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The Science of Man in Ancient Greece.

The Science of Man in Ancient Greece. By Maria Michela Sassi. Translated by Paul Tucker. Foreword by Sir Geoffrey Lloyd. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xix, 224. $34.00.)

This study, first published in Italian in 1988, provides a worthwhile and wide-ranging semiotic analysis of numerous ancient Greek (and Roman) writings on physiognomy, medicine, ethnography, and astrology. From this information trove, Maria Michela Sassi aims to demonstrate, first, that these ancient "science[s] of man" developed increasingly organized, yet dubious and even erroneous, interpretations of human bodily features, causes of disease, ethnic stereotypes, and astral configurations. Through this formation of interpretative "signs" as protoscience, the ancient authors constructed systematic and speculative, yet influential, schemas of information about human character, physical health and illness, ethnicity, and individual destiny (xiv-xix). Sassi amply demonstrates this thesis in tire discrete chapters on, respectively, skin color as marker of gender and ethnicity, physiognomy, ethnography and women, medical prognosis and diagnosis, and astrology.

Second, the author aims to show that the ideas that inform the Greco-Roman sciences were not invented from scratch but built from, and reinforced, long-privileged, male-authored assumptions about women, slaves, barbarians, animals as subhuman creatures, and star-ordained late (xii-xiv, 33). Sassi makes numerous interesting points along the way regarding this "ideological apriorism" or "web of shared knowledge ... presupposed at higher levels of anthropological inquiry" (xiv-xv). On this topic, however, Sassi only on occasion offers carefully focused arguments to show that the sciences in question developed from traditional Greek views, such as, first, her exploration of how ancient scientific ideas about causality developed from more paratactic symbolic associations; and also her account of the inferential "procedure of abduction" and Aristotle's selective way of redeploying this procedure. These accounts, despite their limitations, do help improve our understanding of why ancient inquiries into humanity are paradoxically rational in structure, yet reflect entrenched biases that are tenuous or fallacious.

Sassi acknowledges her debt to Lloyd and Vegetti in her ventures into ancient Greek science, lore, and reason. She breaks significant new ground, however, given her range of ancient texts, her semiotic insights, and her occasional explanations about how the ancient human sciences were constructed from traditional thought. Further, Sassi has updated the bibliography and notes, and provides a preface for this translation. Hence, these aspects of her book are engaged with the many current trends in her broad study. The text, though, is by the author's choice "essentially unchanged" since its publication thirteen years ago (xvii). This creates some diachronic dissonance between notes that hasten to be au courant and a text that remains more of a vintage late-1980s semiotic stud). Nonetheless, her study remains worthwhile.

The Science of Man consequently would interest readers who seek to learn more about the nascent formation of Western science; the underlying sign systems and lore that help shape this formation; and about Greco-Roman astrology, medicine, ethnography, and gender norms. Tucker has produced a very readable translation of the author's accessible style.

Kathy L. Gaca

Vanderbilt University
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Author:Gaca, Kathy L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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