Galen and Paul 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.

*  *  *   *  *

Related posts:


[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, were 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.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current month ye@r day *