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Reviewed by:
  • Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease
  • Leonid Zhmud
Philip J. van der Eijk. Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 418. $95.00. ISBN 0-521-81800-1.

This volume contains a collection of Philip van der Eijk’s eleven previously published articles on the interrelations between philosophy and medicine in antiquity. The papers are as good as one can expect from the author, who has made already such important contributions to the study of ancient medicine as a highly valuable collection of essays by prominent scholars on historiography of medicine in antiquity (1999) and a two-volume edition of Diocles of Carystus’ fragments (2001). This volume, dealing mostly with the classical period (Hippocratic corpus, Diocles, Aristotle) and with some figures of late antiquity (Galen, Caelius Aurelianus), will no doubt be welcomed by all the specialists in the field. To make the papers more easily accessible for students, the author provides English translations of all the quoted texts and an extensive introduction featuring recent developments in the study of ancient medicine. I will concentrate on the introduction, since it raises more doubts in me than all the other papers taken together.

Van der Eijk is very enthusiastic about the last thirty years, which are presented as highly innovative, and quite critical about previous scholarship, often characterized as naïve, anachronistic, old-fashioned, simplistic, positivist, presentist, etc. The new scholarship is much better, not because it finally superseded the antiquated editions such as Kühn’s Galen (1821–33) and Littré’s Hippocrates (1839–61) or finished Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, started 1901 by Diels—since it did not—but because it changed the approach to the ancient medicine from appropriating to alienating, from textual and content-oriented to contextual. “Postmodernism, plu ralism, cultural relativism and comparativism” brought about healthy changes, “the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘pseudo-science’ has been abandoned as historically unfruitful” (6), so that now a historian of Greek medicine is freed from the belief of its rationality, its superiority over traditional healthcare systems and thus of its greater relevance for modern medicine. This change “has made the subject much more interesting and accessible to a wider group of scholars and students” (5–6).

I agree with van der Eijk that these developments have taken place, but disagree with him that they were beneficial for the study of ancient medicine or that they were as important in the field as he claims. As a matter of fact, I did not find in his papers any marked influence of the “new age.” The interaction of medicine and philosophy is a traditional topic in the classical scholarship, which is confirmed by the fifty-page bibliography including all the relevant studies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is true that an average history of medicine was a success story, but van der Eijk’s history of the recent research is even much more so. I am not sure that it is Derrida (or Lacan, or Bourdieu, etc.) who has to liberate us from our old-fashioned approach towards the “Greek miracle.” On the contrary, as J. Rist pertinently noted on the history of philosophy, “It is against this tyranny of the present, of the up-to-date and overconfident teacher of philosophy, whether he sells some brand of analysis, Straussianism, or Heideggerian existentialism, that a proper study of the history of philosophy, and of Greek philosophy in particular, can protect us” (J. M. Rist, “Taking Aristotle’s Development Seriously,”in W. Wians [ed.], Aristotle’s Philosophical Development: Problems and Methods [London 1996] 362). [End Page 90]

If, however, postmodernism and cultural relativism are really doomed to win, this can easily lead not to the flourishing of the history of Greek medicine but rather to disregarding it for the sake of the other traditional healthcare systems—Sumerian, Hittite, or Assyrian—over which it has no superiority. Since we have not reached this age of equality, I can only recommend reading attentively all eleven articles of this collection.

Leonid Zhmud
Institute for the History of Science, St. Petersburg


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