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Mind-Body Balance and Sexual Regimen in Antiquity

Brent Arehart

University of Cincinnati

Mind-Body Balance and Sexual Regimen in Antiquity

The relationship between emotions and the body has remained of perennial interest. Whatever its precise nature, this complicated nexus touches on many important issues, from the mind-body problem to freewill to the boundaries of moral behavior (Konstan 2015). Yet, cultivating the proper relationship between one's psychē and sōma was not only a philosophical exercise in antiquity, but a procreative one as well. Through an investigation of several medical texts from the Common Era, which typically receive less attention from scholars, this paper illuminates a tradition that regarded emotional well-being as an important aspect of health and sex. I begin with the role of emotions in reproductive success. Cold hard facts of anatomy were not the only relevant factors: medical authors also took an interest in the mental state of a couple. A sound body, while crucial, became more effective with a sound mind. Preparing for paidopoiia thus required both partners to monitor their physical activities prior to, and their state of mind during, intercourse (Athenaeus of Attalia ap. Orib. Lib.Inc. 23).  Exhaustion, inebriation, anger, grief, fear—even cheer—might upset the process (Rufus of Ephesus ap. Orib. Lib.Inc. 25). Failure to strike the appropriate balance between any extremes could result in failure to conceive, or else lead to negative effects on the health of the offspring (Soranus of Ephesus, Gyn. 1.14; Aetius of Amida 16.26).   

The interests that medical authors had in sexual activity—and by extension in the emotions involved therein—can be described as pronatalist, but it would be unfair to characterize their interests exclusively as such. Sexual activity was a regular constituent of regimen (diaita) (Thumiger 2017, 238ff), regardless of whether it was undertaken with or without reproductive intent. Hence, we also find a concern for the effects that sexual activity could have, not just on the body but on the psychē itself. Doctors offered parents advice on how their children's inevitable, adolescent foray into aphrodisia could be situated within their upbringing in such a way that would not harm their personal development (Athenaeus of Attalia ap. Orib. Lib.Inc. 39). And more generally, in cases of sexual dysfunction, medical treatment sought to mitigate emotional distress on top of the underlying genital aetiology. Doctors were actively aware of patients' own sensitivities, too, even though their writings can come across as dispassionate assessments of physiological processes (Paul of Aegina 3.58).          

Ultimately, this conjunctive approach to well-being, wherein physical constitution and emotional disposition were both of import to the doctor, fit into a larger program of striving for balance. Thus, this paper offers one example of how further study of the medicalization of emotions can provide us with a more robust understanding of ancient medicine as an all-encompassing practice. 

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Emotions and the Body in Greco-Roman Medicine

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