Monday, August 13, 2012


Robert Mayhew (ed.), Aristotle, Volume XV: Problems, Books 1-19. Loeb classical library, 316. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xxxiii, 581. ISBN 9780674996557. $24.00.

Robert Mayhew, David C. Mirhady (ed.), Aristotle, Volume XVI: Problems, Books 20-28; Rhetoric to Alexander. Loeb classical library, 317. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, Pp. viii, 656. ISBN 9780674996564. $24.00.

Reviewed by Oliver Thomas, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

Preview of Volume XV. Preview of Volume XVI.

[Declaration: The reviewer is participating in a volume of essays about the Problems, edited by Professor Mayhew.]

Why do warthogs find each other attractive? Why do certain noises send a chill down the spine? Why do we get more enjoyment from tunes that we already know? Why do you yawn if I yawn? And why, while we yawn, do we lose our hearing? Why do children get more nits (and runny noses, and nosebleeds) than adults? Why does holding one's breath cure hiccups? Why can't one tickle oneself? Why is sex the highest pleasure? Why do drunks see double, or see the room spinning? Why does cutting an onion make you cry? Why does fear loosen the bowels? Why is it more shocking to kill a woman than a man? Why are most professional performers odious? Why do we count in base ten? (Is it because of the Pythagorean tetraktys? Or because we have ten fingers?) Why do some people feel sleepy the moment they open a book?

Few readers of BMCR could feel sleepy upon opening the Aristotelian Problems– the source of these interesting and sometimes good questions, together with a set of interesting and sometimes good answers.1 The collection probably started with one or more works by Aristotle, but was continuously expanded and rearranged by the Peripatetics over several centuries. We have around nine hundred chapters arranged rather roughly by topic into thirty-eight books. Mayhew's new edition and translation are sure to draw more English-speaking readers to this fascinating text, whose present neglect is all the more startling given its former influence on Classical Arabic and Early Modern natural philosophy.2

A new English edition was badly needed. The old Loeb, produced by W.S. Hett in the 1930s, is perhaps the worst member of the series known to me. Hett's editorial procedure at 15.4, for example, was not to mark the initial lacuna at all in his Greek text, and to give a parenthetical supplement in his translation sourced simply from 'another translation'. Naturally, Mayhew both marks the lacuna and identifies the source of the supplement (the 13th-century Latin translation by Bartholomew of Messina). Hett's translation was marred both by its negligence towards particles and thus towards argumentative structure, and by its frequent howlers. One memorable example occurs in 10.61, where for ἐν τῇ μίξει τῇ ἐν τῇ ὑστέρᾳ τῆς θηλείας Hett gives 'in a later mixing in the female' rather than 'in the mixing in the womb of the female'. Again, Mayhew corrects.

Mayhew also makes large improvements over Hett in the helpfulness of the introductions (both to the whole collection and to individual books), the reporting of major variants, and the very useful parallels given in footnotes. However, Hett had set a low target. The more significant comparison is to Pierre Louis' Budé edition.3 The three- volume Budé is more capacious, and in particular has the detailed introduction, proper apparatus, and more extensive endnotes of that series which one would not expect in a Loeb; it also has an excellent index of Greek terms, though Mayhew's English index is also useful. The Budé is, however, roughly three times more expensive (at 150 euros, as opposed to 48 dollars for the Loebs).

Mayhew could have engaged in more detail with Louis in his general introduction, particularly on the question of the ancient editions of the Problems, and on the complex stemma. Moreover, I think Mayhew has missed a trick in not dealing fully with Hunain ibn Ishaq's translation of a slightly longer version of books 1-15. This text was first published accessibly in 1999, with an English translation.4 It is notable , for instance, that at the textual problem in 15.4 mentioned above, the Arabic has a quite different question from that supplied (as a guess?) by Bartholomew of Messina, and an answer which also seems to diverge quite some way from the remains of the Greek. One can be more confident at 1.4 ('Why should one use emetics at changes of season? Is it to avoid upset as the changes vary our residues?'). Here, modern editorial tradition inserts into the question a 'not' conjectured by a reader of manuscript Ya in c.1600 CE, on the ground that emetics cause the upset which must be avoided. The Arabic tradition, however (represented here by a Hebrew translation, since the Arabic itself is lost), has the text without 'not', and supplies a fuller explanation of why emetics do help at these times. Briefly, the change of season alters any residues present, which causes the upsets which are to be avoided; hence purge yourself of any residues present. Since Mayhew admits that the text of the Problems is imperfect, he might have taken the opportunity to make more interventions.5

One of Mayhew's guiding principles was to translate Greek terms consistently, while, as he says, 'remaining within the bounds of decent English – though at times I suspect I pushed these limits' (p. xxiv). Indeed, a few examples do soon present themselves. Thus Mayhew's insistence that νοσώδης should be translated by 'disease-producing' leads to 'Why is the summer and autumn together being dry and with Boreas winds disease-producing in the bilious?' (1.12), whose crabbedness does a disservice to the original. Translating technical vocabulary consistently is salutary, but translating νοσώδης as a compound adjective seems more off-putting than useful.

The Problems have not yet received enough detailed criticism to hope for a 'definitive' interpretation, and there are a fair number of times when I would choose a different course. To take the first two examples: 1.1 contains the words 'That is what disease was.' Mayhew transposes to a present tense, but the imperfect is also found elsewhere occasionally (e.g. 15.7), and it is worth retaining the suggestion that these are excerpts from more sequential treatises which contained back-references. Secondly, 1.2 begins 'But why do they often cure diseases…'. Mayhew takes the unspecified 'they' as 'people in general', a common usage. However, the problems beginning διὰ τί δέ rather than διὰ τί generally link closely to the preceding problem, which supplies the plural subject 'excesses'. 6

In summary, however, Mayhew's new edition is extremely welcome, a huge advance on its predecessor, and the best value edition currently available in any language (although the Budé remains essential for experts). Hopefully it will stimulate further work.

The second of these volumes also contains the Rhetoric to Alexander, a ca. 4th BCE treatise perhaps largely written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus (so Quintilian). The collocation with the Problems is inherited from the 1936-7 edition, where it seems to have been motivated by length and inauthenticity rather than content.

Professor Mirhady's introduction is notably helpful for raising questions – often approachable by both students and experts – about the text's relationship to Aristotle's Rhetoric. The text sticks fairly close to other recent editions,7 though Mirhady makes a few conjectures and sometimes evaluates the papyrus evidence differently. I noticed just a few editorial slips: in 2.16 λειτουργήσουσι (Π) requires not ἐπιθυμήσῃ (codd.) but ἐπιθυμήσει; in 7.2 [δόξα] is printed, but its authenticity is justified in a footnote; in 9.2 [τῷ πράγματι] is translated. I also found strange Mirhady's imposition of quotation marks at passages of Greek text which make no sense as direct speech.

Mirhady is sparing with footnotes to his translation, and more explanatory glosses and parallels would have enhanced the edition's utility for non-experts. Who is Corax? What are the Handbooks for Theodectes (ep. 16)? Which wars are referred to in the examples? Why are the last three pages bracketed? The translation itself is readable, while faithful to the uninspired methodicality of the original. However, given Mirhady's stature among scholars of ancient law and rhetoric, I was very disappointed by his grammatical inaccuracies, particularly in the prefatory epistle and the long sections 1, 2, and 38. There are a large number of small mistakes, particularly regarding tense and omission of adverbs, which do not greatly affect the sense. But since there are also an unacceptable number of larger errors readers need to be wary of, I feel compelled to give a selection of instances of different types.

In 1.17, ἄπαισιν is confused with ἅπασιν. 2.31 αὐτοῖς κτήμασιν means 'together with one's belongings' not 'for one's belongings'. 4.4 ἐκ προνοίας οὐ τῆς τυχούσης means 'not just from any old forethought' rather than 'from forethought, and not by chance'. At the end of 15.4 εἰς ταὐτό is translated 'against it' rather than 'together'. Complex syntax goes awry at the end of 2.12, which means 'from what has been said before, we shall know the ways in which it is possible to debate democratically about each religious activity', rather than Mirhady's 'from what has been said before about the possible ways to debate democratically we shall know about each religious activity'. There is a similar mistake in 14.7, and at the end of 36.33 'by claiming that it actually occurred contrary to the accusations' is distant from the correct '…by indicating the causes depending on which the contradiction arose'. The largest misinterpretation comes in the final chapter (38.6-10), where Mirhady seems to miss that the treatise is drawing analogies between the preceding advice on rhetoric and advice on how to live. For example, in 38.6-7 he offers 'Rather than making your narration rapid, clear, and credible, you must describe the actions as advantageous or disadvantageous…. You will speak cleanly if…'. In fact, the passage means 'Corresponding to the verbal narration being rapid, clear and not incredible, actions should be accomplished with similar qualities.… You will act purely if…'. In 38.9 Mirhady even condemns the author's sloppiness in a footnote, while actually betraying his own. I end with a series of extended omissions: 4.7 εἰς ἁμάρτημα ἤ; a phrase of eight words in 2.29 (διεξιόντας... ἀνθρώποις); one of ten words in 21.2 (τὸ δὲ... τοιόνδε); one of six in 34.8 (τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλα... προοιμιάζεσθαι); one of nine in 36.47 (ἢ πάλιν... τυγχάνουσι).

None of these mistakes can be paralleled in Chiron's Budé, and only a couple in the old Loeb by Rackham. On the whole, this translation is a retrograde step.

These volumes are attractively printed and well bound. The Greek text has few significant typos, so far as I noticed (e.g. Prob. 1.11 πεκκαύματα; 15.5 ἅΨεται; Rhet. Al. ep. '[' omitted before first word; 29.16 ὑποσχνεῖσθαι; 38.1 κἐν).


1.   See Prob. 10.52 (I selected warthogs as the example – the Greek is more general), 7.5, 19.5, 7.1, 11.29, 1.16, 33.13, 35.6 4.15, 3.9-10, 20.22, 27.10, 29.11, 30.10, 15.3, 18.1.
2.   There are some exceptions to the neglect, in particular books 19 (on music) and the essay on melancholy at 30.1. Among recent scholarship, note B. Centrone (ed.), Studi sui Problemata Physica Aristotelici, Naples 2011. For the Problems' influence, see P. de Leemans and M. Goyens (eds.), Aristotle's Problemata in Different Times and Tongues, Leuven 2006.
3.   P. Louis, Aristote: Problèmes, Paris 1991-4.
4.   L. S. Filius, The Problemata Physica attributed to Aristotle: The Arabic Version of Hunain ibn Ishaq and the Hebrew Version of Moses ibn Tibbon, Leiden 1999.
5.   Precedents for textually adventurous Loeb editions certainly exist, e.g. Kovacs' Euripides.
6.   This also gives a better flow to the remainder of 1.2 ('… whenever someone is in a very extreme state. Some doctors even have such a method.'). Mayhew has to translate ὅταν πολὺ ἐκστῇ τις as '… by making the patient go through a great deal of change'.
7.   P. Chiron, Pseudo-Aristote: Rhétorique à Alexandre, Paris (Budé ed.) 2002; M. Fuhrmann, Anaximenis Ars Rhetorica, Leipzig (Teubner, 2nd ed.) 2000.


  1. I would like to know how the reviewer is so confidence that 4.4 is a mistranslation. Is this based on other uses of this exact phrase that makes it more a colloquialism rather than a literal contrast of forethought/providence and chance?

  2. "chance" is actually a participial adjective modifying "forethought" and is in the attributive position ("the by-chance forethought").


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