Wednesday, January 22, 2020


P. N. Singer, Ph. J. van der Eijk, Piero Tassinari (ed.), Galen. Works on Human Nature. Volume 1, 'Mixtures (De temperamentis)'. Cambridge Galen translations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xvii, 269. ISBN 9781107023147. $125.00.

Reviewed by Jessica Wright, The University of Texas at San Antonio (

Version at BMCR home site


In this volume, Singer and van der Eijk present a clear and systematic translation of Galen's three-book treatise Mixtures (De temperamentis), together with a thorough introduction, as well as footnotes that comment upon syntax, vocabulary choices, philosophical questions, and Galen's influences. The translation is based on the work of Singer, updating the version published in his Oxford World's Classics volume Galen: Selected Works (1997), while the introduction is largely the work of van der Eijk, and draws substantively on earlier publications, as indicated in the footnotes (xiii).

In addition to the introduction and translation, the authors include a comprehensive list of titles and abbreviations of Galen's works, including references to critical editions and translations (186–199). This resource is intended, the authors explain, to provide a glimpse of "what a complete 'Galen in English'" would look like (186). Further, the authors provide an extensive English/Greek glossary (222–231). This resource maximizes the clarity and consistency of the translation, and will serve as a useful tool for researchers looking to move quickly through the translation, with an eye to the Greek. The inclusion of both Greek script and transliterated Greek ensures both precision and accessibility.

The volume is the first in a two-volume translation of Galen's works on human nature (the second volume will include his Commentary on Hippocrates' Nature of the Human Being, Commentary on the Medical Statements in Plato's Timaeus, and Compendium of Plato's Timaeus). Both volumes are part of a larger series, Cambridge Galen Translations, which provides scholarly translations of Galen "in unified format with substantial introduction and annotation, glossaries and indices" (iii). The volume provides a detailed, scholarly, and accessible entry into Galen's text and a reliable and systematic resource for researchers in ancient medicine. It will be useful alike to those engaging with the text in the original language and those working only in translation.

As argued in the introduction, Mixtures is an important text, both because of the role it played in Galen's recommended curriculum of his own works, and because of how it synthesizes Galen's philosophical and medical interests. Aristotle is a dominant presence throughout the work, but Galen is writing with diagnostic and therapeutic ends in mind. Book 1 focuses on explicating the different kinds of mixture. Book 2 lays out how these different mixtures manifest in the human body. Book 3 examines how the four qualities that constitute mixture (hot, cold, wet, and dry) operate within food and drugs.

The value of the text as a resource for the cultural history of medicine in antiquity may lie also in its function. Singer and van der Eijk argue in both the introduction and the notes that Mixtures originated in lecture format, and that the text contains traces of oral presentation. If the authors are correct, then the text offers a window into the practice of medical pedagogy in antiquity.

The introduction is a meticulous and comprehensive account that draws out the medical, philosophical, and social contexts and significance of Galen's text. Following contextualization of the text and a brief discussion of its argument, the introduction explicates core aspects of the treatise. First it treats the relation between Galen's two, co-existing theories of bodily formation ("features…that are the product of the shaping capacity [sc. the divine craftsmanship of nature] and features that are the result of the mixtures," 13). It then unpacks the various means by which the physician can learn to distinguish bodily mixtures—by touch, based on signs and symptoms, on the basis of bodily activities, and through venesection and dissection. Following this, it lays out Galen's instructions in managing bodily mixture, through both food and drugs. Once these fundamental intellectual and therapeutic components of the work have been examined, the introduction considers Mixtures in its intellectual context, first situating it within its intellectual tradition, especially with regards to the influence of Aristotle, then arguing for its function as the basis for a lecture for medical students, and finally discussing its role in subsequent medical traditions, from late antiquity onward.

This introduction serves as a concise and useful introduction to Galen in general, as well as to Mixtures in particular. There is a slight lack of clarity in the explication of the nine mixtures (8–9), but the reader who follows the footnotes to the relevant portion of the text (Temp. I.8, especially at 86) will find that problem resolved.

The translation is clear and precise throughout. Compared to Singer's 1997 version, the most significant difference is that individual sentences are reworked with closer attention to the Greek. Whereas Singer 1997 breaks Galen's lengthy and often convoluted Greek sentences down into manageable statements, this new translation adheres to the structure of the Greek. As such, it is sometimes more technical and complex, and Singer 1997 may still be best for an undergraduate audience, although the newer version is certainly preferable for a scholarly audience. This being said, the new version does include chapter titles, provided by the translators, which help to organize the text and to make its structure apparent.

There are also some differences of interpretation. More so than Singer 1997, this translation highlights the polemical nature of Galen's writing and situates Mixtures within a culture of competitive debate about medical topics. Compare, for example, Galen's remarks at I.2: "Say a person becomes musical" (Singer 1997, 204) vs. "For example, [these people argue], we say that a person becomes, or is becoming, skilled in music" (Singer and van der Eijk 2018, 54). Or, again, I.3: "In response to such arguments, certain of the followers of Athenaeus of Attalia have formulated the view that…" (Singer 1997, 208) vs. "In defense against such arguments, certain of the followers of Athenaeus of Attalia counter by saying that…" (Singer and van der Eijk 2018, 59). In a footnote to this latter example, Singer and van der Eijk explain their emphasis here on the polemical character of medical debates by noting that "[t]here is a distinctly militaristic metaphor in the language here…" (59, fn44). This movement toward highlighting Galen's polemical language reflects shifts in scholarship over the past few decades, as historians of ancient medicine have examined the competitive aspects of medical texts, performances, and debates during the Second Sophistic.

Singer and van der Eijk offer one revision to the earlier translation that is so substantive it merits a short appendix (97–100) explaining the different possible renderings and their justification. The passage in question is Galen's citation of the "Canon of Polyclitus" (the statue known as the doruphoros) as an example of a well-balanced human form. At the core of the revision is the question of whether the Canon is analogous to the perfect human being (as in the new version), or is a standard that the perfect being surpasses (as in the earlier version). Here are the renderings:

"There is a certain statue which enjoys great fame, known as the Canon of Polyclitus; the name derives from the fact that all its parts are in perfect proportion with each other. Now the subject of our present enquiry is something beyond this Canon. For the man who is 'well fleshed' to this degree must not just be at the median of moisture and dryness, but must also have the best possible construction—something which is perhaps a consequence of that good balance of the four elements, but perhaps has some higher cause of a more divine nature" (Singer 1997, 229).

"And indeed, there is a certain statue that is much admired and which is named the Standard of Polyclitus; it has acquired this name from the fact that all its parts are in a precise state of good balance with each other. The [standard] that we are now seeking is, broadly speaking, this Standard. For the man who is well-fleshed in this way is not just in the middle state with regard to wetness and dryness, but has also got an excellent shaping, something which is possibly dependent on the good-mixture of the four elements, but may perhaps have some other, more divine, source, from above" (Singer and van der Eijk 2018, 93–94).

In Singer 1997, the translation indicates that "the man who is 'well fleshed' is "something beyond" the Canon of Polyclitus, since he must not only be well balanced (i.e., have a good mixture of wetness and dryness), but also "have the best possible construction." According to this reading, the Canon of Polyclitus represents balance alone, and is a standard that the ideal human being must surpass. Singer and van der Eijk 2018, meanwhile, presents the Canon of Polyclitus as the exemplar of a body that is both well balanced and well constructed: "The [standard] that we are now speaking is, broadly speaking, this Standard." In this latter reading, the Canon of Polyclitus represents both balance and the act of intentional shaping or design, and is a model for the ideal human being.

At stake in this is Galen's attempt to reconcile the underlying biological determinism (mixture of elements produces bodily and psychic forms) and the quasi-divine teleological determinism that allows him to interpret corporeal structures as indices of their own function (Nature or the Demiurge created the body and its parts perfectly to suit the purpose and function of each), a tension that is noted in the footnote to the 1997 version also.

Singer and van der Eijk support their translation in the appendix, through reference to the important analogy between doctor and sculptor as experts who shape or mold human(-like) bodies. In keeping with the meticulous quality of the book as a whole, they also provide two other possible interpretations of the text, with reasons for and against each.

Overall, this volume is a welcome addition to the growing body of material available for the study of Galen and of ancient medicine in general. The subsequent volume is to be eagerly awaited.

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