Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Johan C. Thom (ed.), Cosmic Order and Divine Power: Pseudo-Aristotle, 'On the Cosmos'. SAPERE, 23. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. Pp. x, 230. ISBN 9783161528095. €49.00.

Reviewed by David Sider, New York University (

Version at BMCR home site


[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Although anonymous works—those truly so and those deemed spurious—generally receive noticeably less scholarly attention than those whose authorship is uncontested, the work entitled Περὶ Κόσμου is too odd and too interesting to slip into the cracks of obscurity.1 Wilamowitz even included selections in his Griechisches Lesebuch (1902), and before him Stobaeus did the same, selecting all of chapters 2-5 and passages from chapters 6 and 7. Moreover, as Andrew Smith shows in this volume, it was also cited by name by such philosophers as Proclus and Philoponus, of the fifth and sixth centuries respectively, even though many of its ideas about nature were in no way original. Even more strikingly, Apuleius translated it loosely into Latin. So arguments from the silence of other sources about it do not carry any weight at all in judging its authenticity; certainly not a very fragmentary source like Philodemus, pace Thom on p. 7, although he is right to cite Philodemus' statement that Aristotle did not try to convert Alexander to philosophy. More recently, it was reedited and commented on by Giovanni Reale and Abraham Bos.2

Now it receives the Mohr Siebeck treatment: translation of a minor text (sometimes, as here, with the original Greek, but with no apparatus criticus),3 with helpful notes that intentionally fall short of full commentary, and a selection of essays by various hands on its many aspects.4 Here the hands are eight in number, including Thom, who also provides a useful introductory survey of the status quaestionis—οr rather quaestionum: chiefly authorship (it is clearly not Aristotle)5 and date (the turn of the millennium satisfies many on the basis of its ideas, although Schenkeveld convincingly argues that its language allows for it to have been written by a contemporary of Aristotle;6 but if so probably a younger one, for he knows of Taprobane [Sri Lanka] and its immense size, which the Greek world learned of only thanks to Alexander and his learned camp followers, one of whom could well have been our author). Discredited Pan-Posidonianism aside (the tendency to find his influence everywhere possible), other attempts to find later sources for De Mundo have also found detractors. This would not be the only work deriving in some way from the Lyceum to find itself attributed to Aristotle himself—although usually by being included in Andronicus' edition, which is not the case here, so it remains unclear why this patently unAristotelian work was ever attributed to him in the first place. Apuleius' translation may offer an explanation, since its first paragraph ends with an acknowledgement that its ideas come from Aristotle and Theophrastus (quare nos Aristotelen prudentissimum et doctissimum philosophorum et Theophrastum auctorem secuti). If this sentence were in his Greek model, it could have been suppressed later to allow attribution to Aristotle.

Attempts to get a handle on this work's date, authorship, and philosophical stance founder on its essentially commonplace and brief discussion of natural phenomena. Thus, for all the parallels adduced by Burri, Smith, and Anna Tzvetkova-Glaser, early Peripatetic authorship cannot be disproved. Smith, for example, examines the similarities between De Mundo and Maximus of Tyre, but most of them can easily derive independently from Heraclitus and other early thinkers. Similarly, Tzvetkova-Glaser surveys the various attempts to locate this work within a Jewish or Christian milieu, but these early Jewish and Christian thinkers were so heavily indebted to pagan writers that, once again, it is impossible to argue convincingly that the commonplaces found here come from this or that source/author/sect. Smith further analyzes what Proclus and Philoponus say about De Mundo, an important contribution to the study of its reception, but this of course sheds no light on this work itself. The work's reception in the Arab world—it was translated into Syriac and then several times into Arabic—is similarly surveyed by Hidemi Takahashi and Hans Daiber. Its translation into Armenian is mentioned several times, but this does not receive close examination in this volume (or any mention in the index, which is stronger on proper names than subjects). Jill Kraye's magisterial survey lists over 125 scholars who have expressed an opinion on its authorship alone since the Middle Ages.

What makes De Mundo so interesting is its popularizing, if not didactic, voice as, after it attempts to harmonize the physical world in a somewhat prosaic style (chapters 2-4: cosmology, geography, geology, meteorology), it turns to an exuberantly described theology that presents a surprisingly benevolent chief deity (chapters 5-7). One sign of this exuberance is the fact that, one citation of Heraclitus aside, all the poetic tags adduced by the author occur in chapters 5-7.7 (This goes unmentioned in the volume, which, Clive Chandler's chapter aside, pays no attention to any literary quality.) This aspect of its style and didacticism is ably discussed by Chandler, who makes the important point that it is always important to keep Alexander the Great, its addressee, in mind, something that is ignored by the other contributors (and shockingly by the index). That is, what unifies these two seemingly disparate and generally distinct topics is not only explained in the preface addressed to Alexander the Great (chapter 1), but in subtler ways throughout. In language that all but shouts its Platonic origin, we read that the soul guided by mind thanks to philosophy traverses the cosmos and returns to share the harmony of all things that it has seen with its divine eye. Only by transcending the particulars can we marvel at the relationship of all things and then philosophize about it. "Let us then discuss…and theologize about all these things" (λέγωμεν... καὶ ... θεολογῶμεν, 1, 391b3-4).

And why should Alexander give a hoot about all this? Because right below the surface of this text is not A Mirror for Princes but rather A Mirror of a Prince. That is, for all the didactic nature of the scientific description of the universe, it does not attempt or pretend to give advice to Alexander, as Chandler notes, but rather to flatter him with a picture of the universe and its governance that he would immediately see as the cosmic paradigm for his own. Thus, as early as line 19 (this edition keeps Bekker's lineation), one of the particulars mentioned above not to be focused on exclusively is the μία σχῆμα πόλεως; but the inclusion of a city in a harmonizing account of physics and divinity is certainly odd. Likewise, oddly tucked into a list of epithets of the chief divinity is Πολιεύς, a reference to the sanctuary and accompanying statue on the Acropolis dedicated to this aspect of Zeus, which would have appealed to Alexander, as not much later it appealed to Demetrius Poliorcetes: Δημήτριος ἔχαιρε τῷ βασιλεῖ τῶν θεῶν ἀνομοιοτάτην ἐπιγραφόμενος προσωνυμίαν· ὁ μὲν γὰρ Πολιεὺς καὶ Πολιοῦχος, ὁ δὲ Πολιορκητὴς ἐπίκλησιν ἔσχεν (Plut. v. Dem. 42.10).

Seen thus, the rapid and disjointed survey of the physical universe is such that, like the universe itself, it needs someone to take charge in order to produce harmony from disorder. At first, however, what effects this is called simply a dynamis: τὸν ὅλον οὐρανὸν διεκόσμησε μία διὰ πάντων διήκουσα δύναμις (5, 396b28-9), sounding more like Anaxagoras' Nous than a traditional Greek deity. Also important in establishing the cosmic order is a ὁμολογία that is explicitly derived from Heraclitus' ἁρμονία. At this point, our author begins to sound like Dr. Pangloss: τίς γὰρ ἂν εἴη φύσις τοῦδε κρείττων; (5, 397a5), ταῦτα δὲ πάντα ἔοικεν αὐτῇ πρὸς ἀγαθοῦ γινόμενα τὴν δι᾿ αἰῶνος σωτηρίαν παρέχειν (397a30-1). Responsible for all this is a θεός, of course (ἀρχαῖος μὲν οὖν τις λόγος καὶ πάτριός ἐστι πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ὡς ἐκ θεοῦ πάντα καὶ διὰ θεὸν συνέστηκεν, 6, 397b13-15), but he has not yet been named. Indeed, rather than reveal his identity, the author reverts to abstracts: ἡ ἐν οὐρανῷ δύναμις …αἴτιος γίνεται σωτηρίας (6, 398a2-4). Why not come out and simply call him Zeus? Patience, dear reader, this will come. We do, though, learn that this god sits on "the highest peak," ἀκροτάτῃ κορυφῇ, a phrase appearing earlier only thrice in Homer, each time applied to Zeus. The author next compares the challenge this god has in keeping order (κόσμος of course) without getting bogged down in the details (see above)—a task that reminds him of the almost equally complicated administrative duties of the Great King of Persia, δεσπότης καὶ θεὸς ὀνομαζόμενος (6, 398a21).

If, then, this work could actually be read by Alexander, its purpose is clearly to adumbrate without stating outright that he too, mighty administrator that he is, has the right be called god. Whether Alexander is actually to be thought a god in fact depends on one's interpretation of what follows, for the author goes on to state that the King is less than god (6, 398a 2-4), proposing the proportion man:King = King:god. This may be a subtle warning that Alexander should also recognize his limitation, or it may be taken as license for him to consider himself better than the king he himself subdued. This god, though, is an engineer, puppeteer, and chorus-leader rolled into one (6, 398b14-15, 399b14-17). Zeus can now finally be named, first in a hexameter from Homer (6, 400a19, Il. 15.192) and then fourteen times in seven lines of Orphic verse (Orpheus fr. 31 Bernabé) in which Zeus simply is everything (first, last, head, breath, fire, man, woman, etc.), but this citation comes immediately after the author (like the author of the Derveni Papyrus, who cites verses almost overlapping with these) declares that god (not here called Zeus) is polyonymous.

Alexander, therefore, is free to deem himself as all-powerful a divinity as he has already proved himself to be a ruler among men. Helping to cement this equivalence is the developing and surprising twofold notion of cosmos in the title: not only is this, like other works so titled, on the order of the universe; it is also on the one so ordering (Δία and Ζῆνα are glossed together to mean "because of whom we live," 7, 401a13-14), at first the divine chorus leader, but then the godlike man who established the grandest empire yet seen on earth. If Alexander was at this time already called ὁ Μέγας, this would give further point to the author's referring to the great King of Persia (6, 398a10, 30; 398b1) who was greatly adorned (μεγαλοπρεπῶς, 398a12) and protected by great walls (398a18). All of these considerations strongly suggest that this work was written to flatter Alexander, probably in the last decade of his life.

Although this volume does not present a clear argument to settle the matter of author or date, it is welcome for laying out fully and clearly De Mundo's ideas and "facts," at its best when it puts them in the context of later authors and cultures. Further analysis of its literary form would have been welcome.

Authors and Titles of Essays

Renate Burri, “The Geography of De Mundo.”
Clive Chandler, “Didactic purpose and discursive strategies in On the Cosmos.”
Hans Daiber, ”Possible echoes of De Mundo in the Arabic-Islamic world: Christian, Islamic and Jewish thinkers.”
Jill Kraye, “Disputes over the authorship of De Mundo between Humanism and Altertumswissenschaft.”
Andrew Smith, “The Reception of On the Cosmos in ancient pagan philosophy.”
H. Takahashi, “Syriac and Arabic transmission of On the Cosmos.”
Johan Thom, “The Cosmology of De Mundo.”
Anna Tzvetkova-Glaser, “The Concepts of οὐσία and δύναμις in De Mundo and their parallels in Hellenistic-Jewish and Christian texts,”


1.   Other works also entitled Περὶ Κόσμου were written by Philolaos, Chrysippus, Sphaerus Stoicus, and Αntipater.
2.   Il Trattato sul cosmo per Alessandro attribuito ad Aristotele: monografia introduttiva, testo greco con traduzione a fronte commentario, bibliografia regionata e indici2. Milan 1995.
3.   The translation on the facing page is adequate, but no attempt has been made to keep corresponding Greek and English aligned, the latter always falling behind the former. This hinders any quick attempt to go from one to the other, especially since the translation gives Bekker page/line numbers only occasionally. It happens then that four to five lines of English may not even be on its opposing Greek page. The Greek text printed is, five readings aside, the Budé of W. L. Lorimer (1933).
4.   Some other texts so treated are Pseudo-Plato On Death, Rufus of Ephesus On Melancholy, Plutarch On the Daimonion of Socrates, and Galen On Not Being Grieved .
5.   Surprisingly Reale and Bos argue for Aristotle's authorship.
6.   D. M. Schenkeveld, "Language and style of the Aristotelian De Mundo in relation to the question of its inauthenticity, Elenchos 12 (1991), 221-55.
7.   Cited are Homer (six times), Heraclitus (a second time in the "theological" section), Empedocles, Sophocles, Plato, and "Orpheus."

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