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The Longue Durée of Classics and Successions in Ancient Scientific and Medical Traditions

Paul Keyser

Independent Scholar

Reception studies of any body of material inscribe some of the material as “classical,” i.e., as of enduring worth, produced in an exceptional age, or by exceptional authors. That presumes that history is a process of decay, which produces a cognitive tension when the material is any ancient science, particularly medicine. If history is decay, there must be a “fall” between the ancient “golden” age and our present “iron” age. This “classicizing” approach is a trope in Greco-Roman scholarship, and is also manifested in several other ancient cultures.

Chinese science and literature from the early Han dynasty focussed on the “classic” (“jing,” 经), a text of a certain age, attributed to an honored founder, around which an interpretive tradition flourished, attracting students and inspiring teachers; among the jing were the main scientific and medical texts. The teachers and students formed a “lineage” (“jia,” 家), within which students owed respect and deference to the teacher, and the most excellent student would succeed the teacher when he died. The lineage copied, memorized, and commented upon the text, ensuring its survival and use in new situations.

The Sanskrit Vedic intellectual tradition offers a very similar structure, the succession (paramparā) of teacher (ācārya) and pupil (shishya), passing on knowledge and practice, and preserving the text around which the succession formed; the ancient Indian scientific and medical texts lived within this system. The student began by memorizing the basic text of the tradition, and owed his teacher the duty of preserving the tradition into which the teacher had initiated him. The work of the lineage was to produce exegetical commentaries on the text that defined the lineage.

The “classicizing” approach pervades the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, where Plato’s dialogues became the “classic” text for the Academy, as did Aristotle’s essays for later philosophers, especially the “neo-Platonists.” The medical schools founded by Herophilus and Erasistratus preserved and interpreted the texts of their founders, and when those schools withered, their core texts were soon lost. The fellowship imagined in the “Hippocratic Oath” required students to swear to transmit the teacher’s knowledge only within the Hippocratic lineage.

These ancient systems all valorize continuity, which limits how greatly they can conceptualize or instantiate innovation. Conversely, modern scholars who view the modern sciences, particularly medicine, as being innovative, often set a “break” in history, and treat the material prior to the break as merely of antiquarian interest. Like presuming decay, assuming a “break” produces a cognitive tension. No such break is possible, and science cannot have emerged suddenly, somewhen and somewhere, as if from the brow of Athena.

Most “classic” traditions, dedicated to preserving a core text and its attendant re-interpretations, eschewed dissent and development, although interpretive communities are capable of innovation. The traditions of China and India provide an analogue to Greek literary and scientific traditions, elucidating how such lineages were preservative. When Greek science expanded and transgressed its “classic” boundaries, and diverged from its successions, then it was most creative and innovative, before each corpus became “classic.”

Session/Panel Title:

Afterlives of Ancient Medicine

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