Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Basiles Kalphas (ed.), Aristoteles. Meta ta Physika. Biblio A'. Archaioi philosophoi. Athena: Ekdoseis Polis, 2009. Pp. 356. ISBN 9789604352272. (pb).
Reviewed by Pantelis Golitsis, Freie Universität Berlin

Modern Greek scholarship on Ancient Greek philosophy has shown an important flourishing in the last two decades, to which Vassilis Kalfas has made a considerable contribution, both as an author and as an editor. Kalfas is the founder and director of the series "Ancient Philosophers", which includes richly annotated translations of ancient philosophical texts, while he himself has previously produced two such books on Plato's Timaeus and on Aristotle's Physics II. The choice of Aristotle's Metaphysics I as a third step of his personal translational project is no wonder. If Aristotle is the first historian of philosophy, as is commonly said, then it is in Alpha where this history of philosophy begins. But apart from labelling Aristotle in this rather anachronistic way, a thorough study of Alpha takes us into the core of Aristotle's philosophy at its making: it not only illustrates a great part of Aristotle's conception of philosophy and his philosophical method but it also gives us important insights into the ontological discussions held in Plato's Academy, when apparently Aristotle was still a member of it (or felt like he was).1

As usual in similar studies, Kalfas's book is divided in three sections: an extensive introduction (17-132) is followed by the Ancient Greek text and the Modern Greek translation in alternating pages (134-211) and, finally, by the relevant comments (215-335). An extensive bibliography (337-345) and two indexes (347-356), of ancient names and of loci, helpfully close the volume.

The introduction, itself tripartite, provides the general frame of Kalfas's approach to Aristotle in general and to Alpha in particular. Kalfas takes a rather neutral stance by considering Aristotle to never have been a "faithful Platonist" or to have become an "adversary of Platonism" (86), but he locates in Aristotle's Academic origins the grounds for Aristotle's general conception of (first) philosophy, namely "a philosophy about immaterial forms" (50). This stance, which consistently seeks to account for Aristotelian innovation in the field of metaphysics by means of the philosopher's Academic background (87), permeates the first part of the introduction (17-43), where Kalfas examines the unity of the book along with its place in the general treatise that has come down to us under the indicative title Metaphysics (Meta ta phusika, meaning "after the Physics", possibly in reference to the place that this set of originally autonomous treatises should take within the study of the Aristotelian corpus). While the place of Alpha as prefatory to the entire treatise can be easily justified (Aristotle starts with discussing what people think wisdom is in order to define what "love of wisdom" is, and then proceeds to a critical discussion of the beliefs of his predecessors in a manner that will set, in book Beta, the main aporiai to be resolved in the following books), the unity of the book seems to be a more complicated matter. "Popularizing" chapters, such as the ones on "what people love to know" and "what is wisdom" (ch. 1 and 2), are combined with highly technical discussions like Aristotle's criticism of Platonic ontology in its Pythagorizing version (ch. 9) that only insiders of the Academy could follow (20). However, Kalfas insists on the unity of Alpha in the light of Aristotle's "constant dialogue with Plato and the Platonic tradition" (23). Not only in the second part of the book, where Aristotle's historical survey of ontology culminates in chapter six with the presentation of Platonic Ideas, but also in the first part is Aristotle in line with the Platonic tradition: he often alludes to Platonic dialogues and, more importantly, he promotes philosophy as a free and divine knowledge, that is, "a knowledge considering the first causes and principles" (982b9-10), which matches Platonic ideals in contrast to the practicality of the Isocratean School (24; see also 49).2

The second part of the Introduction (44-79) is about "Aristotle, the historian of philosophy". Kalfas declines to absolutely subscribe either to Cherniss' criticism targeting on Aristotle's (admitted) lack of objectivity, or to evolutionary accounts of Aristotle's philosophical history such as Aubenque's. Objectivity in history of philosophy is a modern demand which presupposes a voluntary undifferentiated stance on the part of the historian. Now, as Kalfas puts it, Aristotle voluntarily "modernizes" ancient theories (69) in what he describes as a "necessary method of investigation" (71). What has been quite often interpreted in Alpha as anachronismos, either as a tool for a subjective history of philosophy or as a necessary assumption which legitimizes the gradual emergence of truth, is for Kalfas a sunchronismos, an actualisation of past philosophy within a (Platonic) dialectical scheme which enables the formulation of the aporiai, which are depositories of some truth and are, according to Aristotle, the foundation for any field of knowledge. Such a procedure seems necessary in a field of knowledge which wants to be "universal" or concerns itself with "first causes and principles" and thus lacks any principles that can guarantee its deductive structure. This insightful account of the first Greek historical survey of philosophy, which is based on Aristotle's own formulation (see the "modernizing" vocabulary in 985a4-5, 985a11-18, 989b4-6 and 989b19-21), fits in a way, if I may add, into the last one, namely the survey which Simplicius proposes in his monumental Commentary on the Physics (28.32-37.9), where all philosophy, from the Milesians to the Stoics, is "modernized" from a Neoplatonist viewpoint. Anachronisms which appear objectionable to the modern historian may constitute a fundamental perspective in Greek philosophy (after Aristotle), which sees no history or evolution in philosophy but rather different formulations of truth.

In the third part of the introduction (80-132) Kalfas proceeds to a close investigation of Aristotle's criticism on Platonic ontology and ideal numbers, explaining numeric ontology from Pythagoreans to Plato in a lucid manner. Although the title of this part names "Aristotle and the mathematical philosophy of the Academy" in a way that makes the reader think that Kalfas has in mind here a version of Platonism in the Early Academy, he interprets the famous dictum in 992a32-33 ("mathematics has come to be identical to philosophy for the philosophers of our time") as concerning not only Academics like Speusippus and Xenocrates but also Plato. As Kalfas rightly points out (85), what follows in Aristotle's text ("though they say that mathematics should be studied for the sake of other things") is indeed an allusion to the seventh book of the Republic; but this does not necessarily imply that "Speusippus and Xenocrates are unjustly accused" for what, after all, Plato has said. It can also signify a contradiction in the philosophical attitude of people who claimed to be the authentic heirs of Platonism. The passage from Aristoxenus' Harmonics on Plato's lecture On the Good, which Kalfas also uses as evidence, does not, in my opinion, allow also to conclude very much. Aristoxenus states that Plato spoke about mathematics and numbers but he does not say what role Plato assigned to them; he also speaks of geometry and astrology, but it is unlikely that Plato considered such sciences directly relevant to the highest metaphysical entities. What, in my opinion, is at stake in Aristotle's criticism about ideas and numbers is the denouement of an open Platonism (as it can be inferred, rather safely, from Aristotle's use of the first person plural in A 9), that is, a philosophy which has set the frame of what philosophy is about, but has not determined (perhaps deliberately) what it will bring about; Aristotle may have "unwritten doctrines" in mind, but these, if I may say, could also be part of dialectics. When the same criticism was later reformulated for book Mu (where the third plural is used), this Platonism was apparently "closed".

The translation is very well-written and mostly accurate3 and, what is perhaps its best feature, it can be read without the help of the ancient text (this may sound like a redundant remark on a translation, but it is true that textual autonomy rarely characterizes Modern Greek translations of Ancient Greek). Kalfas bases his translation mainly on Ross' edition (12), but he also integrates some readings from Jaeger's edition, alerting the reader accordingly in his comments. In three cases (982a31, 986a4, 986b32) he follows, without acknowledging it, Christ's edition, although Christ is included in the bibliography.4 In two cases (981a20 and 987b21-22) he relies on manuscript evidence and deviates from both Ross and Jaeger; these deviations are also duly explained in the comments.5

The comments are well documented and help clarify Aristotelian lexis and arguments, while they provide the reader with all important divergent interpretations to be found in secondary literature. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Alexander of Aphrodisias' Commentary on the Metaphysics is considered to be part -- and, according to Kalfas (11), the most important one -- of this literature.6 However, Kalfas's comments remain silent, somewhat frustratingly, on one important passage, namely 987b9-10, where Ross and Jaeger emend the text in different ways (see n. 4 of this review) and the two main branches of the manuscript tradition have different readings.

To conclude: despite any shortcomings, which are inevitable in such a lengthy book, Kalfas has produced an important study of Metaphysics I; he raises problems which are either inherent to the Aristotelian text or raised by the scholarly literature, and takes interesting and well-documented positions. Even those who will disagree with his interpretative framework or his readings of particular passages will find in his book at least one side of a dialectic that can only deepen our understanding of this cornerstone text of Western philosophy. Reading Kalfas's book will be thus essential to anyone interested in Aristotle's Metaphysics, provided that the reader can read modern Greek.


1.   The clearest evidence being, as has been well known since Jaeger, A 9, where Aristotle uses the first person plural to develop his objections to Ideas; cf. most characteristically 990b8-9: "Of the ways in which we prove that Ideas exist, none is convincing".
2.   In this regard, it is somewhat puzzling that Kalfas insists, in the vein of Jaeger, on Alpha's lack of homogeneity (21). Similarity, if any, with the Protrepticus in the first part does not necessarily imply dissimilarity with the second part.
3.   In 986b18-19 Kalfas renders παρμενίδης μὲν γὰρ ἔοικε τοῦ κατὰ τὸν λόγον ἑνὸς ἅπτεσθαι by "Parmenides seems to have conceived the One on the basis of logos", while the meaning rather is: "Parmenides seems to have touched on (i. e. superficially treated) the One according to its definition" (a translation which, I think, is in line with Kalfas's idea about Aristotle's "synchronization" of ancient philosophical theories). In 987a10 he inadequately translates the obscure adverb μορυχώτερον as "with not much success" (the relevant passage is helpfully discussed by B. Bydén, "Some remarks on the text of Aristotle's Metaphysics", Classical Quarterly 55 [2005], 107-109, not included in Kalfas's bibliography). In 987b3-4 he translates καὶ περὶ ὁρισμῶν ἐπιστήσαντος πρώτου τὴν διάνοιαν as "who was the first to accord importance to definitions", while the precise meaning is: "who was the first to draw attention to definitions".
4.   There are some other inconsistencies between the printed ancient text and Kalfas's translation: In 985a30 he translates Ross, who adopts the reading of the beta branch (τὸ τὴν αἰτίαν διελεῖν), while he prints τὸ τὴν αἰτίαν διελὼν, a reading which is not attested in the manuscript tradition (the alpha branch, followed by Jaeger, reads: ταύτην τὴν αἰτίαν διελὼν). In 987b9-10 he prints Ross' text (κατὰ μέθεξιν γὰρ εἶναι τὰ πολλὰ ὁμώνυμα τοῖς εἴδεσιν), while he seems to translate Jaeger's: "For the synonymy of the sensible things with the Ideas come from [their] participation in [the Ideas]"; cf. Jaeger: κατὰ μέθεξιν γὰρ εἶναι τὰ ὁμώνυμα τοῖς εἴδεσιν (but, again, one has to excise τὰ in order to justify Kalfas's translation and, perhaps, replace ὁμώνυμα with συνώνυμα). In 981b23, 991b15 and 991b22-23 the choices of the editors are erroneously reported.
5.   Since the inadequacy of both Ross' and Jaeger's editions has been well established in our time, I generally think that Kalfas would have produced a better version of the ancient text, had he taken the readings of the manuscripts more into account.
6.   Kalfas reports, though, falsely (272) that Alexander preferred μετριώτερον to μορυχώτερον in 987a10. μετριώτερον is what one reads in the lemma of the Commentary (46.5), which is on this point undoubtedly contaminated. Alexander's preferred reading, as it can be safely inferred from his exegesis (46.23-29), is μοναχώτερον. Cf. also Brandis ad 46.16 (reported by Hayduck).

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