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Prognosis as a Measure of Excellence: Medical Language in Demosthenes’ On the Crown

Allison E Das

The Kinkaid School

Prognosis as a Measure of Excellence:

Medical Language in Demosthenes’ On the Crown

Prognosis appears as the supreme measure of the physician’s skill in the Hippocratic medical writings. In this paper, I examine the ways in which Demosthenes draws upon the Hippocratic concept of prognosis to define the role of the politician in defense of his civic crown in On the Crown (Dem. 18). I argue that Demosthenes uses this language as a part of a rhetorical ploy to bolster his credibility after the failure of his Macedonian policies. To contextualize Demosthenes’ medical language, I refer to the Hippocratic texts Prognosticon (5th c. BCE), Prorrheticon I-II (5th c. BCE), and Decorum (3rd-2nd c. BCE) to show that prognosis is not only a display of medical skill but also a performance of excellence.

My analysis of On the Crown demonstrates that Demosthenes uses language suggestive of prognosis to characterize the good politician as similar to the good physician. This oration is apologetic in that Demosthenes must answer the charge of his political rival Aeschines that his civic crown was unmerited because he did not consistently speak and act in the best interests of the people (Aeschin. 3.49): his policies are responsible for Philip II’s defeat of the Athenians at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE) and Macedon’s subsequent control over Greek political affairs. Demosthenes’ tactic is to turn his defense into a dialogue on political excellence, where he casts himself and Aeschines as dueling physicians who must predict at the right time (kairos) the outcome of the “disease” afflicting the body politic, which previous orations identify as both Philip II and philippizing (2.21; 9.29-30; 19.259-262), that is, paid political advocacy aimed at furthering the interests of Philip II.

As part of his polemical response to Aeschines, Demosthenes draws attention to the danger of political quiescence by portraying Aeschines as a charlatan physician. Most notably he compares Aeschines, whom he points out was silent during the city’s critical moments, to a physician, who withholds his prognosis from his patients and brags at their funeral that they would be alive today if they had only followed his advice (18.234; cf. Aeschin. 3.225). In contrast, Demosthenes takes great pains to underscore his willingness to deliver political prognoses despite the risk to his reputation. This anxiety over reputation reflects a hesitancy among physicians to give a prognosis for the same reason, for if a physician forecasts inaccurately, he “will be subject to hatred” and “thought mad” (Hp. Prorrh. 2.2).  A wrong prognosis could thus destroy a physician or a politician’s career.

Traditionally a politician’s excellence was measured by the success of his policies (Yunis 2000, 104). However, with the language of prognosis Demothenes reorients what it means to be successful by making the ability and willingness to deliver political prognoses, advice about present and future political matters, a requirement for the good politician. Demosthenes’ appropriation of medical prognosis is indicative of a vibrant cultural exchange between rhetoric and medicine. In the conclusion of my paper, I will reflect on how these literatures, if read in light of one another, offer an opportunity to assess how “technical” authority is constructed.

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