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Divine Vision and Sensory Paradox: Knowing the Body in Aelius Aristides’ "Hieroi Logoi"

Calloway Scott

University of Cincinnati

Fantastical and ego-centric, the Hieroi Logoi of Aelius Aristides (117-181 CE) were long derided by scholars as the prattling of a hypochondriac (Dodds 1951). Although principally an orator, Aelius is best known today not for his speeches, but for these first-person accounts of the ailments which afflicted his body throughout his lifetime and the miraculous cures he received through the dream epiphanies of the god Asklepios. Indeed, recent scholarship has sought to resuscitate Aelius’ reputation and the singular importance of the Hieroi Logoi by situating Aelius within the wider cultural and intellectual milieu of the Empire. Specifically, attention has been drawn to the zero-sum performance context of Second Sophistic oratory as well as the value placed on medical knowledge among the cultured elite (cf. Gleason 2008; Downie 2008 and 2013; Holmes 2008; Petsalis-Diomidis 2012; Israelowich 2012). This work has made important contributions to the understanding of Aelius by connecting his representation of embodied experience and relationship with the divine with the act of literary production as integral to his social identity and claims to status. Yet there is considerable room to expand on such beginnings. This paper does so by addressing the central role of vision, sensation, and paradox in the creation of expert knowledge in the Hieroi Logoi. In contrast to typical focuses on discourses of bodily suffering, I examine how Aelius foregrounds his acquisition of therapeutic knowledge as a process of expert interpretation of divinely inspired dream-visions. I highlight the importance of the dream perception as an arena of interpretive expertise, particularly in the intellectual context of Empire, when the ontological status and semiotic operations of dreams was something of a hot topic (e.g. Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica or [Galen’s] Diagnosis from Dreams). Aelius capitalizes on this interest, reconfiguring and expanding the dream-vision as an epiphanic marker of divine favor into a hermeneutic challenge which only he is able to solve; throughout the Logoi, Aelius represents his embodied experience of these miraculous cures as entirely confounding the expectations of physicians whose own authoritative knowledge rested upon medical theories “empirically” derived and rationally inferred. So too, in undergoing divinely inspired remedies—like bathing in winter torrents, enduring shipwreck, or nurturing tumors—Aelius emphasizes the unexpected and counter-intuitive bodily sensations that result, such as pleasure, joy, bodily contentment and wholeness. I argue that Aelius mobilizes this dyadic sensory discourse of divine vision and sensory paradox as part of a campaign to claim control of his unruly body—a body which has proved impervious to the diagnostic techniques of physicians. In so doing, Aelius innovatively places representations of embodied sensation at the very center of his claims to literary, social, and cultural prestige. Ultimately, then, I understand Aelius’ literary account of personal sickness and health, dreams and dreaming, as developing a provocatively revised register of sensory experience and promoting it as a means both of producing knowledge about the body and challenging established epistemic paradigms.

Session/Panel Title

Second Century CE Prose

Session/Paper Number

67.2

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