Galen of Pergamum on the Limits of Practical Philosophy


This article provides an analysis of Galen’s attitude towards philosophy and philosophers as manifested in two of his moral writings, namely, the letter-essay entitled Avoiding Distress (De indolentia) and the treatise on The Diagnosis and Treatment of the Affections and Errors Peculiar to Each Person’s Soul (De animi cuiuslibet affectuum et peccatorum dignotione et curatione). While Galen’s engagement with various philosophical schools of his time has been extensively explored in the literature of the past few decades, with an emphasis on his Platonic and Aristotelian affiliations, his critique of philosophy and philosophers has only occasionally been discussed. However, a closer look at the polemical intent of the works referred to above can help us not only to illuminate more fully their content and purposes but also to locate them more accurately within the cultural milieu in which they were written. Along with an attempt to understand the reasons underlying Galen’s criticism of philosophy and philosophers, and the sources of his critique, particular attention will be given to the self-image Galen projects in these two writings. As I intend to show, by critically reviewing some philosophical therapeutic techniques (mostly Stoic and Epicurean), Galen seeks not only to debunk the philosophers’ claim of being an authoritative voice in matters pertaining to practical ethics but also to cast himself in the role of a true moral adviser or physician of the soul, one that actually has expertise in treating moral distress, anguish or anxiety. 

Keywords: Galen of Pergamum, ancient philosophy, psychotherapy, polemics, ancient medicine, practical philosophy

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