Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Finamore, John F

First Committee Member

Berrey, Marquis

Second Committee Member

Gibson, Craig A

Third Committee Member

Dilley, Paul C

Fourth Committee Member

Peters, John Durham


Galen's Avoiding Distress provides an opportunity for scholars to qualify Galen's philosophical eclecticism because his ἄσκησις to avoid distress intersects theory and practice. My thesis carefully analyzes the theoretical framework behind Galen's claim that he “trained his φαντασἰαι for the loss of all his possessions” as well as the specific practices that constitute this training regimen. I trace the concept of φαντασἰα back to the first philosophical discussions in Plato's Theaetetus-Sophist structure and Aristotle's De anima to answer the questions “What are the φαντασἰαι that he talks about?” and “How do they participate in cognition?” I analyze Galen's On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato, Affections and Errors, and Thrasybulus to identify Galen's specific practices and relate them to what Galen thinks is the purpose of all humans. My inquiry allows me to argue that while Galen uses his imagination to condition himself not to fear the atrocities of Commodus he subordinates emotional tranquility and practices that promote it to the greater goal of doing good deeds for others.

Public Abstract

To treat anxiety today, we can turn to various options in psychology, psychiatry, holistic medicine, dietary treatment, and even religion. In the ancient world, these options fell collectively within the realm of philosophy. The second-century AD philosopher Galen of Pergamum treated the mind and emotions parallel to the way he—as a medical physician—treated people’s bodies. His text Avoiding Distress explains a cognitive training program that helped him overcome excruciating anxiety. Many people, it appears, were exiled, executed, and brutalized under the Roman emperor Commodus. Galen at first feared that he, as Commodus’ personal physician, might suffer one of the emperor’s atrocities. He was so thorough in training himself not to feel anxiety that he was able to endure major property losses without mental or emotional anguish when a massive fire razed Rome in AD 192. His resilience so distinctly contrasted others who were not able to bear the grief at such losses that a childhood friend requested that Galen explain why he could endure such loss. My dissertation investigates how Galen uses his imagination as part of a cognitive training regimen or askēsis, and where Galen’s regimen is located within his understanding of his overarching human purpose. It advances our knowledge of an ancient preventative medicine that closely resembles today’s practices of exposure therapy and logotherapy. My dissertation illuminates the ancient practice so that we can more critically evaluate modern practices.


publicabstract, askesis, Avoiding Distress, cognitive, Galen, spiritual exercises, therapy


viii, 221 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 212-221).


Copyright 2016 Michael S. Overholt

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