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Physics (Aristotle)

The Physics (Greek: Φυσικὴ ἀκρόασις Phusike akroasis; Latin: Physica, or Naturalis Auscultationes, possibly meaning “lectures on nature“) is a named text, written in ancient Greek, collated from a collection of surviving manuscripts known as the Corpus Aristotelicum because attributed to the 4th-century BC philosopher, teacher, and mentor of Macedonian rulers, Aristotle. Due to the unique educational methods of the Athenian school founded by Aristotle, the Lyceum, at the period of its greatest success, and the accidental circumstances surrounding the disposition and rediscovery of its library after his death, it is possible to say that without a doubt some of that library descends to the Corpus and that some must be attributed mainly or entirely to Aristotle, but it is not possible to say for sure which works. The two answers excluded by the circumstances are “all” and “none.”

Standard epistemological method has been to accept the entire Corpus tentatively as genuine; that is, transmitted by manuscript copying from one or more original manuscripts in the library. As soon as evidence is perceived or discovered to make a case that a work is not Aristotle’s, it is crossed out, but left in the list. Such a cross-out does not mean that its author was not influenced by Aristotle, or did not have Aristotle’s work in front of him.

The question of the library

Transition from cooperative to private school

According to Strabo,[8] Neleus, son of Coriscus, a friend at the Lyceum, “inherited the library (bibliotheke) of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle.”[9] Theophrastus received Aristotle’s library by being bequeathed it along with the school. Theophrastus was the first book collector, as far as Strabo knew. Apparently, the elders owned their own libraries and could dispose of them as they pleased.

The main problems with this view are, first of all, that Aristotle’s Will survives credibly in Diogenes Laertius’ (D.L.’s) Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers under Aristotle. There is not one word about a library. Moreover, Aristotle, a metic, or foreign resident of Athens, was not allowed to own property or bequeath it, so he could not have either owned the school with its library or have left it to anyone by legal process.[10] Even if he were not a metic, he could not have disposed of the land and buildings, which were municipal property.[topic note 3] None of the other friends could either. According to the laws in effect on the day Aristotle died, no one could own or bequeath the school to anyone. The city owned it. As to whether Aristotle and Theophrastus had additional personal libraries of their own, first, private ownership was not in the spirit of the school, and second, the fate of the school after Theophrastus suggests that the library was in fact the school library.

After the death of Alexander, Athens staged a brief revolt against the Macedonians. Turning their attention to the school, they went after Aristotle, who went into exile to escape the death penalty. He died in exile. Within a few years Athens was again under Macedon ruled by Cassander. Theophrastus returned in triumph to the school under the authority of the new vice-regent of Athens, Demetrius of Phalerum, a friend of the school and former student of Theophrastus. The school became even greater than before, but Demetrius made some changes to the administration. D.L. says only that Theophrastus “is said to have become the owner of a garden of his own after Aristotle’s death, through the intervention of his friend, Demetrius of Phalerum.” Apparently D.L. does not quite understand his source. The meaning was not “his friend.” This was not a personal favor. A “friend” is an associate of the school. There were not two gardens; Theophrastus was not a poor man in need of some property of his own. His extensive will details the disposition of the assets of the school as his own property, including the garden. He names the friends and wants to make sure that they understand the ownership is to be treated as joint. Demetrius had simply instituted the legal convention prevalent at other schools of having the master own the school and its assets.

The very disposition of the property in Theophrastus’ will is an attempt to restore the koinonia established by Aristotle.[11] The garden, the walks, and the buildings around the garden are to go to ten named friends,[topic note 4] to be held in common, provided they use the property for the study of literature and philosophy. This is provisional ownership. If the provisions are not met, the property must revert to someone by law, probably the proprietor, or owner, of the school. The total property of Theophrastus as proprietor was much larger. The family estate at Eresus and the Aristotelian property at Stagira went to individual friends. He also owned funds in trust managed by Hipparchus. The latter was enjoined to use them to rebuild the museum and other buildings. He also had slaves in his possession (as had Aristotle). They were either set free or given to friends. He had one freedman client, whom he rewarded richly for four more years of maintaining the buildings.

Abscondence of the library by Neleus

The will contains one more bequest that is rather peculiar. It has a bearing on the nature of the Corpus, whether it is Aristotle’s, Aristotle’s and Theophrastus’, or of all the friends. There is as yet no solution to the problem of authorship, or rather lack of it. Ancient sources on the topic are inconsistent. There is no general scholarly consensus and no agreed preponderance of evidence.

The will relates in translation “The whole of my library I give to Neleus.” The heart of the school was its library, containing all the research results and analytical papers (the notebooks). Without it the friends could not produce current or meaningful lectures about the topics for which the school was known (physics, rhetoric, etc.) All the other school property was being redistributed to the friends in common (except that the foreign estates were given individual owners, probably for their management, while the slaves and the minor received individual guardians), but the heart of the school, without which it could not pump knowledge, was not to be common property, an anomalous approach for the circumstances. No explanation at all is to be found in ancient sources. The moderns almost universally retrieve one explanation, that Neleus was the intended heir of the archonship, although that, strangely, is nowhere suggested. The law still required an archon with property rights over the school.[12]

Whatever the implied expectation, Neleus did not become the scholiarch; instead, Strato of Lampsacus did. Again, there are no details of how or why he acquired the position or any statement of Neleus’s feelings about it, inviting speculation.[topic note 5] Strabo then relates what is universally considered an act of perfidy against the school. He was given the library with the understanding that it would be shared as common property. Instead “Neleus took it to Skepsis and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up ….” The result, according to Strabo, was that the school “… had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, … and were therefore able … only to talk bombast about commonplace propositions ….” No details or motives are given. Speculations are rife.[topic note 6] Every author has something to say, some judgement to render.[topic note 7] All are conscious of the fact that, were it not for this perfidy, there would be no corpus as it is known today.

Strabo’s anecdote is not the sole ancient authority on Neleus’ disposition of the books. Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his work Deipnosophistae, “Dinner Sophists,” an imaginary portrayal of a series of banquets at which the guests are famous literary figures of the past (over 700), so that the reader is served up menus and snippets of sophistry together, has his main character, the host, Laurentius (“Lawrence”) possessing

“such a library of ancient Greek books, as to exceed in that respect all those who are remarkable for such collections; such as … Aristotle the philosopher, and Nelius his librarian; from whom they say that our countryman Ptolemæus, surnamed Philadelphus, bought them all, and transported them with all those which he had collected at Athens and at Rhodes to his own beautiful Alexandria.”[13]

By the rules of logic (Aristotle’s very rules) both accounts may not be received as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as the American legal principle for courtroom testimony requires. The easiest solution would be to drop one in favor of the other, and many authors take it. The remaining solution is to accept both as partially true, creating a window of opportunity for speculatory explanation of differences between the Alexandrian and Skepsian traditions.

The dual tradition of texts

The ambiguous name, Corpus Aristotelicum

The tradition best known to moderns is the Corpus Aristotelicum, New Latin for “Aristotelic body,” a term not used by Bekker. The Prussian Academy published his 1831 edition under the name Aristoteles Graece, “Aristotle in Greek,” where Aristoteles is the nominative case. In most Latin and New Latin book titles the author is in the genitive case, such as Aristotelis Opera, “the works of Aristotle.” Individual works are so named by Bekker, but none of this is any sort of corpus.

In the late 19th century the corpus phrase began to appear in the notes of the German historians of philosophy, such as Zeller and Windelband.[topic note 8] By implication they meant Bekker, but even as they wrote a new manuscript was being excavated from the trash-heaps of Egypt about which Bekker knew nothing at all, or anyone else for at least a few thousand years: the Constitution of the Athenians (Aristotle).[topic note 9] It was identified as being one of 158 political studies written by Aristotle and his students no earlier than 330 BC. It is in the “notebook” format. The content differs in that it is not an abstract treatise but is a history stating periods and dates. Not being able to fit it into an idea of the corpus based on Bekker, many rejected it. The date being quite ancient, the majority view is to accept it as of Alexandrian provenience, the only instance of an Aristotelicum from the library and school there.[topic note 10]

The acceptance of the Constitution of the Athenians with the same credibility as the Bekkerian corpus lends a certain ambiguity to the meaning of corpus. If it is to be only the works in Bekker, then such misleading phrases as “the original corpus” are possible, as though the works in Bekker are more authentic than any works out of it. Not even the works in Bekker are authentic beyond any doubt.

The next logical step is to attempt to modify the definition of the term so that it is not to be the Latin word corpus but some special use of it:

“The Corpus Aristotelicum is the collection of Aristotle’s works that have survived from antiquity through Medieval manuscript transmission. … Reference to them is made according to Immanuel Bekker’s nineteenth-century Royal Prussian Academy edition … which in turn is based on ancient classifications of these works.”[14]

The phrase has such authority that it may not be used without meaning Bekker’s collection, but it may be used to mean additional Aristotelica. It is often translated as “the works of Aristotle.” In that English sense it ought to mean every work ever attributed to Aristotle as well as every fragment. George Grote had said

“Very different is the case when we attempt to frame an Aristotelian Canon, comprising all the works of Aristotle and none others. We find the problem far more complicated, and the matters of evidence at once more defective, more uncertain, and more contradictory.”[15]

By “canon” Grote meant “the Berlin edition of Aristotle.” He is totally innocent of any Aristotelian corpora. Even if “canon” had survived instead of corpus, such a meaning now would fail to distinguish Bekker. One translational solution is just to name Bekker, as in “Bekker pages.” Such an elevation of Bekker as the authority raises the question of the source of this aura of conviction surrounding the name. It seems likely that it was inherent in the sources.

The paper trail before Bekker

Having determined to print all of Aristotle’s authentic works, as far as could be ascertained, Bekker found himself looking back over a voluminous paper trail.[topic note 11] He chose to use the texts found in 102 manuscripts (MSS), routinely identified by library name and access number. For use in the book, he gave each MS a letter code. These appear in the footnotes. The front material of the edition includes a list of MSS. His libraries are relatively few, including the Vatican Library at Rome, the Biblioteca Marciana at Venice, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (formerly the Royal Library of Paris), and the Austrian National Library at Vienna. Typically the Aristotelica are included in famous MSS publishing a number of works.[16]

Bekker did not seek out all possible MSS. The number of MSS still extant remains unknown. Before the invention of the printing press ca. 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg, who combined moveable type with a screw press, book reproduction was performed by copyists. It went on everywhere in institutions that could afford to undertake it.

In the 15th century copying slowed as the MSS were replaced by books. Due to cultural lag, some MSS production continued as late as the 17th century in the form of written books. For the most part the MSS were left where they were. Since Bekker, many previously unconsidered MSS have turned up. Their publication is ongoing.[topic note 12] Based on them, works considered spurious are now believed genuine, and vice versa. The jury is always out, so to speak.

The date of a copy is to be distinguished from the date of its recension. Most Aristotle MSS were copied during centuries 13-15 at various scriptoria in Europe. The sequence of text is the recension, which might be instanced by many copies at diverse locations. The recension is not just the text, but is all the idiosyncrasies, such as a specific set of errors (miscopies, misspellings or variant texts), associated with it. The similarities or differences make possible the reconstruction of a tree of descent by the comparative method defining families of MSS, each designated by a capital letter. A family also is a recension. Its first member is its original. Typically originals are not available now but their existence and date can be predicated from different types of historical and textual evidence.

Excluding anomalous archaeological finds, all the MSS copied most lately date to after 1000. Historical and internal clues point to originals in the last 3 centuries before 1000 and a provenience of the domain of the Byzantine Empire; that is, the Greek-speaking world as it was under the eastern Roman Empire. The crusaders broke the power of its capital city, Constantinople, leaving it helpless before the saracens, in this case the Turkish-language speakers from the plains of Central Asia, who became the Ottoman Turks. They soon colonized Anatolia, occupying the urban centers there and replacing the Greek-speakers, who escaped to Greece. As they were not much interested in copying Greek MSS, the task of transmitting them to posterity passed to Europe. (The Turkish people today have an abiding interest in antiquities). The Arabic-speaking saracens to the south after an initial zealous destruction of antiquities, including starting yet another fire in the library of Alexandria, seemed to be infused with the same magic of Aristotle and Alexander that had captured the Roman conquerors of Anatolia earlier. They began to translate Aristotle into Arabic, now the only source of some Aristotelica.

Hand-written MSS of Aristotle are missing from the 1st half of the 1st millennium. The ongoing sites of Oxyrhynchus and the Villa of the Papyri offer hope of the discovery of fragments outside the corpus tradition. Meanwhile, the commentaries, or explanations of the content of the corpus, supply quotations and paraphrases filling in the gap. These lemmata, or excerpts, are so close to the corpus that they can be assigned Bekker numbers, which is good evidence that corpus has been accepted as the work of Aristotle since the beginning of the Roman Empire. The corpus is universally attributed to a single recension, that of Andronicus of Rhodes, dated to mid-1st-century BC, in the late Roman Republic. The diagnostic of Andronicus’ work is the division of the text into treatises, the names of some of the treatises, and the order and grouping of the treatises. Any work that does not conform to that diagnostic is immediately suspected of being “spurious” or non-authentic; that is, not of the corpus and not of Aristotle (rightly or wrongly).

Recension of Apellicon

In the story by Strabo, after Neleus has removed the books to Skepsis — many thousands in broad daylight on a caravan of wagons and in a fleet of ships, without objection or notice of any officials at Athens or Skepsis — history knows no more of him, even though he must have had plans for the books. Evidently the plans did not materialize. To take the passage literally, he must have died shortly thereafter, as the relatives received disposition of the property willed to them (the books).

The books arrived at Skepsis and were stored in a large outbuilding at what must have been a country estate, as the space requirements would not have changed any since Athens. The few small rooms of an ordinary dwelling in town would not have been suitable. Perhaps the relatives were not so poor and uneducated as depicted. As one man could not possibly have moved an entire library by himself, Neleus must have had a retinue of servants.

Hearing that Eumenes II, the Attalid king of Pergamon, was hunting books, the Corascid family “hid their books underground in a kind of trench.” The king must not even have suspected the presence of a huge underground cache at Skepsis, as kings have methods of investigation and confiscation not available to ordinary citizens. Apparently the king’s system of “eyes and ears,” so well developed under Alexander, failed totally, that an entire building full of books could have been received and buried without him being informed. Moreover, the event remained a family secret for the next 200 years.

Ordinary people do not keep property and family memory for so long, but the story is the story, and apart from the alternative by Athenaeus, is the only one available. Speculative answers are always possible.[topic note 13] The general view is that Neleus only brought, and his family only hid, a small part of a library that had already otherwise been sold.

For the next event in the creation of the corpus the historical clock must be advanced from the accession of Strato as scholiarch (instead of Neleus) at 286 BC[topic note 14] to the confiscation of the first recension of the re-discovered corpus from the home of the deceased re-discoverer, Apellicon of Teos,[topic note 15] by general Sulla on his return to Athens after his conquest of Anatolia in 84 BC. For that approximately 200 years, Strabo would have us believe, the scholars of the Lyceum were a simple folk, unable to understand, repeat, or reconstruct the work of Aristotle, nor could they add to any of the previous investigations without his guidance. Moreover, when they finally did obtain a glimpse into what they believed were the words of the master, the only scholarly activities of which they were capable were trying to puzzle out what they mean. Whatever this condition might have been, it certainly was not science. Considering the activities of some of the graduates, there has been some grounds for thinking the Lyceum was gone, and the property was being held by greedy charlatans utilizing the name of peripatetic as a mask. Athenaeus tells the story of “Athenion the Peripatetic philosopher” (a contemporary of Apellicon),

“in order that we may come to a thorough understanding and appreciation of those men who profess to be philosophers, and that we may not be taken in by their ragged cloaks and unshaven chins.”

The men to whom he refers did not wear ragged cloaks; they were among the richest in Athens, but they were so because they were charlatans, or, as would be said today, “crooks.” The school and the society in which it had been placed were different now. The diadochi were gone, or nearly so, including the Attalids. The eastern Mediterranean was divided into provinces of the Roman Republic, except that Mithridates VI of Pontus was successfully contesting Roman rule in Anatolia. The citizenship laws at Athens had changed somewhat. Athenion’s mother had been an Egyptian slave owned by his father, and yet based on his father’s citizenship he was enrolled as a citizen and inherited his father’s estate. Apellicon (not an Athenian name), an immigrant from Teos in Asia MInor, was enrolled as a citizen after his adoption into the family of Aristotle, son of Apolexis.

The fact that the family included two members named Aristotle leads to the suggestion that the adoptive family had connections to the Lyceum and that Apellicon learned of the books through it.[17] Moreover, references in the sources to Apellicon and Athenion as “peripatetics” may well be interpreted as meaning that they both went to the Lyceum, which would explain why they were later comrades-in-arms. The peripatetics never had a predictable philosophy. Both men were skilled orators, which was a specialty of the school at that time. Athenion went on to found a chain of schools for boys, on which account he is called a “sophist” (a teacher of conventional wisdom). Apellicon turned his love for books into something conceded to have been illegal for the times:

“For at one time he was a philosopher, and collected all the treatises of the Peripatetics, and the whole library of Aristotle, and many others; for he was a very rich man; and he had also stolen a great many autograph decrees of the ancients out of the temple of the Mighty Mother, and whatever else there was ancient and taken care of in other cities; and being detected in these practices at Athens he would have been in great danger if he had not made his escape”

As there is no indication that the Apolexidis family were fabulously wealthy or that, being numerous, they had much to leave to their adopted son, Apellicon very likely made his money from the resale of rare documents he acquired for nothing except the cost of stealing them. These were the originals of the decrees, first written on paper and signed before they were carved in stone for public benefit. In describing the ideal library of “Lawrence,” Athenaeus points out that even then historians were expected to verify their claims against public documents. In one source Apellicon himself had written a book on Aristotle. Initially he might have yielded to the temptation to walk away with the source rather than return it to display in the temple. Becoming rich through the sale of stolen documents he decided to redeem the old cache, which was said to have been hidden not far from his home town.

Examining the books, and finding that moths and mold had removed portions of the text, Apellicon created another recension, supplying the missing information himself. There is no indication of how much was missing or of what source Apellicon used, if any, or whether the supplied material was grammatical, orthographic, or epigraphic, or included philosophy as well. Subsequent editors judged his recension to have been full of errors, but no ancient source has said what sort of errors, or how they were judged to be errors. These editors made corrections, but the sources of information used for correction remain unknown. In short, the only thing known from ancient sources is that Apellicon made a recension that was later criticised for being erroneus. The contradiction of such a statement is that if they knew enough to correct Apellicon, why would the rediscovery of the books have added anything different to the obviously already known corpus?[topic note 16]

The passage from Athenaeus also provides a rough time table for the recension of Apellicon. It was created toward the end of his years as a successful thief, presumably at his home in Athens. What happened to the damaged originals remains a total mystery. Perhaps they were repasted and sold. How many copies were made if any, and who got them, also is not known. Apellicon probably left town in such a hurry that the books remained in Athens under the care of friends or servants. There is no record that the city moved against his property. Thus in a short time when he returned under the protection of Athenion he took up residence in the same home housing the same library, which was found there by Sulla after Apellicon’s death.

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Khwaja Yahya

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