Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.31

Dimitri Gutas, Theophrastus, On First Principles (known as his Metaphysics), Philosophia Antiqua 119.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2010.  Pp. xxiii, 506.  ISBN 9789004179035.  $169.00.  

Reviewed by Adam McCollum, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota (


The name Dimitri Gutas will be known to scholars and students of the history of the transmission of Greek philosophy eastwards, and even more broadly for his book Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, which surveys the Greek-Arabic translation movement in the `Abbāsid period. In the volume under review, Gutas has brought his thorough knowledge of this period and movement to bear on one short philosophical text that has already attracted the scrutiny of Greek and Arabic scholars alike, although hardly in the comparative detail and practical usefulness evident in this present work.

Part of the Philosophia Antiqua series, this book on Theophrastus’ Metaphysics—or, as Gutas argues the title actually was, On First Principles—has three main parts: a long introduction, texts and translations, and a philological commentary. Theophrastus (372/370-288/286 BCE), famous as a pupil of Aristotle, has in recent decades attracted a good deal of scholarly attention, with the result that we know rather more about his life and work than half a century ago–and that we now know more certainly what we already knew. William W. Fortenbaugh has spearheaded this research, and Gutas contributed to it through his study of Theophrastean material in the Arabic tradition.1

I mentioned above the “practical usefulness” of Gutas’s book. What I mean is this: too often, students (and scholars!) working with classical texts (and with texts in other languages whose fields have been more or less influenced by the methodology of classical studies: e.g. Syriac, Arabic) have been forced to figure out philological and text-critical principles and practice by themselves; knowledge and experience of them has been assumed rather than described and explained. True, for Greek and Latin there is West’s Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique (1973), but it is no longer easily available, and there is as yet nothing very accessible along these lines for Arabic. In some scattered remarks in the book’s introduction, though, and specifically in § 2.7 “Sources and Principles of the Greek Edition” and the excursus on “Principles of Graeco-Arabic Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique” Gutas lays down his theory and practice for the task clearly; indeed, these sections will, because of their potential for more general application, be of use even to students who do not have an immediate interest in Theophrastus’ treatise.

The textual presentation has all of the direct primary source-material anyone might wish for who wants to study Theophrastus’ treatise: a new critical Greek text, a new critical Arabic text, and, for completeness, a reproduction of an earlier edition of Bartholomew of Messina’s Latin translation of the treatise.2 (There is no known Syriac version of the Metaphysics.) The Greek and Arabic editions (but not the Latin one) have each their own annotated translation (there is also a commentary at the end of the book). The notes to the English translations of the Greek text deal with issues of immediate comprehension that can be briefly clarified, and as such many of these notes begin with “I.e.” and are simply clearer restatements of what the text says in the translator’s view. Naturally, the commentary, which treats together the Greek and Arabic with a textual and philological focus, rather than a philosophical one, goes into rather more detail. Readers especially interested in Greek-to-Arabic translation technique will find his commentary to the English translation of the Arabic version worthy of their close attention, more so than the remarks in the commentary proper.

Why a new edition of a Greek text edited as recently as the 1990s? Quite simply, because of the importance of the Arabic version for the Greek text. (Of course, students and scholars of Arabic language and literature may have entirely different reasons to consult the book.) The aforementioned prior and most recent edition of Theophrastus’ treatise, that of Laks and Most,3 was not undertaken without awareness of the significance of the Arabic witness, thanks to the work of Crubellier,4 but what the latter had begun to do (and do well), Gutas continues with the minute attention requisite for the full mining of this unique witness. Just how important is the Arabic version as a witness to the Greek text? Very, and from at least two angles. First, the translation goes back to a transliteration of an uncial exemplar unattested in the surviving Greek tradition. Secondly, it was a known expert in Greek-Arabic translation who produced this version: Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn (d. 910/11, not to be confused with his more famous father, Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, also a translator). To go back to the first of these points, there are, according to Gutas, more than thirty “new and superior readings” (p. xiv) of the Greek text thanks to his analysis of the Arabic translation. Now scholars may quibble over the designation of this or that reading from the Arabic as “superior” to what had been known beforehand, but the fact that the Arabic harks back to a witness unattested in the surviving Greek tradition and thus has independent value, as well as the sheer number of new readings—particularly for a text as short as On First Principles—most certainly merits future scholarly rumination. Another contribution, though one less momentous, made by Gutas’ new edition of the Greek text is his wholesale overhaul of the received punctuation of the text, which in some cases did violence even to the syntax of the Greek and to the logical arrangement of the treatise itself. The critical apparatus is appropriately modest, that is, not overburdened with detail, for which, however, interested readers can consult the supplementary critical apparatus. Finally, the Greek text is accompanied by helpful and sometimes pleasantly diverting loci paralleli. The passages for comparison were, of course, not meant to be exhaustive, but in passing, I note that the end of chapter five of the pseudo-Aristotelian De mundo (396b7ff.), which deals with opposites in nature, might also be adduced for the first part of Aporia 18 of Theophrastus’ treatise (p. 136 of Gutas’ edition).

The Arabic translation of Theophrastus’ treatise is known from two manuscripts, the chief of which is Tehran Malik 5925 (dated 1069). Gutas argues convincingly that the other manuscript, Bodleian Ouseley 95, is a copy of the Tehran manuscript via one or more intermediaries. This later manuscript, long known and having been the object of a study by D. S. Margoliouth published in 1892,5 is in such poor condition that it is really a witness to only about half of the text. The Arabic text, of course, has a critical apparatus, which, due to the spare manuscript witness, mostly consists of scholarly conjectures, principally those of Margoliouth, Alon,6 Crubellier, and Gutas himself. Like the Greek edition, the Arabic has a supplementary critical apparatus.

The final matter, following the lengthy commentary (pp. 247-408, including an appendix on a specific passage), consists first of glossary-indices for both Greek and Arabic, both of which have obvious value for lexicographers and for scholars interested in Greek-to-Arabic translation. It is no surprise that such tools should come from the pen of one of the co-authors of A Greek and Arabic Lexicon (the other being Gerhard Endress). The two indices present, from the Greek and from the Arabic sides respectively, how the text in the other language corresponds to that in the language in which one is looking up this or that word. Needless to say, such detailed data, with citations and references to exact places in the text, is absolutely necessary for any future research into Graeco-Arabic translation technique: obviously from a lexical perspective, but (with further reference to the full texts in both languages) even as a starting point for syntactical comparison between the two languages, since one can, for example, easily find how the Arabic translator handled various forms of the Greek verb. Such close grammatical study is aided all the more by the section at the end of the Greek index called “Translation of Greek Morphology, Syntax, and Semantics.” I do not find anywhere in the volume where Gutas actually explains this little list of data— and he is very clear about explaining the other parts of the book—but a short perusal will effect a realization of both its use and value. Here are listed first Greek morphemes (e.g. ἀ-, -θεν, -ικόϲ, -ωϲ) and their corresponding Arabic parts (or at least references to the Greek words where the Arabic words will be found in the index), and then (in English) grammatical terms (e.g. “comparative”, “future tense”, “genitive absolute”, “circumstantial participle”) and how those concepts are treated in the Arabic version. Thus these indexes go beyond lexical equation. (It is worth pointing out here that Arabic script is used only in the edition itself; elsewhere all citations of Arabic words are made in transliteration.) The end matter is completed, as expected, by the bibliography and the customary indices.

While the overall tone of the book reflects Gutas’ intention to offer a better Greek text especially thanks to the hitherto incompletely exploited Arabic text—and incidentally also to highlight the potential significance more generally of Arabic versions of Greek philosophical works—students and scholars coming from other perspectives, too, will find much to appreciate. Such other readers will include: (1) students and scholars of Greek-to-Arabic translation; (2) students and scholars of Arabic philosophy; (3) a less well-defined group of people who might be interested merely in the English translations of the Greek, or perhaps even of the Arabic, text. (This last group will naturally include students of philosophy, not only of ancient philosophy and its Nachleben, but, thanks to the metaphysical focus of Theophrastus’ work, also philosophy taken more broadly.)

The text in all three scripts has been well typeset and the book itself is physically sturdy. I happened to notice only two typographical errors: p. 78, seven lines from the bottom: “manuscripts” (for “manuscript”) and p. 437, nine lines from the bottom: “glosary” (for “glossary”). My previous remarks about the book’s contents will have made evident my thorough approval of the work, which accords well with Gutas’ previous excellent scholarship. Finally, in addition, I point out that Gutas uses a clear and pleasant English style, something not every textual study can lay claim to!


1.   W. W. Fortenbaugh, ed. Theophrastus of Eresus. On His Life and Work. Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities 2. New Brunswick and Oxford: Transaction Books, 1985. W. W. Fortenbaugh and R. W. Sharples, eds. Theophrastean Studies. On Natural Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Ethics, Religion, and Rhetoric. Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities 3. New Brunswick and Oxford: Transaction Books, 1988. W. W. Fortenbaugh et al., eds. and transs. Theophrastus of Eresus. Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought and Influence. Philosophia Antiqua 54. Two vols. Leiden: Brill, 1992.
2.   Bartholomew, who translated a number of pseudo-Aristotelian texts from Greek into Latin, is associated especially with the reign of King Manfred of Sicily (r. 1258-1266). Gutas notes on pp. xiv and 231 that the Latin translation calls for more study.
3.   A. Laks and G. W. Most, ed. and tr., Théophraste. Métaphysique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993.
4.   M. Crubellier. “La version arabe de la Métaphysique de Théophraste et l’établissement du texte grec.” Revue d’Histoire des Textes 22 (1992), 19-45.
5.   “The Book of the Apple, ascribed to Aristotle.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1892), 188-252, esp. 192-201.
6.   I. Alon. “The Arabic Version of Theophrasus’ Metaphysics.” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 6 (1985), 163-217.

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