Dutch artist Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert (more commonly known as Nicolaes Moeyaert, c. 1592-1655), painted this scene of a meeting between two of the greatest intellectuals from Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Standing in the center of the painting is a representation of Hippocrates (c. 460-375 BCE), a famous ancient Greek physician who is regarded in Western tradition as the founding father of medical practice. Sitting beside him is a depiction of the philosopher, Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE), an early pioneer in conceptualizing the idea of atoms and atomic theory.
Nicolaes Moeyaert did not bring these two figures together on a whim for his painting. Instead, there actually was an ancient legend about Hippocrates meeting with Democritus. The tale was recorded by the biographer, Diogenes Laertius (c. 3rd century), who wrote:
“Athenodorus in the eighth book of his Walks relates that, when Hippocrates came to see him, he ordered milk to be brought, and, having inspected it, pronounced it to be the milk of a black she-goat which had produced her first kid; which made Hippocrates marvel at the accuracy of his observation. Moreover, Hippocrates being accompanied by a maidservant, on the first day Democritus greeted her with ‘Good morning, maiden,’ but the next day with ‘Good morning, woman,’ As a matter of fact the girl had been seduced in the night” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 9.7).
To be sure, the tale is more folklore and legend than an actual historical event. It was a story meant to highlight Democritus’ great skills of perception. Nevertheless, as Hippocrates and Democritus were contemporaries in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, such a meeting could well have happened.
Written by C. Keith Hansley