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Galen on "Natural" Personalities, Intractable Souls and Bodily Mixtures

Ralph Rosen

University of Pennsylvania

Galen on ‘Natural’ Personalities, Intractable Souls and Bodily Mixtures

Across all of Galen’s writing on psychological topics one can readily note a tension between his belief, on the one hand, that medical intervention can be useful in treating perceived dysfunctions of behavior and character, and his concession, on the other, that an individual’s inherent, ‘natural’ physiological makeup presents at least some limitations for the doctor trying to help a person control or alter his emotions and affect.

While the treatise Character Traits focuses, as its title indicates, specifically on analyzing inherent personality traits (an êthos) as non- or pre-rational properties of the soul with little attention to any physiological qualities they may have, in other works, notably, The Capacities of the Soul Depend on the Mixtures of the Body (QAM) Galen addresses precisely that question, namely how character, affect and behavior can ultimately be analyzed as a function of one’s bodily mixtures. Whereas Character Traits highlights more the ethical ‘deck of cards’ that nature has dealt each person, and the importance of educating the emotions of the non-rational parts of the soul, QAM seems more open to specifically medical interventions as a means of improving one’s affect and behavior. Somewhere in between these two in its concerns is The Diagnosis and Treatment of the Affections and Errors Peculiar to Each Person’s Soul (Aff. Dig.), which emphasizes the importance of training the affective parts of the soul from which emotions arise.

This paper will address a section of Aff. Dig. (38-40K = 26-27 deB. = Singer 2013, 270-272) that highlights what appears to be a sensitive area for Galen on the matter of what constitutes a personality, and how susceptible it can ever be to change in view of the fact that some traits seem to be naturally endowed and, so, difficult, if not impossible, to change. The theme of the treatise as a whole is a soul’s pathê can be treated and improved with proper education and ongoing verbal therapies throughout one’s life—an argument premised on the soul’s susceptibility to advice, whether casual or formal. In QAM (and Mixtures too), taking a somewhat different tack, Galen traces the pathê to mixtures of the body’s qualities (hot, cold, wet, dry), and regards them as amenable to medical as well as philosophical treatment. But the passage in Aff. Dig. I will examine introduces the possibility that some characters are so fixed as to be incapable of change.

These are presumably extreme cases, and he does not dwell on them here, but they do present a serious challenge to the implication of the argument Galen offers in QAM, that if pathê are a function of bodily mixtures, they can be manipulated with physical remedies (e.g., diet, exercise or medications, which will alter a body’s physiology) as well as verbal ones.  In analyzing Aff. Dig. (38-40K), then, I will explore what Galen seems to mean when he speaks of ‘natural’ traits, and in particular how he conceptualizes a personality that is intractable—totally unreceptive to teaching and other forms of acculturation. What does he imagine accounts for such a soul in terms of its physical constitution, and—a question Galen would likely not have the wherewithal to formulate—how much of his argument about what constitutes ‘normal, acceptable behavior’ or ‘normal emotions’ are a function of external cultural factors rather than physiological ones. 

As in Character Traits, children provide a useful starting point for Galen in the Aff. Dig. passage, because he believes that their rational soul has not yet developed in them, and so they can offer an unmediated view of a soul as nature endowed it. As he points out, ‘Some are receptive to good education, others receive no benefit from it’ (27.6 deB.). What is happening in the body and soul of such children, who will grow up and remain similarly impervious to attempts at change and improvement? Some insight into Galen’s thinking emerges from the passage that immediately follows (27.12ff. deB), in which Galen expands on an analogy between children and plants. The analogy, I will argue, fascinating as it is, is either simply clumsy and logically flawed, or it actually adds some important nuance to how we explain the fixity and occasional intractability of human personality traits.   

Session/Panel Title

Emotions and the Body in Greco-Roman Medicine

Session/Paper Number


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