Ancient and modern

Dieting with Hippocrates

How the ancients handled fat

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

There is, apparently, an ‘obesity epidemic’ in the UK, such that two million people could benefit from weight-loss surgery. Ancient Greeks would have argued that they would benefit much more from a dose of self-control.

The ancients associated fatness with a lazy lifestyle. No change there, then. The doctor Hippocrates, well aware that sudden death was associated with obesity, knew that ‘dieting which causes excessive loss of weight, as well as the feeding-up of the emaciated, is beset with difficulties’. The Roman doctor Celsus (1st C ad) advised thin men to put on weight through rest, constipation and big meals, and the fat to take it off through late nights, worry and exercise.

But none of this faced the real problem: as Demosthenes said, ‘there is no difficulty explaining what it is best to do, only in making you actually do it’. Elsewhere he said that emotional reactions, e.g. anger and sexual infatuation, made one act against one’s best interests, as if one’s capacity to deliberate had been overwhelmed by some external force (e.g. a god, like Eros). This is understandable. After all, we cannot actively decide to become e.g. lustful, even if we want to be; and vice versa.

Socrates took a stern line on the problem. His basic assumption was that if we did know what was right, we would not fail to do it because it was so obviously in our interests to do it. To the objection that a person often knew what was right but, driven by e.g. pleasure, did not do it, he replied that such a person did not really know what was right at all; (s)he simply had a view, an opinion, about it, liable to be perverted by passing whims. Hence the Socratic paradox: no one does wrong willingly. One does it ignorantly. Solution: cure the ignorance.

The government can hardly take the Spartan line (regular inspections for, and action against, obesity) or impose rationing. The problem of obesity requires cognitive as well as moral and dietary fibre.

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In the British Museum on 22 February, Peter Jones will introduce participants to ‘Ancient Greek from scratch’ (Google ‘Alpha Museum February 22’).

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  • Terry Field

    All obese people should have a registration certificate attached to their credit and debit cards obliging any cafe, restaurant, or supermarket to spray any carbo products they buy with a thick coating of liquid paraffin – slip straight through then, no calorie intake, job done!.