The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece

The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece

The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece

The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece


The Symptom and the Subject takes an in-depth look at how the physical body first emerged in the West as both an object of knowledge and a mysterious part of the self. Beginning with Homer, moving through classical-era medical treatises, and closing with studies of early ethical philosophy and Euripidean tragedy, this book rewrites the traditional story of the rise of body-soul dualism in ancient Greece. Brooke Holmes demonstrates that as the body (sôma) became a subject of physical inquiry, it decisively changed ancient Greek ideas about the meaning of suffering, the soul, and human nature.

By undertaking a new examination of biological and medical evidence from the sixth through fourth centuries BCE, Holmes argues that it was in large part through changing interpretations of symptoms that people began to perceive the physical body with the senses and the mind. Once attributed primarily to social agents like gods and daemons, symptoms began to be explained by physicians in terms of the physical substances hidden inside the person. Imagining a daemonic space inside the person but largely below the threshold of feeling, these physicians helped to radically transform what it meant for human beings to be vulnerable, and ushered in a new ethics centered on the responsibility of taking care of the self.

The Symptom and the Subject highlights with fresh importance how classical Greek discoveries made possible new and deeply influential ways of thinking about the human subject.


Nothing drives us to ask why like the austere truth of human suffering. Hesiod, the first didactic poet in the Greek literary tradition, takes up the question on a grand scale early in the Works and Days, where we learn that conditions were not always bleak. in a past age, labor and suffering were unknown: the earth readily yielded food; men lived as companions to the gods. Everything changes when Prometheus, working on behalf of humankind, contests Zeus's omniscience with a ruse. Zeus, angered, takes fire away from people, only to have Prometheus steal it back in the stalk of a fennel plant. Zeus responds this time not by withholding gifts but by giving them: Pandora, the original woman, and the countless afflictions that scatter when she opens her infamous jar. From this time on, diseases have wandered the earth day and night. They overtake us in silence, because Zeus has taken away their voices. the stealth of their approach proves the poem's core axiom—”so it is in no way possible to escape the mind of Zeus” (Op. 105)—while the trauma they cause on arrival conflates the impossibility of escape with the inevitability of pain. in the world after Pandora, humans live and relive Zeus's decisive assertion of his power. Aeschylus will call this pathei mathos, knowledge through suffering (Ag. 177).

It is with a quite different view of the knowledge acquired through suffering that Plutarch, in the first centuries ce, comes back to Hesiod's explanation of disease and, more specifically, to the adverb on which it hinges: “silently.”

For all the diseases wander the earth not, as Hesiod says, “silently, since counselor
Zeus has taken away their voice,” but most of them have indigestion and sluggish
ness as their harbingers and forerunners and heralds, as it were. (Mor. 127D)

In support of his point, Plutarch quotes from the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, still considered one of the foremost medical authorities of the day some five hundred years after his alleged floruit. Plutarch is working with some assumptions that are absent from Hesiod's poem. Whereas, in the Works and Days, disease is a nebulous daemonic being, for Plutarch it is a process that unfolds

οὐ γὰρ ἅπασαι κατὰ τὸν Ἡσίοδον ἐπιφοιτῶσιν αἱ νόσοι ῾σιγῇ, ἐπεὶ φωνὴν ἐξείλετο μητίετα Ζεύς,᾽
ἀλλ᾽ αἱ πλεῖσται καθάπερ προαγγέλους καὶ προδρόμους καὶ κήρυκας ἔχουσιν ἀπεψίας καὶ

Aph. ii.5 (Li 4.470 = 108 Jones).

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