You are here

Politics, the Brain, and Public Health in Late Antiquity

Jessica Wright

The point of departure for this paper is the engagement of early Christian preachers with medical knowledge (Rouselle; Brown; Perkins; Shaw; Crislip). My protagonist is the Antiochene priest and later bishop John Chrysostom (347–407 CE), whose saturation in—and saturation of his orations with—medical discourse has only recently become the subject of focused investigation (Mayer). Whilst this paper touches briefly upon Chrysostom’s knowledge of contemporary medical theory, its central question has to do rather with Chrysostom’s use of his medical knowledge to position himself not only as a “physician of the soul”—a philosophical and theological commonplace—but also as a physician of the communal body—the church, and ultimately the city also.

Much attention has been paid to the Pauline metaphor of the church as the body (sôma) of Christ. In particular, scholars have noted that Paul’s conception of a communal body borrowed much from Greco-Roman philosophical—especially Stoic—and rhetorical traditions (Martin; Lee) influenced ecclesial as anthropological thinking into the early modern period (Barkin), and, as modern nations emerged, became the foundation for conceptualising secular political bodies (Harris; Muri).

For all their focus upon the body, however, few historians have attended to the role of the “head” (kephalê) in the ecclesial metaphor. This has meant the neglect of a late antique innovation which sought to integrate medical understanding of the “brain” (enkephalos) with scriptural exegesis in order to intervene in the health of the ecclesial body. In his homiletic Commentary on Ephesians, the Greco-Syrian preacher John Chrysostom (c. 349–407 CE) identified the figure of Christ not with the visible part of the head, but with the brain (Chrys., Comm. in ep. ad Eph. 11; PG 62, 84.2–85.20). He then explicated the metaphor in terms of the brain’s agency in distributing spirit (pneuma) to all parts of the body in correct proportion, in order to sensitize and thereby animate them. If a part of the body such as the hand is cut off, Chrysostom explains, then, “the pneuma which is from the brain, seeking the continuity but not finding it, does not leap out of the body and, flying about, approach the hand, but if it does not find it lying there, it does not touch it.” The part is, in effect, dead.

Chrysostom follows his image of the amputated hand with explication of what members might be removed from the ecclesial body for the sake of its health. A dislocated bone, for example, might “injure the entire body, and frequently leads to death,” such that many choose “to cut it off, leaving a void in its place,” since what is out of place or out of balance is a source of evil. It is clear from this discussion that Chrysostom is chiefly interested not in those members who choose to leave the communal body, but in justifying his expulsion of those whom he considers injurious as both sustained by the natural and familiar logic of the human body and substantiated by spiritual exclusion from the divine.

Positioning himself both as a subject within/of the body whose bone or hand must be extracted and as a physician working upon this body to extract the troublesome part, Chrysostom deploys medical discourse in the service not so much of spiritual as of political healthcare. This is significant in two respects: It contributes to the growing consensus that the ecclesial sôma was a political as much as a theological concept in late antiquity; and it provides a sociopolitical and conceptual frame for understanding engagement with medical models of the brain elsewhere in late antique discussions of the human being.

Session/Panel Title

Emperors, Aristocrats, and Bishops in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy