Body and Mind Seminar Fall 2020 with Professor Brooke Holmes, Princeton University | Holism, Sympathy, and Organism in Ancient Greek Medicine and Philosophy

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the fourth meeting of the Body and Mind Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Brooke Holmes for her talk, titled “Holism, Sympathy, and Organism in Ancient Greek Medicine and Philosophy.”

Holmes’s presentation was part of a larger book project she is working on that focuses on the claim that sympathy (sumpatheia) emerges as a result of the problem of the complex whole: the question of how we can have unity when we don’t have what philosophers call a mereological atom, a whole that has no proper parts. In other words, how does one unify heterogeneous parts? Another part of the project argues that sympathy, as Holmes tracks it through various discourses around what we would call “nature” (phusis) from the fourth century BCE until about the third century CE, becomes a thread for tracing the articulation of a concept that she calls “capital-N Nature”: a conception of Nature that is a trans-individual, organizing (“cosmo-poetic”) force. The Greek material prior to this Nature is almost exclusively concerned with the nature of x, specific nature, not Nature in the way we think of as trans-individual. Her project, then, is looking at how the concept of sympathy is tied to the formation of Nature as trans-individual and organizing, which is to say a kind of mindful force that can impose structure or order on different parts and make them into a whole. Following the emergence of sympathy helps us see that the model for this complex but unified whole is the living organism.

It is also worth noting that a big part of this larger project is philological. For example, Holmes notes the first appearance of the noun sumpatheia at the end of the fourth century BCE, with the verb first appearing in Plato in the beginning of the fourth century BCE. While sympathy has been historically read as a symptom of magical thinking, located outside of history, Holmes instead argues that the specific emergence of the concept of sympathy is tethered to a historical-conceptual complex of discourses, predominantly written in Greek, that were organized around inquiry into nature, life, and the cosmos.

In her presentation, Holmes discussed schematically how the problem of sympathy emerges in the context of the living being. Sympathy becomes very important in understanding how the living thing emerges as a problem of a unity of parts. She focused on two conceptual axes to draw out how this is the case.

1. The first axis looks at the structures that allow for sympathy within a living organism:

a. Part to part. The relationship between discourses that are interested in how one part suffers together with another part is called translocal sympathy, which is often seen in medical writers, especially in how one part of the body may transmit its pathos to another part. Two different models of part-to-part sympathy emerge in the Hippocratic Corpus: (1) disease is a fluid which travels through vessels, and (2) the reason A and B share a pathos is by virtue of their kinship; that is, by virtue of a privileged and non-trivial relationship.

b. Part to whole. This structure arises in cases where the part-to-part relationships expand throughout the whole body, creating the conditions for a part-to-whole relationship. Both the model of vessels and of kinship can be amplified, whereby all the parts can be understood as parts of a unified whole. One example of this is when a finger is cut but the whole being suffers. Part of the importance of this, which can already be seen in Book 5 of Plato’s Republic, is that the experience of pain as a whole is proof of unity.

2. The second axis focuses on what Holmes called the common ground, which is a different way of understanding the question of how things suffer together, and it emerges in the form of asking what is it that they have in common and how is that affect transferred. This is particularly relevant to the problem that arises in Aristotle, namely that of how a material body and a non-corporeal soul share anything, because the concept of sympathy is latter summoned to demonstrate that the soul must partake in corporeality in order for the soul to sympathize with the body, and vice versa. In other words, the fact that there is sympathy proves that there is interaction between the two. Arguments “from sympathy” designed to prove the corporeality of the soul include examples of sense-perception, emotions, and the diseases of the body which also affect the soul. In addition to arguments that look to soul–body sympathy as evidence for corporeality as common ground, both the Stoics and the Epicureans developed more robust accounts of sympathy as an expression of the shared life of the body and the soul—that is, the dense interweaving of the two that makes life possible.

Holmes’s talk elicited several questions with compelling back-and-forths. One question related to whether there is a relationship between sympathy and passivity and whether that in turn is related to fears of vulnerability. Another question asked whether there is a particular set of metaphors used when talking about sympathy in the Greek context.

Recommended reading:

Canguilhem, Georges. 2008. Knowledge of Life. Edited by Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers. Translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg. New York.

Harte, Verity. 2002. Plato on Parts and Wholes: The Metaphysics of Structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holmes, Brooke. 2013. “Disturbing Connections: Sympathetic Affections, Mental Disorder, and Galen’s Elusive Soul.” In Mental Disorders in Classical Antiquity, ed. W. V. Harris, 147-176. Leiden: Brill.

Holmes, Brooke. 2014a. “Galen on the Chances of Life.” In Eikos: Probabilities, Hypotheticals, and Counterfactuals in Ancient Greek Thought, ed. Victoria Wohl, 230-250. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, Brooke. 2014b. “Proto-Sympathy in the Hippocratic Corpus.” In Hippocrate et les hippocratismes: médecine, religion, société: Actes du XIVe Colloque International Hippocratique, ed. Jacques Jouanna and Michel Zink, 123-138. Paris: Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres.

Holmes, Brooke. 2021. “Holism, Sympathy, and the Living Being in Ancient Greek Medicine and Philosophy.” In Ancient Holisms, ed. Chiara Thumiger, 48-84. Leiden: Brill.

King, R. A. H., ed. 2006. Common to Body and Soul: Philosophical Approaches to Living Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Berlin: De Gruyter.

von Staden, Heinrich. 2000. “Body, Soul, and Nerves: Epicurus, Herophilus, Erasistratus, the Stoics, and Galen.” In Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to the Enlightenment, ed. J. P. Wright and P. Potter, 79–116. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wolfe, C. T.,  and M. Terada. 2008. “The Animal Economy as Object and Program in Montpellier Vitalism.” Science in Context 21.4:537–579.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Body and Mind Seminar Series. Questions of how our bodies relate to our minds and spirits are of central importance to several disciplines and are becoming an important focus of study in several areas of Classics. This fall semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies in conceptualizing perspectives on the body and its relation to the mind, soul, or spirit in the ancient Mediterranean. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, the history of sport, epic, gender medicine, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the series schedule.