Good Repute

M.F. Burnyeat

  • The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation edited by Jonathan Barnes
    Princeton, 1250 pp, £53.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 691 09950 2

‘Aristotle and Plato’, ‘Plato and Aristotle’ – the coupling of names is something we take for granted. They are the two giants of ancient philosophy, are they not, and who but Kant among later philosophers deserves to rank as high as they? Yet Aristotle’s greatness was not always so visible.

A character in Cicero invokes him thus: ‘Aristotle, whom I think I may with justice call the chief of all philosophers, with the exception of Plato’. Why so defensive? The implication is that even to rank Aristotle next after Plato is contentious, as if the thought was new and daring.

Indeed it was. Aristotle died in 322 BC. Not until the first century BC (the century in which Cicero is writing) was the ancient original of The Complete Works of Aristotle put together and made available in a scholarly edition. It took another two centuries or so for the philosophical community to get used to the dense and difficult argumentation of these treatises and acquire a real understanding of their content. And it was only in the Middle Ages that Aristotle achieved the ascendancy that made him ‘the teacher of those who know’, honoured and admired (Dante continues) by Plato and the whole family of philosophers.

Any attempt to explain this long delay in recognition must start from the point that the treatises which comprise The Complete Works of Aristotle were not written for publication. Not only will they not have been on sale in the ancient equivalent of your local bookshop, but it is unlikely that many copies were made for private circulation. A quite well authenticated tradition has it that the originals ended up in a cellar in Turkey, where they mouldered for years until they were rediscovered and brought to Rome in the first century BC to form the basis for that first scholarly edition which I mentioned earlier. The story may sound too romantic to be true, but modern scholars are still debating the extent to which professional philosophers outside the small circle of Aristotle’s own pupils and associates knew and responded to the treatises.

Epicurus, for example, seems to show intimate knowledge of some arguments about motion in one section of the work we now know as Aristotle’s Physics (the Physics, like the Metaphysics, is itself an editorial creation, put together out of connected but originally distinct Aristotelian essays), but staggering ignorance of the sophisticated views of teleology in another section. When we get to Cicero’s day, he reports that Aristotle is ignored by all but a few philosophers. And when we look beyond professional philosophers to the wider intellectual world, there is little doubt that, during his lifetime and for some three hundred years thereafter, Aristotle was known mainly as the author of a series of dialogues of which only excerpts are given in The Complete Works of Aristotle.

Only excerpts are given because only excerpts have come down to us. It seems that the dialogues, the works which Aristotle actually published, were driven off the market when the treatises became known and were seen at once to be more ‘accurate’ and ‘finished’ from a philosophical point of view. To judge by the excerpts which survive as a result of being quoted by other writers, the dialogues were indeed poor stuff and deserved their extinction. They would give Cicero’s readers every reason to be surprised at the suggestion that Aristotle is second only to Plato.

But Cicero did more for Aristotle than give the treatises a boost in, so to speak, the Rome Review of Books. He furnished some of the vocabulary with which learned men in later centuries would discuss and try to make sense of the central concepts of Aristotle’s philosophy. One important example of Ciceronian translation will serve both to signal the excellence of Jonathan Barnes’s Revised Oxford Translation and to highlight a feature of Aristotle’s philosophy which will have made it hard for the ancients to see his greatness.

Aristotle is unique among ancient philosophers in his respect for people’s opinions: both the opinions of other philosophers and the opinions of the ordinary man. He does not defend a ‘common sense’ philosophy in the manner of G.E. Moore, but if something is believed by absolutely everyone, then, he holds, it must be true. Aristotle also does something that a 20th-century philosopher like Moore could never have dared. He establishes science on the basis of the opinions of ‘the majority’ and of ‘the wise’.

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