Friday, April 30, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
J. Mansfeld, D. T. Runia, Aëtiana: The Method and Intellectual Context of a Doxographer. Volume Two: The Compendium (2 vols). Philosophia antiqua, 114. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. Pp. 1020. ISBN 9789004172067. $302.00.
Reviewed by Andrea Falcon, Concordia University, Montreal

The name of Aëtius is linked to a compendium of physical opinions discovered and reconstructed by Hermann Diels in his Doxographi Graeci (Berlin 1879). Diels was able to show that a very complex doxographical tradition derives from a single work to be dated to the first century CE, which he attributed to an otherwise unknown person called Aëtius. Diels' reconstruction of this lost work provided the basis for his immensely influential collection of fragments, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin 1903). Diels' discovery and reconstruction is currently being re-examined by Jaap Mansfeld and David Runia in a multi-volume editorial project entitled Aëtiana. The first volume of Aëtiana appeared in 1997.1 That volume deals with the hypothesis that a number of later authors derived their doxographical information from a common source to be identified with a work composed in about 100 CE by Aëtius. The upshot is that the Aëtius-hypothesis is sound but is also in need of revision and refinement. This second volume carries forward the investigation begun in the first volume. It is divided into two parts. The first part consists of a structural analysis of the compendium, and the second offers a reconstruction of its best preserved section, namely book 2.

Microcontext and Macrostructure

Two aspects of the overall interpretation put forward in the second volume of Aëtiana strike me as especially important. First, Mansfeld and Runia argue that the compendium is not a loosely arranged collection of physical opinions, but rather that these opinions are carefully organized in order to emphasize the conflict of opinion existing among the ancient authorities. The compendium is divided into five books and subdivided into over 130 chapters. Each of these chapters deals with a specific question and offers an analysis of that question into a number of positions laid out by means of diaresis (division) and diaphonia (disagreement). Our authors argue that each individual chapter provides the microcontext in which these positions ought to be studied. In their words, "the standard chapter is not an aggregate, or a mere sample of tenets but a systematic whole containing implicit strategies of argument." (7) These strategies remain implicit because the techniques of presentation are never openly discussed in the compendium. Yet they are relentlessly applied so as to create the overall impression that ancient physics is done in a context of intense debate not only between different schools but also intramurally within those schools. Another interesting result generated by the application of this strong dialectical framework is that ancient physics is framed as a problem-oriented enterprise in which there is broad consensus on the scope and nature of physics and disagreement is confined to the solutions to be given to specific problems. Needless to say, this is an idealized reconstruction of ancient physics, if one that provides a powerful narrative context for the contents of the compendium. The latter turns out to be a systematic presentation of the conflicting solutions given to a number of problems presented in a definite sequence.

This last point leads to the second aspect of the overall interpretation advanced in the second volume of Aëtiana. Mansfeld and Runia devote much attention to the sequence of topics, their arrangement and division into five books, and much else that helps us to shed light on what they call the macrostructure of the compendium. To see what the authors have achieved here, it is worth recalling, briefly, the contents of the five books of the compendium. The first book deals with the principles and elements relevant to any physical theory. The second book is concerned with the cosmos as a whole and with the heavens. The third book is about meteorological phenomena. The most authoritative views on the soul are set out in the fourth book. Finally, the fifth book deals with dreams, procreation, embryology, sleep, growth, health, illness and old age. One structural aspect of this sequence is immediately obvious: general physics is followed by a detailed study of the different parts of the physical world, beginning with celestial physics, and continuing with sublunary physics in the following order: meteorology, psychology, and (mostly human) biology. This arrangement of topics belongs to a tradition that ultimately goes back to Aristotle. In the opening lines of the Meteorology, Aristotle sketches out an explanatory project divided into two parts: the study of nature in general, and the study of different parts of the natural world; and the latter further is articulated into the following sequence of topics: celestial physics, meteorology, and biology. Note, however, that while this Aristotelian structure is adopted, it is also updated with an infusion of Hellenistic materials. Our authors persuasively argue that this phenomenon is not limited to the choice of topics in the compendium but extends to the organization of physics into divisions and subdivisions which are adapted to the theoretical demands of Stoic physics. What emerges from their careful study of the sequence of topics treated in the compendium is a deliberate and sustained effort to integrate the Stoic physical theory into an Aristotelian framework. This is surprising only at first sight. Both Aristotle and the Stoics left largely systematic accounts of the physical world and a strong conceptual apparatus perfectly suited for a Post-Hellenistic handbook whose first and foremost ambition is to lay out in a systematic way the most notable opinions in the field of physics.

Specimen reconstructionis

The second volume of Aëtiana contains a textual reconstruction of the best preserved part of the compendium (the second book). In Doxographi graeci, Diels printed the two main sources for the compendium, Ps-Plutarch and Stobaeus, in parallel columns. At the bottom of these columns he printed passages from later authors who, in his view, contributed to the reconstruction of the compendium. He did not, however, print the texts of Ps-Plutarch and Stobaeus as they have been handed down to us by our best manuscripts. Diels was convinced that Ps-Plutarch was a more faithful witness to the original arrangement of the compendium, so he often altered the sequence of opinions in his 'Stobaeus' column on the basis of the information printed in his 'Ps-Plutarch' column. In so doing, Diels provided us with neither a reconstruction of the text of Aëtius nor an accurate reproduction of the texts of Ps-Plutarch and Stobaeus. In what they call specimen reconstructionis Mansfeld and Runia try to obviate the problems created by the tabular presentation chosen by Diels by producing a single column of text based on a fresh and thorough analysis of all the witnesses already identified by Diels as relevant to the reconstruction of the compendium (not only Ps-Plutarch and Stobaeus but also Theodoret and a few other authors). In their words, this column of text is "not a critical text but a Lesetext, based not on manuscripts of Aëtius' work but on independent witnesses which can offer only an imperfect guide to the original text" (658). Among other things, this means that the single column of text printed by Mansfeld and Runia at the end of the second volume is not intended to represent the actual words of Aëtius.

In their reconstruction, the second book consists of a table of contents (pinax), a short preface in which the author looks back to what he has accomplished in the first book and forward to the contents of the remaining four books, and over thirty chapters containing opinions ranging over a number of questions dealing with the cosmos as a whole (chapters 1-10), the heaven and the stars (chapters 11-19), the sun (chapters 20-24), the moon (chapters 25-31), plus a final chapter on the measurement of cosmic time (chapter 32). The voice of the author is heard in the opening lines of the book where the transition from general physics to special physics is clearly marked, but thereafter that voice remains silent. Instead the stage is entirely occupied by the presentation of contrasting views on a subject introduced by the heading of the chapter. This presentation is remarkably compact. It presents each view with what Mansfeld and Runia call a lemma, which consists of two elements, a name-label and a view on the subject that is announced in the chapter heading. The second book contains over two-hundred lemmata attached to (mostly but not exclusively) philosophical authorities. Our authors stress that the views are more important than the name-labels for the order and organization of the lemmata in a chapter. The interplay of the lemmata offers a systematic treatment of the subject announced in the chapter heading.

Interim Conclusion

The first volume of Aëtiana was a detailed study of the sources for Aëtius. In addition to a structural analysis of the compendium, the second volume offers a reconstruction of its best preserved part, the second book. A textual reconstruction of the remaining four books of the compendium is promised in the introduction to the second volume. A third volume, printed while this review was in preparation, contains a collection of nineteen articles published over the period of twenty years by our authors.2

It may be a while before all the projected volumes are in print. But we certainly do not have to wait for their publication to express admiration for this massive editorial project and to stress that a few very important results have already been secured with the publication of the first three volumes. To begin with, we now have a better understanding of the working methods of our sources for Aëtius, which will eventually lead to a reliable reconstruction of the entire compendium. We also have a vastly improved understanding of the methods used to organize the physical opinions presented in the compendium. Right at the beginning of the second volume, Mansfeld and Runia describe what they are doing as merely renovating and redecorating the structure built by Diels (8). This description emphasizes that our authors are building on what was accomplished by Diels, but it does not quite capture what is distinctive about their approach to the compendium. What is distinctive, and in fact new, is their attempt to look at the compendium as a systematic presentation of the whole of physical theory (as opposed to a mere compilation of physical opinions). The point is not to prove that the author of the compendium was a great writer, let alone an original philosopher. Rather, the goal is to take seriously the remark he makes at the outset of the compendium, namely that the goal of the compendium is "to hand down the argument of physics (physikos logos)." Mansfeld and Runia remind us that precisely because the compendium does not have literary or philosophical ambitions but rather aims at providing an introduction to ancient physics, it may give us valuable insights into how this discipline was understood at the end of the first century CE.

We tend to think of doxography as a naïve form of history of philosophy. Mansfeld and Runia succeed in showing us that the Aëtian compendium of physical doctrines is anything but a naïve collection of physical opinions.


1.   Mansfeld, J. and D. T. Runia, Aëtiana: the method and intellectual context of a doxographer. Volume 1: The Sources. Philosophia antiqua, 73. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 1997.
2.   Mansfeld, J. and D. T. Runia, Aëtiana: the method and intellectual context of a doxographer. Volume 3: Studies in the doxographical traditions of ancient philosophy. Philosophia antiqua, 118. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010.

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