Thursday, April 30, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Abraham P. Bos, Rein Ferwerda (ed.), Aristotle, On the Life-bearing Spirit (De spiritu): A Discussion with Plato and His Predecessors on Pneuma as the Instrumental Body of the Soul. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008. Pp. 209. ISBN 9789004164581. $129.00.
Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University

The central topic of my sole conversation of any length with the great British classicist David Balme (in 1988) was the unusual work, attributed to Aristotle, called περὶ πνεύματος (On Breath or De spiritu [hereafter DS]). Balme said he thought the nature and authenticity of the work needed to be reassessed--at the very least, the idea that its use of ἀρτηρία proved DS's spuriousness ought to be rejected,1 as the same usage can be found in the Historia Animalium. He told me that after he finished his work on the Historia Animalium, and if he lived long enough, he would like to produce a fresh edition of the text of DS.

Unfortunately, Balme died the following year.2 Three years later there appeared a new edition of the Greek text (with Italian translation and commentary) by Amneris Roselli.3 Roselli, however, regards the work as spurious (an early Peripatetic work, but not by Aristotle). As far as I know, the volume under review by Bos and Ferwerda (hereafter B/F) is the first attempt in English to defend the Aristotelian authorship of DS.4

Aristotle, On the life-bearing spirit consists mainly of an introduction (pp. 1-28), a new English translation of DS (pp. 29-46), and an extensive commentary (pp. 47-187).

The introduction is virtually identical to an essay by B/F that appeared recently in the journal Mnemosyne5--which should have been mentioned, and which is somewhat strange, as I think the essay reads more like an introduction than it does an academic article. (The one significant difference is that two new sections have been added for this introduction.) The introduction is divided into thirteen sections; the first is an introduction to the introduction, and oddly has no number or heading. I list here the number and heading of each of the remaining sections: (2) What was known about De spiritu? (3) What has been said about De spiritu in the modern era? (4) Critical evaluation of the modern debate; (5) Vital heat as the soul's multifunctional instrument in chapter 9; (6) Brief outline of the contents of De spiritu; (7) What positions are held by the author of De spiritu himself? (8) The position of De spiritu on the soul; (9) What is the position of 'Aristogenes' that the author of De spiritu contests? (10) Who are the opponents in De spiritu and who is 'Aristogenes'? (11) Conclusion; (12) The place of De spiritu in the Aristotelian Corpus; (13) From life-bearing breath to life-bearing spirit.

A few comments on the introduction: The brief outline (6) is quite useful. Sections (3) & (4) make clear how iconoclastic B/F's book is, demonstrate that the De spiritu is too often dismissed with insufficient argument, and show the need for a reevaluation of the nature, authenticity, and purpose of the DS. Section (2) is entirely insufficient; I quote it in full: "The title of a work 'On pneuma' is absent in the Greek lists of Aristotle's writings but is mentioned in the Arabic catalogue of Ptolemy el-Garib. Some modern authors believe that Galen and Pliny may have referred to De spiritu" (p. 3). In a note (n. 13) B/F quote Galen and cite Pliny, but surely more discussion is called for--especially as this could lend some support (however meager) to their case for authenticity. B/F devote a fair amount of time to a certain Aristogenes (see (9) and (10)), whose views are criticized in the DS. This is understandable, for if this Aristogenes is the third century BC medical writer (the view of Jaeger and Roselli6), the case for Aristotle as the author of DS is overthrown (as B/F are aware, see p. 71). B/F take a very different view, one that is consistent with their conviction that the DS is in large part a response to Plato's Timaeus: the author of DS "seems to identify 'Aristogenes' with Plato. He may have permitted himself a literary joke here, with 'Aristogenes' as a sly allusion to Plato, whose father was in fact called 'Ariston'" (p. 23). I don't find this terribly convincing.7 Finally, I think B/F should have reworked the introduction so that the concluding section--and not the antepenultimate one--was labeled "Conclusion."

As a prelude to my remarks on the translation, I want to register two (related) complaints. First, B/F nowhere provide a general discussion of the Greek text and manuscript tradition of DS, nor do they indicate which edition they are translating. (I assume Roselli's is their base text.) The failure to discuss the text is, I think, a mistake, especially given its poor state.8 Second, and more important, I think B/F's translation should have been accompanied by the Greek text. This would have made both the translation and the commentary more intelligible, and the whole volume more useful. An accompanying text (with notes) would also have been the most suitable vehicle for presenting B/F's own valuable suggested readings.9

I assume that B/F have, in their translation, favored fidelity to the Greek over elegant English. This is completely appropriate. Overall, this translation is superior (with respect to such fidelity) to Dobson's translation in the Oxford Aristotle and to Hett's in the Loeb Classical Library. Given B/F's approach, it is no surprise that the translation is at times awkward. Sometimes, however, it is more awkward than fidelity to the Greek demands. For example, in the opening line, I'm not sure "The innate pneuma, how does it maintain itself and grow?" is the most natural way to render: τίς ἡ τοῦ ἐμφύτου πνεύματος διαμονή καὶ τίς ἡ αὔξησις; I prefer something like "What is the <mode of> maintenance of the innate [or perhaps 'connate'] pneuma and what is its <mode of> growth?" (Dobson, revised). But I was pleased here and throughout that B/F transliterated πνεῦμα, instead of translating it "life-bearing spirit" (as they seem to do in the title of their book).

The 140-page commentary (on 18 pages of translation) is the most valuable part of the book. I found it especially useful in presenting parallel passages from the Corpus Aristotelicum. Further, B/F are generally quite effective in defending their translation and interpretation against those of other scholars. Naturally, B/F believe the commentary supports their interpretive aims: to demonstrate or support their view that the DS is authentic; that it is largely a response to "Plato and his predecessors" (to borrow from the subtitle); and that it contains a conception of pneuma that is significant and employed by Aristotle in his other writings.

Let me elaborate on this last. According to Aristotle, the male seed or semen (σπέρμα, γονή) contains water and pneuma, and this pneuma contains a special kind of heat--namely "soul-heat" (θερμότητα ψυχικήν) (GA 11, 762a20)--which works on the female contribution to generation (menses, καταμήνια) to give rise to a new living being. (See esp. GA II 2-3.) "It seems natural," B/F write, "to assume that there is more pneuma in a fully grown living creature than in the semen through which the creature was formed" (p. 2). I don't know that we should make such an assumption; but I do think it is natural to ask: is there "more pneuma in the fully grown living creature"? Other, related questions: What role does pneuma play in the fully grown living being? What is the relationship between pneuma and the soul? These are some of the questions that one must raise and attempt to answer in considering the authenticity of DS.10 Unfortunately, B/F's answers to these questions, and their case for the authenticity of DS generally, seem intimately (if at times, in the commentary, implicitly) connected to their (or Bos's) unorthodox (and to my mind implausible) view that pneuma (and not the body of a living being, as that is normally understood) is the body Aristotle has in mind in De Anima II 1 when he defines soul as the entelechy of a natural 'instrumental' body (see, e.g., p. 26).11

Nevertheless, this commentary is packed with useful discussions of the text, and should be of value to all those interested in the DS, regardless of whether they accept B/F's interpretation of it and its place in Peripatetic thought.12


1.   For example, J.F. Dobson opens the preface to his 1914 translation of DS (for the Oxford Aristotle edited by W.D. Ross) as follows: "This treatise has been rejected as spurious by practically all editors, one of the chief reasons being the confusion of the senses assigned to ἀρτηρία." Dobson is referring to the view that ἀρτηρία always refers to the windpipe in the genuine works of Aristotle, but to a kind of vein in DS. This is the view Balme challenges.
2.   Fortunately for us, he had already completed a great deal of work on the Historia Animalium: Aristotle's Historia Animalium VII-X, Loeb Classical Library (1991); Aristotle's Historia Animalium, Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, vol. I: Text (2002), and vol. II: Commentary, Books I-VII (forthcoming). These were all prepared for publication by Allan Gotthelf.
3.   Amneris Roselli, [Aristotele]: De spiritu (Pisa: ETS Editrice, 1992).
4.   One recent exception: Patrick Macfarlane, A Philosophical Commentary on Aristotle's De Spiritu (Duquesne University PhD Dissertation, 2007).
5.   A.P. Bos and R. Ferwerda, "Aristotle's De spiritu as a critique of the doctrine of pneuma in Plato and his predecessors," Mnemosyne 60 (2007) 565-88.
6.   Werner Jaeger, "Das Pneuma im Lykeion," Hermes 48 (1913), pp. 29-74; Roselli, [Aristotele]: De spiritu, pp. 76-79. (See B/F, p. 8 n. 24.)
7.   This interpretation of the identity of Aristogenes (that he is Plato) is related to a deeper point, namely, that DS is largely a response to Plato. This can be contrasted with the view that DS is best understood against the background of ancient Greek medicine--the approach of Roselli and Macfarlane.
8.   Which B/F recognize: "The Greek text of the work . . . leaves much to be desired" (p. 1). "Certainly De spiritu has places where the Greek text is corrupt" (p. 23).
9.   I noted about a dozen original readings. For example, at 481a8, where the manuscript tradition gives us οὐχ οὕτως (which is bracketed by Rosseli), B/F plausibly suggest reading ἐκείνως (see pp. 29 n.1, 54-55).
10.   Other important questions: Is there terminology in DS that post-dates the genuine works of Aristotle? Are there references or allusions to people and ideas that post-date the genuine works of Aristotle?
11.   See A.P. Bos, The Soul and its Instrumental Body: A Reinterpretation of Aristotle's Philosophy of Living Nature (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
12.   The book was well-produced. I noticed very few typographical errors. I'll merely mention one Dutch-ism, from p. 52: "The subject van γίνεται is 'food' (τροφή). . . ."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.