Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.10.2


Stuart Leggatt, Aristotle: On the Heavens I-II. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1995. ISBN 0-85668-662-X (hb); 0-85668-663-8 (pb).


Reviewed by Richard Wallace, Keele University.

Stuart Leggatt's translation of and commentary on the first two books of De Caelo in the now familiar, and useful, Aris & Phillips series (Greek text with facing translation and commentary on the translation) is simply splendid.

I am not one of those who finds the format of translation and text on facing pages very helpful. Those with an iron will and superhuman self-control may be able to keep their eyes on the text and off the translation, but I fail every time, and for me a plain text backed up by a good translation kept at a safe distance is a better option. I will, however, make an exception for Aristotle. Few of us read him for his literary qualities, and it is a very rare translation indeed which can stand on its own without the text to hand when we want to know what Aristotle really said. In providing this facility, Leggatt succeeds superbly. He always has in mind the needs of the entire range of the potential readership, which in the case of this work is exceptionally wide, including not only classicists and philosophers but also historians of science, mathematics and theology.

The books included in this volume describe a failed cosmology. In a sense, they represent much of what the 17th century scientific revolution reacted against (and for that reason include a high proportion of what the educated man-in-the-street knows about Aristotle (such as his belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and that the earth is unique and at the centre of the universe). It was however an enormously influential work, which, if it rarely gives the correct answers, at least asks the right questions. Leggatt brings out the highly mathematical nature of the work. Aristotle can bit a bit woolly about his handling of mathematical concepts, but he freed mathematics from the chore of creating the physical world imposed on it by Plato, and can be said to have laid the foundations of mathematics as the sort of autonomous discipline we understand it to be today. In De Caelo he begins to show how mathematics of this kind can be used as a tool for understanding the world. Incidentally, he gives us tantalising glimpses of the formation of mathematics before Euclid; for example, the well known principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is found for the first time not in Euclid but in this work (271a13; in fact it is not found in Euclid at all, but surfaces again for the first time in Archimedes On the Sphere and Cylinder).

Leggatt's introduction is well-judged and very helpful. If I wanted to find fault, I might say that it was a pity to see him repeating uncritically the old story about Aristotle's treatises being lost for years when they were hidden by the heirs of Neleus of Scepsis (Hans Gottschalk's comprehensive debunking of this romantic tale in his article in vol. 36.2 of Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt now makes it hard to accept without qualification), and he sometimes uses expressions which some readers of the work might prefer to have explained more thoroughly (for example, I would be surprised if a phrase like 'mathematical finitist' meant a great deal to all sections of the sort of audience which this volume clearly has in mind). These, however are quibbles. For many readers the principal obstacle to understanding Aristotle is not the intrinsic difficulty of his ideas but the assumptions with which he starts, which are very different from ours. One of the great strengths of this edition is the pains Leggatt takes to identify and explain these differences. A word like 'nature' for example means to Aristotle something quite different from the idea which a modern reader has of it, and Leggatt explains what the difference is. Similarly, the various connotations of notoriously difficult words like arche (and their implications for the translation) are carefully explained. I particularly liked his explanation of how Aristotelian teleology need not imply purposiveness by using the analogy of cybernetics, where systems which are unconscious may nevertheless display activity which is directed towards goals.

The translator of Aristotle has an unhappy task, in that in many cases to produce an attractive and comprehensible translation is to misrepresent the nature of Aristotle' Greek. One particularly difficult decision to make is whether to maintain consistency in translating key terms, at the expense of elegance or even coherence. Leggatt is not afraid to vary his translation of a particular word from time to time when it is clearly appropriate (for example he translates ousia as 'substance' at 268a3 and as 'essence' at 269b22) and meticulously documents each variation in the notes. But though De Caelo has not frequently been translated into English, the two translations widely available (J.L. Stocks' 1922 Oxford translation, and W.K.C. Guthrie's 1939 Loeb) are of exceptionally high quality. So how does Leggatt stand up to the competition? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I offer below the rival translations of two passages selected (almost) at random.

The first is 270b32-271a5:

That there is no other form of motion opposed as contrary to the circular may be proved in various ways. In the first place, there is an obvious tendency to oppose the straight line to the circular. For concave and convex are not only regarded as opposed to one another, but they are also coupled together and treated as a unity in opposition to the straight. And so, if there is a contrary to circular motion, motion in a straight line must be recognised as having the best claim to that name. But the two forms of rectilinear motion are opposed to one another by reason of their places; for up and down is a difference and a contrary opposition in place. (Stocks)

That there cannot be any motion other than the circular and contrary to it may be confirmed from many sides. First of all, we are most accustomed to think of rectilinear motion as opposed to circular. Concave and convex are, it would seem, contraries not only of each other but also of the straight line, when they are considered together and taken as a unity. If then there is an opposite to circular motion, it must above all be rectilinear motion which is that opposite. But the two rectilinear motions are the contraries of each other on account of their places, since up and down form a difference, in fact a contrary, in respect of place. (Guthrie)

One may be assured that there is no locomotion contrary to locomotion in a circle for several considerations. First: we assume above all that the straight line is opposed to the circular; for the concave and the convex seem to be opposed not only to one another, but also, in being joined together and taken in combination, to the straight; and so if a particular locomotion is contrary to that in a circle, rectilinear locomotion must above all be contrary to movement in a circle. Rectilinear locomotions, however, are opposed to one another because of their places; for up-down is both a specific difference and a contrariety of place. (Leggatt)
Leggatt here is much closer to the terseness of Aristotle (though for my taste even he is a little more wordy than he need be). In terms of comprehensibility he wins hands down. His first sentence, for example, is not only (unlike the others) readily understandable on a first reading, it is also actually closer to what Aristotle says. In the difficult last sentence Leggatt has of course the advantage of being able to explain what is going on in the notes, but he helps himself by his decision to translate diaphora, an Aristotelian technical term in this context, with the phrase 'specific difference' rather than by the more general English derivative 'difference'.

The second passage, 298a9-20 from the end of book 2, is Aristotle in his more expansive vein:

Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the Pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one. As further evidence in favour of this they quote the case of elephants, a species occurring in each of these extreme regions, suggesting that the common characteristic of these extremes is explained by their continuity. Also, those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth's circumference arrive at the figure of 400,000 stades. This indicates not only that the earth's mass is spherical in shape, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size. (Stocks)

For this reason those who imagine that the region around the Pillars of Hercules joins on to the regions of India, and that in this way the ocean is one, are not, it would seem, suggesting anything utterly incredible. They produce also in support of their contention the fact that elephants are a species found at the extremities of both lands, arguing that this phenomenon at the extremes is due to communication between the two. Mathematicians who try to calculate the circumference put it at 400,000 stades. From these arguments we must conclude not only that the earth's mass is spherical but also that it is not large in comparison with the size of other stars. (Guthrie)

Which is why those who suppose that the area about the Pillars of Hercules adjoins that about India, and that in this way the sea is single, do not seem to suppose anything too incredible. Using elephants as their evidence, they say that their kind occurs in both of these outlying regions, supposing that it is due to the connection between these two outlying areas that they are like this. As well as this, all the mathematicians who attempt to reckon up the size of the circumference say that it approaches four hundred thousand stades. Judging from this evidence, not only must the bulk of the earth be spherical, but also not great in relation to the size of other stars. (Leggatt)
The older translators react with an expansiveness of their own, but I think here too Leggatt's crisper style serves Aristotle better. I am not sure that Leggatt's 'bulk' actually does represent Aristotle's ogkon better than the 'mass' of the other two. On the other hand, Leggatt's greater clarity and comprehensibility is not achieved at the expense of taking liberties with Aristotle's Greek.

All readers will naturally want to know how close Aristotle's mathematical sources came to getting the earth's circumference right, and all three translators add a note to this passage. Stocks and Guthrie simply follow Prantl in estimating 400,000 stades as 9,987 geographical miles and the modern calculation as 5,400 geographical miles. Readers who are not well up in geography and have not a clue what a geographical mile might be will be helped by Guthrie's additional note that the modern figure for the circumference is 24,902 English miles (but will have to do their own calculation to find out what the equivalent is for Aristotle's figure). Leggatt, however, (realistically in view of the fact that we do not know how long Aristotle's stade was) gives us not a figure but a range (37,000-50,000 miles) and lets us off geographical miles altogether.

To sum up, this is fine piece of work, which will serve its varied readership well.