific. You see, Hippocrates emerged upon the Hellenic stage somewhere in the middle of the fifth century B.C. Indeed, his was a life lived during the closing of the “Axial Age”—so named by the German psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers. In brief, that particular age would serve as the foundation for all to come. It was a six-century-long explosion and amalgamation of the overlapping fields of psychology, philosophy, metaphysics, and faith. It was the epoch of Confucius and Buddha, Zarathustra and Elijah, Plato and Alexander. Mostly by the word, though occasionally by the sword, these were the men who would forge all history to come. From Persia to China, Palestine to Greece and Rome, theirs was the era which was the pivot upon which the future of the modern world would begin its inexorable turn.
Hippocrates, caught in this age of progress and movement, found himself at a crossroads. He stood, as uneasily and often as we do today, at the intersection of science and myth. Behind him lay the Parthenon—before him, the tangible and observable realm. Olympia wasn’t to be ignored, but neither, in the same breath, was nature. Both had compelling arguments to make and he—forever the ardent student and explorer—attempted to lend his ear to every side. Having measured with every instrument and considered each angle in sight, Hippocrates tended to err on the side of that which he could perceive.
But that doesn’t tell the entire story, nor does it capture his commitment to experiential truth. While he was able to liberate his thought from the already ancient chains of theology, those other tempting fetters of philosophy were more difficult to shake. From the outset, his theory of medicine was infected by those wandering sophists whose arguments were too sensational to deny.
Using them as a pad from which to launch a new theory all his own, Hippocrates developed and expounded upon the still fascinating concept of the “humors”. According to the good doctor, of the body’s constituent liquids, four distinctive varieties could be named: in order of their perceptibility (once disburdened of the skin) they were the blood, the phlegm, and the two biles—one yellow and one black. To be in a fully salutary state was to have a proportionate volume of all four. In whomever these fluids flowed commensurately and at ease, a healthy and agreeable manner would be the result. Seldom, however, was this the case. More likely, one’s ratios would be skewed. Too much of a bilious liquid here, too little of the phlegmatic nature there, and you’d be in need of a remedy. Such a Grecian prescription might be (hopefully) a massage or an ointment, though more probably a suppository, an emetic, or a leech.
Not at all unlike a leech, from whose unslakable suction one hardly escapes with her limb, the idea of the humors stuck around in our minds. So resilient was the idea that it lasted the duration of the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, and very nearly into this age we call our own. You might even say that the study of the humors and their effects anticipated that of endocrinology—that is, the study of hormones. If I’m right in tracing the shared roots of the hormones and humors, I daresay we experience the pang of Hippocrates in just about every emotion we feel—be it in our fleeting serotonin highs or our importunate cortisol lows.
In time, the four fluids would undergo a physical transformation from liquid to solid states. What was merely blood became “sanguine”, or as the personality trait connotes, cheery and lively and optimistic in light of challenging moments. It was also associated with ethereal qualities, such as the pneuma or the air (considering the blood’s oxygen-carrying task, this early insight wasn’t all that far off the biological mark). Phlegm, naturally, became phlegmatic and described she who couldn’t be disturbed. You’ll recall the brother biles who numbered two. The yellow type, jaundiced and thick, would come to associate with the choleric or hot tempered demeanor while the bile that oozed black was pensively melancholic, reserved, and cool.
Hasten with me (some two millennia hence) from the classical medical textbooks to the court-room testimonies of the present day. It’s here we find a doctor and judge and half of the emotions of which Hippocrates made us aware. On display at the Brett Kavanaugh-Dr. Blasey Ford hearings were two obvious and identifiable humors. So began the hearings (chivalry isn’t yet dead; the lady was permitted to speak first), so shall I begin with a brief account of Dr. Blasey Ford’s temperament.
Cut her skin, and I reckon, before a drop of blood would fall, she’d sooner secrete phlegm. That’s not a conservative call to arms to brandish swords and knives, but it is to say of course that this doctor (quite different in professional scope from our hoary old Hippocrates) was phlegmatic to the bone. She presented herself in a surprisingly dispassionate manner. She was calm and steady throughout an endless inquisition in front of a committee of the utmost prestige. Recounting yet again what we can only assume to be the most traumatic experience of her life, Dr. Blasey Ford told in ambiguous detail the events of that fateful, perhaps apocryphal night. Her voice seldom wavered, her gesticulations never flared. Always was she composed and level and she never descended to histrionic appeals. All in all, she exhibited before the Senate and before all of America an incredible sense of grace and sangfroid, which might properly be called phlegmatic by another word.
Contrast her comportment with that of her alleged-molester. In watching Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony, nary an ounce of poise was to be seen nor a tone of discretion heard. He dove headfirst into his testimony, and he did so in a pique of unmitigated fury and rage. His opening remarks were more invective than introductory. Empurpled, with his brows wrinkled and his lips in a sneer, he lashed out against his political opponents—of whom, admittedly, there are many. He called the recent and now ineffaceable allegations brought up against him a “national disgrace” and aspersed the Clintons and the Democratic Party (bêtes noires to Brett and to the larger political right) for having promulgated such calumnies and career-twisting lies. He wept for his daughters, sympathized ostensibly with Dr. Blasey Ford, and harangued all who had gathered to hear his defense.
It’s no difficulty then, given the evidence of his performance as outlined above, to attribute to him the humor of the yellow bile. His was that angry humor which is constitutive of the choleric temperament and man.
It was another ancient Greek father, himself a son of that vaunted Axial Age, who declared that “character is fate”. If indeed it is, as that weeping (and surely melancholic) Heraclitus aphoristically deemed it to be, then I’m not sure what to make of the personality of this upcoming Supreme Court who on Saturday welcomed to the bench Judge Kavanaugh. One can only hope that Kavanaugh settles in to a better distribution of his humors. The choleric must be reduced and the others raised. If he doesn’t, and if his sanguine and melancholic and phlegmatic sides fail to bubble to the surface and mix, his tenure will be jaundiced and infected from the start. As it is, due to the unbridled distemper he revealed two weeks ago, the Court will be painted with the colors of his essence—an ugly shade of yellow—not red nor blue.
Hippocrates, for all his achievements and endeavors, was himself no politician; he left this to Pericles in a Periclean age. Medicine was his forte—immortality merely his fate. And while you might scoff and call his humors laughable and outdated, in our current moment of political tumult, I think, more than ever, they apply. What, then, might be the Hippocratic prescription for the now honorable, now dishonorable Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh? A cooling of choler and a dousing of phlegm.