The Vitality of Importance of Early Modern Galenism

3 Nov 2016
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Gideon Manning
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, California Institute of Technology

The surviving corpus of the Greek physician and philosopher Galen of Pergamon, who lived from 129 to 216 or 217 CE, is the most extensive single-authored collection of Greek literature prior to Saint John Chrysostom. But Galen was not just a medical writer. His skill as an anatomist and diagnostician gained him broad recognition in Rome’s medical marketplace, where he eventually rose to become one of a small group of physicians in the service of Marcus Aurelius. Sometime after Galen’s death (and certainly before the sixth century) a selection of his works was standardized and made a part of medical education throughout the Christian Near East and Egypt. Galen’s medicine remained a part of medical education until the nineteenth century, when the modern edition of his work in Greek with Latin translation was published in 22 volumes by K.G. Kühn, who at the time expected nineteenth-century physicians to read Galen and re-discover therapeutic ideas and techniques. Kühn’s expectation was immediately dashed, however, by the rise of germ theory and related innovations in biomedical science, which eventually transformed Galen and Galenism to topics of interest only to scholars.

My interest here lies in the decline of Galen’s reputation and that of his medicine during the early modern period, which, for the purposes of my lecture, I take to encompass the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This period represents two of the starkest extremes in Galen’s reception: at first he was a source of great interest and authority but, eventually, he was relegated to the position of a dogmatic Ancient whose name, like that of Aristotle, came to be associated with impiety and error. Yet whereas Aristotle’s decline has been the subject of careful and sophisticated historical study, especially over the last forty years by Charles Schmitt, Roger Ariew, and others, including, most recently Craig Martin—they have shown that the road to impiety and error was neither direct nor without exceptions—accounts of Galen’s decline have remained one-dimensional and incomplete; as a result, it is all but impossible to understand why Kühn would bother to reissue Galen’s works in the nineteenth century. My contribution will attempt to open discussion about the variety and subtlety of Galen’s reception in the early modern period by looking beyond early modern rhetoric and the excesses wrought by polemical and professional conflict. The picture that emerges is not without its contradictions, but I will show that Galen’s path to impiety and error, like Aristotle’s, was neither as linear nor as definitive as has been assumed.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Classics Department • English Department • Philosophy Department
English Department

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