Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.22

Malcolm Wilson, Structure and Method in Aristotle's 'Meteorologica': A More Disorderly Nature.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 304.  ISBN 9781107042575.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (


Aristotle’s Meteorology opens:

(1) We have already dealt with the first causes of nature and with all natural motion; (2) we have dealt also with the ordered movements of the stars in the heavens, (3) and with the number, kinds and mutual transformations of the four elements, and growth and decay in general. (4) It remains to consider a subdivision of the present inquiry which all our predecessors have called Meteorology. (Lee trans.)

Aristotle goes on to describe the subject matter of meteorology: the things that happen in accordance with nature, but a more disorderly (ἀτακτοτέραν) nature than that of the heavens1—or, more generally, than that of the nature discussed in (1)-(3): i.e. the Physics, De Caelo and Generation and Corruption respectively. And after meteorology, he says, should come the study of animals and plants.2

Of the works alluded to in this passage, which make up the study of nature, the Meteorology is certainly the most neglected. H. D. P. Lee—whose translation I quote above—does not lament, but justifies, this neglect: “That the Meteorologica is a little-read work is no doubt due to the intrinsic lack of interest of its contents. Aristotle is so far wrong in nearly all his conclusions that they can, it may with justice be said, have little more than a passing antiquarian interest.”3 Malcolm Wilson’s Structure and Method in Aristotle’s Meteorologica answers Lee and rectifies this neglect spectacularly.4

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which is titled Methodology and Structure. Ch. 1 (The rebirth of meteorology) focuses on Aristotle’s predecessors and the peculiar nature of his treatment of them in the Meteorology. Wilson argues that “for Aristotle, it was the universal reduction of all natural phenomena to general material principles that led to the withering of meteorology” (p. 24). Of course, Aristotle does explain the material causes of meteorological phenomena, but he does not reductively explain them simply in terms of the basic elements (earth, air, fire and water) and their characteristics (hot and cold, wet and dry) and natural movements. He relies on the intermediaries, so to speak, of the two exhalations (dry and wet). Chapters 2 (From elements to exhalations) and 3 (The exhalations) constitute a masterful discussion of the exhalations, and the serious difficulties involved in explaining the relationship between Aristotle’s accounts of the elements and of the exhalations, as well as the crucial role of the heavenly realm in explaining meteorological phenomena. I cannot do justice in a brief review to the details of these chapters, but I’ll mention one (without elaborating on it). Wilson argues that “The problem of the transition from the four-element to the two- exhalation view admits of two genuinely Aristotelian solutions, which though different are not wholly incompatible”: the ‘specification’ view and the sustatis view (pp. 39-42). Noteworthy is the useful ‘Aristotle’s lexicon of mechanics’ (pp. 65-70), in ch. 3, which contains explanations of 38 important concepts (presented in boldface Greek) employed by Aristotle in his discussions and applications of the exhalations, e.g. σύστασις, ἀθροίζειν, πυκνοῦν.

Chapters 2 and 3 can be said to discuss the Meteorology’s connection to the Physics, De Caelo and Generation and Corruption. Chapter 4 (The biological method) discusses its (perhaps surprising) connection to the biological works. Wilson’s aim in this chapter is to demonstrate two claims: (1) “In basic organization the Meteorologica is similar to the biological works” in certain important respects (p. 73); and (2) “Aristotle adapts the system of multiple differentiae familiar in the biological works in order to increase the unity of the Meteorologica” (p. 75). I’ll simply add, for what it is worth, that I believe Wilson succeeds in demonstrating both of these claims. (On p. 74 there is a wonderful illustration providing a unified picture of Aristotle’s conception of the sublunary world, from the first body and the sun rubbing against the ‘kapnosphere’—see note 8 below—to the realm of earthquakes and minerals beneath the earth, and a great deal in between, including e.g. the Nile river and an Aristotelian wind rose.)

A comparison between the Meteorology and the biological works naturally gives rise to the question: What role, if any, does teleological explanation play in Aristotle’s accounts of meteorological phenomena? Not much, Wilson concludes: e.g. “final cause in the Meteorologica is restricted to the natural tendencies of simple bodies,” and “the heavens’ role is only efficient, never final” (p. 93).5 A particularly effective part of this chapter (pp. 94-8) is Wilson’s application of the relevant aspects of the Meteorology to a controversial passage in Phys. 2.8, which is the crux of a scholarly dispute about the scope of final causality in Aristotle: “But there is a problem (ἀπορίαν): What prevents nature from acting not for the sake of something nor because it is better (μὴ ἕνεκά του ποιεῖν μηδ’ ὅτι βέλτιον), but just as Zeus produces rain, not so that the grain grows, but out of necessity (ἐξ ἀνάγκης)” (198b16-19). Some scholars hold that teleological explanation is (in the sublunary world) limited to human action and to the nature of living organisms, others that it extends to inanimate processes like rainfall. The former take the rainfall passage in Phys. 2.8 to be something Aristotle agrees with (i.e. that inanimate processes, such as rain falling, are due to material necessity), the latter as an example of a position he rejects along with the materialist account of living things. What Wilson does quite well is to bring in material from the Meteorology (a surprisingly neglected text, in the context of a discussion of rainfall) to support the view that, for Aristotle, meteorological phenomena (like rainfall) do not occur for the sake of something.6

Part 2 is entitled The meteora, and at this point the work comes to resemble a commentary of sorts, following closely Aristotle’s progression.7 In a brief review I can do little more than describe the contents of what follows in this part of the book. These are the chapter titles: ch. 6, Kapnosphere (1.4-8);8 ch. 7, Condensation and precipitation (1.9-12); ch. 8, Fresh waters (1.13-14); ch. 9, The sea (2.1-3); ch. 10, Winds (2.4-6); ch. 11, Earthquakes and stormy phenomena (2.7-3.1);9 ch. 12, Reflections (3.2-6)10; ch. 13, Metals and minerals (3.6). There follows A methodological postscript (pp. 278-81). Each chapter is a gem, which invites (and could be the springboard for) further scholarly exploration. They also demonstrate what a non sequitur H. D. P. Lee was guilty of in moving from the fact that Aristotle is wrong in the details of his account of meteorological phenomena, to the view that the Meteorology has “little more than a passing antiquarian interest.” Anyone interested in Aristotle’s conception of the cosmos or his scientific method should find this material (and Wilson’s accounts of them) of great interest.

My reaction to this book is overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, there are naturally some things in it (fairly minor, actually) with which I disagree or about which I am not convinced. Here is one example. In ch. 3, there is a relatively lengthy discussion of Heraclitus’ conception of exhalations and its supposed influence on Aristotle (pp. 54-9). Central to this discussion is an interpretation of Diogenes Laertius 9.9-10 (DK 22 A1.9-11), which is either an accurate (and non-aphoristic) account of features of Heraclitus’ conception of nature (including the exhalations), which likely influenced Aristotle, or a later attempt at explaining supposed features of Heraclitus’ conception of nature using Peripatetic concepts (in which case it can hardly be used as evidence of a Heraclitean influence on Aristotle). Wilson argues for the former, whereas I lean toward the latter. But even here (and in other such cases), I found his discussion interesting and well argued, leaving me a bit less confident in my opinion than I was before.11

Toward the beginning of his discussion of Aristotle’s biology, in ch. 4, Wilson writes: “One of the most remarkable developments of the last thirty years in scholarship on Aristotle has been the successful reintegration of his biological works into the mainstream of his corpus” (p. 73). Wilson’s book has the potential to do the same for Aristotle’s Meteorology.


1.   This explains the subtitle of the volume under review: “A More Disorderly Nature.”
2.   Regarding the study of plants: Aristotle’s On Plants, in two books, mentioned in Diogenes Laertius (5.25, no. 109) and other ancient lists of his works, is lost. (The On Plants in the corpus Aristotelicum is not authentic.) In any case, Aristotle left the comprehensive study of plants to Theophrastus.
3.   H. D. P. Lee, Aristotle: Meteorologica (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1952), pp. xxv-xxvi.
4.   Wilson discusses this neglect in his introduction (pp. 1-3), where he points out (accurately, as far as I know) that “With the exception of Hans Strohm’s excellent but dated essay [“Untersuchungen zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der aristotelischen Meteorologie,” Philologus Supplementband 28 (1936), 1-85], there is no modern monograph in any language devoted to the treatise itself.” One should note (as Wilson does elsewhere) Strohm’s translation with commentary: Aristoteles: Meteorologie, Über die Welt, 3rd ed. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1984).
5.   I do not deny that for Aristotle simple bodies have natural tendencies, though whether natural places count as causes (and if so, which kind) is disputed. See e.g. R. Sorabji, Matter, Space and Motion: Theories in Antiquity and Their Sequel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 186-7, and K. Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 195-221.
6.   On the view Wilson defends, see also e.g. A. Gotthelf, Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 21-4. On the opposing side, see e.g. D. Furley, “The Rainfall Example in Physics ii 8,” in A. Gotthelf ed., Aristotle on Nature and Living Things (Pittsburgh: Mathesis, 1986), 177-82, and D. Sedley, “Is Aristotle’s Teleology Anthropocentric?” Phronesis 36 (1991), 179-96.
7.   Book 4 is not included, though Wilson discusses it in his Introduction (pp. 8-10), where he declares: “I do not, of course, discuss the fourth book of the Meteorologica, which deals with the transformation of various homeomerous bodies.” This exclusion is justified: The consensus of scholars, ancient and modern, is that Mete. 4 is a separate treatise, largely unrelated to the first three books, but mistakenly appended to them (long before the establishment of the manuscript tradition). Wilson does not doubt the authenticity of Book 4, however. I agree, though I do think it was an oversight not to mention H. B. Gottschalk’s argument against authenticity, “The Authorship of Meteorologica, Book IV,” Classical Quarterly 11 (1961), 67-79—even though I am in agreement with D. Furley’s answer to Gottschalk in “The Mechanics of Meteorologica IV: A Prolegomena to Biology,” in P. Moraux and J. Wiesner eds., Zweifelhaftes im Corpus Aristotelicum: Studien zu einigen Dubia (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1983), 73-93.
8.   ‘Kapnosphere’ (from καπνός, ‘smoke’) is a term coined by Wilson to refer to the uppermost region of the realm of meteora, which he argues is quasi-celestial. It is the location of such meteorological phenomena (according to Aristotle and other ancients) as shooting stars, comets and the Milky Way.
9.   Lightning, thunder and hurricanes are examples of stormy phenomena. According to Aristotle, earthquakes and stormy phenomena are made of dry exhalations (just as the winds are), which is why he treats them one after the other (earthquakes, Mete. 2.7-8; thunder, 2.9; hurricanes, whirlwinds etc., 3.1) and why Wilson discusses them in the same chapter.
10.   E.g. rainbows and haloes.
11.   Another minor disagreement: I do not think the analogy between rivers and winds is quite as strong or close as Wilson thinks it is (see Mete. 1.13 and 2.4-6, and Wilson’s chs. 8 and 10). Nevertheless, given my current interest in Peripatetic wind-theory, ch. 10 was one of my favorite parts of the book; and, it is one of the best descriptions of Aristotle’s explanation of wind that I am aware of.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010