Chronoi Talks: “Times of Life, Lives in Time: Galen on the Ages and Aging of Men” (Online)

April 1, 2021

4 - 5 pm (CET)


Dr. Peter N. Singer


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In this presentation I explore three related questions, all centred on the perception of the self in relation to time in the ancient Graeco-Roman world. In each case, I focus centrally on texts of the second-century-CE doctor and philosopher Galen, who provides a wealth of largely untapped material in these areas, while also considering relevant evidence from his predecessors and contemporaries. 


First, I consider medical accounts of the different stages or times of life, how these are used in the structuring of regimes of healthcare or education, and how they relate, somewhat problematically, to traditional categories or 'rationalizing' accounts, e.g. in terms of seven-year periods. Secondly – moving to a different sense of 'age' – I examine Roman imperial-period authors' conceptions of previous eras, and of their own age in relation to them: here traditional or moralistic notions of the (good) 'ancients' (palaioi) versus the (decadent) 'younger' or 'more recents' (neōteroi) sit interestingly alongside more neutral or precise scholarly attempts at periodization or diachronic analysis. The third question is that of the role of time in the construction of literary or intellectual biographies. Here, there is a tension between two principles of composition, or of conceptualization of the literary or philosophical life: that of the progression of datable events (teachers and pupils, encounters with powerful people, occasions of composition), and that of the trans-temporal perspective which tends to remove the author from his own time, placing him in an idealized classical tradition and focussing on the stable and non-contingent nature of his oeuvre rather than the contingent or developmental facts of his life. The intellectual's (auto-)biography or self-perception stands in an interesting relationship with the medical account of stages of life, on the one hand, and the construction of the present in relation to the past, on the other.