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Galen on Non-Rational Motivation and the Freedom from Emotions: A Reading of Affections of the Soul

David H Kaufman

Transylvania University

Among Galen’s most deeply held philosophical tenets is his commitment to a particularly robust form of tripartite Platonic psychology. In particular, he argues across a number of works that the non-rational parts of the soul, appetite and spirit, play an ineliminable and valuable role in adult human motivation, over and beyond reason. At the same time, he is also quite emphatic that we ought to free ourselves as far as possible from the emotions. While Galen’s suggestion that we should cultivate ‘freedom from emotion’ (apatheia) might seem to sit uneasily with his view that the non-rational parts of the soul have a fundamental role to play in virtuous motivation, I believe that Galen’s position makes excellent sense and helps to elucidate the way in which a Platonist might support the ideal of apatheia, without abandoning tripartite psychology. Moreover, as I show, appreciating the role that Galen assigns non-rational motivation in virtuous action helps to elucidate important aspects both of his ethical ideal of rational-control and his theory of the emotions. My talk will focus especially on Galen’s ethical work Affections of the Soul, which is our most complete source both for his ideal of ‘freedom from emotion’ and for the positive role of non-ration motivation in virtuous action.

            My talk begins by discussing the evidence for Galen’s commitment to the ideal of apatheia. While this aspect of his psychological theory is most fully developed in Affections of the Soul, I argue that Galen also endorses the ideal of apatheia in several of his other ethical works, including notably On the Doctrines of Plato and Hippocrates and On Freedom from Distress. Although recent scholarship on Galen’s moral psychology has tended to take his ideal of apatheia to be in tension with his tripartite psychological account, which gives appetite and spirit important roles in human motivation (Gill 2010, Hankinson 1993, and Singer 2013), in the second section I argue that his particular notion of apatheia makes quite good sense on the basis of his psychological theory. In particular, according to Galen, the key factor in determining whether an action is performed in an emotional or unemotional way is, I suggest, not whether non-rational motivation happens to be involved in it, but instead whether the action is performed on the basis of cool, unemotional reason or, instead, on the basis of the non-rational parts of the soul. Thus, if someone orders and eats a kale salad on the basis of their considered view that kale is especially healthy, then whether or not they also experience an appetitive desire, they order it unemotionally in Galen’s sense of the term. Next, in the third and final section, I turn more directly to the crucial role that non-rational motivation plays both in ordinary activity and in virtuous action, according to Galen. As I show, despite his rejection of the emotions, he takes having sufficiently robust and well-ordered non-rational parts of the soul to play an important role in virtuous action. The talk concludes by briefly considering Galen’s ideal of rational control and his view of its limitations.

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Ancient Ethics

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