Aristotele - Loss and Preservation of His Works

Loss and Preservation of His Works

See also: Corpus Aristotelicum

Modern scholarship reveals that Aristotle's "lost" works stray considerably in characterization from the surviving Aristotelian corpus. Whereas the lost works appear to have been originally written with an intent for subsequent publication, the surviving works do not appear to have been so. Rather the surviving works mostly resemble lecture notes unintended for publication. The authenticity of a portion of the surviving works as originally Aristotelian is also today held suspect, with some books duplicating or summarizing each other, the authorship of one book questioned and another book considered to be unlikely Aristotle's at all.

Some of the individual works within the corpus, including the Constitution of Athens, are regarded by most scholars as products of Aristotle's "school," perhaps compiled under his direction or supervision. Others, such as On Colors, may have been produced by Aristotle's successors at the Lyceum, e.g., Theophrastus and Straton. Still others acquired Aristotle's name through similarities in doctrine or content, such as the De Plantis, possibly by Nicolaus of Damascus. Other works in the corpus include medieval palmistries and astrological and magical texts whose connections to Aristotle are purely fanciful and self-promotional.

According to a distinction that originates with Aristotle himself, his writings are divisible into two groups: the "exoteric" and the "esoteric". Most scholars have understood this as a distinction between works Aristotle intended for the public (exoteric), and the more technical works intended for use within the school (esoteric). Modern scholars commonly assume these latter to be Aristotle's own (unpolished) lecture notes (or in some cases possible notes by his students). However, one classic scholar offers an alternative interpretation. The 5th century neoplatonist Ammonius Hermiae writes that Aristotle's writing style is deliberately obscurantist so that "good people may for that reason stretch their mind even more, whereas empty minds that are lost through carelessness will be put to flight by the obscurity when they encounter sentences like these." Another common assumption is that none of the exoteric works is extant – that all of Aristotle's extant writings are of the esoteric kind. Current knowledge of what exactly the exoteric writings were like is scant and dubious, though many of them may have been in dialogue form. (Fragments of some of Aristotle's dialogues have survived.) Perhaps it is to these that Cicero refers when he characterized Aristotle's writing style as "a river of gold"; it is hard for many modern readers to accept that one could seriously so admire the style of those works currently available to us. However, some modern scholars have warned that we cannot know for certain that Cicero's praise was reserved specifically for the exoteric works; a few modern scholars have actually admired the concise writing style found in Aristotle's extant works.

One major question in the history of Aristotle's works, then, is how were the exoteric writings all lost, and how did the ones we now possess come to us? The story of the original manuscripts of the esoteric treatises is described by Strabo in his Geography and Plutarch in his Parallel Lives. The manuscripts were left from Aristotle to his successor Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to Neleus of Scepsis. Neleus supposedly took the writings from Athens to Scepsis, where his heirs let them languish in a cellar until the 1st century BC, when Apellicon of Teos discovered and purchased the manuscripts, bringing them back to Athens. According to the story, Apellicon tried to repair some of the damage that was done during the manuscripts' stay in the basement, introducing a number of errors into the text. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla occupied Athens in 86 BC, he carried off the library of Apellicon to Rome, where they were first published in 60 BC by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus and then by the philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

Carnes Lord attributes the popular belief in this story to the fact that it provides "the most plausible explanation for the rapid eclipse of the Peripatetic school after the middle of the third century, and for the absence of widespread knowledge of the specialized treatises of Aristotle throughout the Hellenistic period, as well as for the sudden reappearance of a flourishing Aristotelianism during the first century B.C." Lord voices a number of reservations concerning this story, however. First, the condition of the texts is far too good for them to have suffered considerable damage followed by Apellicon's inexpert attempt at repair. Second, there is "incontrovertible evidence," Lord says, that the treatises were in circulation during the time in which Strabo and Plutarch suggest they were confined within the cellar in Scepsis. Third, the definitive edition of Aristotle's texts seems to have been made in Athens some fifty years before Andronicus supposedly compiled his. And fourth, ancient library catalogues predating Andronicus' intervention list an Aristotelian corpus quite similar to the one we currently possess. Lord sees a number of post-Aristotelian interpolations in the Politics, for example, but is generally confident that the work has come down to us relatively intact.

On the one hand, the surviving texts of Aristotle do not derive from finished literary texts, but rather from working drafts used within Aristotle's school, as opposed, on the other hand, to the dialogues and other "exoteric" texts which Aristotle published more widely during his lifetime. The consensus is that Andronicus of Rhodes collected the esoteric works of Aristotle's school which existed in the form of smaller, separate works, distinguished them from those of Theophrastus and other Peripatetics, edited them, and finally compiled them into the more cohesive, larger works as they are known today.

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