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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 6: Roman Science

Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body (ca. 150 A.D.)

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Galen. On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body.
Marqaret Tallmadge May. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1968).
Word count


Ptolemy and Galen each wrote in Greek, and worked in the 2nd century AD during the period of the Roman empire. Take your time with them; they represent, respectively, the culmination of ancient mathematical astronomy and ancient anatomy and medicine.

Galen brought together knowledge and ideas from the Hippocratic corpus, from the anatomical and physiological studies of the Alexandrians Herophilos and Erasistratos, and from the Roman medical writings of his time to create an original and eclectic mixture of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic natural philosophy. In addition, Galen drew upon his own experience in the dissection and vivisection of animals (which he encouraged his readers to perform as well), and years of service as a physician to the gladiators. Galen's writings were to ancient medicine what Ptolemy's Almagest became to ancient astronomy: a synthesis so comprehensive and compelling that many of the sources he drew upon ceased to be read and did not survive. We will sample his immense corpus by reading an excerpt from On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body. The two numbered paragraphs below are taken from the section dealing with the hand.

Study Questions

Consider these questions as you read in order to gauge your understanding of the text. Hint: You may want to print this page and mark the key words and phrases relevant to these questions.

  1. Paragraph 9.
  2. Paragraph 12.


"On the Hand."

9. Let us therefore begin again where we left off in our discourse and review in detail the whole structure of the hand; indeed, if we train ourselves thoroughly by discussing this part, whose action is perfectly clear, we shall the more easily learn the method to be used in discussing other parts later on. Then let us make our fresh start with Hippocrates' statement as if it were the voice of god. For in the same treatise in which he points out the usefulness of the finger nails and in the course of it teaches us how long they ought to be, Hippocrates likewise points out the usefulness of dividing the hand into fingers and setting the thumb opposite the other four. He writes as follows: "A good shape for the fingers, a wide space between, and the thumb opposite the forefinger." In fact, the division took place for the sake of enabling the fingers to spread apart to the greatest extent, often a very useful position. And so he properly says that it is particularly when the fingers have that [ability] for the sake of which they were formed that their construction is most advantageous. For surely, to this construction is due also the opposition of the thumb to the other fingers, since if the hand were merely divided into fingers and the thumb were not set farthest from the others, it would not be opposable to them. Truly, here too Hippocrates teaches many things in but few words to those, at least. able to understand what he says. Hence, when I have once called attention to the method of exposition found in all his writings, it will perhaps be proper for me to imitate not only the other virtues of the man but also this very trait in him of teaching much in few words and to abstain from going over all his sayings in detail. Except in passing, therefore, I do not propose [in every instance] to state that Hippocrates had an excellent understanding of such matters; my purpose is rather to discuss in detail the usefulness of all the parts. First, however, I shall explain further just this one point of all those set forth by him in the passage cited, a thing most necessary for a physician to learn, but impossible to discover without careful reflection on the usefulness of the parts. And what is this thing? It is the recognition of what is the best construction for the body. Now clearly the best construction is that in which all the parts [of the instruments] contribute services sufficient for the actions of the instruments as a whole. Thus Hippocrates says, "A good shape for the fingers, a wide space between, and the thumb opposite the forefinger," and if you ask again why this is so, the answer he has written is at hand: "Taken as a whole, all the parts in sympathy, but taken severally, the parts in each part cooperate for its work." What, then, is the work of the hand, the part we are now considering? Obviously, it is grasping. But how will all the fingers cooperate for this effect? They will cooperate, if the spaces between them are wide, and the thumb is opposed to the forefinger, for then every action the fingers perform, will be well done. And so, if you are seeking to discover the proper form for the eye or nose, you will find it by correlating structure and action. In fact, this is your standard, measure, and criterion of proper form and true beauty, since true beauty is nothing but excellence of construction, and in obedience to Hippocrates you will judge that excellence from actions, not from whiteness, softness, or other such qualities, which are indications of a beauty meretricious and false, not natural and true. Hence the qualities a slave dealer would value in a body are not the same ones that Hippocrates would commend. Perhaps you think that in Xenophon's story Socrates is jesting when he is arguing over beauty with those who were supposedly the most handsome men of their time. Now if he were speaking simply of beauty without reference to action and without using action as the one measure of beauty, then perhaps he would be only joking, but since in the whole discussion Socrates relates the beauty of construction of the parts to the excellence of their action, we must no longer believe that he is only joking, but that he is also very much in earnest. Of course it is characteristic of the Socratic muse constantly to mingle grave and gay. Well, what I have said thus far is amply sufficient to show the usefulness of my proposed task and to explain how the thoughts and sayings of the Ancients should be understood. So let us treat of the whole structure of the hand in regular order, leaving nothing unexamined so far as that is possible. However, in order that the discourse may proceed systematically, let us enumerate all the inherent attributes of bodies. The first and most important of these is temperament (the mixtures), since it is temperament that is responsible for the characteristic essence of the parts. For the nature of the body is determined by the commingling in a certain way of the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet. For example, flesh has the nature of flesh, and a nerve that of nerves, and each of the other parts is such as it is because of the mingling in a definite way of the four qualities I have mentioned. The parts, then, possess these qualities ties by virtue of their essence, and their odors, flavors, colors, hardness, and softness follow of necessity. There are necessarily other contingent attributes also, namely, position, size, contexture, and conformation. Accordingly, whenever one wishes to examine carefully the usefulness of everything appertaining to an instrument, let him first inquire to what its action is due, and he will find that in most cases the action is derived from the characteristic substance but sometimes from one of the secondary attributes, such as color in the case of the eyes. Next let him investigate the usefulness of each of the other parts [of the instrument] to see whether it is serviceable because of its action or because of some attribute resulting from temperament, as bone is serviceable on account of its hardness. After this, he should examine each contingent attribute both of the whole instrument and of its parts. These attributes, as I said a little earlier, are position, size, contexture, and form. But if anyone thinks that he has properly examined the usefulness of a part before he has applied all these tests, to see whether he is right or has at some point gone astray, he is sadly mistaken.

12. [Example of bones in the fingers.] That bones too were made in the fingers for sake of bettering the action you may learn from the following discussion. I suppose that the fingers could move in many different ways even without the aid of bones, just as the arms of the octopus can, but no work we do would ever have firm support if we did not have a part that was hard and resistant. Now bone is such a part in the animal body, and this is the reason why bones were formed in the fingers, arms, and legs, and in many other places in the body. What support the bones contribute to the other instruments perhaps my discourse will show as it proceeds, but it is possible now for us to see that this support is serviceable to much of the work accomplished by the fingers, if we reflect that without the aid of the bones we could not write, cut, or do anything of the sort any better than we could if the fingers trembled. In fact, the condition [now] produced by disease would always be the natural one for all of us, for the fingers would bend and, as it were, be distorted because they were so soft. As a defense against this, however, the Creator gave us bone with the qualities it naturally possesses in order to support the fingers in each of the positions they assume. Moreover, this very ability to assume so many positions is most useful and results from the fact that each finger is composed of several bones. They would lack this faculty if each were fashioned from a single one, for then they could perform well only those acts requiring the fingers to be extended. Surely here too we must needs admire the skill of Nature in giving the fingers a construction suited to all actions. For if they were made without bones, they would do well only the work in which we need to curve them around the object to be grasped, and if they had just one bone, they would be of real use only in work where we need them extended. Since, however, they are not made without bones or with only one, but each finger has three of them articulating with one another, they therefore readily assume the positions necessary for all actions. When all the joints are flexed, we use the fingers as if they had been made without any bones, and when all are extended, it is as if each finger were made with only a single one. Often, however, we do not need the joints all extended or all flexed, for sometimes we extend or flex only the first, second, or third, and sometimes the first and the second, or the second and third, or the first and third, thus making six different positions. Because of the greater or lesser extension in each of these cases, it is impossible to say but easy to comprehend how great is the total number of intermediate positions. Of course, complete flexion and likewise complete extension are indivisible into the more or the less, but it is inconceivable how great a number of intermediate positions the motion of the joints may produce when they are flexed or extended sometimes more and sometimes less. Hence, because the fingers are constructed as they are, they may assume not merely six different positions, but more correctly six general types of position, whereas the number of particular positions is infinite. Of the two other constructions [I have mentioned], the one without bones would permit the fingers to assume only a rounded shape, and the one with a single bone only a straight one; as it is, however, they are not prevented from taking these shapes, and besides these they have gained the six general types and a host of particular positions. They can, of course, be absolutely straight only when the bones of which they are composed lie in a straight line, and the perfectly circular shape is impossible.


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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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