Socrates’ Debt to Asclepius: Physicians and Philosophers with Asclepian Souls in Late Antiquity

In: Numen

This article examines the development of the aspect of health in late Neoplatonic ontology as originated in Proclus and illustrated in Marinus’ Life of Proclus and Damascius’ Life of Isidore. In light of the steadily growing Neoplatonic interest in the philosophic value of the body and the widely spreading presence of the new and only Savior, Proclus looks closer at the Demiurge’s cosmological activity in the universe to discern its health-instituting nature based upon which he builds a health register distinguishing between Demiurgic and Asclepian health. The former maintains the orderly balance in the universe; the latter restores the individual’s health. Between the two kinds of health extends a healing ontological “chain” unfolding from the Demiurge through Apollo, Asclepius, and the healing heroes, ending in certain individual souls, which are endowed with special healing powers, i.e., Asclepian souls. Two examples of such souls are Proclus himself, as portrayed in his biography by Marinus, and one Iacobus Psychristus, as documented in Damascius’ Life of Isidore. The fact that one is a philosopher and the other is a physician captures the symbiotic relation of philosophy and medicine in late antiquity.

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  • 7

    See Luna and Segonds 2012: 1546–1657 for Proclus; for Iacobus see Goulet 2000: 821–823; also Keyser and Irby-Massie 2009: 429–430.

  • 11

    White 1989: 41–43. On the ontological implications of katharsis and “philosophizing correctly” in the Phaedo see Slaveva-Griffin 2013: 525–542.

  • 13

    Nutton 2004: 103. See also Mitchell-Boyask 2008 and Wickkisser 2008.

  • 50

    RespectivelyVita Plotini 10.21–5 and Vita Procli 38. To understand the significance of this focused attention on the body and medical matters in Proclus’ life we need no more than recall the markedly different attitude to the body in Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus the illustrious predecessor of Marinus’ Vita in the “genre” of Neoplatonic biographies. Both works begin with episodes centered on the bodies of their philosophers. The Life of Plotinus opens with the much-famed scene in which Plotinus renounces the making of his portrait on the grounds of the classical Platonic understanding of the inferiority of the body as a physical image of higher ontological principles (Vita Plotini 1). The scene sets the dismissive tone towards the body in the rest of the narrative. Plotinus’ chronic illness anchors Porphyry’s portrayal of his teacher’s divine soul. The graphic details of the last stages of Plotinus’ illness underline the readiness of his soul to complete its flight from the body to the divine (Vita Plotini 2). Despite Plotinus’ kinship with the divine Asclepius and his cult do not play an explicit role in the Vita Plotini. For implicit Asclepian connotations of Plotinus’ death scene see Slaveva-Griffin 2009: 93–117. In Proclus’ biography composed almost 200 years later the picture is completely different as will be demonstrated next.

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  • 53

    Edwards 2000: 99–103.

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