Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Peter Adamson, Rotraud Hansberger, James Wilberding (ed.), Philosophical Themes in Galen. BICS supplement, 114. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2014. Pp. v, 327. ISBN 9781905670505. £30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Luis Alejandro Salas, Washington University in St. Louis (

Version at BMCR home site

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

Galenic studies have seen a tremendous surge in scholarly activity in the last thirty years or so. Scholarship has benefited from greater access to and consideration of the Arabic tradition, along with recent discoveries, such as the Vlatadon manuscript, which resulted in the recovery in Greek of an entirely lost treatise, On the Avoidance of Distress (περὶ ἀλυπίας), and preserves the Greek for a handful of texts hitherto preserved only in Arabic and Latin.1 Even so, the number of Galenic texts that have yet to receive much scholarly attention or even translation into a modern language is considerable. Here too there is a flurry of activity, with the Cambridge Galen Translation project undertaking to translate much of this untranslated material.2

This supplement of the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies collects eleven papers on philosophical issues in the work of Galen of Pergamum, some given at the ICS over the course of two years, others commissioned for the volume. Most of the papers are thematically linked; many also point to exciting new directions in Galenic scholarship. A number of contributions (Peter Adamson, Todd Curtis, David Leith, Caroline Petit, Peter Singer, and James Wilberding) underscore the need for literary sensitivity in assessing Galen's work, even in technical contexts. Galen's elemental theory or issues intimately linked to it are a common focus (Philip van der Eijk, Inna Kupreeva, and David Leith). Galen's use of powers (δυνάμεις) receives attention, in interestingly divergent ways (Adamson and Wilberding).

The volume is excellent. However, it will prove most useful to scholars already familiar with ancient medicine and philosophy.

Singer's essay begins with a brief sketch of trends in Galenic scholarship over the past thirty years, noting that Galen's engagement with philosophical themes runs so deep as to distract readers from ways in which he rejects philosophy as an ancient discipline. This paper nicely points to the importance of a common Galenic agonistic strategy, whereby Galen engages with contemporary philosophers over whom he claims to triumph through superior interpretations of a valorized intellectual past. It closes with examples of Galen's idiosyncratic (or tendentious) readings of Aristotelian hylomorphism and element theory, along with a brief discussion of Plato. Singer suggests possible and promising directions for future scholarship on Galen's philosophical contemporaries through careful analysis of Galen's reading of their intellectual forebears.

Curtis' paper considers Galen's communication of medical ideas in three different genres typical of philosophical discourse communities in the second century CE: protreptic, moral instruction, and dialectical inquiry (41). The essay argues that Galen uses these genres to align medicine with philosophy as an elite pursuit. It proceeds through sections on each genre, examining Galen's Exhortation to the Arts (Protr.), On the Avoidance of Distress (Ind.), and his Thrasybulus (Thras.). He argues that Protr. functions to undercut the notion that physicians in the Roman west invariably lacked erudition, that they could not be πεπαιδευμένοι. Sections on Ind. and Thras. share similar aims; Curtis' reading of Galen's rhetorical strategies in Thras. is characteristic of this collection's successes across disciplinary fronts.

Riccardo Chiaradonna's contribution investigates a question in Galen's epistemology: what is the distinction between axiomatic and persuasive propositions? While Galen frequently disavows problems that are not susceptible to empirical examination, he also regards reason as having access to evident (ἐναργῆ) truths, such as Euclidian axioms. Chiaradonna draws heavily from Galen's consideration of the eternity of the world in the extant fragments of his treatise On Demonstration (DD). As in Adamson's piece on void, Chiaradonna examines this question to illuminate Galen's epistemology and the limits he places on it. Chiaradonna fleshes out Galen's picture of what it means to be πιθανόν by analyzing his criticism of Aristotelian claims on sempiternity. The paper ends with a section on Galen's views on probability in medical knowledge claims, making the interesting case that Galen considers contingency merely to be epistemic.

Van der Eijk's paper is a rich overview of the tension between twin Galenic commitments to teleological and material accounts, specifically regarding the composition of the human body. The essay focuses on how Galen works out these seemingly inconsistent tendencies in his treatises, Mixtures (Temp.) and The Formation of the Fetus (Foet. Form.). It ranges broadly, setting the stage for Kupreeva and Leith's more narrowly focused papers. As background to the "bottom up" material account of the body, van der Eijk lays out Galen's views on mixtures (κράσεις) or dispositions (ἕξεις) of the body and its parts, as composed of different proportions of elemental qualities. From an elemental point of view, human beings are predisposed to health or illness on the basis of these dispositions, some inborn and some acquired over time. Dispositions play a strong explanatory role in Temp.. Galen (and Aristotle) often explain imperfection in the natural world as a consequence of matter, which acts as a constraint on structuring forces. The paper closes with the reception of this tension in Nemesius of Emesa, Philoponus, and the Arabic Dahriyya movement.

Glenda McDonald's relatively short essay proposes a description of Galen's physiological account of mental disorders, broadly construed. It focuses on Galen's conception of phrenitis, a disorder characterized by delirium and accompanying fever. Galen's account of mental disorders and their place in his philosophy of mind are exciting areas of Galenic scholarship in need of attention. McDonald does not engage with more recent scholarship (e.g. Harris' 2013 Mental Disorders in the Classical World), although this absence is likely a consequence of the publication process (see final paragraph of this review) rather than authorial omission.

Kupreeva's contribution considers Galen's arguments for Aristotelian elemental theory in On the Elements according to Hippocrates (Hipp. Elem.). As in Leith's piece, Kupreeva examines how Galen aligns the humoral account of the Hippocratic Nature of Man (Nat. Hom.) with an Aristotelian elemental theory. She also examines Galen's polemical engagement with Pneumatic elemental theory, especially the ontological status of proximate elements. Kupreeva draws attention to the importance of this polemic for establishing Galen's appropriation of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics.

Adamson's paper reconstructs Galen's views on void, focusing on the lost Galenic treatise On Demonstration. Galen remains agnostic throughout his corpus about questions he considers to be beyond empirical examination (e.g. the existence of void, the immortality of the soul, the eternity of the world, etc.). However, Adamson argues that there is space for Galen to discuss void in more methodological contexts, especially in service of his polemics against Erasistratus. Among other objections, Galen faults Erasistratus' use of void to explain physiological function on the grounds that physiological processes, such as nutrition, involve apparently discriminatory behaviors. This section of Adamson's paper intersects nicely with Wilberding's paper on the powers of plants. Adamson concludes with an examination of how allusions to Galen in Aristotelian commentary and al-Rāzī's Doubts shed light on Galen's views on the existence of void.

Leith's paper analyzes Galen's interpretation of the anti-monistic argument from pain in Nat. Hom. on philosophical and philological grounds. Leith fleshes out the Hippocratic argument against Melissus' monism in Nat. Hom. 2.3, which he calls the "argument from pain" (216). He contrasts this argument from pain, which targets monists, with Galen's interpretation of the same text, which has the Hippocratic author targeting atomists. According to Leith, Galen fashions his own refutation of atomism later in Hipp. Elem. as an extension of this Hippocratic attack. Galen's attack on atomism rests on the view that elements and atoms are incapable of alteration (ἀπαθῆ) and so of sensation. Galen produces a thought-experiment in which a needle pierces flesh. On the atomists' view, the needle will touch some number of atoms. Since the atoms are unalterable individually, the atomist is at a loss to explain how the sensation of pain can supervene on any aggregate of unalterable atoms. Galen adduces ἀλλοίωσις as a workaround for this argument from sensation. Leith assigns the origin of this argument to the early Lyceum on philological grounds. He concludes that Galen is engaged in a larger project aligning humoralism in Nat. Hom. with Aristotelian element theory.

Katerina Ierodiakonou's contribution is an interesting examination of Galen's engagement with Greco-Roman theories of vision relevant to his own (e.g., Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, and Stoic). This overview is, as Ierodiakonou mentions, necessarily brief. She reasonably avoids taking a position on the still vexed question in Aristotelian scholarship on the precise nature of ἀλλοίωσις in the eye jelly of the seeing eye. The remainder of the paper is devoted to Galen's criticisms of these views, with an emphasis on Galen's engagement with Stoic accounts of the role of pneuma in vision. Ierodiakonou's paper offers directions for further work on ancient geometers' approaches to vision.

Wilberding's wonderfully titled essay, "The Secret of Sentient Vegetative Life in Galen", examines Galen's position on the question of vegetative sensation: to what degree if any do plants possess sensation? Wilberding situates this discussion in the context of Galen's philological and rhetorical activity. He briefly lays out evidence for a Presocratic tradition attributing sensation and perhaps even some degree of cognition to plant life. This tradition, he argues, includes Plato and ends with Aristotle's distinction between nutritive and appetitive souls. The title's secret refers to Galen's cautious rehabilitation of vegetative sensation in terms of his theory of powers (δυνάμεις). On this view, plants (and even inanimate objected such as magnets) have an affinity (ἑλκτική / ἐπισπαστική) to certain types in the world, which are suited to them (οἰκεῖον). To be animate is to possess the faculty of alteration (ἀλλοιωτική) that retains and fully assimilates these objects of affinity. It is in this sense, of affinity, that plants can be said to perceive and discern.

Petit's essay in this volume builds upon her 2009 Budé edition on the pseudo-Galenic Introductio seu medicus, which among other things is our main surviving source for so-called Pneumatists. It reconsiders the conclusions of late 19th-century and early 20th-century scholarship regarding the origins of and boundaries between medical sects from the Hellenistic to Late Roman Imperial periods. She reasonably questions the tidiness of modern distinctions between medical sects, especially Dogmatists and Empiricists. Petit also reaffirms the importance of pseudo-Galenica to an understanding of Galenism and medical sectarianism over time. Her reevaluation of Pneumatism is a reminder of how interesting a text the Introductio is.

The volume is mostly free from typographical errors. There are some minor but noticeable issues of presentation. Inna Kupreeva's paper appears to have suffered at the hands of typesetters; it contains various formatting issues. Reference to Galen's work is mostly but not universally consistent. This is no mean feat, as one can quickly glean from the preface of the Cambridge Companion to Galen (2008), which has proposed a much needed standard for citation (xix-xxi). Some contributions exhibit bibliographical peculiarities, most notably in cases where reference to scholarship after 2012 is missing. For example, some papers refer to Singer (1997) Galen's Selected Works and Nutton (2004) Ancient Medicine. Others refer to the recent Singer (2013) Galen: Psychological Writings and Nutton (2012) Ancient Medicine, which supersede their earlier counterparts in relevant ways. These peculiarities no doubt reflect the vagaries of the publication process. These minor issues do not detract from the overall scholarly quality of the volume, which is high indeed.

Authors and Titles

P. N. Singer: "Galen and the philosophers: philosophical engagement, shadowy contemporaries, Aristotelian transformations"
Todd Curtis: "Genre and Galen's philosophical discourses"
Riccardo Chiaradonna: "Galen on what is persuasive (pithanon) and what approximates to truth"
Philip van der Eijk: "Galen on the nature of human beings"
Glenda McDonald: "Galen on mental illness: a physiological approach to phrenitis"
Inna Kupreeva: "Galen's theory of elements"
Peter Adamson: "Galen on void"
David Leith: "Galen's refutation of atomism"
Katerina Ierodiakonou: "On Galen's theory of vision"
James Wilberding: "The secret of sentient vegetative life in Galen"
Caroline Petit: "What does pseudo-Galen tell us that Galen does not? Ancient medical schools in the Roman Empire"


1.   A critical text and commentary on this treatise appears in the Budé series Boudon-Millot, Véronique and J. Jouanna (eds.), Galien tome IV: Ne pas se chagriner, édition critique et traduction (en collaboration avec J. Jouanna et A. Pietrobelli) (Paris 2010). The Vlatadon manuscript also provides the Greek for Galen's On My Own Opinions (De Propriis Placitis), which formerly survived in the medieval Latin translation of an Arabic translation of the Greek. The manuscript also fleshes out the lacunose sections of Galen's auto-bibliographical treatises On My Own Books (De Libris Propriis) and On the Order of My Own Books (De Ordine Librorum Propriorum.
2.   The first volume in this series appeared in 2013: P. Singer (ed.), Galen: Psychological Writings (Cambridge, 2013). Further information on this project here.

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