Virtuous Complexions: The Physiology of the Virtues in Pietro d'Abano's Medical Anthropology

Matthew Klemm, Ithaca College


This paper examines the physiological theory of the influential Paduan physician Pietro d'Abano. It argues that Pietro's physiological interests were driven by concerns that were as much moral as medical. In particular, Pietro was optimistic that the body's physiology - namely the combination of the qualities known as "complexion" - could help cause moral and intellectual virtue. He hoped that if human physiology and all the environmental factors affecting it could be properly understood, complexion theory could provide a new, medical, approach to virtue and to our overall conception of human nature. To make his case, Pietro revives the thought of Galen, who had also aigued the connection between complexion and morals. Because Galen's thoughts on this matter were viewed with suspicion, Pietro argues that Aristotle's use of complexion theory is in essential agreement with Galen, a reading of Aristotle that requires considerable creativity on Pietro's part.