On Wednesday, Dr. Calloway Scott ’07 gave a lecture titled “Health, Disease, and Bodies Politic in Ancient Greece.” The talk, which was co-sponsored by the Classics and Biology departments, primarily focused on ancient Greece’s conception of health relating to both bodies and sociocultural factors such as the literary and religious traditions of ancient Greece.
The event was held in the Community Foundation Theater, with almost 100 students, faculty and staff in attendance. The lecture was the Classics department’s first major event of the year, and featured remarks from Professor of Classics Adam Serfass as well as a brief Q&A.
Serfass introduced Scott by reminiscing on Scott’s time at Kenyon and education in the post-graduate world. Scott received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon, and later earned both his Masters and doctorate in Classics at New York University. Currently, he teaches as an assistant professor in Classics at the University of Cincinnati, where his research focuses on ancient Greek history, religion and medicine. Serfass emphasized the relevancy of the lecture to today’s time, particularly due to the pandemic, stating that the study of past conceptions of health can influence how contemporary society responds to today’s circumstances.
Scott began his lecture by reading a passage from Isaeus, a fourth-century orator, which details a speaker and his grandfather praying together for their health and wealth. Scott highlighted this passage initially to demonstrate the link between health and ritual worship before clarifying the terminology of health and disease used within the field of Classics. The term hygieia, which Scott used throughout the lecture, is the Greek word for health.
Scott also explained two opposing positions to the view of health: naturalism and constructivism. Naturalism defines health as the lack of impairment or hindrance in biological functioning, while constructivism holds that health is a socially constructed ideal that is more closely aligned with sociocultural values rather than biological ones. While Scott emphasized that both positions have their own conceptual problems, each viewpoint illustrates the importance of understanding the link between biology and culture.
“What this picture allows us to see, ultimately, is that a focus on the way that Greeks chose to think and talk and perform their attitudes about health are not merely mundane expressions about the absence of disease,” Scott said. “The places where hygieia erupts in Greek literary and material cultures maybe just as richly suggested about their values, ethics and cultural codes as the eruptions of disease.”
The majority of Scott’s lecture focused on the intersection between ritual worship and health, discussing Athena Hygieia, the deified version of hygieia as a concept. Through examples of archaeological art and literary texts, Scott argued that the concept of hygieia did not only refer to material, bodily nature, but also played a large role in the sociocultural values of everyday Greek life. “Health is an important visual and mythological metaphor by which this city communicated its ideas and unifications and codependencies to itself,” Scott said. He explained that because worship was so integrated into Athenian society, a divine figure who constituted hygieia itself demonstrated that cultural values and biological health were intertwined.
Scott’s lecture concluded with a reflection on how the conception of health as both a material and a sociocultural matter can inform the modern-day understanding of health and wellbeing. “Though this is a view particular to the Greeks of antiquity, I hope it is one that is good to think today, especially in a world in which it’s newly clear that our bodies and our wellbeing are and have always been entangled with those around us,” he said.