Thursday, September 24, 2009
The Stoic Science of Anatomy - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.21a
Meditation VIII.21a - The Stoic Science of Anatomy - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Turn it (the body) inside out, and see what kind of thing it is; and when it has grown old, what kind of thing it becomes, and when it is diseased.1
(1) Before the European Renaissance, most research on human physiology and internal anatomy was based primarily on the work of the Stoic anatomist and physician Claudius Galen (c. 130 CE - 200 CE) - known also as Galen of Pergamum. Galen was the personal physician of Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Although anatomy was very important to Galen, "he did not dissect humans because of the negative social and religious stigmas associated with experimentation on the human body, but he did perform dissections and vivisection experiments on many animals including apes, goats, dogs, and pigs" (Hume, University of Dayton). At the age of 28, Galen was appointed as the physician to the gladiators. "Galen's reliance on anatomy and experiment showed his belief in the value of observation in medicine. He argued that diseases were manifestations of impaired anatomical functioning, so in order to diagnose and to treat disease, a fundamental understanding of the human structure was critical" (Hume, University of Dayton).
The detailed anatomical contributions of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and later by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) were based on the dissections of human cadavers and documented not only the structures of the body and their functions, but the various effects of diseases and aging. Nonetheless, the scientific impulse for this program of research was really set into motion fourteen centuries earlier by the pioneering work of Galen as reflected in meditations like this one. The Stoics Galen and Marcus Aurelius did not regard the human body as repulsive. It is - like everything else in nature - subject to changes brought about by aging and by disease. Marcus understood that these changes are governed by the laws that govern human biology and as such are part of the laws of nature that all Stoics must come to understand. What aging and disease do to the body might not seem pleasing to the uninformed, but the laws that operate on each of us are - in Stoic parlance - divine, and infallible and perfect. Modern scientists who study the body today do in fact marvel at its structure, economy, and beauty.
This is the underlying intention of the meditation. In studying nature we do begin to unravel mystery. We are filled with awe. We are overwhelmed with wonder. The Stoic takes these observations one step further by attempting to understand what these laws mean on the moral and ethical plane. If it is inevitable that we will age and become diseased, and if these certainties are a product of universal laws which in and of themselves are beautiful and good, then what are we to make of this? The answer for the Stoic is that we ought not fear these changes. We ought not fear death or old age or disease. These things were meant to be. We were meant to die. If this is so, then our priorities in life ought to transcend this ephemeral body. We should listen to our bodies and we should satisfy its demands. But our first priority ought to lie within the realm of that aspect of our existence that is immune from the ravages of decay. The Stoic calls this realm the soul, and the human soul is the divine in us. This embodiment of universal law in each of us is as perfect as the laws that bring change to the body. For this reason the soul must take precedence over the body. This assertion is fundamental to Stoicism and one of its three founding principles (please see Meditation VII.55, p.147, in the book).
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.