Galen analogized godly man to Hermes herm

herm of Demothenes, but similar to those of Hermes

Humans have long heroically aspired to connect levels of knowledge from molecules to man to cosmology.  In the second century, Galen produced a huge corpus of scholarly work ranging from detailed material concerns about medicinal substances to highly abstract cosmological reasoning.  Holding together all that knowledge wasn’t a clear Galenic theoretical consilience.[1]  Although obscured within enlightened scholarship, Galen’s appreciation for poetic form seems to have structured his wide-ranging knowledge.[2]  In one fascinating and sophisticated passage, Galen conceptualizes and moralizes a classical fable about a Hermes statue to connect material to spirit.

Galen recites the fable about the Hermes statue in an expository work on dispositions.  This book survives only in an Arabic translation.[3]  The book generally concerns behavioral effects of a tripartite soul’s governance.  Galen explicitly disavows philosophical-linguistic precision in the analysis:

I have shown there {in another of Galen’s books} that man possesses something that is responsible for thought, something else that is responsible for anger and a third thing that is responsible for desire.  It makes no difference how I refer to these three things in this book, whether as separate souls, as part of the one human soul or as three different faculties of the same essence.  I shall, in fact, in this book, call that which is responsible for thought “the rational soul” and “the cogitative soul,” whether it be a separate soul, a part or a faculty; I shall call that which is responsible for anger “the passionate soul” or “the animal soul” and that which is responsible for desire “the appetitive soul” or “the vegetative soul”. [4]

The best disposition results from the rational soul instructing the passionate soul to subdue the appetitive soul.  To be good, a man should form his soul to have that order.

Although a man’s soul is tripartite, the essence of a man, according to Galen, is the rational soul.  Galen argues that the body is only an instrument.  If a man’s hands and feet are cut off, he is still a man.  So too, according to Galen, if he is stripped of other bodily members and even deprived of his whole body.  Taking the argument further, Galen argues that the man remains even if he sheds his passionate and appetitive souls:

If, being freed from these two souls at the same time as you are freed from the body, you are able to be intelligent and understanding, as clever philosophers claim for man’s state after death, you must know that your way of life after your release from the body will be like that of the angels.  Even if you are not convinced that the intelligence that is in you does not die, you should, nevertheless, in no way slacken your efforts, as long as you live, to make your way of life like that of the angels. [5]

In the above Galenic text preserved in Arabic under monotheistic Islam, the word “angels” surely represents the word “gods” in the original Greek.  Gods, according to Galen, despise worldly pleasures and do not need to eat and drink.  While not staking a position on immortality of the (human, rational) soul, Galen urges humans in earthly life to imitate gods by restricting themselves “to what is absolutely necessary for the life of the body.”[6]

In this exhortative context, Galen invokes the fable about the Hermes statue.  Galen places a tendentious dichotomy immediately before the fable:

You have a choice between honoring your soul by making it like the angels {gods} and treating it contemptuously by making it like the brute beasts.[7]

Galen introduces the fable with the generic attribution “It is said….”[8]  Here is what is said:

two men simultaneously went to a seller of idols and bargained with him for the same idol representing Hermes.  One of them intended to set it up in a temple, in honour of Hermes, and the other intended to erect it over a tomb, in remembrance of a dead man.  They could not come to an agreement about buying it that day and so they postponed the business until the next.  The seller of idols dreamt that night that the idol said to him: “O excellent man, I am now something that you have made.  I have taken on a likeness that is attributed to a star, and I am now no longer called ‘a stone’ as I used to be, but I am called ‘Hermes’.  You must choose now whether to make me a memorial to something that does not decay or to something that has already decayed.[9]

Galen provides his own epimythium immediately following the fable:

This is what I say to those who seek to investigate their own souls; their decision, however, is greater than in the case of an idol, since no-one else has any jurisdiction over them, for they are free and masters of their will.  It is right that someone who is in this situation should place his soul in the highest rank of honour; there is no honour greater than that of imitating God, so far as is possible for a human being.  This is achieved by despising worldly pleasures and preferring the Beautiful.

The fable itself is nearly identical to a fable attributed to Aesop and included in an early Greek fable collection.[10]  In the Galenic text in Arabic under Islam, the word “star” surely represents “god” in the original non-Christian Greek; the word “idol” surely a less monotheistically freighted word such as “statue”; and “seller of idols” probably referred without opprobrium to a figurative sculptor working commercially.  Moreover, in ancient Greek hermes means both the god Hermes and a herm, a sculpture with a torso or head attached atop a lengthwise-standing rectangular base.  Use of the ancient Greek homonym hermes (stone/god) adds wit and poignancy to the phrase “I am now no longer called ‘a stone’ {herm} as I used to be, but I am called ‘Hermes’.”[11] Galen’s prefatory dichotomy and his epimythium make clear the right choice for the sculptor: sell the stone statue to the man who wants to make it part of a temple of the god Hermes.

Galen makes broad conceptual use of the fable about the Hermes statue.  The speaking Hermes statue is a piece of stone, but also more than a stone.  It is like a rational soul in a physical human body.  The choice for the deployment of the statue is more than a choice among different uses of a stone memorial, for the stone itself speaks.[12]  In the fable preserved in Greek, the Hermes herm declares to its sculptor:

Well, my fate hangs in the balance: it is up to you whether I will become a dead man or a god! [13]

Galen explicitly relates that choice to a man’s choice in ordering his tripartite soul to be like a “brute breast” or a god.  The brute beast, the dead man, and the decaying human body in a tomb figure a person with a badly ordered soul.  Placing oneself in a godly temple means ordering one’s soul to become like a statue consecrated to Hermes, with one’s rational soul imitating the god Hermes associated with the material statue.  The idea is like the Christian claim that a Christian’s body is a temple of the holy spirit.[14]  Centuries of philosophical battle have created opposing fronts of materialism and dualism.  For Galen, no such battles occur within what today would be called a fable of conventional pagan idolatry.

Galen had little regard for poetic innovation.  Galen favored among poets the classical poet-dramatists Euripides and Aristophanes.  Galen produced a dictionary of words from Old Comedy and forty-eight large books on words from classical prose works.  Galen’s lexicons were intended clarify the meaning and use of words, including technical terms.[15]  Hellenistic poetry, in contrast, Galen scarcely mentioned across all his work.  He seems to have implicitly ridiculed Hellenistic love elegy.  Galen valued poetic form as an existing feature of the world.  He valued little inspired poets stretching words into new, unclear uses.[16]

In his deployment of the Hermes fable, Galen implicitly challenged the poetic legacy of the pioneering and celebrated Alexandrian scholar-poet Philitas of Cos.  Philitas compiled a book of “unruly tongues”: anomalous meanings, words from the margins, and exotic lore.[17]  That project worked at an opposite scholarly pole from Galen’s massive work on lexicons and Galen’s concern to avoid ambiguity in language.  Philitas had a reputation as a scholar so engrossed in his work that he would forget to eat and drink.  A Greek rhetorician and grammarian writing about the time of Galen exploited Philitas’ enduring reputation for abstruse learning and emaciation to tease another:

Ulpian, you always refuse to take your share of food until you’ve learned whether the word for that dish is ancient.  Like Philitas of Cos, therefore, . . . you risk withering away some day.  For he became utterly emaciated through these studies and died, as the epigram in front of his memorial makes clear:
“Stranger, I am Philitas. The deceiving word caused my death,
and the evening’s thoughts extended deep into the night.” [18]

Galen urged rational control of the appetitive soul.  He did not intend that a person with a well-governed soul would be the butt of thin jokes and die from starvation.[19]  Galen’s invocation of the fable about the Hermes statue contrasts with an early Hellenistic epigram about a statue honoring Philitas:

Hecataeus made this bronze like Philitas in every way,
accurate down to the tips of his toes
in size and frame alike describing this investigator
on a human scale. He included nothing from the physique of heroes.
No, with the straightedge of truth and all his skill he cast
the old man full of cares.
He seems about to speak — how fully his features are elaborated! —
alive, though of bronze, this old man:
I stand here dedicated by Ptolemy, god and king at once,
for the sake of the Muses, the Coan man. [20]

In this epigram, men become like gods through being a great political leader (Ptolemy), or through a great political leader’s recognizing a great poet (Philitas) for the sake of other gods.  Galen the scholar-physician did not celebrate such persons.  Unlike the Hermes herm, the statue of Philitas is full-length and accurately depicts the deceased man.  Galen, in contrast, instructed persons on how to reform themselves to become like a god in soul rather than in physique.  Both the statues of Hermes and Philitas speak.  Statues coming alive and speaking was a well-established literary convention in Hellenistic epigrams.  In the Hermes fable, the statue spoke in a dream.[21]  Galen didn’t admire the Hermes fable as inspired poetic imagination.  He valued it as an ancient popular poetic form for instructing readers in the connection between universal human nature and a godly man’s soul.

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[1] Singer (1997), p. 526, noted that Mario Vergetti described:

a clear discrepancy {in the Galenic corpus} between the anatomical-physiological model of a body functioning perfectly and in accordance with its divine nature, and the humoral-pathological model of a body composed of a mixture of elements and continually susceptible to illness.

Id.  inquired:

do the different kinds of Galenic text entail different – conflicting or incommensurable – physical theories, or are they to be explained as manifestations of a single underlying theory, the differences arising from context?

Id., p. 541, tentatively concluded that, with respect to levels of analysis, Galen exhibits “constant, inquisitive inconclusiveness.”

[2] The importance of rhetoric and poetry in scientifically styled works, e.g. E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and The Social Conquest of Earth, is greatly under-appreciated.

[3] Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated the book into Arabic before 842.  Stern (1956) comprehensively describes the Arabic sources.  Mattock (1972) is an English translation.  In Arabic transliteration the book is known as Kitab al-akhlaq, in Greek Περὶ ἠθω̑ν, transliterated, Peri Ethon; in Latin, De Moribus or De Indole Animae (Sachau’s translation of al-Biruni’s attribution); and in English, On Traits of Character, The Ethics or On Ethics, or On Dispositions.  Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, HP p. 189, records an Arabic translations of Galen: “‘On Morals,’ in four chapters, describing different moral defects, their causes, symptoms and ways to counteract them.”  This description probably refers to Peri Ethon, which is in four chapters.

[4] Galen, Peri Ethon, trans. Mattock (1972) p. 237.  The other book is Galen’s The Views of Hippocrates and Plato.

[5] Id. p. 248. The word “angels” is probably an Islamic replacement for the underlying Greek term “gods.”  The eleventh-century Muslim scholar Al-Biruni noted, “We have already mentioned that they {Greeks} called the angels gods.”  He also recorded and noted:

Johannes Grammaticus says in his refutation of Proclus : “The Greeks gave the name of gods to the visible bodies in heaven, as many barbarians do. Afterwards, when they came to philosophise on the abstract ideas of the world of thought, they called these by the name of gods.”

Hence we must necessarily infer that being deified means something like the state of angels, according to our notions.

Trans. Sachau (1910) vol. 1, pp. 95, 36.  See in subsequent quote above an example of the replacement of “god” with “star” in the Arabic translation of the Greek.

[6] Id. p. 248-9.

[7] Id. p. 249 (including previous two quotes).

[8] Galen often explicitly marks verbatim quotation.  He frequently does so with the phrase kata lexin (in these words).  Totelin (2012), p. 310.  “kata lexin” is a plausible Greek source phrase for “it is said” above.

[9] Galen, Peri Ethon, trans. Mattock (1972) p. 249.  Al-Biruni’s Indica quotes the fable from Galen, but doesn’t include Galen’s epimythium.  See trans. Sachau (1910) v. I, pp. 123-4. In Galen, metaphor is “conspicuously associated with linguistic, scientific, communicative, and moral failure,” yet Galen frequently uses metaphors. von Staden (1995) pp. 500, 504-5, 517.  Peri Ethon includes many metaphors, including unusual animal metaphors for a tripartite soul’s functioning.  Galen favored historical linguistic study and “traditional, ordinary, literal usage.”  Id. p. 516.  The Hermes herm as a metaphor for the soul and man has the Galenic merit of being derived from traditional, popular moral teaching (Aesop).

[10] Laura Gibb’s wonderful Aesopica website provides the fable, entitled “Hermes, the Sculptor and His Dream,” in English translation (in conjunction with Gibbs (2002)) and in Greek and Latin source texts.  Babrius, the earliest source text (Greek), is dated between the third century BGC and the third century GC. Galen’s use of the fable suggests that it has classical-era origins, or earlier.  Honoring statues of Hermes is a motif that appears in four other fables attributed to Aesop:  Hermes and the Statues, Hermes and the Dog, The Statue of Hermes and the Treasure, and The Man and the Statue of Hermes.  The Aesop fable The Donkey Who Carried the God concerns an unidentified carved image of a god.

[11] In On Sophisms in Diction (De sophism), Galen explicitly itemized and deplored homonymies as one of seven sources of “lexical and sentential ambiguity.”  von Staden (1994) p. 514. Just as for metaphors, Galen seems willing to use a homonym if it is associated with traditional, popular language. The statue’s homonymic statement isn’t in Babrius’ transmission of the Aesop fable.  It may well be a Galenic insertion serving Galen’s implicit thrust against innovative Hellenistic epigram and elegy.  Id., p. 515, notes in Galen “a dense texture of historical intertextuality — an intertextuality which often, though far from always, is strongly agonal.”

[12] Walzer (1954), p. 250, in a remarkably tendentious reading of Galen’s Hermes fable, declares:

The hand of a philosopher, of the Porch or the Academy, is also to be noticed in a small but significant detail in the fable as reported by Galen. The idol of Hermes is to be a ‘memorial’ of the god: its function is to remind people of his existence.  In no other way can image worship be maintained and defended in an enlightened age.  The image has no longer any magical powers, but human nature is too weak to do without this symbolic representation of the divine if it is not to forget about it.

Moreover, id., pp. 243-4, misreads al-Biruni’s quotation of Galen amid al-Biruni’s discussion of Greek and Hindu idolatry:

It interested him {al-Biruni} that the figure of Hermes was to be a memorial of the deceased man or a memorial of a god, and nothing else but a memorial, and for this reason alone he quoted Galen.

Al-Biruni would have been sympathetic with Walzer’s apparent intellectual bias, but al-Biruni treated the texts less tendentiously.

[13] Aesop, “Hermes, the Sculptor and His Dream,” Greek text of Babrius, trans. Gibbs (2002).

[14] 1 Corinthian 6:19.

[15] De Lacy (1966) p. 265.  Galen’s newly recovered work, On the Avoidance of Grief, sec. 20, 23b-28, indicates the importance that Galen attached to these lexicons.  Trans. Rothschild & Thompson (2011).  Galen’s concern for linguistic clarity is also apparent in Galen’s On Fallacies, trans. Edlow (1977).

[16] Totelin (2012), pp. 312-3, observes:

the verse recipe (elegiac couplets) for Theriac by Andromachus the Elder, which Galen transmits in Antidotes, is so unclear that it warrants a rendition into prose (by Andromachus the Younger) and into ‘simpler’ verse (by Damocrates). According to modern standards, the poetry of Andromachus is more beautiful, and for that reason it has been studied more, but it is Damocrates’ plain Iambic poetry that appealed to Galen. … Galen tends to appreciate poetry less for its beauty than for its utility: Damocrates’ poetry is more useful for didactic purposes than that of Andromachus and therefore more praiseworthy.

[17] Bing (2003) provides detailed discussion and the characterization of this work.

[18] Id. pp. 331-3, quoting Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 9.401d-e.  See id. pp. 331-3 for further discussion of the “emaciated professor.”

[19] Cameron (1995) App. B. discusses thin-person jokes, which were common in ancient comedy. Bing (2003), p. 333, points out that the specific figure of the emaciated professor seems to have emerged in early Hellenistic elegy and epigram.

[20] Id. pp. 331-2, quoting an epigram of Posidippus on a statue of Philitas of Cos (“the Coan man”), from the newly discovered Milan Papyrus, P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 (ancient Greek source text, translations into modern languages).  Speaking, seemingly alive statues are a motif in Hellenistic epigram.  See, e.g. the Andriantopoiika section of the Milan Papyrus.

[21] Galen personally reported receiving in a dream instruction from Asclepius.  Oberhelman (1983) p. 37 observes:

Dreams are fully incorporated into Galen’s medical science and play an active role in his treatment of illnesses. They also proved to be of crucial importance for him personally throughout his life and career.

The Aesop epigram that Babrius transmits also has Hermes speaking to the sculptor in a dream, but Hermes speaks more extensively in Galen’s version.


Bing, Peter. 2003. “The Unruly Tongue: Philitas of Cos as Scholar and Poet.”  Classical Philology. 98 (4): 330-348.

Cameron, Alan. 1995. Callimachus and his critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

De Lacy, Phillip. 1966.  “Galen and the Greek Poets.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies.  7(3): 259-266.

Edlow, Robert Blair. 1977. Galen on language and ambiguity: an English translation of Galen’s “De captionibus (On fallacies)” with introduction, text, and commentary. Leiden: Brill.

Gibbs, Laura. 2002. Aesop’s Fables: A new translation. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford.

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.

Mattock, J.N. 1972.  “A Translation of the Arabic Epitome of Galen’s Book Peri Ethon.” Stern, Samuel M., and Richard Walzer.  Islamic philosophy and the classical tradition: essays presented by his friends and pupils to Richard Walzer on his 70th birthday. Oxford: Cassirer.

Oberhelman, Steven M. 1983. “Galen, On Diagnosis from Dreams.”  Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 38 (1): 36-47.

Rothschild, Clare K, and Trevor W. Thompson. 2011. “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief.’” Early Christianity, vol. 2, pp. 110–129.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Singer, P. N. 1997. “Levels of Explanation in Galen.” Classical Quarterly. 47 (2): 525-542.

Stern, S. M. 1956. “Some Fragments of Galen’s on Dispositions (Περὶ ἠθω̑ν) in Arabic.”  Classical Quarterly. 6 (2): 91-101.

Totelin, Laurence M.V. 2012. “And to end on a poetic note: Galen’s authorial strategies in the pharmacological books.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A. 43 (2): 307-315.

von Staden, Heinrich. 1995. “Science as text, science as history: Galen on metaphor.” Pp. 499-518 in Ph.J. van der Eijk, H.F.J. Horstmanshoff & P.H. Schrijvers, eds. Ancient medicine in its social and cultural context.  Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Walzer, R. 1954. “A Diatribe of Galen.” The Harvard Theological Review. 47 (4): 243-254.