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Philosophy and Medicine in the Greek medical compilations of Late Antiquity

Subproject by Dr. Sean Coughlin

This project looks at the interactions of philosophy and medicine in the medical compilations of Oribasius of Pergamum, Aetius of Amida and Paul of Aegina. These works not only transmit writings of natural philosophy otherwise lost (including fragments of lost works of Aristotle), but they also preserve the changing dynamics of knowledge transfer between philosophy and medicine at different times and places. The aim of this subproject is to understand these changes in light of the discourse-generating momentum of praxis-oriented medicine: how concerns about transmitting the practice of medicine in writing (regimen, therapeutics and pharmacology) determined the selection, arrangement, and transfer of natural philosophical knowledge within medical compilations.

The project will focus on the writings of Oribasius preserved in a neglected fourteenth-century manuscript, the Codex Parisinus graecus 2237. This manuscript contains excerpts from Oribasius’ Collectiones medicae (Medical Collections) that are otherwise lost—the so-called ‘libri incerti’ or ‘uncertain books’—and among these excerpts are natural philosophical and physiological writings from Aristotle, Diocles of Carystus, Athenaeus of Attalia, Rufus of Ephesus and Galen of Pergamum. These excerpts cover topics such as the environment and climate, the elemental composition of the human body, and (sometimes conflicting) theories of reproduction and embryology, along with more practically oriented discussions towards regimen and diet. On the one hand, the material in this manuscript is unlike what we find in the medical compilations of Aetius and Paul: while there is some overlap of practical material, the theoretical reflections are almost entirely absent in the later writers. However, the order of the excerpts in the manuscript is unlike what we know independently about the order of presentation found in Oribasius’ extant writings and is likely determined by a distinct practical orientation of the manuscript’s author or source. The manuscript, therefore, preserves two moments of knowledge transfer: from Hellenistic and early Imperial philosophy and medicine to Late Antiquity and from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Given the complex nature of manuscript Parisinus Graecus 2237 and the ‘libri incerti’ it transmits, the objective of the first phase of this project is to characterize the manuscript: both with respect to its materiality (its provenance, composition, author, history and sources) and its contents (its topics, authors, style of excerption and arrangement). The objective of the second phase is to compare the excerpts and the arrangement of the texts within the manuscript with parallels in the extant writings of Oribasius, Aetius and Paul. The result is a clearer picture of medical writing’s practical turn and its relation to natural philosophy.