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Enchanted nature, dissected nature: the case of Galen’s anatomical theology

Abstract

Through the historical portrait of Galen, I argue that even an enchanted nature does not prevent the performance of violence against nature. Galen (129–c. 216 CE), the great physician-philosopher of antiquity, is best known for his systematization and innovation of the Hippocratic medical tradition, whose thought was the reigning medical orthodoxy from the medieval period into the Renaissance. His works on anatomy were the standard that Vesalius’ works on anatomy overturned. What is less known about Galen’s study of anatomy, however, is its philosophical and theological edge. In this paper, I show that it is precisely because nature is enchanted that Galen undertakes the grisly practices of anatomical dissection and vivisection, which entail violence against nature. First, I illustrate the violent character of Galen’s anatomical experiments. Second, I elucidate Galen’s anatomical methodology as a form of philosophizing and theologizing with a scalpel. Third, I explicate the importance of the demonstration of divine teleology that anatomical dissection reveals. Fourth, I sketch how anatomical dissection as a way of knowing nature and God becomes a kind of anatomical, liturgical theology. I conclude that, at least for Galen, an enchanted nature is not in itself exempt from violence.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For an account of how modern medicine follows a logic of nihilism, see [3].

  2. 2.

    In contrast to Weber’s view, the historical account provided by Peter Harrison distinguishes two differing conceptions of the relationship between science and religion: (1) the early modern relationship that sees science and religion as competing bodies of knowledge, and (2) the pre-modern relationship that views science and religion as complementary intellectual and moral virtues of scientia and religio, respectively. In this way, the pre-modern conception of science as a way to know God does not entail disenchantment but rather strengthens an enchanted view of the cosmos. Through the study of nature, one could ascend to knowledge of God; see [5].

  3. 3.

    For the most comprehensive biography of Galen to date, see [6].

  4. 4.

    After the death of Galen, systematic anatomical dissection ended for reasons that remain unclear, and the practice did not arise again until the thirteenth century CE.

  5. 5.

    However, according to J.S. Wilkie, Galen may not have been a great experimentalist [7, pp. 47–57]. Heinrich von Staden argues that the experimental method likely started in the third century BCE [8].

  6. 6.

    Because Galen based most of his anatomical discoveries on animal dissection, he made mistakes in human anatomy. Galen’s almost exclusive use of animals provided the context for Vesalius’s own discoveries of anatomy based on human dissection that overturned aspects of Galenic orthodoxy.

  7. 7.

    Galen describes numerous other vivisection experiments. He removes the heart from the thorax to demonstrate that the animal can still function, albeit for a short time, disproving the theory that the heart is the source of the nerves [10, p. 184]. Galen destroys and manipulates organs in living animals to prove the brain is the control center [11, p. 127].

  8. 8.

    Elsewhere, Galen echoes the unpleasant expressions on the face of vivisected animals: “For in all animals which have a larynx, the activity of the nerves and the muscles is one and the same, but the loathsomeness of the expression in vivisection is not the same for all animals” [12, p. 85].

  9. 9.

    For more on the performance aspect of Galen’s public vivisections, see [13].

  10. 10.

    Cf. [12, pp. 85–86].

  11. 11.

    The modern medical diagnosis is likely osteomyelitis, which is a bone infection typically treated with antibiotics alone or surgical resection plus antibiotics, depending on the severity.

  12. 12.

    For more on how the anatomy lab shapes anatomical thinking in contemporary medical education, see [16; 17, chs. 1–2].

  13. 13.

    “Training in anatomy” is a word play on Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity [19].

  14. 14.

    Cf. [9, pp. 78–79].

  15. 15.

    Galen’s conception of everlasting life echoes Aristotle’s notion that living animals attain immortality through reproduction of the species in perpetuity (De Anima 2.4.415a25–b7).

  16. 16.

    Galen appears to equate usefulness with physiological function in the context of the whole body: “The usefulness of the nerves, then, would lie in conveying the faculty of sensation and motion from its source to the several parts; that of the arteries is to maintain the natural heat and nourish the psychic pneuma; and the veins were formed to produce the blood and also to convey it to all the parts” [14, p. 89].

  17. 17.

    For texts in which Galen explicitly refers to Jews and Christians, along with discussion, see Richard Walzer’s dated but still valuable work [27].

  18. 18.

    For Galen’s explicit language of providence, see, e.g., [14, p. 96].

  19. 19.

    This work only survives as a fragment in Arabic.

  20. 20.

    Beauty as order echoes Galen’s view of the beautiful soul that is perfectly balanced.

  21. 21.

    Eleusis and Samothrace were the names and locations of two prominent classical Greek mystery cults. Eleusis was a cult of Demeter and Kore, located near Athens; Samothrace was a cult of the Great Gods, located on the island of Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea. Initiation into these mystery cults provided for extraordinary experience through ritual practices that allowed for a better afterlife; see [31, pp. 250–255].

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Kornu, K. Enchanted nature, dissected nature: the case of Galen’s anatomical theology. Theor Med Bioeth 39, 453–471 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11017-018-9475-7

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Keywords

  • Galen
  • Max Weber
  • Anatomical dissection
  • Liturgy
  • Enchantment
  • Medicine