Book Review: Passions And Tempers

Passions And Tempers:  A History Of The Humors, by Noga Arikha

I was loaned this book by a fellow researcher into matters of creativity, and the book is a fascinating and interesting one that discusses the way that humours were ancient and remain with us today as a way of explaining the health of the body and mind in a holistic fashion.  This book is like an hors d’oeuvre to a multi-course feast that one would want to read at considerably more length.  The author admits that there is a whole lot more material, including the shared Eastern commitment to a humoural theory that mirrors in many ways that of the Western tradition barely discussed here, that could have been written that wasn’t.  And, like many books, the author writes about Galen’s thoughts concerning creativity and its relationship to personality, but the primary sources are hard to track down here for mere mortals like this reader.  At any rate, given the influence of the theory of humours in contemporary personality theory and even in the way we still engage in psychological practice, this book touches on some important matters that the reader would do well to take seriously concerning the way in which we still see the human body and psyche in terms that relate to a theory that has been more or less subrosa for centuries now.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into seven chapters, each of which has quite a few subsections.  The book begins with acknowledgments, a list of illustrations, a prologue, and a note on terminology.  After that the author discusses the ancient insights regarding humours from the sixth century BC to the second century AD and showed that things were pretty nuanced early on (1).  After that there is a discussion of the classical trail of essences in Western philosophy and Medicine through the middle ages in Byzantium and the Arab world (2) and then the influence of miracles and scholasticism on Western Europe during that same time period (3).  The author discusses melancholy and the importance of the Renaissance (4) before turning to discuss the nature of blood and airs during the not particularly scientific scientific revolution that took place in the seventeenth century and opened the way to unproductive dualism (5).  After that the author discusses passions and the nerves in the brain looking at the birth of modernity and the creation of psychiatry up to the nineteenth century (6) before ending with a discussion of contemporary humors as the neurological and pharmacological self (7) in the present age, after which the book ends with endnotes, references, picture credits, and an index.

This book is interesting for a variety of reasons.  For one, it is the sort of book that encourages the reader to look up other sources about humoral theory as well as to consider the broader circumstances of health as it has existed throughout history.  The author makes it pretty clear that medical professionals throughout the history of the West have frequently been a coin-flip level of skill at most and sometimes actively harmful in most cases.  Sadly, that remains true at present as well.  The way that the book weaves together so many of the different implications of medical theory and the way that things can become embedded within language because they have been used for so long is quite fascinating as well.  One would wish that this book was not only one volume but a long series of volumes, but that might be a bit of overkill for some people when it comes to reading about this subject material.  That was not the case for me though because this book clearly left me wanting a lot more.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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