Ars Brevis: Greco-roman and Islamicate Medicine in time
Writing to his patron the Sultan Saladin, who famously recaptured the city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, the Egyptian doctor Ibn Jumayʿ (d. 1198) explains the reasons for why medicine ceased to be studied in the ancient Greco-Roman world. He conjectures that, after the Byzantine author Oribasius (d. 390/400 CE), ‘books on the craft – that is in the form of compendia, digests, synopses, and the like – became numerous, whereas Hippocrates’ and Galen’s works on it fell into oblivion’. Ibn Jumayʿ’s account belongs to the ‘Alexandria to Baghdad’ complex of narratives that go back to the ʿAbbāsid caliphate (8th-10th c.) and purportedly give a history of the transfer of Greco-Roman medicine and philosophy to the medieval Middle East. It has been argued that there was a political motive to the ʿAbbāsids’ ascription of the proliferation of Greek medical epitomes to the laziness and apathy of later Greek medical students and their patrons: by presenting the ʿAbbāsids as the true successors of the Greeks, the narrative serves to justify their expansionist policy against their contemporary rival, the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, who could be regarded as having a more direct claim to this title. Nonetheless, this depiction of abridgment as an intellectual failing belies the importance that brevity has been accorded in medical discourse from the Hippocratic writers of classical Greece (5th/4th c. BCE) to the medieval Islamicate period. The Hippocratic Aphorisms, the most famous economizing medical text of pre-modernity, suggests that brevity was a response to medicine’s temporal problem, which is encapsulated in its opening lines: ‘life is short, the art long’ (in Greek, ho bios brachus, hē de technē makrē; translated into Latin as vita brevis, ars longa). Faced with this temporal incongruity, doctors, as the classicist Harald Weinrich observes, had either to ‘lengthen all too short a life, or shorten all too long an art’.
My project at the CHS examines how pre-modern doctors in Greco-Roman and Islamicate (i.e., areas under Muslim rule) lands expressed medicine in writing when faced with such temporal deadlines. In particular, I am concerned with how epitomization – the composition of brief texts in the form of synopses, summaries, and aphorisms – is a way for medical theorists and practitioners to overcome this time crunch. In line with scholarship from sociology, I do not understand time to be a transcendent concept but rather a product of social phenomena. To illustrate what I mean by this, take, for example, Aphorisms 1.1. While this snippet seems to set a biological deadline – a human life (bios) – around which medicine should be structured, this timeline is not invariable and its referent is unexpressed: the standard interpretation of the text views medicine’s limit as the doctor’s bios, but it may refer as well to their patients’ bioi. In this latter reading, the doctor confronts a new deadline with each new patient. Furthermore, a single clinical case may see a doctor working against or in different temporalities: for instance, a fever passes through different stages and culminates in a krisis (‘turning point’); the seasons (chronos, which may denote something similar to the modern concept of astronomical, or clock, time) can affect the virulence and prevalence of certain diseases; and there is a ‘right time’ (kairos) to apply a remedy. Therefore, to understand how perceptions of time paucity shape medical writing, my project takes as its starting point a study of the temporal terms marking the relationship between doctor, patient, and disease.
Scientists today seem to construct their authority, in part, from the brevity of their speech and written communication. As freshman college courses on ‘writing in the sciences’ advise, scientists should avoid the affective and verbose style of the humanities by keeping their writing brief and factual. The assumption underlying this advice is that science is objective and, because of its use to society, its practitioners do not have time for empty words. Their brief discourse distinguishes their knowledge as more truthful than the humanist’s. This presentation has real-world effects: as more ‘valuable’ disciplines, the sciences are often allocated more funding at the university level and enjoy more prestige, and thus political and cultural influence, in society. The second objective of my project at the CHS is to demonstrate how this modern discourse, which privileges scientists as fact-producers over all other knowers (for example, poets, politicians, and philosophers), is prefigured in pre-modern ‘epitomatory’ medical writings, which are unified in their search to compress the multifaceted field of medicine into a set of general truths. My goal is to unpack how this kind of writing invests authors with authority by portraying them as lawgivers who have discovered the fundamental truths of their discipline after traversing it in its entirety.
Aileen Das is currently an assistant professor in Classical Studies and an affiliate of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Interested in how knowledge is formed, Aileen’s first book Galen and the Arabic Reception of Plato’s Timaeus (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press) looks at the polemical use of Plato’s cosmological dialogue by the Greek doctor Galen of Pergamum (d. c. 217) to contest philosophy’s exclusive right to define, describe, and explain the different domains of reality. I argue that, in so doing, Galen sets out to establish medicine as a reliable authority on not only the body but also the soul and the wider cosmos. Moreover, this study shows that Galen’s engagement with the Timaeus became a touchstone for Islamicate thinkers’ own disciplinary agendas. Aileen has been awarded fellowships from the Institute of Advanced Study at Warwick University, the Warburg Institute in London, and the Humanities Institute at the University of Michigan. She has published a number of articles on medieval Islamicate thinkers’ creative refiguring of Greco-Roman medicine.