Cultures and Cultural Production

“Adamantios Korais – Towards an intellectual biography: His medical work”

Irodotou Constantin

Research ProposalConferenceResearch ResutsShort BioPublications

Summary of the Research Proposal

The bibliography on Korais has paid almost no attention to his written work on medicine. I propose to focus on this omission. The initial question of the proposed research is rather simple: Was Korais a doctor ? The bibliography hitherto answers “rather no”. The research project that I propose focuses on the study of Korais’ theses on medicine, which lie outside the “canon”. Pyretologiae Synopsis is the largest in length thesis of 1786. This work, to which Korais’ colleagues and teachers often refer, constitutes an attempt of mapping an “economia animalis” based on “fever”, in a period in which the study of passions and desires comes to the forefront, culminating, of course, in Sade. Korais’ second thesis, Medicus Hippocraticus, will be examined in the framework of the reform program of Société Royale de Médecine, which is closely connected with the University of Montpellier. There is always the possibility of certain surprises in the files of Korais’ teachers in Montpellier.

This research project was funded by the Research Centre for the Humanities (RCH), with the support of the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation.


To view the conference’s program in Greek, click here and browse to the tab “Ημερίδα”.

Research: “Adamantios Korais – Towards an intellectual biography: His medical work”

Researcher: Dr. Constantin Irodotou

The research project Adamantios Korais – Towards an intellectual biography: His medical workwas funded by the Research Centre for the Humanities (RCH) for the year 2018, with the support of the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation.

Adamantios Korais was born in 1748 in Smyrna to a merchant father. His grandparents were scholars. From an early stage, he devoted himself to learning foreign languages, trying to overcome the narrow boundaries of traditional education. In 1771/2 he went to Amsterdam, where he participated in the management of a trade cooperative and came into contact with the new ideas and the European way of life. However, his business venture failed and he returned to Smyrna in 1778. Four years later he enrolled in the Medical School of the University of Montpellier, where he completed all three cycles of studies (Baccalauréat, Doctorat, License). His first thesis (thèse de baccalauréat) devoted to Bernard Keun, priest of the Dutch Consulate in Smyrna and his old Latin teacher, was a synthetic study of fever, while his second thesis (thèse de doctorat) was a code of the medical profession according to Hippocrates. The study of Hippocrates at that time was linked to Enlightenment’s imperative for medical reform. Then, encouraged by his professors, he came up with the idea of ​​a new edition of the corpus hippocraticus, on which he embarked, but he did not complete. Later, he translated medical works by Christian Gottlieb Selle and William Black.

In 1788, he moved to Paris to undertake literary work at the Bibliothèque Royale, after having being invited by Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard d’Ansse de Villoison, a well-known philologist. Korais in Paris closely attended all the phases of the French Revolution, and transferred, at his Correspondence, an impressive chronicle, accompanied by his personal reflections on the Greek issue. Korais’ correspondence covers the period 1774-1833 and provides an almost complete insight into the formation of his thought. At its pages, the social network of Korais and his views about his contemporary world are described, as well as practical issues of his everyday life.

Korais lived in an era when nothing was given, and everything could be overturned. His personal life, his failure in Amsterdam, and his transition towards Medicine at a mature age and, above all, the subversion of the medieval worldview of which he had been an eyewitness, led him to a great critical scepticism towards the present. At the same time, however, he had an indissoluble faithfulness to future dynamics.

 In 1798, Korais published anonymously in Greek the political pamphlet Brotherly Instruction as a reply to the anti-enlightening Paternal Instruction, a pamphlet published by ecclesiastical circles under the name of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, in an effort to condemn modern philosophy and any attempt to revolt against Ottoman Empire. In 1800, he published the Hippocratic text Of Airs, Waters, Places, for which he was awarded the “Prix Décennal” and it thus established his reputation as a classical scholar. In 1802, he published the Greek translation of Cesare Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene. The moral constitution of man was, for Korais, a prerequisite for the relationship between education and freedom, an organic relationship that would be the key to his vision. Korais had been associated with the Idéologues movement and he presented, in 1803, the Mémoire sur l’état actuel de la civilization dans la Grèce to the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme, of which he was a member. In this text, he used the contrasting pairs of the time “degeneration / reform” (dégénérescence / régénérescence) and “civilization / barbarism” (civilization / barbarie). Then, in 1805, Korais launched a series of publications called Hellenic Library, which consisted of 15 volumes of Greek classics. The Parerga, which completed the series, consisted of 9 volumes. In the prefaces (Prolegomena) to these editions, Korais had been setting out his political thought until 1827.

When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Korais, realizing how critical those historical moments were, focused wholeheartedly on Greece’s state-building. From that moment, he devoted all his forces to this issue. Korais admired the political organization of the United States and wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the Greek issue in 1823. The most important text written by Korais during this period is Notes on the Provisional Constitution of Greece, where he commented on the constitutional charter of the First revolutionary National Assembly of Greece in 1822, relying, apart from the classics, on the political theory of Jeremy Bentham, with whom he corresponded[1]. Paschalis M. Kitromilides has recently re-published this work.[2]


In 1827, the Third National Assembly officially acknowledged Korais’ offer to the nation. Korais was recognized as a Pater Patriae and, a few years later, in 1833 he died in Paris. While he lived, Korais was the main target of anti-enlightenment circles. These attacks did not cease even after his death. The dynamics of his political thought had been slowly overlooked, while at the centre of the bibliography were almost exclusively his linguistic views, as in the following century the language issue –Katharevousa or Demotic? – was the dominant subject of theoretical controversies in Greece.

Korais of the Paris period has been the main focus of research. Apart from Philippos Iliou’s important study From Tradition to Enlightenment: the testimony of a servant which examines the Amsterdam period, that is, Korais as a merchant, we won’t find but a few research attempts concerning the period before Paris.[3] Both the lack of relevant historical material and the language barrier raised by the use of Latin, the language of his two medical theses, Pyretologiae Synopsis and Medicus Hippocraticus, written at the University of Montpellier, partly justify this silence or, rather, this override of the research.

There is no doubt that Korais became more widely known through the Parisian circles. It is certain that the printers of Paris published the main body of his work. It is, therefore, logical to consider Korais of the Paris period as the major one. However, the interest in the pre-Parisian or early Parisian period of his life and work does not mark an effort to replace a missing jigsaw puzzle piece, an effort that would be aligned with the idea that knowledge means accumulation. The image of Major Korais as a thinker of the Greek nation is not necessarily the only research directive and the only safe outcome. More specifically, the transition from Medicine to Philology, which could quite graphically coincide with the transition from Montpellier to Paris, was, in the case of Korais, a very slow process. Contrary to what research has somewhat awkwardly shown so far, Korais’ medical studies cannot be considered superficial.

That is precisely my research perspective, the study of Korais’ life and work, and in particular his medical work, based on the most recent directions of scientific research. Jean-Luc Chappey has revised the traditional reading of Société des Observateurs de l’Homme and of Idéologues,[4] groups in which Korais participated. Mariana Saad is writing a mental biography of P. J. G. Cabanis,[5] a prominent physician and thinker, a friend of Korais. Research has begun to move away from the traditional literature, from the somewhat awkward biographical commentary on Korais’ relationships with the supposedly compact groups of Société des Observateurs de l’Homme and Idéologues, while the French bibliography is completely revising its previous perspective on them.

The forthcoming edition of De morborum haereditariorum existentia, nature prophylaxi et cura (About hereditary diseases: existence, nature, precaution and medical care) from the publishing house “Les Belles Lettres” will shed new light on the questions. This is a work which Korais submitted to a competition for hereditary diseases organized by Société Royale de Médecine in the years 1788-1790. This publication[6] will demonstrate Korais’ profound knowledge and his being constantly updated on the medical developments of his time, and will illuminate his relationship with Société Royale de Médecine, a completely unknown chapter of the Koraic studies. Korais is inspired by the medical reform promoted by the Société Royale de Médecine, an instrument, according to Foucault, of the “centralization of knowledge”,[7] spearheaded by Hippocrates.

At the Bibliothèque de l’Académie nationale de Médecine, in Paris, there is an unpublished manuscript entitled De Morborum Haereditariorum Existentia Natura Prophylaxi et Cura. It is a manuscript of 122 pages, in Latin, which Korais submitted to a competition on hereditary diseases organized by the Société royale de Médecine in the years 1788-1790. The Royal Society of Medicine in Paris was founded in 1778 and aimed to strengthen its ties with the province by collecting information on the diseases that occur at intervals, in order to implement a medical policy that is articulated around a theory of knowledge: “a tool for epidemics control, slowly becomes the focal point of knowledge, a service for recording and evaluating the entire range of medical activity,”[8] Foucault wrote.

The Société royale de Médecine allied with the Montpellier Medical School, putting aside the more conservative Paris Faculty of Medicine. The main point of convergence between the Société royale de Médecine and the Medical School of Montpellier was, in contrast, the commitment to the necessity of re-reading Hippocrates, as well as the shift towards the social dimension of Medicine through systematic statistical processes, measurements and recordings. The Corpus Hippocraticus was therefore a sort of constitutional starting point for the establishment of Medicine as a Science, without preventing the development of medical thought. Thus, Korais played a catalytic role as a profound scholar of ancient Greek language. As Jean-François-Jacques Rousille-Chamseru, a member of the Société royale de Médecine, mentioned, Korais was “perhaps the only Hellenist doctor of our time”. The Parisian Société royale de Médecine, as an institution, was quite close to the spirit of the group of Idéologues.

The number of members’ entries and awards, of graduates and professors at the Montpellier School, in the competitions organized by the Société royale de Médecine was impressive. Korais, already in his first thesis, invited the reader to consult the results of a competition on the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile). Although he took part in the “hereditary diseases” competition, Korais was not awarded. His name is not mentioned in the results.

The question posed by the Royal Society of Medicine concerned the existence or not of heredity, the definition and treatment of hereditary diseases. Opposing views, as it has been documented in the texts of the competition, were swirling around accepting or not the theory of four humors, according to which human health depends on the balance of humors in the body. Koraic treatise on hereditary diseases proves that its author was not just watching but he was fully aware of the medical literature of his time. Although he adopted a rather “humorous” approach – and perhaps this is one of the reasons for it being rejected – he did not hesitate to analyze at length the social factors that may be responsible for hereditary diseases. And this was its interesting part.

In order to link the thesis to the subsequent Korais’ writings, “Hygiene”, based on his introduction to the publication of Hippocrates Of Airs, Waters, Places, in 1810, is considered to be the essence of Medicine. It contributes to the “science of happiness”. In this introduction, Korais described his political focus as follows: “As politics, I mean, not what we usually mean, that is to say, the art of deceiving our rival or adversary, but the science of governing people in such a way that they would be happy through the good use of their passions”[9]. This phrase proves a “biopolitical” direction, according to Foucault, determined in a very clear way by Korais. Medicine, disseminated at social level, aims to lead the population to happiness by regulating its passions – “passions as an object of Medicine”[10].

In 1840, Émile Littré, a famous French philologist of the time, 7 years after the death of Korais, accredited him a triple status: “Greek, physician and Hellenist”. It is worth underlining the conjunction “and”. Korais, from a “Hellenist doctor” (without a comma) is now considered “Greek, Doctor and Hellenist”. The emergence of his “Greek” status is due to a now clear national perspective. However, the emergence of conjunction “and” is due to the tectonic changes that have occurred in the field of Sciences and the clear distinctions between them.

Korais’ life in France is associated with five main circles or networks:

  1. a) The Medical School of the University of Montpellier.
  2. b) As already shown, the Société royale de Médecine.
  3. c) The circle of Idéologues.
  4. d) The Société des Observateurs de l’Homme.
  5. e) The network of publishers and sponsors, as described in its Correspondence and in peripheral, under research sources.

It is worth investigating the exact position of Korais in the triangle School of Montpellier-Société royale de Médecine-Idéologues. The suggestion to read the political Korais as a “biopolitical” thinker does not mean, of course, a mere search for “medical thought”, in the type and place of medical transfer, in the political work of Korais. And it does not mean either a blind application of Foucault’s theory in the Koraic case.

The political work of Korais defines a national taxonomy and is, conversely, defined by a nationally classifying thought. However, Korais’ medical thinking is not completely discernible from his political thinking. The three qualities attributed to him, “Greek, Doctor and Hellenist”, are gradually emerging, over his lifetime, and they overlap, they are not mutually exclusive. This may lead us to think that the national dimension of Korais’ work is not the only possible reading. We can assume that the national perspective forms a scene in a wider historical theatre, in which tectonic changes occur.

Korais, balancing between two cultural examples, French, mainly, and Greek, becomes a national symbol, becomes a statue in the Propylaea of ​​the University of Athens, and not only his own work, but also his perception in the later years, up to nowadays, is the subject of a long-term study. However, apart from a subject of research on New Hellenism, Korais, if we follow the opposite direction, is also a potential subject of research on French history.

As research has taken the autobiographical guide to the literary nature of the Koraic work literally, the same has also happened with the Koraic principle of “metakenosis“, that is, the theory of transferring of western civilization to the Greek territory. His work was read in its absolute terms. The questions that are worth re-posing are not abstract. How can we investigate, through the case of Korais, the interdisciplinary relations of Medicine and Philology at the time of Enlightenment? Besides the nation-state practices, perhaps other, “biopolitical” ones, are also unfolding, which it is time to investigate.

Kitromilides writes characteristically: “it might be possible to capture the interaction between Korais’ evolving personal temper and the larger social context that forged his political thought”.[11] The main motivation for the choice of focusing on the problematics of the relationships between the vision of Montpellier vitalisme and Korais was to verify the dynamic links between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the emergence of a type of thinking open to the utopian models characteristic of the 18th century where the intrusion of politics is to be retained as the basis on which European modernity is founded in a long process of discursive currents which combine with each other and place medical questioning at the heart of society.


[1] Βλ. P.M. Kitromilides, “Jeremy Bentham and Adamantios Korais”, The Bentham Studies Newsletter, vol. 9, 1985, pp. 33-48.

[2] Adamantios Korais, Σημειώσεις εις το προσωρινόν πολίτευμα της Ελλάδος, Paschalis M. Kitromilides (ed.), Athens, Hellenic Parliament Foundation, 2018.

[3]  Stamatis Petrou, Γράμματα άπὸ τὸ Ἄμστερνταμ, Philippos Iliou (ed.), Athens, Hestia, 1976.

[4] Jean-Luc Chappey, La Société des Observateurs de l’homme (1799-1804), Des anthropologues au temps de Bonaparte, Paris, Société des études robespierristes, 2002 ; Jean-Luc Chappey, « Les Idéologues face au coup d’État du 18 brumaire an VIII, Des illusions aux désillusions », Politix, vol 14, no 56, 2001, pp. 55-75; Jean-Luc Chappey, «Révolution, régénération, civilisation: enjeux culturels des dynamiques politiques», Jean-Luc Chappey et al. (ed.), Pour quoi faire la Révolution, Marseille, Agone, 2012, pp. 115-148.

[5] Mariana Saad, Comprendre l’homme pour changer le monde: P. J. G. Cabanis (1757-1808), Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016.

[6] Diamantes Coray, De morborum hæreditariorum existentia, natura, prophylaxi et cura // De l’existence, de la nature, de la prévention et de la guérison des maladies héréditaires, Cura et studio Constantin Irodotou & Dionysios Benetos, Gallice interpretaverunt Stéphane Cosson, Jean Hennet, Gérard Panisset, Paris, Les Belles Lettres («Sciences et Savoirs»), 2019 (forthcoming).

[7] Michel Foucault, Naissance de la clinique, Paris, PUF, 1963, p. 27.

[8] Loc. cit.

[9] Ibid., pp. xlvii-xlviii.

[10] Ibid., p. xlviii, note 1.

[11] Paschalis M. Kitromilides, Enlightenment and Revolution, The Making of Modern Greece, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, Harvard University Press, 2013, p. 178.

Constantin Irodotou is a researcher at the Center for Research on Human Sciences.  He holds a Ph.D. of Philosophy at the University of Paris 8 and is a member of the Laboratory L.L.C.P. of the same University. He studied history at the University of Athens and he holds Masters in philosophy and psychoanalysis at the University of Paris 8. His main scientific interests are: history of desire, sexuality and body, as well as utopian narratives and the European Enlightenment.






Selected Publications