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).

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