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Organs Personified: Their Form and Function in the Empathetic Medical System of Aretaeus of Cappadocia

Amber Porter

A spleen that “delights in” (χαίρω) things, a heart that “comprehends” (συνάπτω) the presence of other organs, and a disease that “lurks” (ἐμφωλεύω) in the body – these are all functions  not possible for bodily organs and ones that more properly  describe the actions and emotions of human beings. Actively imagining the emotional and motivational states of these organs and diseases is a quality of Aretaeus’ writing that is not to be seen in other Greco-Roman medical literature. Aretaeus, in his work, often personifies human organs, such as the stomach and the lungs (Aret.SA.2.6.1), but also diseases (Aret.SA.2.2.4) and their function in the body. The objects and processes are given agency, purpose and characterization, all of which contribute to their personification in Aretaeus’ medicine. Particular themes or concepts in Aretaeus’ personification are observable: deception and secrecy (indicated by terms such as ἀπάτη); tolerance and intolerance (so, ἀνέχω); attraction (so, ἕλκω); cooperation and neighbours (so, συντιμωρέω); troubled organs (so, ἐκταράσσω); happy or authoritative organs (so, χαίρω); perception and cognition (so, αἰσθάνομαι); arousal or provocation (so, πρόκλησις); and finally, hysteria and the uterus (μήτρη) as an animal (so, ζῳώδης.) The connection between language devices, such as personification and metaphor, and empathy – “a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect” (Keen 2007) - has been noted by several scholars (Parrella 1971, 1972; Crozier and Greenhalgh 1992; Fogel 1946).  That empathy can be expressed for both people and inanimate objects has also been noted (Currie 2011). Their observations were anticipated by Theodor Lipps (1900) and his concept of Einfülung and to a degree by Edward Titchener (1909) who coined the English term ‘empathy.’ Not only does Aretaeus display empathy in his descriptions of his patients’ illnesses but, and here is my point, he displays an unexpected level of empathy with inanimate organs:  he ‘feels his way’ into inanimate objects and ascribes behaviour and motivations to them, which he describes in language that suggests human-like agency and autonomy. This concept of ‘projection’ – an “activity in which the self asserts its own identity over the object instilling that object with the nature of the self” – is one put forth by Gilda Parrella (1971) with regards to literary criticism and analysis, and it applies fittingly to Aretaeus’ use of the literary device of personification in his medical text. The empathy that has been attributed to Aretaeus in his treatment of patients displays itself in a most remarkable way in his ‘empathetic’ depiction of human organs and their functions. Rather than displaying an alienation of the self from the body, Aretaeus’ empathetic approach to human organs displays a unity of self and body, of subject and organ.

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ORGANS: Form, Function and Bodily Systems in Greco-Roman Medicine

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