Galen and the Crazy

Next up is Galen: On the Natural Faculties (Loeb Classical Library). It's another Loeb but aside from the original Great Books volume, it's just about the only translation available. The remarks in my previous post about Hippocrates and the respective Loeb editions more or less apply equally to this volume of Galen. The only thing I would add is that this volume of Galen has a very extensive introduction and many useful footnotes, even compared to the Loeb norm. A.J. Brock is to be commended for his thorough work.

Galen was a Greek born in the 2nd century AD, well after the Roman conquest of Greece. His father was well-educated and reportedly virtuous architect. His mother, on the other hand, was said to be an irrational and angry woman who caused no end of grief for Galen's father. Learning by example and counter-example, Galen sought to emulate his father as much as possible and to shy away from the behaviours of his mother. As a young man, he wandered the major hubs of learning in the Eastern Mediterranean. After returning home and working as a surgeon for gladiators, he eventually made his way to Rome. He did not like what he found.

Much like the days of Plato, the best wisdom of those that had gone before was often ignored in Rome in favour of novel theories peddled by the reigning sophists of the day. Galen pitted his knowledge of Hippocrates, supplemented by his own experiments, against these sophists with limited results in his own day. In one instance, he argued against a prevailing notion that the bladder was a useless organ. Galen attempted to argue that he had seen the bladder swell with urine in animals and further that Aristotle says that nature does nothing without reason. His opponent remained unconvinced. Galen resorted to literally slicing open some poor animal right in front of the man. He then tied something around the animal's penis to keep it from urinating. He patched the animal back up and then reopened it later to show that the bladder was now swollen. He then untied the animal's penis and urine immediately came forth. The animal's bladder deflated. Galen's opponent was still not convinced.

Supporting arguments with evidence from vivisections was a favored tactic of Galen's. Empiricism, however, is not a fool-proof method against certain types of minds. Galen persisted in his arguments. He won great favor among some. He even became the personal physician of the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whom we will read a work of later. It is hard not to strongly believe in truths one has witnessed first hand and can reproduce on command, provided a dog can be found quickly. And yet some people will always remain immune to reason. It was a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The expected social catastrophe ensued and Galen was forced to flee for his life from the other medical practitioners in Rome. Marcus Aurelius would later beg him to come back but he refused.

So, the moral of the story is that while you can lead a sophist to a dog's piss-filled bladder, but you can't make him ~~drink~~ believe that it plays a role in dealing with urine. And adherence to the truth can be so enraging for the indoctrinated that not even the protection of one of the greatest Roman emperors can be counted on to preserve truth's advocate.