Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Christopher Gill, Tim Whitmarsh, John Wilkins (ed.), Galen and the World of Knowledge. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge, UK/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvii, 327. ISBN 9780521767514. $99.00.
Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, Bryn Mawr College and St. Joseph's University

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

If Galen had been a nicer person, or if he had written less, he might now have a place next to Plutarch in the canon of Roman imperial literature and in the Western classical tradition. But Galen often comes across on his pages as an argumentative crank, and the sheer quantity and variety of his writing, which represents about one-tenth of surviving non-Christian ancient Greek literature and ranges from medicine and philosophy to literary criticism and linguistics, can daunt all but the most committed specialist. In the last twenty years, however, new appreciations of the Greek literature of the Roman Empire and re-evaluations of Galen have converged. A trickle, then a flood of volumes, both studies by single authors and collaborative efforts, has begun to push Galen into the main stream of classical studies.1 Editions and translations continue to appear.2 Soon, if volumes like the one under review do their work, it may be as difficult for a graduate student in classics to ignore Galen as to go without reading at least some Plutarch.

This collection of essays gathers many of the most distinguished scholars in ancient medicine, philosophy, and the Greek culture of the Roman Empire to construct a picture of Galen as an intellectual in Antonine and Severan Rome. This review can do no more than mention each essay, but those interested in the Second Sophistic, Greek philosophy, or ancient medicine can be assured that there are no weak contributions. Nothing can be skipped. Although I found only one essay that mentioned another in the volume, a few themes recur: Galen's synthesis of contemporary philosophical schools, his relationship with philosophers, especially aristocratic Aristotelians like his patron Boethus, and his use and reflection of imperial ideologies. This is a book about Galen the philosopher and public intellectual, and little is said about his medical practice.

Although it is mentioned in only a few of the contributions, the immediate impulse for this volume and the conference that gave rise to it must have been the recent discovery in the Vlatades monastery at Thessaloniki of On the Avoidance of Grief (περὶ Ἀλυπίας), which had been entirely unknown in modern times except for Galen's mention of it in On My Own Books and scattered citations in the Arabic tradition.3 In this treatise Galen gives a vivid picture of intellectual activities at Rome and records his loss of many books and medical supplies in the fire that destroyed the Temple of Peace and many buildings on the Via Sacra and Palatine in 192. It opens a window into the "world of knowledge" promised in the title of this book.

Like many good conference themes, "world of knowledge" seems to have meant different things to different people and evoked at least three different kinds of papers. Some ask what tools Galen had for making sense of his world and how he used them. Vivian Nutton explores Galen's library, the fundamental tool for any intellectual worker. Galen's medical collection may have been the largest ever assembled in antiquity, and much of what we think we know about, for example, Asclepiades or the Methodist sect comes from what he chooses to tell us about his reading. When we look beyond medicine or his other passion, philosophy, to ask what historians or poets he know well, Galen looks very much like a typical Antonine man of letters: well-read in fifth- and fourth-century Attic authors, especially Thucydides and Old Comedy, but less familiar with Hellenistic literature. This is no trivial observation, since it advances the tendency to move Galen out of the medical writers' ghetto and lets him take his place beside Plutarch or Athenaeus.

Papers by Jason König and Rebecca Flemming confirm this trend. König uses a study of Galen's prefaces and the claim to be writing at the request of one's friends to interrogate the whole idea of a distinction between literary and technical writing. He sees these two kinds of writing "more as a relationship of continuum and cross-fertilization than of contrast" (43). For Rebecca Flemming, Galen's toolkit featured the Platonic demiurge or divine craftsman whose workings guaranteed and were visible in nature's teleological character. This idea did important work for Galen, and not merely in philosophical argumentation. Because Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics shared a belief in providential nature, Galen's demiurge could make him a congenial associate for intellectual aristocrats with a taste for philosophy; more than that, it could reveal him as a sound man. Galen's thought offered a medico-philosophical echo of the imperial political order, in which coins announced a world made rational under the providentia Caesaris.4 Long after another Roman intellectual with a memorable father and a philosophical education, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, learned to accommodate himself to the great and powerful not by saying what they wanted him to say, but by saying what they would have said if they had been in his place, Galen found the same lesson useful.

Maude Gleason, in what may be the most interesting as well as the most problematic essay in this volume, considers Galen's sharp instruments, his scalpel and his pen. Galen's self-presentations through public vivisections and published writings she suggest "homology between pen and scalpel, blood and ink" (104). In his hands both are instruments for affirming the power of the demonstrator, whether vivisector or orator, over the one demonstrated on, and also, Gleason suggests, for insinuating doubts about that power. She has a point (so to speak), although she seems to me sometimes to push down on it harder than it will bear. (Surely, for example, the γραφεῖον at PHP Kühn V.184, CMG V.4.1.2, 78, cited on p.104, is a stylus or pencil, not a pen, and so Galen's instructions do not support the equivalence of blood and ink. A needle (βελόνη), he goes on to say, will also work, but that does not mean that he regarded dissection and sewing as homologous.)

A second group of essays takes up ways in which Galen used his tools to describe his patients, himself, and his world. Geoffrey Lloyd invokes differences in rhetorical purpose and philosophical method to explain the differences between the case histories in the Hippocratic Epidemics and Galen's On Prognosis. Galen's tools, Véronique Boudon-Millot suggests, included his own life constructed as heroic, disciplined practice, ἄσκησις, in pursuit of truth. An important passage from De constitutione artis medicae grounds Boudon-Millot's argument (CAM I.6 = Kühn I.244-5, CMG V.1.3, 71.23-72, quoted p. 176). Although Boudon-Millot does not choose to say so, the passage is, like much in Galen, an elaboration of a well-known Hippocratic description (Law 2) of the link between life and method. In the next essay Jacques Jouanna asks whether Galen recognized a special regimen or therapy for intellectuals. Heinrich von Staden and Daniela Manetti, in back-to-back, complementary contributions, explore Galen's presentation of Hellenistic exegesis and his explanation of Hippocratic usage. Von Staden shows how Galen presents the tradition of Hippocratic commentary as a drama, with himself as the principal, climactic actor. By meticulous analysis of Galen's glosses and commentary on Hippocratic words and phrases, Manetti positions him in the Second Sophistic's discussion of Attic usage. Galen was not a hyper-Atticist, but when he had to call a Hippocratic spade a spade (160), he explained the Hippocratic σκαφεῖον by citing a word used by Aristophanes and Plato. His audience, who were also educated intellectuals of the Second Sophistic, expected nothing else.

A third group of essays looks at how Galen positioned himself in the world of knowledge; or to be more precise, in the region of that world constituted by philosophy. Four essays ask the same question: to what philosophical school did Galen belong? Was he a Sceptic (R. J. Hankinson)? A Middle Platonist (Riccardo Chiaradonna)? An Aristotelian (Philip J. van der Eijk)? A Stoic (Teun Tieleman)? All four reach essentially the same conclusion. Galen swore allegiance to the words of no master, but he was no mere eclectic. "Syncretist," the word preferred by Hankinson, seems more apt. Galen rejected philosophical Scepticism just as he rejected medical Empiricism, but from the schools that offered the possibility of attaining knowledge he forged an original, coherent synthesis that gives him a place among the original philosophers of antiquity.


Vivian Nutton, "Galen's library"
Jason König, "Conventions of prefatory self-presentation in Galen's On the Order of My Own Books"
Rebecca Flemming, "Demiurge and Emperor in Galen's world of knowledge"
Maud W. Gleason, "Shock and awe: the performance dimension of Galen's anatomy demonstrations"
G. E. R. Lloyd, "Galen's un-Hippocratic case-histories"
Heinrich von Staden, "Staging the past, staging oneself: Galen on Hellenistic exegetical traditions"
Daniela Manetti, "Galen and Hippocratic medicine: language and practice"
Véronique Boudon-Millot, "Galen's Bios and Methodos: from ways of life to path of knowledge"
Jacques Jouanna, "Does Galen have a medical programme for intellectuals and the faculties of the intellect?"
R. J. Hankinson, "Galen on the limitations of knowledge"
Riccardo Chiaradonna, "Galen and Middle Platonism"
Philip J. van der Eijk, "'Aristotle! What a thing for you to say!' Galen's engagement with Aristotle and Aristotelians"
Teun Tieleman, "Galen and the Stoics, or: the art of not naming"


1.   See J. Kollesch and D. Nickel, "Bibliographia Galeniana: Die Beiträge des 20. Jahrhunderts zur Galenforschung," ANRW II.37.2, 1351-1420, as well as the other essays in that volume, and R. J. Hankinson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Galen (Cambridge 2008).
2.   The "Introduction Génerale" of the continuing Budé Galen (Galien, Tome I, ed. Véronique Boudon-Millot [Paris 2007] is indispensable, especially pp. ccxxx ff.
3.   The editio princeps: V. Boudon-Millot, "Un traité miraculeusement retrouvé, Sur l'inutilité de se chagriner: texte grec et traduction française," in V. Boudon-Millot, V. Guardasole, and C. Magdelaine, La Science médicale antique: nouveaux regards: études réunies en l'honneur de Jacques Jouanna (Paris 2007).
4.   Flemming develops this idea in "Galen's imperial order of knowledge," in J. König and Tim Whitmarsh, edd., Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire (Cambridge 2007), 241-277.

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