Aileen Das was in a master’s program for classical studies when she expressed an interest in studying classical Arabic and Islamicate intellectual history. “I was told, ‘That’s not classics,’” she recalls, “and I was dropped from the program.”
But this was the history that she hoped would become her life’s work, which made her wonder if she and her scholarship fit under the umbrella of classical studies after all. She decided to move to England, where she found a more welcoming environment and a broader definition of classical studies. “They were thinking about how to make classics a discipline for the twenty-first century,” says Das. Now, as an associate professor of classical studies, Das has brought that same perspective to U-M.
“I feel like the way classics has changed is illustrated in my educational journey,” Das says. “I’ve always considered myself on the fringe of classics, but what I’m doing is becoming more mainstream, and Michigan has supported this more expansive view of the classics.
“Part of it is because we have diverse individuals coming into classics,” says Das, whose identity includes South Asian heritage. “We are also seeing a diversifying undergraduate body, and they aren’t buying into this old-fashioned narrative of classics equaling Western heritage. More and more, people are starting to understand that modern geopolitical boundaries of Europe don’t map onto the ancient world.”
Now, Das’s research is not only accepted in the world of classical studies; it is also being celebrated. She recently received national recognition by winning the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit, a national honor presented by the Society of Classical Studies. “This award disproves what I was told as a grad student, that the work I’m doing isn’t classics,” she says. “It’s not just me doing it; it’s my colleagues, too, looking critically at slavery in Athens or how classics have been misused as justification for wicked problems like eugenics, for example. It’s our research and our teaching. We can use this research to critically engage with the past.”
The award recognized Das’s book, Galen and the Arabic Reception of Plato’s Timaeus, and the citation notes that Das “expands the horizons not only of classical philology but also of the very concept of a discipline.” The book examines Plato’s cosmological dialogue Timaeus and explores how the Greek doctor Galen of Pergamum used Timaeus to argue for the value of medicine. In Galen’s time, philosophers claimed that only they had the right to define, describe, and explain the different domains of reality. Galen made the argument that the human body is part of the cosmic universe.
Today people often want their children to grow up to become doctors, but during antiquity medicine was seen as an inferior craft, Das says. Philosophy and medicine were often at war with each other.
Through her exploration of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew sources, Das learned about Galen’s approach. The physician and surgeon, who lived in the second and third centuries C.E. and cared for Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, hoped to give medicine more intellectual heft. The best doctor, Galen argued, is a philosopher. “In so doing,” Das says, “Galen set out to establish medicine as a reliable authority on not only the body but also the soul and the wider cosmos. He saw the human body as being entangled with the cosmos.”
In order to truly understand the human body, “Galen believed that one has to understand its cosmic context. The eyes, for instance, function very much like the rotation of the heavens,” Das says. “Galen was trying to establish medicine as a reliable authority on not only the body but also the soul and the wider cosmos.”
Galen’s point of view did not win the day. Medicine in his era remained primarily a profession of disease treatment and was not widely accepted as a profession that approached anything as grandiose as philosophy and the cosmos. Yet Das hears echoes of Galen’s approach in the way that medicine is being taught today.
U-M’s Medical School, for instance, offers a medical humanities curricular track that engages students in exploration, scholarship, interpretation, creative pursuits, and critical reflection to enrich their understanding of the human experience as it relates to health and illness. Students have conceived of projects as varied as oil paintings about one’s feelings during medical school, a play about reproductive health, and the creation of social media content that helped classmates celebrate a remote graduation ceremony early in the pandemic.
“It’s not enough to just learn to be a surgeon anymore,” Das says. “In order to interact with patients, you need to learn empathy, to learn the history of medicine, to engage with art.
“It’s much more expansive. How do we communicate across socioeconomic boundaries, ethics, and personal patient contact? How do we build and instill trust, how do we create empathy? We need an approach that sees the human body as not just a physical entity. This is really Galen’s holistic approach to medicine not only being revived but expanded.”
Das’s work, as honored by the Charles J. Goodwin Award, moves the conversation forward, enlarging what we thought we knew about medicine, philosophy, and the universe, and enriching the discipline of classics itself.
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