The second-century physician Galen’s investigation of the function of the recurrent laryngeal and intercostal nerves and muscles, and the anatomical displays in which he demonstrated their role in producing the voice, represent a critical part of his medical work. Not only did these demonstrations catch the attention of both his contemporary audience and his readers, but they serve conceptually as the “cornerstone and crowning achievement” of his anatomical studies (Salas 2013: 139). By exposing the pathways and functions of these nerves, he ultimately resolved a key philosophical and physiological dilemma: the brain and not the heart was the location of the hegemonikon, the commanding faculty of the soul. His demonstrations and writings also yielded an unprecedented level of insight into the workings of the physical voice, both animal and human, highlighting the larynx as the central organ of its production and emphasizing the complexity of the processes that generate it.
In this paper, I argue that Galen’s writings—in particular, the descriptions of the voice found in De praecognitione and De usu partium—present the nature and generation of the voice in a uniquely hybrid way: both as the product of a violent conflict between a pair of competing forces (the breath and the laryngeal muscles), and as the result of a successful exercise of control by one over the other, a delicate balance of rule. This paradoxical duality of equally matched competition and hierarchical constraint is emphasized by the hybridity of the language and imagery used to describe the anatomy of the vocal organs; for instance, in De usu partium, the laryngeal nerves are metaphorically described both as a competing pair of runners in a racecourse, winding around a “turning post” (De usu partium 16.4 = K. IV.282 = H. II.389), and as the reins of a chariot, enabling the rational faculty to govern the muscles of the larynx (De usu partium 7.14 = K. III.573 = H. I.416).
The doubleness of Galen’s conception of the voice, I further argue, seems to reflect not only a growing awareness of the complicated, fragile anatomy of the voice, but also the dynamics of his broader cultural context: the competitive intellectual display of the Greek "Second Sophistic," and the delicately balanced hierarchy of Roman imperial power. In recent years, there has been a flourishing of scholarship on the relation of the Galenic corpus to its broader cultural and intellectual context. Scholars like Heinrich von Staden (1995) and Maud Gleason (2009) have noted the ways in which the physician’s self-presentation, the competitive public theatricality of his demonstrations, and his interest in the voice dovetail with the values and interests of the intellectual culture surrounding him; Rebecca Flemming (2007 and 2009) has noted correspondences between his attitude to the ordering of knowledge in his own works, as well as his broader concept of the order of creation, and the concerns of imperial power. I suggest that this connection extends to the way in which he conceptualizes the anatomy of the physical voice: the voice, in his view, is born of both conflict and constraint, a complexity that reflects the tensions of empire itself.
Medicine and Disease in Galen