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Using Literary Eremetic Space to Prevent Emotional Distress in Galen’s De Indolentia

Molly Mata

Rutgers University

In Galen’s De Indolentia, the author continually emphasizes the importance of mental practice when one is facing loss of health or personal possessions. Galen encourages the unnamed interlocutor that the best practice in mental training is to imagine the loss of your possessions, as well as to remind yourself of what little is needed for survival rather than what others have (§44: “But if someone is not looking all the time at the number of fields that someone else has but at what is enough for his own outgoings, he will bear unconcernedly the loss of what is superfluous,” trans. Nutton 2013). Galen relates (§55) that during the reign of Commodus, he trained (ἐγύμνασα) his imagination in losing everything. Part of this training was imagining his banishment to a desert island, a νῆσος ἐρῆμος, so that in imagining total loss of everything, one is mentally prepared for losing any portion. Although some do not see in Galen any indication of specific therapies for psychological conditions (see Devinant 2018), Singer (2018: 394) outlines the “cognitive therapy” techniques Galen recommends in De Indolentia and other Galenic works. One of these cognitive therapies is “consideration of the worst one may suffer” also known as praemediatio malorum. My work clarifies how Galen’s model of imagining the worst-case scenario uses the literary trope of the ‘desert island’ as an imaginative eremetic space (see Rehm 2002 for how lonely places are used in tragedy as locales for cognitive experimentation). Just as Galen is fond of using literary characters such as Medea and Odysseus as case studies in mental health (see Thumiger 2017: 269-270), I argue that he also uses a literary technique of using eremetic space  in his development of the practice of praemeditatio malorum.  

My focus in this presentation is on how Galen incorporates the literary trope of the desert island in an imaginative mental health practice that functions preventatively, rather than curatively. The desert island trope is well known from Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Ariadne’s abandonment in Catullus 64, among others. My goal is to show that this literary tradition is working in conjunction with actual banishment practices to reinforce Galen’s argument that psychological training in imagining the worst-case scenario within an eremetic space is beneficial for those anticipating loss. Many scholars have pointed out that Galen’s practice of praemeditatio malorum combines the philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism (Asmis 2014; Gill 2013; Rosen 2014; White 2014) but have not focused on how the literary imagination may also be informing his therapeutic approach. Since Galen’s practice of training the imagination is a preventative measure, rather than a curative one, I read it as a therapy that takes the idea of poetry and drama as cathartic forces that purge negative emotions from trauma and morphs the idea from a curative standpoint to a preventative one.


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Emotions and the Body in Greco-Roman Medicine

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