Emotions and Clinical Communication in Antiquity


Emotions and Clinical Communication in Antiquity: An Online Symposium, 28—30 October, 2020, Melbourne, Australia.

Pre-modern encounters between healers and patients differed dramatically from clinical encounters today. Nevertheless, within the constraints of their own cultural and scientific paradigms physicians and other healers sought to establish authority and trust with patients, as well as a shared language t which patients could communicate their own sufferings. At the same time, emotions played a crucial role in the give-and-take of ancient clinical communication and its literary representation. How were emotions expressed and received, cultivated or pathologized? How did they affect relationships between patients and physicians? How can the textual remains of ancient medicine inform our understanding of the emotional practices and cultures of antiquity? What are the limits of the medical? How do these ancient texts speak to modern concerns in healthcare and healthcare systems?

Antiquity did not know the sharp disciplinary boundaries of modern medicine and healthcare. In the medical marketplace, physicians, ritual experts, midwives, and herbalists competed, cooperated, and complemented each other in the quest for health. With the rise of Christianity and especially Christian monasticism, ritual experts came to be found in the ranks of the clergy, or among desert monks.

Emotions and Clinical Communication in Antiquity brings together scholars in the history of medicine, classical literature and philosophy, and early Christianity to interrogate the construction and performance of both emotions and medical arts in the complex and shifting religious and medical landscape of antiquity.
Presenters and respondents explore the role of emotions in shaping clinical experience and practice, and the work that clinical language did in shaping normative emotional regimes and communities. They invite reassessment of the physician-patient relationship in antiquity, provoke debate around the nature and limit of ancient emotions, and productively bring ancient texts into modern conversations.

We invite you to explore the presentations and hope they generate stimulating conversations at the intersections of ancient medicine, classics, early Christianity, health humanities, and history of emotion.

To find out more information about the symposium, please click here.

Several presentations by participants have been recorded and are available to view below.

For further information about this symposium, please contact Dr Jonathan Zecher (Jonathan.Zecher@acu.edu.au).

Videos of presentations:

Physicians and their Patients


Suffering and emotions: what the doctors of the Hippocratic Epidemics saw

Chiara Thumiger offers a detailed study of how Hippocratic physicians perceived—or failed to perceive—displays of emotion in their patients. She highlights the culture-bound performance of emotion, which physicians seem to have noticed, recognized, and then often ignored. In his response, Han Baltussen raises questions that will recur in several presentations: what are the boundaries, if any, between pain and emotion? What differentiates an emotional experience from its performance?

Chiara Thumiger (Research Fellow, Excellence Cluster Roots, Kiel University).

Response by Han Baltussen, FAHA (W. W. Hughes Professor of Classics, University of Adelaide).

Download the handout for Dr Chiara Thumiger's presentation



Galen and the communication of symptoms

Susan B. Mattern mines Galen’s case studies to show his ambivalent stance toward his patients’ descriptions of their suffering. Galen wanted a common scientific language of pain, which set him at odds with patients’ everyday, often metaphorical descriptions. In her response, Caroline Petit invites us to ask what role these case studies play in Galen’s work. She suggests that they help Galen constitute medical knowledge as well as teach the details of clinical practice available only through experience.

Susan P. Mattern (Distinguished Research Professor in History, University of Georgia).

Response by Caroline Petit (Assistant Professor of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick).


Patients and their Healers


Narrating Pain and Patient-Physician Resonance in Aelius Aristides

Georgia Petridou turns the inquiry around, and interrogates clinical encounters from the patient’s perspective. She introduces the modern theory of “resonance” to ask how and why Aelius Aristides seems to have had better relationships with some physicians than others. She presents Aelius as a chronically ill sufferer of chronic pain, rather than a hypochondriac, and suggests that with some physicians, at least, he developed a resonant relationship. In his response, Michael Champion probes the concept of resonance, Rita Charon’s account of narrative medicine, and Aristides’ rhetorical self-construction, to ask how he might have fashioned clinical relationships for himself.

Georgia Petridou (Senior Lecturer in Ancient Greek History, University of Liverpool).

Response by Michael W. Champion (Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University).

Video coming soon!

Download the handout for Dr Georgia Petridou's presentation



Medical Art and Spiritual Direction


Spiritual Direction and the Problem of Pain in Late Antique Egypt

Andrew Crislip brings us into the emotional world of Evagrius of Pontus and early Christian monastics. He draws on recent developments in the science of emotions to argue that pain itself is an emotion. He then shows how Evagrius constructed the emotional scripts of pain and distress for purposes of directing and educating monks. In her response, Dawn LaValle Norman queries both the modern construction of pain as emotion and its relevance for ancient monastics. She opens lines of communication between Evagrius and other accounts of pain in the Roman world.

Andrew T. Crislip (Blake Chair in the History of Christianity, Virginia Commonwealth University).

Response by Dawn LaValle Norman (Research Fellow, Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University).

Cassian’s Therapies of Desire

Niki Kasumi Clements turns our attention to John Cassian and his rich understanding of emotions and spiritual direction, as it was interpreted by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his final, unfinished, volume of the History of Sexuality. Through a granular reading of Cassian, Clements develops a critical reading of Foucault that highlights his increasing sympathy with early Christianity as well as his mis-readings of it.

Niki Kasumi Clements (Watt J. and Lilly G. Jackson Assistant Professor of Religion, Rice University).

Passions in Spiritual Direction between Demonology and Diagnosis

Jonathan Zecher turns to ancient lists to draw out the organizational and diagnostic logic of monastic texts. Drawing on philosophical “passion lists” as well as Galen’s nosology, he shows that John Climacus, in his seventh-century Ladder of Divine Ascent, encodes diagnostic lists of emotions as demonic genealogies. In her response, Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe probes the magical and ritual background of the demonologies and shows that the performance context helps determine the meaning and use of the list.

Jonathan L. Zecher (Research Fellow, Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University).

Response by Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe (University Lecturer in Patristics, University of Cambridge).

Download the handout for Dr Jonathan Zecher's presentation



Image: Detail of the Sloane MS 1975, f. 91 v, British Library