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Free Content Socrates and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy: A Pathographic Diagnosis 2,400 Years Later

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Purpose: Some enigmatic remarks and behaviors of Socrates have been a subject of debate among scholars. We investigated the possibility of underlying epilepsy in Socrates by analyzing pathographic evidence in ancient literature from the viewpoint of the current understanding of seizure semiology.

Methods: We performed a case study from a literature survey.

Results: In 399 BCE, Socrates was tried and executed in Athens on the charge of “impiety.” His charges included the “introduction of new deities” and “not believing in the gods of the state,” because he publicly claimed that he was periodically and personally receiving a “divine sign,” or daimonion, that directed him in various actions. We found textual evidence that his daimonion was probably a simple partial seizure (SPS) of temporal lobe origin. It was a brief voice that usually prohibited Socrates from initiating certain actions. It started when he was a child, and it visited Socrates unpredictably. Moreover, we found at least two descriptions of Socrates' unique behavior that are consistent with complex partial seizures (CPSs). The fact that Socrates had been experiencing both SPSs and CPSs periodically since childhood makes the diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) likely.

Conclusions: We hypothesize that Socrates had a mild case of TLE without secondary generalization. This is the first report in 2,400 years to present a pathographic diagnosis of TLE in Socrates based on specific diagnostic features in the ancient textual evidence. Our study demonstrates that the knowledge of modern epileptology could help understand certain behaviors of historic figures.
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Keywords: Partial seizure; Philosophy; Religion; Socrates; Temporal lobe epilepsy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Classics, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.

Publication date: March 1, 2006

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