Crete/Patras Ancient Emotions Conference II
Medical understandings of emotions in antiquity
University of Patras, December 8-10 2017
This conference seeks to explore emotions’ significant role in Greek and Roman medical writings. In the medical discourse of antiquity, doctors are usually portrayed as disembodied, rational agents of professional knowledge and, hence, emotionally detached; silencing or suppressing emotions, such as fear, hope or disgust, appears to be integral to an ancient doctor’s self-fashioning and defines the ‘clinical’ conditions under which medical treatment should be conducted, even in the face of a painful illness. Patients, on the other hand, experience a wide range of emotions: depending on the nature of the disease, these emotions appear either as secondary side-effects or, in cases where a psychosomatic condition is at play, as fundamental diagnostic criteria. Yet, scholarship has not paid much attention to emotions in medical literature. Α possible explanation is that modern discussions take the body to account for the totality of physical, cognitive, and affective experience. On this view, even the use of the term ‘emotion’, in the sense of an affective entity that can be construed as independent of the body, may be misleading or anachronistic when applied to ancient medical texts. Yet, a number of medical descriptions invite us to ask if ‘pathological’ affective conditions are the cause or the symptom of illness: is it possible to identify exegetical models in which diseases have psychogenic causes? And if so, on what criteria do medical writers pathologize emotions? A close look at specific illnesses (for instance, melancholia ([Hipp.] Aph. 6.23) suggests that, for all their emphasis on the body, even early medical writers allow that in some conditions emotions serve as agents themselves rather than as manifestations of an underlying pathological agent. Correlatively, one of the most interesting developments in later medicine (e.g. in the works of Rufus of Ephesus and Galen) is that emotions are increasingly identified as ‘causes’ of diseases, while at the same time affects seem to assume a predominant role in the course of therapy. A careful assessment of this increased role of emotions can contribute, among other things, to a better understanding of mental illness in antiquity, as the latter gradually develops from a purely bodily condition with psychological side-effects to a pathological entity that is predominantly defined by its affective, as well as mental, symptoms.
On a different level, ancient literature and philosophy frequently identify emotional behaviour with madness. This is clearly manifested in the conceptual metaphors employed by ancient (and modern) speakers to disclose or describe emotional experience: anger and erotic love, for example, are typically qualified as diseases that plague the agent. Disease metaphors emphasize the uncontrollability of emotional experience and its destructive impact on the agent, thereby reflecting cultural modes of understanding emotions. We, therefore, wish to pin down the differences, if any, between instances where emotions are conceived of as diseases and instances in which emotions are literally ‘pathologized’ (e.g. in ancient ethics). Finally, certain emotions seem to be more open to pathological interpretation than others. This should explain, for instance, why ‘madness’ (consisting of emotional outbursts) is outlined more clearly in medical texts (and crops up more often as a medical metaphor in literary texts) than e.g. melancholia, whose symptomatic manifestation involves more ‘inward’ affects, such as fear and sadness.