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Galen-On Virtue

A fragment of a column from the Asklepion in Bergama.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Galen’s ‘’Psychological Writings’, Cambridge University Press, 2013-2017 for the paperback edition. Edited by P.N. Singer. Translated by Vivian Nutton, Daniel Davies and P.N. Singer.


‘The praiseworthy states of the human soul are called ‘virtue’, and the blameworthy ones are called ‘vices’ These states are divided into two categories: there are those that arise in the soul after the exercise of thought, consideration and discrimination, and these are called ‘knowledge’, ‘opinion’ or ‘judgment’; and there are those that occur to the soul without the exercise of thought, which are ‘character traits’. Some character traits appear in infants as soon as they are born, before the time of thought; they weep when pain afflicts the body and distress the soul, because every infant has in its imagination a conception of the thing that is appropriate for it and the thing that is inappropriate for it, and a love of that which is appropriate for it and a hatred of that which is inappropriate for it. It therefore seeks out what is appropriate for it and avoids that which is inappropriate for it. These things exist naturally in non-rational animals: I mean to say they feel the things that affect their bodies and they perceive that some of these things are appropriate for them and some are inappropriate for them; they hunger for that which is appropriate and avoid that which is inappropriate. When children reach their second year, some of them try to hit or kick those who they think have hurt them. This indicate that they have gained, along with the image of the efficient causes of these things, and that they have, in addition, begun to desire revenge for that which hurts them, and to love those who remove from them that which hurts, them. At that age they smile and laugh at their nurses and they want to hit and bite those who hurt them. This affection is that which is called ‘anger’, and with it a fiery redness affects the eyes, and the whole face becomes red, hot and swollen.

It is clear, then, that the desire to take vengeance on that which hurts is natural in people, not learned, just like the desire to avoid that which causes pain and the desire to incline towards that which is pleasant. It is not because they have thought about it that children regard it as right to revenge themselves on that which hurts, but because it is natural to them, like the inclination towards that which is pleasant and the avoidance of that which hurts. When children reach their third year, they begin to show traces of shame and shamelessness, for you see that some of them are abashed and do not raise their gaze to look at the face of someone who reproves them for doing something that he has forbidden them to do, and that they are pleased by praise; other behave in the contrary way. These signs appear in those who have not yet been educated by chastisement of fear. One who loves esteem endures hardships in something that will result in praise. If he loves esteem naturally, not because he fears something tangible and not because he seeks something tangible, he will prosper. Someone who behaves in the contrary way to this will not prosper, will not learn and will not accept either education of character or book learning.

Another indication that some children tend towards virtue and some towards vice, without thought or firm judgement, is the fact that we sometimes see one of them hurt by a playmate, and that we see some of them take pity on him and help him, and others laugh at him, gloat over him, and sometimes, join in and take part in hurting him. We also see some children rescue others from difficulties, and others push others into dangerous places, poke their eyes out or choke them. Some of them are not generous with anything that they have in their hands, some are envious and some are not envious. All this appears before they have been educated.

In short, no action, affection, or character trait exists in the grown person unless it already existed in him in the time of his childhood. It is wrong, then, that all affections come into being as a result of judgement and thought, for that which is the result of judgement and thought is no affection but, rather, either true-or-false opinion or knowledge. An affection, on the other hand, is a bestial movement that comes about without the exercise of thought, consideration or firm judgement.’

Statue of Galen in Bergama, Turkey

Galen-On Virtue

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