BMCR 2020.04.07

Galien de Pergame ou la rhétorique de la Providence: médecine, littérature et pouvoir à Rome

Caroline Petit, Galien de Pergame ou la rhétorique de la Providence: médecine, littérature et pouvoir à Rome. Mnemosyne. Supplements, 420. Leiden: Brill, 2018. xvii, 292 p.. ISBN 9789004373457 €119,00.

Ever since Wilamowitz described Galen as an “unbearable gossip boaster”, the extensive work of the greatest physician from Roman antiquity has been suspected of burying medical science under a torrent of rhetoric. Galen was accused of unbridled eloquence and self-glorification, as the detail of his self-aggrandizing statements, his lengthy non-medical digressions from the medical question at issue, and the self- consciousness of his own performance seemed too far removed from the ideal image of the scientist whose personality should disappear behind his task. By now, however, historians of medicine and culture have recognized Galen as a valuable source and placed both author and work in the context of the second sophistic. His rhetorical art, however, has not received the attention it deserves until this recent study by Caroline Petit.

After a concise introduction to Galen’s work and the difficulties that arise in reading his texts, not least because of the lack of critical editions, the author first shows that Galen not only represents the highest level of Greek literary education of his time, but also expects this level of education from his readers. Only Greek paideia can supply the education that is necessary for a discourse with Homer, Plato and Hippocrates that spans the ages; it enables Galen to get to the essence of things and to recognize in them the creative power of nature, the divine demiurge. Education for Galen includes the ability to disseminate one’s own knowledge by means of rhetoric and to prove it to be correct. Patients and the readership could not otherwise be convinced. This leads to a “rhetoric of evidence” in the sense of the ability to derive diagnostic findings from signs of different kinds. The ability to convince by rhetorical means, such as enargeia— linguistic and pictorial clarity—then also plays an important role.

After she has analysed such rhetorical devices in detail in two large chapters, Petit devotes herself to the work that seemed particularly close to Galen’s heart and to which he owes a large part of his lasting influence. His treatise on the “usefulness of the parts of the human body” (De usu partium) is also a magnificent hymn to physis and its ability to develop the right solution for every necessary function. And here Galen displays the full extent of his rhetorical as well as philosophical and medical education.

At the end of Petit’s study, Galen’s personality is once again the center of attention, as he incorporated numerous autobiographical passages into his works in order to provide his teachings with the necessary persuasiveness, developing the image of himself as a doctor committed to the truth. In Petit’s view, it is not of vital importance whether Galen reports sincerely about his biography or not; more important is the orientation of such passages toward the goal of ensuring lasting recognition for his own teachings—a goal that Galen undoubtedly achieved. Petit convincingly argues that Galen founded the genre of scientific autobiography in this way. Only his handling of political power disturbs the uniform image he tries to give of himself. Although the encounter with Marcus Aurelius fits well into the self-portrait of the philosophical doctor, Galen at the same time distances himself from the powerful, as is also evident in the recently discovered treatise De indolentia —in striking contradiction to his efforts elsewhere to secure recognition and success. Here, as the author points out, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of the historical Galen.

With its impressive mastery both of the Corpus Galenicum and of ancient rhetoric, Petit’s book represents a great contribution in the field of Galen studies. The author, who by the way also displays rhetorical brilliance of her own, has succeeded excellently both in placing Galen’s work in the context of its time, and in describing it as the achievement of a highly educated physician and literary man who has pursued a coherent concept of self- expression. Her goal of not only placing Galen in the history of (ancient) rhetoric, but also describing him as one of the highlights of ancient literature, is realized with complete success.