Monday, July 20, 2015


Clare K. Rothschild, Trevor W. Thompson (ed.), Galen's 'De indolentia': Essays on a Newly Discovered Letter. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum / Studies and texts in antiquity and Christianity, 88. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. Pp. xi, 336. ISBN 9783161532153. €94.00 (pb).

Reviewed by David H. Kaufman, Transylvania University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Since its discovery in 2005, Galen's long-lost consolatory work On Freedom from Distress (Περὶ Ἀλυπίας)1 has received a great deal of scholarly attention, including four editions, an Italian collection of essays, and many articles. 2 Clare Rothschild and Trevor Thompson's Galen's De indolentia: Essays on a Newly Discovered Letter is the first English language collection of essays on the text, and will be a valuable resource for any student of the work. The collection includes a short introduction, an English translation, twelve essays, and a collation of the three most recent critical editions. The essays are on an admirably diverse range of topics, as indicated by the chapter headings—Manuscript Evidence, Realia, Philosophy, Irony, and Christian Trajectories—and provide a good sample of scholarly approaches to the text.

The volume opens with Véronique Boudon-Millot's riveting account of the rediscovery and history of Vlatadon 14, the manuscript preserving On Freedom from Distress. On the basis of comparisons with another important manuscript Ambrosianus Q 3, she argues that Vlatadon 14 was based on the collections of the library at the Kral, in Constantinople, and was written between 1448 and 1453 by followers of John Argyropoulos, a prominent philosopher in Constantinople.

Next is Daniel Davies' account of the reception of On Freedom from Distress in the works of the medieval Jewish philosophers Ibn Aqnīn and Falaquera. Although Davies might have included more in the way of context and commentary, he translates select quotations and paraphrases of On Freedom from Distress that collectively illustrate its influence on the medieval Jewish tradition and suggest a fascinating area for further research.

Matthew Nicholls discusses the interpretive significance of accepting the popular, if controversial, reading ἐν Ἀντίῳ for the manuscript's ἐναντίω, ἐναντία, and ἐναντίω at 16, 17, and 18 BMJ,3 respectively.4 Although Nicholls himself rejects this reading and even proposes several, to my mind, strong considerations against it, he makes an energetic case that if we accept it, it has important implications for our understanding of the contents and working conditions of libraries and the practice of scholarship in the late 2nd century CE. In particular, he argues that we should take the library in question to be the library of the imperial villa in Antium, and that Galen's text could help to reconstruct its contents and conditions of use.

The next contribution, by Alain Touwaide, focuses on Galen's pharmacology and, especially, his method of acquiring and developing recipes for new medical drugs. Touwaide argues that there is a close parallel in On Freedom from Distress between Galen's detailed portrayal of himself as an avid consumer and editor of books and his account of his practice of acquiring and developing new medical recipes. Touwaide concludes that Galen's pharmacological research is based more immediately on his library-based examination and criticism of previous medical works and catalogues of recipes than his own hands-on experience of the medical materials he describes.

Paraskevi Kotzia situates On Freedom from Distress in its philosophical and literary context by examining its use of consolatory 'commonplaces, clichés and exempla'. Drawing on her remarkably thorough knowledge of the Greek and Roman consolatory tradition, Kotzia argues persuasively that Galen uses the consolatory tradition in an innovative and philosophically interesting way. She also gives a very helpful account of the critical role Galen ascribes to the vice of insatiability (ἀπληστία) in his account of distress.

The next contribution, by Elizabeth Asmis, turns more directly to Galen's philosophical methodology. Asmis argues that in his philosophical works Galen 'derives inspiration from his predecessors […] to stake out a position of his own, using his particular abilities to finish what they had begun', and so proposes that he is more aptly described as presenting a 'personal philosophy' than an 'eclectic' or 'syncretic' philosophy, as his work has commonly been understood.5 Although it would require a further essay to fully defend her terminological suggestion,6 Asmis' discussion makes a novel and interesting contribution to the study of Galen's philosophical methodology.

Next, Janet Downie discusses the tension between Galen's insistence in the first half of On Freedom from Distress on the significance of the scholarly and medical works that he lost in the Great Fire of Rome in 192 CE and his claim in the second half of the text that his production of scholarly and medical texts is an example of mere play (παιδιά). Downie proposes to solve this puzzle by appealing to Galen's understanding of human beings as characterized fundamentally by, in her phrase, 'relentless, dynamic activity'. It follows, she argues, that Galen takes the dynamic intellectual activity involved in creating his enormous corpus of medical and philosophical works to be of far greater significance to him than the completed works themselves.

In his groundbreaking contribution, Ralph Rosen considers the central position that Galen, in cataloging the works he lost in the Great Fire of Rome, ascribes to his lexical works, including a lexicon of medical terms in Old Comedy. Rosen argues that Galen takes such works to be significant both because they help to elucidate the use of medical terms in the Hippocratic corpus and, more significantly, because they show that, in the Classical period, such words were not technical medical terms but were in colloquial use, implying that the Hippocratic corpus was intended to be intelligible to the whole community and not only to physicians. So too, Rosen proposes, Galen presents himself as producing works that will be accessible to, and so beneficial for, the whole community, and not only some subsection of it.

Clare Rothschild discusses Galen's explicit and more allusive commentary on Commodus' reign. As Rothschild notes, On Freedom from Distress is an especially promising text to look for such passages, since it was almost certainly written shortly after Commodus' death and includes at least one explicit critique of his reign.7 While I do not find all of the passages she cites convincing,8 Rothschild raises an interesting question about the political valence of On Freedom from Distress, which certainly merits further study.

The next contribution, by John Fitzgerald, discusses the philosophical and medical background to On Freedom from Distress. Fitzgerald provides a very helpful account of Galen's discussion of distress (λύπη) elsewhere in his works. He also makes a convincing case that Galen appropriates contemporary physiognomic theory in his presentation of himself as entirely free from distress in the wake of the Great Fire of Rome.

L. Michael White also focuses on the philosophical background of On Freedom from Distress, but takes more of a bird's eye perspective. His essay gives a survey of Aristotelian and post-Aristotelian philosophy of the emotions, and also includes a helpful index of the vocabulary of distress and consolation in the work at under study.

The final essay is Richard Wright's terrific discussion of the affinities and differences between On Freedom from Distress and the Gospel of Luke. Wright argues that while the two texts take broadly similar approaches to central themes such as wealth and poverty and the nature of distress, they are aimed at markedly different audiences. In particular, he argues that while The Gospel of Luke is written for an audience that may not have basic goods, Galen writes most immediately for people 'in states of sufficiency', for whom not having enough food or shelter is more of a theoretical possibility than an immediate worry.

The volume also includes, as an appendix, Trevor Thompson's very helpful collation of the three most recent critical editions of Galen's text. Since the two most recent editions are not readily available at many university libraries, his collation will be a valuable resource to scholars working on the text and is a fitting conclusion to the volume.

In sum, Rothschild and Thompson are to be commended for commissioning articles on such a wide variety of topics. Their volume is essential reading for anyone interested in Galen's On Freedom from Distress and merits a place in any Classics library.9


1.   There is considerable disagreement over whether the title of the text is Περὶ Ἀλυπίας or Περὶ Ἀλυπησίας. For a convincing defense of the former reading, see P. Kotzia, 'Galen, περὶ ἀλυπίας: title, genre and two cruces', in D. Manetti (ed.), Studi sul De indolentia di Galeno (Pisa, 2012), 69-91 at 71-76.
2.   The four editions are V. Boudon-Millot, 'Un traité perdu de Galien miraculeusement retrouvé, Le Sur l'inutilité de se chagriner: texte grec et traduction française', in V. Boudon-Millot, A. Guardasole, and C. Magdelaine (eds.), La science médicale antique. Nouveaux regards (Paris, 2007), 72-123; V. Boudon-Millot and J. Jouanna (eds.), Galien: ne pas se chagriner (Paris, 2010); P. Kotzia and P. Sotiroudis (eds.), Γαληνοῦ Περὶ ἀλυπίας, Hellenika 60 (2010), 63-148; and I. Garofalo and A. Lami (eds.), Galeno: L'anima e il dolore (Milan, 2012). The only prior collection of essays, to my knowledge, is D. Manetti (ed.), Studi sul De indolentia di Galeno (Pisa, 2012). For a survey of articles, see the introduction to Rothschild and Thompson's edition, and more recently Thompson's online Oxford Bibliographies entry on Galen. The best English translation of the work is the version by V. Nutton in P.N. Singer (ed.), Galen: Psychological Writings (Cambridge, 2013), 77-99.
3.   I use the abbreviation BMJ to refer to V. Boudon-Millot and J. Jouanna (eds.), Galien: ne pas se chagriner (Paris, 2010).
4.   As Nicholls comments, this reading was first proposed by C.P. Jones, 'Books and libraries in a newly-discovered treatise of Galen', Journal of Roman Archeology 22 (2009), 390-397.
5.   See, e.g., M. Frede, 'On Galen's epistemology', in id. (ed.), Essays in Ancient Philosophy, (Oxford, 1987), 279-298; R.J. Hankinson, 'Galen's philosophical eclecticism', in ANRW 2.36.5 (1992), 3505-3522; and D.H. Kaufman, 'Galen on the therapy of distress and the limits of emotional therapy', OSAP 47, 275-296 at 286-289.
6.   Among other difficulties, Asmis might say more about why, as she argues, a philosophy's being 'past-oriented' is a necessary condition of its being a 'personal philosophy'. For it seems rather counterintuitive to think that Galen's philosophical views would no longer count as a personal philosophy had he arrived at them independently of the previous philosophical tradition.
7.   At 54-55 BMJ, Galen writes: 'And I suppose that you yourself are also convinced that in all of time […] fewer evils have happened to men than those which Commodus accomplished in a few years'.
8.   For example, I do not see any reason to think that when Galen mentions the Bull of Phalaris, a common consolatory trope (71 BMJ), he means to allude to Commodus' cruelty. For other consolatory uses of the Bull of Phalaris, see, e.g., Cic. Tusc. 2.17 and Sen. Ep. 66.18; cf. Plot. 1.4.13.
9.   I want to thank Brooke Holmes for her comments on an earlier version of this review.

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