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The Medical Context of Galen’s Protrepticus

Jonathan Reeder

Florida State University

This paper examines Galen’s engagement with the Empiricist school of medicine in his  protreptic treatise, commonly known as Exhortation to Study the Arts. I argue that Galen composed this work in order to express his vision of how one comes to obtain medical knowledge, thereby attacking the Empiricists’ reliance on experience (empeiria).  Furthermore, as a key feature of medical knowledge and the very practice of the art, the concept of logos assumes a central role in the treatise and thus elucidates the author’s choice of protreptic inasmuch as this genre fully showcases the power of logos.  My analysis thus seeks to complement recent studies of Galen’s intellectual context and the manner in which he contributed to the medical disputes of his time (Hankinson 2008, Gill, Whitmarsh, and Wilkins 2009).

It has long been recognized that the treatise predictably exhibits many of the characteristics of philosophical protreptic (see Barigazzi 1991, Boudon-Millot 2000).  What has been less well appreciated, however, is Galen’s inclusion of the Protrepticus in the list of his works which deal with the Empiricist sect (On My Own Books 9), an inclusion complicated by the fact that he never directly mentions the Empiricists or their doctrines in the treatise.  And so I suggest that his praise of logos in the first five chapters serves to distinguish his concept of the medical art from that of the Empiricists.

Whereas the Empiricists were famous for dismissing the need for a rational account (logos) of the cause of diseases or even of human anatomy (see Celsus On Medicine, Pro. 27-44; Galen On Medical Experience 5), Galen insisted on the necessity of both empeiria and logos in performing medicine.  Accordingly, he grants logos the full epideictic treatment in the beginning of his Protrepticus. In the opening chapter, Galen presents his concept of logos as that process which links memory with language, thus connecting humans with the divine.  Following his description of human beings as rational (logikos) animals, he presents the ekphrasis of Fortune (Tychē) and Hermes and their respective bands of adherents.  Hermes is granted the title “lord of logos,” thereby connecting the ekphrasis with the theme expounded in the opening of the treatise.  Later, the Galen portrays Hermes as the god of all technai, further strengthening the relationship between logos and technē.

As we read in On Sects for Beginners and On Medical Experience, Galen maintained that the Empiricists depended on Fortune rather than upon true technē.  This conflict incited him to present a work in which both technē and logos receive epideictic treatment.  The Protrepticus, therefore, is not as much intended as a protreptic essay alone, but it is better understood as Galen’s engagement with divergent medical views via the protreptic genre. Thus both the content and form of the text receive thorough investigation, thus laying the groundwork for further examination of the text’s generic structure.

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Science in Context

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