Galen and Paul of Tarsus against the Epicureans

Galen of Pergamon, like Paul of Tarsus, engaged in strenuous, life-long work amidst vicious struggles with personal opponents.  Both Galen and Paul had privileged upbringings and promising opportunities for relatively tranquil and secure lives.  Paul’s life course is readily explained today as resulting from divine intervention, or, alternatively, deep psychosis.  But what explains Galen’s passionate life?

Galen argued that a physician must work hard to excel.  According to Galen, the excellent physician knows geometry, astronomy, anatomy, logic, dietetics, prognostics, and verbal exposition.  Galen described a physician moving beyond the work of Hippocrates’ son and other Hippocratic disciples.  That physician left Hippocrates’ home and the court of the Macedonian King Perdiccas to visit all other places in Greece.  In the course of long, difficult travel, the physician cared for the poor and considered with experience Hippocrates’ writing on the effects of different waters and places on health.[1]  Galen noted:

{the excellent physician} will, necessarily, not only despise money, but also be extremely hard-working.  And one cannot be hard-working if one is continually drinking or eating or indulging in sex: if, to put it briefly, one is a slave to genitals and belly.  The true doctor will be found to be a friend of temperance and a companion of truth.[2]

Arabic literature records Galen writing:

He who is in such a position {the excellent physician} pays little regard not only to riches but also to leisure and relaxation, preferring toil and hardship hand in hand with virtue.[3]

A variety of sources have Hippocrates as the actor in stories about a physician refusing a lucrative call from the Persian King Artaxerxes and a physician leaving the court of Perdiccas.  Galen’s own text on the best doctor has, not Hippocrates, but an excellent physician as the actor in these stories.[4]  Galen considered himself to be an excellent physician.

Galen implicitly contrasted an Epicurean life with his life.  Epicurean doctrines emphasized leisure, relaxation, tranquility, and security (ataraxia).  In Galen’s time, as well as today, Epicurean living tends to be associated with pleasures of drinking, eating, and having sex.  The writings of Epicurus more directly and unequivocally connect ataraxia to being among  friends, being free from fear of death, and being free from concern for one’s place in an afterlife.[5]  Galen rejected the popular counsel associated with Epicureanism, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”[6]  Galen instead pursued wide-ranging scholarship, produced a huge body of written work, and engaged in demonstrations and medical practice.  Galen also rejected being among friends in practices such as morning social visits and evening symposia.  Galen instead chose the struggles implicit in being “a friend of temperance and a companion of truth.”  Epicurus encouraged his disciples to disseminate the “true philosophy.”[7]  Epicurus meant Epicurean philosophy.  Galen insisted, in contrast, on being a true doctor.  The true doctor worked hard to extend medical knowledge beyond Hippocrates’ great achievements.

Galen taunted Epicureans and other philosophic schools with the much less prestigious second-century example of Jews and Christians.  Discussing creation and nature, Galen declared:

Is not this Moses’ way of treating Nature and is it not superior to that of Epicurus? The best way, of course, is to follow neither of these … [8]

Elsewhere Galen jeered:

One might more easily teach novelties to the followers of Moses and Christ than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools [9]

Using philosophical schools’ central topoi, Galen praised Christians:

The mass of the people are not able to follow the thread of an apodictic discourse, wherefore they need allusive sayings, so that they may enjoy instruction thereby.  Of this sort we now see the people who are called Christians deriving their faith from such allusive sayings.  Yet on their part deeds have been produced equal to the deeds of those who are true philosophers.  For example, that they are free from the fear of death is a fact which we all have observed; likewise their abstinence from the unlawful practice of sexual intercourse.  And, indeed, there are some among them, men, and women, also, who during the whole of their natural life refrain altogether from such intercourse.  And some of them have attained to such a degree of severe self-control and to such earnestness in their desire for righteousness, that they do not fall short of those who are true philosophers. [10]

Freedom from fear of death, freedom from bodily desires, self-mastery, and attainment of virtue were primary philosophical goods.  According to Galen, Christians demonstrated in life these goods just as well as did “true philosophers.”  Galen had contempt for the mere assertions of the schools of Moses and Christ.  In his polemics, Galen put forward deeds as trumping words.  Galen’s comparison of Christians to “true philosophers” is a sarcastic attack on philosophical elites.[11]  That attack strikes particularly at Epicureans, whom Epicurus urged to disseminate “true philosophy.”

Galen and Paul passionately pursued great projects.  When Galen criticized being “a slave to genitals and belly,” he echoed Paul’s implicit disparagement of the Epicurian life: “their god is the belly and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”  Paul wanted Christians to grow up from childish Epicurian slavery:  “when we were children, we were slaves to the elements of the universe.”[12]  The underlying Greek root for slave in these expressions evoked in its time not a person cruelly and unjustly enslaved, but a person completely at a Master’s service.  Paul and Galen put their lives completely at the service of projects much greater than genitals, bellies, and atoms.  Paul worked tirelessly to disseminate the news that Jesus the Christ had fulfilled God’s promise to the Jews and extended salvation to all humankind.  Galen worked tirelessly to demonstrate the rational beauty of biological nature and to have that knowledge applied in medical practice.  In the vibrant intellectual world of ninth-century Baghdad, a prominent, hard-working scholar wrote an epistle presenting himself as a faithful disciple of Galen and Christ.

Galen’s passion in form was much like Paul’s.  What explains both is service to a great project.

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[1] Galen, The Best Doctor is Also a Philosopher (Opt. Med.), III, trans. Singer (1997) p. 32-3.  Hippocrates reportedly wrote a text On Airs, Waters, and Places.  HP pp. 53, 62, and Hippocratic corpus.

[2] Opt. Med., trans. Singer (1997) p. 33.  Boudon-Millot (2000) p. 238 suggests that this text dates to 180-192 GC.

[3] HP p. 53.

[4] HP p. 53.  For other sources of these Hippocratic stories, see, e.g. Boudon-Millot (2000) p. 303.  Cf. Opt. Med., trans Singer (1997) p. 32.  Galen wrote a commentary on Hippocrates’ work, On Airs, Waters, and Places.  HP p. 187, Boudon-Millot (2000) p. 238.  Artaxerxes I was a Pesian king reigning 464-424 BGC.  Perdiccas II of Macedonia reigned from about 454 to 413 BGC.  Hippocrates lived from about 450 BGC to 380 BGC.  Hence Hippocrates’ son and disciples are chronologically implausible characters in these stories.

[5] On Epicurean beliefs, see, e.g. Epicurus’ principle doctrines and Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus.  Epicureans probably were relatively prevalent in Anatolia, where both Galen and Paul had roots.  De Witt (1954) pp. 59-63.  Epicurus advocated a calculus of bodily advantage, described as pleasure.  Epicurus was thus a forerunner of Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism, consequential ethics, and contemporary Western economics.

[6] Isiah 22:13, 1 Corinthians 15:32.  Sardanapalus, the seventh-century BGC founder of Tarsus, had engraved on his tomb, “knowing full well that thou art but mortal, indulge thy desire, find joy in thy feasts. Dead, thou shalt have no delight.” Malherbe (1989) p. 85.

[7] Epicurus, Vatican Sayings, 41.

[8] Galen, De usu partium, book 11, chapter 14.  See Ref. 2 in Pearse (2011).

[9] Galen, De differentiis pulsuum, iii, 3.  See Ref. 3 in Pearse (2011).

[10] Abu’l-Fida, Concise History of Humanity, Ch. 3, Bk. 3.  See Ref. 6 in Pearse (2011).  The translation from Sprengling (1917), p. 96, uses the phrase “in truth philosophers.”  Lothar Kopf translates evidently the same Arabic phrase (HP p. 150) as “who profess philosophy in truth.”  The translation above is from Sprengling (1917) p. 96, with the elimination of the recording author’s parentheticals and with “true philosophers” substituted for “in truth philosophers.”  The former expression is within the same zone of meaning as the latter, more concise, and better reflects the over-all tone of the passage.  The frequently quoted translation of Walzer (1949) p. 15 isn’t faithful to Abu’l-Fida’s text.  In particular, the phrase “in matters of food and drink” isn’t in Abu’l-Fida’s text, while “cohabitation” doesn’t indicate the clear sexual implications of the relevant phrase.  Sprengling (1917) p. 106 comments:

Abulfeda’s text is not merely fuller than that of Agapius and Bar-Hebraeus, it is an utterly different text. The Greek is fairly apparent under the Arabic of both, more conspicuous in Abulfeda’s version; but the Greek under the Arabic and Syriac of the Christians is not the Greek of Galen. … But the Greek underlying Abulfeda’s version is Galen’s Greek. … Moreover, the sentiment and thought of Abulfeda’s text is Galen’s.

The inclusion of food and drink within some of the Arabic record of the Galenic text seems to reflect an anti-Epicurean expansion in translation.  Note that the version from Ibn al-Qifti, History of Learned Men, praises the Christians for (in Latin translation) “in cibo, potuque parsimoniam amare.”  This seems to be a contrasting parallel to Sardanapalus’ well-known grave inscription, “eat, drink, and have sex.”  On that inscription, see Malherbe (1989) p. 85, esp. ft. 49.  It has also been transmitted as “eat, drink, and play,”;  “eat, drink, and have sex” is a more specific meaning that seems to me more plausible coming from a powerful male leader.

[11] On the mere assertions of the schools of Moses and the Christians, see References 1, 4, and 5 in Pearse (2011).  On words versus deeds, see, e.g. Galen, On the Power of Cleansing Drugs (Purg. med. fac.) 2,11.328-30K, trans. Mattern (2008) p. 70, and Outline of Empiricism (Subf. Emp.) Ch. XI, trans. Walzer (1985) p. 42.

[12] Galen, Opt. Med., trans. Singer (1997) p. 33; Paul, Philippians 3:19 and Galations 4:3. The concept of elements of the universe or atoms was Epicurean.  On Galations 4:3’s relation to Epicureans, see De Witt (1954) pp. 63-5.  The Greek root for slave in both these expressions is that of doulos.  In the New Testament, doulos is also frequently translated as servant.  For example, doulos is the Greek for servant in Titus 1:1, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness.”


Boudon-Millot, Véronique, and Jacques Jouanna, trans. 2000. Galien.  t. 1. Paris: Belles lettres.

De Witt, Norman W. 1954. St. Paul and Epicurus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Malherbe, Abraham J. 1989. Paul and the popular philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Mattern, Susan P. 2008. Galen and the rhetoric of healing. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pearse, Roger. 2011.  Galen on Jews and Christians.

Singer, P. N., trans. 1997. Galen. Selected works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sprengling, M. 1917. “Galen on the Christians.” The American Journal of Theology, v. 21, n. 1 (Jan.) pp. 94-109.

Walzer, Richard. 1949. Galen on Jews and Christians. London: Oxford University Press.

Walzer, Richard, and Michael Frede, trans. 1985.  Galen. Three treatises on the nature of science: On the sects for beginners, An outline of empiricism, On medical experience. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Costa Concordia disaster: sexist barrage from commanding heights

With the passenger-laden cruise ship Costa Concordia sinking, Captain Gregorio De Falco of the Italian coastguard telephoned the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino.  Captain Schettino and the ship’s second-in-command had already arrived safely on shore.  Captain De Falco angrily told Captain Schettino:

listen, there are people that are coming down the pilot ladder of the prow {of the sinking cruise ship}.  You go up that pilot ladder, get on that ship and tell me how many people are still on board. And what they need. Is that clear? You need to tell me if there are children, women or people in need of assistance. And tell me the exact number of each of these categories. Is that clear? Listen Schettino, that you saved yourself from the sea, but I am going to … really do something bad to you … I am going to make you pay for this. Go on board, damnit! [1]

Captain De Falco, an Italian official acting in his official capacity, issued an order using the categories “children, women, or people in need of assistance.”  Captain De Falco thus explicitly mentioned women, but not men.  Given the omission of men, the informal criteria for determining “people in need of assistance” probably also discriminated against men.  Captain De Falco’s order provides grounds for bringing a claim of gender discrimination.

Under the Treaty of the European Union, gender discrimination is not permitted.  Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union states that the European Union is founded on the value of equality and exists as a society in which “non-discrimination … and equality between women and men prevail.”  Moreover, Article 3 of the Treaty of the European Union states that the Union “shall promote … equality between women and men.”  Cruise ships sinking under European Union jurisdiction cannot categorically favor women in evacuating persons from the sinking ship.

The Treaty of the European Union and other political and economic changes have failed to improve men’s social disposability.  The sinking Titanic made clear men’s social disposability in an explicit authoritative order and in the actual results:

When the Titanic went down in April 1912, the Captain’s orders were: ‘Women and children first!’

Although this legendary edict was never part of maritime law, it was adhered to so strictly on the Titanic that men were actually stopped from boarding lifeboats, many of which went to sea only three-quarters full.

There were only a few exceptions to the unvarying tales of heroism: three men in steerage who disobeyed the rule — Italians, coincidentally — were shot.

The chivalry was reflected in survival rates: 74 per cent of the women were saved; 52 per cent of the children; and just 20 per cent of the men.

Authoritative institutions have done nothing to make men less disposable.  In response to the Costa Concordia disaster, a major U.K. newspaper ran a column that simultaneously praised gender equality, shamed men who don’t privilege women, and naturalized men’s privileging of women:

But in our day, with the advent of feminism and the professional woman, chivalry and manners are considered stuffy and old-fashioned.

As the father of three daughters, I do not, with a single fibre of my being, wish to go back to a time when women could not have the vote or get a university degree. Nor do I, surrounded by extremely strong-charactered and intelligent women in my family and among my friends, feel tempted to regard women as the frail sex.

But the fact remains that there is a longing among most men to protect women and children, and chivalry is simply a manifestation of that longing.

And whatever transpires about the reason for the Costa Concordia disaster, the disappearance of a chivalric code is a sorry reflection on society today. [2]

The death of public reason, which best accounts for the above combination of statements, is important news.  In contrast, the passing of knightly combat isn’t news for anyone living in society today.  The presence today of yearning for the chivalric code is astonishing, especially coming from public discourse’s movers and shapers.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, artist of the Titanic Memorial sculpture

The sinking of public reason has occurred from its most respected, most commanding heights.  Within a week and a half after the Costa Concordia tragedy, Cambridge University issued a press release featuring topical analysis from Cambridge University scholar and teacher, Dr. Lucy Delap, Fellow and Director of Studies in History at St Catharine’s College.  This press release did not contain analysis on how to better implement the Treaty of the European Union’s commitment to non-discrimination and equality between men and women on sinking boats.  Instead, the press release had the title “Shipwrecked: women and children first?”  Well-educated persons in the European Union today should be able to answer that question quickly, cheaply, and simply: “no.”  Instead, this center of educational excellence offered a lengthy and self-consciously complex essay.  Its intellectual quality and apparent pointlessness is well-summarized in its featured pull quote: “‘Women and children first’ was much more contested in the past than today’s news coverage would have us believe.”

Upon careful study of the Cambridge University press release, a critical reader might discern its intellectual intent: to lessen concern for discrimination against men.  The opening paragraph of Dr. Delap’s essay states:

With tragic stories of loss, chaos and fear, shipwrecks have always fascinated onlookers, and been used to convey moral lessons. The Costa Concordia has reignited the potent debates over how one should behave in an emergency shipwreck situation.  It is clear from the media response that the old question of whether ‘women and children’ should go first remains just as significant in 2012 as it seemed in 1912.

Here purple prose (“tragic stories of loss, chaos, and fear,” “fascinated onlookers,” “reignited the potent debates,” “emergency [sic] shipwreck situation”) leads to a remarkably impotent sentence.  It begins with “It is clear from the media response….”  That intellectual leadership leads into the following insight: “the old question of whether ‘women and children’ should go first remains just as significant in 2012 as it seemed in 1912.”  Can you think of anything that has changed over the past century in regard to seeking equality between women and men?  If you can’t think of anything, see the text of the Treaty of the European Union quoted above.

While the press release’s opening paragraph suggests authorial obtuseness, further in the essay Dr. DeLap appears appears to be a highly sophisticated teacher.  The second paragraph opens:

The world’s press has dwelt on the lack of precedence of women and children aboard the 21st century sinking ship, with particular emphasis on the failures of professionalism and chivalry shown by the Italian captain, and his crew. Tales are circulating of burly crew members pushing pregnant women and children out of the way, and the failure of captain and crew to ensure that all were rescued before departing from the ship themselves.

The first sentence above obscures the sexism inherent in “women and children first.”  The obscuring tactic is to conflate “failures of professionalism” and “chivalry.”  Professionalism is related to chivalry only for knights.  Other European Union professionals should do their jobs, even in difficult circumstances.  Moreover, they are expected to do their jobs in accordance with European Union law forbidding gender discrimination.  Put differently, every man’s job description does not include putting all women first in life-threatening circumstances.  Public pressure on men to put women first is oppressive sexism that intellectual leaders should robustly denounce.  The second paragraph’s second sentence is also highly sophisticated.  It seems to be informed by press reports such as these:

Fights broke out to get into the lifeboats, men refused to prioritise women, expectant mothers and children as they pushed themselves forward to escape. Crew ignored their passengers – leaving ‘chefs and waiters’ to help out. …

As she waited for a flight home from Rome, grandmother Sandra Rogers, 62, told the Daily Mail: ‘There was no “women and children first” policy. There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats. It was disgusting.’ …

{Ms Rogers said,}  ‘I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls. It was awful. There was a total lack of organisation. There was no one telling people where to go.’

‘And when we finally got into a lifeboat, people, grown men, were trying to jump into the boat. I thought, if they land in here we are going to capsize.’ (Daily Mail)

Dr. DeLap apparently condensed such reports to “burly crew members pushing pregnant women and children out of the way.”  Privileging women (who are not always pregnant) relative to men (many of whom are not burly and most of whom aren’t crew members) is gender discrimination.  DeLap presents such discrimination in the most emotionally appealing form.

Dr. DeLap’s essay moves on to discuss historical examples of women wanting to stay on sinking boats.  Of course!  “Women and children first” is another example of the oppression of women:

In many famous shipwrecks, women had to be removed by force. Their own choices were often to remain with their male relatives, or in the perceived safety of the ship. In some cases they were simply locked up in their cabins, as their hysteria was perceived to be dangerous. … Victorian women, then, were to be contained; the rule giving them precedence was partly for the relief and safety of the men on board ship. As it was practiced, ‘women and children first’ often resulted in women being treated as objects rather than being given special protection.

That’s incredible intellectual work.  It’s also quite tiresome.  I can’t motivate myself to read any more of it.

For better quality thinking than Dr. DeLap’s Cambridge University press release, look at the comments on the Daily Mail‘s article reporting on the experiences of the Costa Concordia’s passengers.  The top-rated comment, from Patricia Dolan, reasons:

Children first, sure, but in our age of equality, why women first? A bit victorian isnt it? When women can sue (and get millions) for the most trivially perceived inequality – why should women then get a free ticket to be saved at men’s expense? Seems a bit unfair. For instance, who is more likely to be able save themselves in such circumstances? A man of 60 who can’t swim, or a young fit woman of 25 who can swim? Surely it should be the weakest saved first. Women can’t have it both ways. They can’t want to be seen as equal to men when it comes to the nice stuff. But return to helpless little women when its the nasty stuff. To paraphrase, ‘equality is not just for Christmas.’

Ms. Dolan’s response has generated thus far 4683 “up” marks.  Social elites’ contempt for men’s welfare generates justified anger among ordinary men.  Such anger doesn’t bode well for public support for higher education.

The Titanic Memorial in Washington, DC,  provides true insight into what has changed from 1912 to 2012.  The Titanic Memorial has inscribed on its front:

APRIL 15 1912

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a prominent figure in high society, designed the sculpture.  Noted architect Henry Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial, also designed the base structure (exedra) for the Titanic Memorial.  Helen Herron Taft, the widow of William Howard Taft, who was the U.S. President at the time of the Titanic’s sinking and who died in 1930 while serving as Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, formally unveiled the sculpture in 1931.  The sculpture was located in a central, waterfront position in Washington, DC.  The sentiment that the Titanic Memorial represented was thus publicly prominent.

By 1969, the public position of the Titanic Memorial had changed greatly.  The Great Lakes Titanic Society’s website explains that the Titanic Memorial was removed from its central location in Washington, DC:

The memorial was re-erected without ceremony in 1968 on the south Washington waterfront outside Fort McNair in Washington Channel Park at Fourth and P Streets, SW.

That was, and remains, an obscure, poor neighborhood.

The social disposibility of men has changed little from 1912 to 2012.   Tendentious and mind-numbing recitations of class and gender history, contempt for men’s welfare, and misandry have increased greatly.

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[1] From the Guardian’s translation of the call transcript.  Above I’ve replaced “(expletive)” with the expletive reported in another news account.

[2] Wilson, A. N.  “Whatever happened to women and children first?“, Daily Mail Online, last updated 18 Jan. 2012.  In considering the Costa Concordia disaster and response, major newspapers didn’t debate the question, “Whatever happened to the text and values of the Treaty of the European Union?”  That latter question may prompt much anguish in the near future.

Athens honoring Aristotle with proxenia

While Aristotle spent decades studying, teaching, and writing in Athens, Aristotle was not an Athenian citizen and had close relations with powers that threatened Athens.  Aristotle was born in Stageira.  Stageira left the Athens-led Delian League in 424 BGC.  Athens responded with an ill-fated seige of Stageira in 422 BGC. During the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BGC), Stageira sided with Sparta against the Athenians. At the invitation of Philip II of Macedon, Aristotle became the tutor to Philip II’s son, Alexander the Great, in 343 BGC.  The armies of Philip II defeated Athens in 338 BGC at the Battle of Chaeronea.  Macedonian rulers, whom Aristotle advised, subsequently dominated Athenian politics.  When Alexander the Great died, Aristotle fled Athens, fearing for his life upon an outburst of anti-Macedonian sentiment.

Despite these tensions between Aristotle and the Athenians, an ancient Aristotelian biography states that the Athenians erected on the Acropolis a stela honoring Aristotle.  The stela honored Aristotle for fostering good relations with foreign rulers (proxenia).  The sole surviving source of this biographic detail, Ibn Abi Usiabia’s History of Physicians, apparently transmits different versions in different manuscripts.  Lothar Kopf’s English translation of History of Physicians presents the inscription thus:

the inscription included, inter alia, the words “Aristotle the son of Nicomachus, from the town of Stageira, earned this honor by his good deeds and many favors and services, especially to the people of Athens, as well as by his mediation with King Philip, which helped to improve their situation. His generosity toward the people of Athens was so great that he undertook to see to their affairs and accomplished this to perfection. As a result, the people of Athens undertake, on their part, to honor his virtues and leadership, to obey his guardianship and protection, to fulfill all his commands concerning their affairs and needs, as well as the commands of his descendants, their future leaders.”[1]

Ingemar Düring’s English translation, based on Müller’s published Arabic text (Königsberg, 1884), indicates a different underlying Arabic manuscript:

In the inscription on this column {stela} they mentioned that Aristotle of Stagira {Stageira}, son of Nicomachus, had served the city well by doing good and by the great number of his own acts of assistance and beneficence, and by all his services to the people of Athens, especially by intervening with King Philip for the purpose of promoting their interests and securing that they were well treated; that the people of Athens therefore wanted it to be quite clear that they appreciated the good that had come out of this; that they bestowed distinction and praise upon him, and would keep him in faithful and honoured remembrance.  Those of the men in high position who hold him unworthy of this honour, may they after his death try to do what he did, taking share in all affairs where they in their own interest would like to make an intervention. [2]

Ibn Abi Usaibia seems to attribute this story to Ptolemy, a figure that scholars identify as Ptolemy al-Gharīb (Ptolemy-el-Garib).  Commentary on the second text agrees that it is closely related to genuine Greek inscriptions.  Whether Athens actually honored Aristotle with it is, however, a matter of dispute.  Anton-Hermann Chroust argues:

the indisputable fact remains that a significant part of Usaibia’s account undoubtedly and unmistakably retains some of the standard or formulaic characteristics common to Athenian honorific decrees of proxenia. Conversely, it is well-nigh unthinkable that he (or his source) should outright have invented or concocted the story of Aristotle’s being honored by the grateful Athenians with an official decree of proxenia; and even more incredible that, when inventing this whole story, he should have resorted to, and made use of, a fairly authentic stylistic and technical imitation of the legalistic wording of such a decree. Since all Athenian decrees of proxenia always recorded the name, the place of birth and the descent of the recipient of such an honor, the passage, “Aristotle of Stagira, the son of Nicomachus” — a passage faithfully reproduced by Usaibia — should make it amply clear that Usaibia uses a reliable source and that, at one time, such an honorific award actually was conferred upon Aristotle. [3]

Although emphatic, that’s not a convincing argument.  Ingemar Düring suggests that the text is a Hellenistic biographical fabrication.  Düring notes that, after the Battle of Chaeronea, the Athenians erected on the Acropolis a statue honoring Philip II and voted decrees of proxenia in honor of Alexander and Antipater.  Antipater was a Macedonian general who, like Alexander, was one of Aristotle’s students.  Biographers promoting Aristotle may have shifted those decrees of proxenia, issued in defeat, to Aristotle and to more praiseworthy circumstances.[4]  Kopf’s manuscript/translation seems more consistent with the honorary Athenian inscription originally concerning Philip II, Alexander, and/or Antipater.

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[1] HP pp. 109-10.

[2] Düring (1957) pp. 215-6.

[3] Chroust (1973) pp. 190-1.  Ibn Abi Usaibia transmits his sources accurately, but usually doesn’t critically evaluate their veracity.

[4] Düring (1957) p. 236.


Düring, Ingemar. 1957.  Aristotle in the ancient biographical tradition.  Göteborg: Almqvist och Wiksell.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Chroust, Anton-Hermann. 1973. “Athens Bestow the Decree of Proxenia on Aristotle.” Hermes, 101. Bd., H. 2, pp. 187-194.

Galenic saying shows long-run changes in personal competition

About 172 GC, the physician-scholar Galen deplored the quality of intellectual life about him in Rome.  He described intellectuals’ activities thus:

They indulge in salutation in the morning, then they go their separate ways: a not inconsiderable part of the tribe repairs to the forum and the lawcourts, more still frequent dance-shows and chariot-races, while another sizeable section busies itself with dicing, sexual encounters, bathing, drinking, carousing, and other sensual pleasures. Finally in the evening they reunite once more for symposia; and when they have drunk their fill of wine, they do not pass around the lyre or kithara, or any of the other musical instruments, proficiency in which in the olden times was considered appropriate at such gatherings (and whose absence was likewise grossly shameful); nor do they engage in mutual exchange of those sorts of argument which our elders record as occurring at their symposia, or in any other noble thing.  Rather they drink toasts to one another, competing to see who can down the largest draughts.  And the best of them is not the one most gifted musically or in philosophical argument, but the one who can down the greatest number of the largest wine-bowls.[1]

By the mid-eleventh century in the vibrant intellectual culture of the ancient Islamic world, these remarks had been translated from Greek into Arabic and distilled into the Galenic saying:

Formerly when men met for drinking and music, they vied in discussing the benefits of various liquors for the humors and of music for the peace of the soul, and also the means of counteracting either. Today when men meet, they vie in the size of the cups from which they drink.[2]

Galen idealized classical Greek physicians, philosophers, and literary figures.[3]  His remarks evoked the golden intellectual age of the Platonic symposium in fourth-century Greece.  Competition like that at the Platonic symposium advanced knowledge and the art of medicine.  Competition like college fraternities’ drinking contests generate drunkenness.  While both forms of competition generate individual prestige and a social status hierarchy, their other effects obviously differ greatly.[4]

Sayings associated with ancient revered figures were highly valued as knowledge in Europe through the Middle Ages.  The above Galenic saying was translated from Arabic into Spanish in the first half of the thirteenth-century, then from the Spanish into Latin near the end of the thirteenth century.  Near the end of the fourteenth century, the Latin text was translated into French, and then in the middle of the fifteenth century, the French text into English.[5]  Known in English as The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, this text was extremely popular in fifteenth-century England.  Under the press of William Caxton in 1477, The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers became the first book printed in England.

Change in the form of competition seems to have colored the translation of Galen’s saying from Spanish to Latin to French to Middle English.  Here’s the Galenic saying from Middle English, literally translated into modern English:

Once they that drank the least wine and were most temperate in daily life were most honored and praised, and now they that are the most gluttonous and drink most frequently are placed highest in the Master’s household so as to provide an example to others to act the same.[6]

Lost in the translation is the image of the Platonic symposium and its connection to developing knowledge.[7]  Competition to develop knowledge through free discussion was neither an elite ideal nor common practice in the European Middle Ages.  The Middle English saying concentrates on temperance, imitation, and personal advancement in the Master’s household.  That shift in focus corresponds to the predominate orientation of symbolic competition in the European Middle Ages: competition for favor in royal courts.

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Relevant work: The Sharing Ancient Wisdoms project promises to collect, analyze, and make available online historical collections of ancient wisdom sayings.

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[1] Galen, On the Therapeutic Method, I.3, trans. from Greek, Hankinson (1991) pp. 3-4. Id. p. xxxiv indicates that Galen wrote this work about 172 GC.  More on Roman dance shows (pantomime) and Roman entertainment. Hankinson (1991) p. 83 notes: “nostalgia for a vanished and better past … is commonplace throughout {Galen’s} works; but here it takes the unusual form of comparing modern forms of symposiastic entertainment unfavourably with their distant ancestors.”

[2] English translation from HP p. 171, quoting the saying recorded in Arabic in Abū al-Wafā’ al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik, Choice Maxims and Best Sayings, written 1048-9 GC. See Rosenthal (1960) p. 133.  The reference to music and the soul suggests influence from Plato’s Timaeus, which described music as harmonizing the soul.  Galen wrote an influential commentary on Plato’s Timaeus.  The only Arabic author who frequently and extensively quotes al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik’s book by name and title is Ibn Abi Usaibia in HP.  Rosenthal (1960) p. 145.  Ibn Abi Usaibia also quotes explicitly from Hunyan’s collection or collections of authoritative sayings.  See HP pp. 55, 91, 99. 113, 168.

[3] Galen promoted Hippocrates and Plato as the most important medical and philosophic authorities.  He cited frequently Euripides and Aristophanes, but rarely mentioned Hellenistic literature.  Galen’s longest work, consisting of forty-eight books, was a dictionary of words in Attic writers.

[4] Galen’s On the Therapeutic Method goes on to discuss “that beneficial strife that Hesiod praised.”  I.6-I.8.  Here’s some discussion of Hesiod on different types of strife, and an application to recent communications policy.

[5] ibn Fātik’s Choice Maxims and Best Sayings was translated into Spanish as Bocados de Oro. That Spanish text was translated into Latin as Liber Philosophorum Moralium Antiquorum.  Guillamume de Tignonville translated the Latin text into French as Dits Moraulx.  Many manuscripts of all these texts have survived.  See Rosenthal (1960).

[6] From the Chapter on Galen, Helmingham MS, Sutton (2006) p. 104 (my translation into modern English).  The Scrope MS has a similar English version.  See Buhler (1941) pp. 260-1.

[7] The Spanish translation occurred in the thirteenth century before 1257 under the intellectually vibrant reign of Alphonso X.  Christian Spain was then engaged in intense political and cultural competition with the intellectually advanced Muslim culture of Al-Andalus.  The Spanish translation preserves the image of symposiastic competition:

En otro tienpo, quando los omes se allegavan a bever e a cantar, presciavan más al que más sabie lo que obran los vinos en las conplisiones e los sonos en las virtudes. E agora, quando se allegan, non prescian más si non quien beve major vaso de vino.

Crombach (1971) p. 166.  The Galenic saying evidently was transformed along the translation chain from Spanish to English.


Bühler, Curt F., Mubashshir ibn Fātik, Abū al-Wafā, Guillaume, Stephen Scrope, and William Worcester. 1941. The dicts and sayings of the philosophers; the translations. London: Published for the Early English text society by H. Milford, Oxford University Press.

Crombach, Mechthild, ed., Mubashshir ibn Fātik, Abū al-Wafā. 1971. Bocados de oro. Bonn: Romanisches Seminar der Universität Bonn.

Hankinson, R. J., trans. Galen. 1991. On the therapeutic method. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Rosenthal, Franz. 1960.  “Al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik.  Prolegomena to an Abortive Edition.” Oriens, vol. 13/14 (1960/1961) pp. 132-158.

Sutton, John William. 2006. The dicts and sayings of the philosophers. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University (online text).