The 2nd century Christian writer Clement of Alexandria begins his Paedagogue with an extended analysis of lactation in an important piece of medical theologizing against his Gnostic opponents. All Christians, he asserts, are children suckling Logical Milk (Christ) from the breast of the Father. Relying on basic Aristotelian theories, Clement reminds his readers that milk is fundamentally blood that has been transformed. Therefore, the milk that Paul speaks about as being the food of Christians (1 Cor. 3:2) is in fact the blood of Christ—not a preliminary food for immature Christians as the Gnostics assert, but the goal of the Christian life. Recent readers of Clement have been attuned to the medical precedents of Clement’s allegory, referencing the corresponding passages in Aristotle and Galen (Buell 1999, Engelbrecht 1999), but have failed to note the important difference between Clement and his Aristotelian s explanation of the means of transformation.
Clement had an array of lactational explanations from which to choose the material of his allegory. Hippocratic theory (On the Nature of the Child §21) believed that milk was fat pressed out from the stomach by a womb distended during pregnancy, which then accumulated in the nearby porous breasts. Aristotle disagreed, asserting instead that milk was blood that had been transformed through heat (History of Animals 7.3, Generation of Animals 4.8). Clement ignores the Hippocratean theory and instead uses the basic Aristotelian theory that milk is transformed blood. However, instead of emphasizing the transformative role of heat as Aristotle does, he emphasizes the transformative role of pneuma. In so doing, he aligns himself with the theories of the Pneumatist medical sect, which flourished in the first two centuries AD.
To show the significance of Clement’s emphasis on pneuma, this paper connects two passages in the opening section of the Paedagogue, the first on the formation of semen and the second on the creation of milk, both by means of the aeration of blood by pneuma. Connecting the two passages, which share distinct vocabulary, I argue that Clement’s pneuma-centric medical language relies on a source that utilizes the theories of the pre-Socratic philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia, whom Clement cites by name in his discussion of sperm formation. Diogenes of Apollonia’s most famous doctrine made air the first element of the universe, and as a result, he is seen as an important predecessor to the Pneumatist sect (Tieleman 2012).
Clement chooses to use a medical theory that ascribes blood’s transformation into milk to the working of pneuma instead of heat, to foaming instead of cooking, because of his broader rhetorical and theological goals. The Paedagogue argues against a strong bifurcation of the Christian church into two groups, the Gnostics and the Spirituals. Instead, Clement insists that there is only one important division, that between the baptized and the non-baptized. All baptized Christians are Pneumatics, having received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (the Hagion Pneuma). It should come as no surprise that a near contemporary of Galen and Soranus, working in Alexandria, the center of anatomical medical theory in the Empire, should use current medical theories to support his theological debates. In so doing, he was able to overturn the argument of his opponents, showing that the Gnostics’ erroneous Scriptural interpretation was caused by their lack of biological knowledge. Furthermore, my argument suggests that Clement’s resourcefulness may have led us to evidence for the otherwise unattested Pneumatist doctrine of lactation.