On the Generation of 2,500 Pages (Aristotle, Part I)

Long time no read/write. It has been over a year. This is even worse than mylast lapse. I got distracted reading other books that aren't on the list. I even learned Calculus. Maybe I should start doing write-ups about more stuff not on the list.

In any case, next up is Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 1. Per the usual, I'll give a few words about this edition. This edition is more or less the standard all-in-one English translation of Aristotle. It's based on the older Oxford editions that were funded in the will of the famous Oxford classicist Benjamin Jowett. Nearly all of the original translations continue to be reused in this newer edition and not all of them have aged well. And while the series was originally printed in twelve volumes, it is now in two enormous and unwieldy volumes. I really would have preferred it if Aristotle's corpus were split into at least four volumes. There are virtually no footnotes and no endnotes. The footnotes that do exist are limited in scope, mostly about issues of textual criticism (not to be confused with literary criticism). These are a sort of problem that most translation readers do not care about in the slightest. In fact, without the actual Greek text available, these little notes are almost completely useless for interested parties. I suspect that this lack of notes may help sell the editor's other work the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. Many terms are also rendered in Latin. Since I have studied Latin, this didn't cause any real issues for me. But it's rare these days to meet anyone outside of a medievalist who has studied Latin but not Greek. I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of would-be Aristotle readers know neither Latin nor Greek. As such,the overuse of Latin terms and phrases is a case of the translators not knowing their audience. So all in all, it's a crummy situation as far as editions go but it's allegedly the best we've got.

Since the negativity train is already rolling, I'll start my discussion of Aristotle's writings themselves with the bad. Aristotle writes about practically everything. This is both a good and a bad thing. The bad side of it is that there's a ton of it. As mentioned in the title of this post, there are about 2,500 pages in all. And while Aristotle is the effective, or merely academically alleged, father of many fields, not all of these fields will interest every reader. And even among fields which fit a reader's interests,s ome of his writings hold up better than others. For example, while I have some interest in formal logic, Aristotle's Prior and Posterior Analytics were a real pain for me. Complex logic without a formal system of notation makes for pretty bad reading. When it's originally in Greek and translated into English, it's absolute hell. His On the Generation of Animals is another bore for me as it's basically 100 pages about how animals have sex. For the general reader, I recommend just cherry-picking the most personally interesting works in the corpus. For the Great Books nerd, it's probably best to just go through every work since Aristotle's work forms the cornerstone of practically every subject in the so-called Great Conversation. Even today, nearly every humanities or natural science college course will either reference Aristotle or actually outright assign the relevant writings.

Switching to the more positive side, a lot of things have jumped out at me reading Aristotle this time around (I've read several of his works but never the complete corpus before). Aristotle is often described in lectures and by later thinkers as this sort of intellectual monolithic giant. And it's certainly true that no-one else in his time managed to cover so many topics insuch detail, at least no-one whose work survives. I do not want to diminish Aristotle's accomplishments at all. But the way we talk about him these days is misleading. Even in the texts themselves, Aristotle mentions several other Greek philosophers of his age, though often just to argue against them. Further, you won't find it in the non-existent notes of this edition, but Aristotle spent roughly 20 years at Plato's academy before he went out into the big wide world. Allegedly he left in large part because he hated Plato's nephew who took over the academy (Plato had no children and the academy was technically a business). But that's 20 years of collaboration with fellow philosophers with similar training to his own. And less overtly, contrary towhat you may hear in pithy summaries of Aristotle's work, Aristotle bases a lot of his conclusion on observations. He even simply documents many observations, particularly of animals, seemingly for their own sake. The breadth of these observations (including actual geographic breadth!) leads me to believe that Aristotle must have been collaborating with a wider scientific community. It would also explain the inconsistency of some of his observations. Sometimes an animal is described in exact and accurate detail. Other times, an animal may be described vaguely and inaccurately. This suggests that the observations of Aristotle are actually the combined observations of many people.

These other philosophers that Aristotle mentions are sometimes clearly more correct. For example, it's commonly taught that Copernicus was the first to come up with the heliocentric model. Reading Aristotle, one discovers that this is simply not true. The Pythagoreans (yes, the disciples of the triangle guy) believed that Earth orbits around the Sun. They also accurately guessed that the sun is actually a great ball of fire. They were less accurate in their belief that the Earth's orbit is circular, however. They also suspected that there is a shadow Earth that is always on the opposite side of the sun and therefore invisible to us. But this last flaw derives from the limitations of Greek mechanics and Aristotle himself makes similar assumptions about counterbalancing weights elsewhere.

So, all in all, I guess the point here is that the typical brief glossing of Aristotle's place in the history of science is total nonsense. The work behind his writings was not his alone, nor just his and Plato's either. He did not work by reasoning alone. He made extensive use of observations. And many ideas which we insist didn't not come about until "modernity" were already there even in the time of the Greeks. And that's one of the major highlights of the Great Books curriculum as a whole. The pithy little narratives we push in textbooks today are often over-simplifications or outright falsehoods. And there's really no way to know for sure unless one reads the actual sources for one's self. At the end of the day, primary sources are what really matters; the rest is just bullshit of widely-varying utility.