BMCR 2020.04.11

Galen’s treatise ‘De indolentia’ in context. A tale of resilience

, Galen's treatise 'De indolentia' in context. A tale of resilience. Studies in ancient medicine, 52. Leiden: Brill, 2018. vi, 296 p.. ISBN 9789004383289. €72,00.

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

The volume under review is a noteworthy open access book. Since Galen’s treatise  De indolentia—henceforth  Ind.—was discovered in 2005, two different collections of essays have been published.[1]  The present volume contains 11 papers from a one-day conference in July of 2014 by  a broad spectrum of scholars from classicists to philosophers. In the Introduction, Petit explains that the main reason she chose this work as the guiding theme of the conference was the new translation done by Vivian Nutton,[2]  attendee at the conference and to whom the volume is dedicated. His new English version of Galen’s  Ind. offers fresh interpretations differing at some significant points from those of Kotzia-Soutiroudis  and  Boudon-Millot-Jouanna-Pietrobelli[3] and contains clarifying notes, references, and appendices in order to provide substantial data for the understanding of the text. Three critical editions and four translations in less than 15 years show the interest that this work has aroused, especially if we compare it with Galen’s other treatises, like  De compositione medicamentorum, which have remained for centuries without being translated into any modern language, perhaps because no critical edition exists.

The contributions are structured in three parts that place Ind. in the context of Galen’s  œuvre, the philosophical tradition, and the history of the Roman Empire, respectively. In the Introduction, Petit offers a brief summary of the history and interest of the text and makes a brief review of each paper emphasizing the underlying interdisciplinary approaches. The epilogue is dedicated to the possible reception of Galen’s Ind. in the later Arabic texts on the topic of dispelling sorrow.

Peter N. Singer summarizes the main findings and problems of the Galenic texts contained in MS Vlatadon 14: the previously lost Ind. and the full Greek text of My Own Doctrines, a Greek version of My Own Books and The Order of My Own Books the three of which were already extant, but with significant lacunae. Singer discusses the new information shed by MS Vlatadon 14 under five headings: archaeology; scholarship and bibliographical practice; literary and scholarly activity, with special attention to book-composition; moral philosophy; and Galen’s summation of, and attitude towards, his own central philosophical doctrines. Singer brings clarifying examples to some of the most debated textual cruces in Ind., starting with the title itself.

Caroline Petit points out that  Ind. provides new information related to philosophical issues as well as to Galen’s own life. This new material has stirred controversy among scholars trying to harmonize it with the rest of his works. Petit proposes a rhetorical approach to appreciate the contribution of  Ind. in terms of Galen’s self-characterization. With that aim, she analyzes the role of old age in Galen’s texts, conscious that his person and  ēthos  are intertwined, thereby complicating the separation of real facts from literary constructs. She concludes that Galen transforms the traditional  ēthos  to chisel his own aging self-portrait as an honest scholar and gentleman.

The contribution by Amy Coker is a courageous attempt to approach Galen’s lost treatise on the vocabulary of Old Comedy, taking its mention in Ind. 23b–28 as a starting point. Coker points out that Galen cites texts only from certain comedies and thinks that this fact gives a glimpse of his preferred authors. Her examination of the final part of Ind. 27–28, leads her to suggest that Galen’s interest in the meaning of the words was similar to that of other lexicographers of his time, like the sophist Phrynichus. This analysis places the Pergamene in the literary milieu of the 2nd century AD. Despite the relative lack of evidence that opens a huge number of questions, Coker makes impressive statements about Galen’s interest in the language of the comic theatre, his main sources, preferred comic playwrights, his use of compendia and lexica, the most likely format of his lost works, and his comments on the comical texts, which are not so far from those of the sophists whom he himself criticizes elsewhere.

Peter N. Singer links the new material from Ind. with the information available in other extant works, especially in Lib. Prop. and Ord. Lib. Prop., to open new perspectives on Galen’s publishing intentions. In particular, Singer presents crucial passages that illuminate the topic, focusing on the meaning of the phrase pros ekdosin in its context. Parallel to other detailed studies on Galen’s publishing process such as that of López Férez,[4] Singer carries out a meticulous and suggestive analysis of Galen’s own role in ekdosis that offers new and challenging interpretations of the preserved texts. Evidence hints at the possibility that, even when the Pergamene affirms that he is writing for his friends, he was thinking of a wider dissemination of his works, independent of the previous private circulation among friends, who were always helpful in suggesting improvements or corrections.

Next Christopher Gill analyzes to what extent Ind. is a coherent work when taken as an exercise in the philosophical therapy of the emotions. In addition to Ind., the author focuses on the first book of Aff. Pecc. Dig., in which, influenced by his father’s advice, Galen combines medicine and philosophy. Gill thinks at least some parts of the first book of Aff. Pecc. Dig. were written later than Ind.: Stoic-Epicurean and Platonic-Aristotelian approaches are both present, even though the therapeutic method consistently recommended (rational self-monitoring and conscious self-correction) better matches the former. He concludes that one may find in Galen a coherent conceptual and philosophical framework not strictly attached to any particular philosophical sect.

Robert J. Hankinson explores the possible influence of Pyrrhonian skeptics and atomism, two groups against which Galen was frequently opposed. Recognizably linked to the consolation literature genre, Ind. is closely related to the concept of ataraxia, common to Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic schools, as well as that of apatheia –and even metriopatheia contrary to Tieleman’s contribution–, rooted in the skeptical doctrine. Hankinson finally suggests that in regard to distress and the appropriate response to loss, the programs of the Pyrrhonists are close to Galen’s.

Next, Peter N. Singer focuses on a central concept developed in Ind.: lupē. This term, “a quasi-medical category” alluded to in the title Περὶ ἀ-λυπίας, refers to a negative emotion that must be controlled in the ethical sphere to ensure well-being at a medical level. Singer thoroughly analyzes the presence of this topic –elimination of negative emotions—both in Ind. and the treatise Aff. Pecc. Dig., concluding that if Ind. does not depart from Aff. Pecc. Dig., at least it gives greater clarity about this concept in Galen’s thought.

Teun  Tieleman  highlights the central position of certain philosophical concepts in Ind., despite Galen’s aim to avoid any particular sect. For the Pergamene the role of nature and education are crucial, and education for him necessarily implies  philosophy. Tieleman  says reflections of Stoicism are found everywhere, especially the prominence of magnanimity, the ideal of wisdom, and apatheia, and suggests that Galen, with his own example, invites avoiding affections rather than moderating emotions, so  apatheia  prevails over metriopatheia.

Rebecca  Flemming explores  Galen’s mention of the ‘Antonine Plague’ and discusses the disease itself. Even though she characterizes  Galen’s testimony  as “slight and somewhat slippery”, she argues that the two references found in Ind. outline the “qualitative impact of the pestilence” –how the plague affected the individual. Along with excellent observations in other imperial writers’ accounts of the plague, Flemming deepens its broader implications through Galen’s thought.

Matthew Nicholls  explores  Galen’s account of Commodus’ reign and the huge fire in Rome, along with that of other historians like  Dio, Herodian and even the  Historia Augusta.  Nicholls  observes several points of connection between Dio and Galen’s descriptions –both were contemporaries in or near Rome at that time—especially regarding the treatment of the fire. He argues  that earlier accounts of the famous fire during Nero’s reign  may have  influenced Dio’s report and that the same Commodus-Nero parallel could underlie Galen’s  writing  and that of later authors as well. In brief, as  Nicholls says, there is “much to suspect in the literary record,” even if written –as was Galen’s—very shortly after the events it describes.

Antoine  Pietrobell i studies the Arabic tradition of  Ind. and explores the influence between authors who are separated by more than seven centuries. He begins by asking whether there are hints of Περὶ ἀλυπίας in al-Kindi and Râzî’s  writings. To answer, he  studies the literary form and content of the texts, highlighting the similarities and differences. Finally, he concludes that the resemblance between Galen’s  Ind. and  Râzî’s  work cannot be attributed to mere coincidence. In contrast, Pietrobelli finds a rejection of  the Galenic medical approach in Al-Kindî’s  On Dispelling Sorrows.

The Index  Locorum is especially useful for finding references to the works of authors mentioned in the different studies, and specifies the editions from which the texts are taken. The General Index contains a mixture of authors and concepts  that could have been separated for easier consultation.

A small change in the order of the essays would have contributed to a deeper understanding: e.g., Singer’s second essay “New Light and Old Texts: Galen on His Own Books” would have better been placed before Coker’s, which it elucidates.

In sum, this volume, with its excellent typography, highlights the extent  to which Ind. changes our perception of Galen and his works: it both bridges gaps in previous research and raises new questions that make it abundantly clear there is much more work to be done.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Long Lost Text: Galen’s Περὶ Ἀλυπίας, Caroline Petit [pp. 1-9]
1. Note on MS Vlatadon 14: A Summary of the Main Findings and Problems, P. N. Singer [pp. 10-37]

Part 1. Περὶ Ἀλυπίας and Galen’s OEuvre
2. Death, Posterity and the Vulnerable Self: Galen’s Περὶ Ἀλυπίας in the Context of His Late Writings, Caroline Petit [pp. 41-62]
3. Galen and the Language of Old Comedy: Glimpses of a Lost Treatise at Ind. 23b–28, Amy Coker [pp. 63-90]
4. New Light and Old Texts: Galen on His Own Books, P. N. Singer [pp. 91-131]

Part 2. Galen’s Distress: Περὶ Ἀλυπίας and the Philosophical Tradition
5. Galen’s Περὶ Ἀλυπίας as Philosophical Therapy: How Coherent is It?, Christopher Gill [pp. 135-154]
6. Galen and the Sceptics (and the Epicureans) on the Unavoidability of Distress, R. J. Hankinson [pp. 155-179]
7. A New Distress: Galen’s Ethics in Περὶ Ἀλυπίας and Beyond, P. N. Singer [pp. 180-198]
8. Wisdom and Emotion: Galen’s Philosophical Position in Avoiding Distress, Teun Tieleman [pp. 199-215]

Part 3. Galen’s Περὶ Ἀλυπίας and the History of the Roman Empire
9. Galen and the Plague, Rebecca Flemming [pp. 219-244]
10. Galen and the Last Days of Commodus, Matthew Nicholls [pp. 245-262]

Epilogue. The Lost Readership of Galen’s Περὶ Ἀλυπίας
11. Arabic Περὶ Ἀλυπίας: Did al-Kindî and Râzî Read Galen?, Antoine Pietrobelli [pp. 265-284]

Index Locorum [pp. 285-293]
General Index [pp. 294-296]


[1] Manetti, D. (ed.) (2012). Studi sul De indolentia di Galeno. Pisa-Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, and Rothschild, C. K. & Thompson, T. W. (eds.) (2014). Galen’s ‘De indolentia‘: Essays on a Newly Discovered Letter. Studien und Texte zuAntike und Christentum 88. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

[2] Included in P. N. Singer (2013). Galen. Psychological Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Kotzia, P. & Sotiroudis, P. (2010). “Γαλενού Περὶ ἀλυπίας”, Hellenika 60, 63-148 and Boudon-Millot, V. & Jouanna, J. (with A. Pietrobelli) (2010). Galien, Oeuvres, tome IV: Ne pas se chagriner. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

[4] López Férez, J. A. (2018). Galeno: preparación y constitución de textos críticos, entrega y publicación de obras propias o ajenas. Madrid: Ediciones Clásicas.