The last two decades have seen a noticeable increase in animal studies with many studies emerging that highlight the insights animals can offer into classical culture, language and literature. In this book, Aristotle’s De generatione animalium (GA) serves as the launching-pad for a meticulous study of the great philosopher’s attitude toward females.
Sophia Connell’s study is meticulous in its research, containing a 26-page bibliography that demonstrates the depth and width of her reading, listing journals and books from both the classical and philosophical disciplines, primary texts dating from Hesiod to Albertus Magnus, and examples from classical, Arabic and medieval cultures.
Throughout, Sophia Connell’s goal is to set Aristotle’s views on the female in true perspective by insisting on several things. First, we must learn to set Aristotle’s views in the GA against the entire scope of his other philosophical works, especially his other biological works and his metaphysics. Second, we must go to the original Greek to find the true import of Aristotle’s words: “Close readings and contextualization will be the main technique used to interpret Aristotle’s writings in this book” (p. 5). Throughout the book, Connell includes parenthetical transliterations of Greek words to help clarify chains of thought. Finally, commentators and interpreters of the GA should divorce themselves from contemporary movements or philosophies that might influence their interpretation of Aristotle’s thoughts. Examples of such activity range from modern feminist critics who might be too quick to ascribe an overstated sexism to Aristotle, to Arabic or Christian commentators who let their theology guide their interpretations. In general, the approach of the book is one of tempering extremes, understanding where the origin of a misinterpretation might lie and then gently trimming it of its excesses to state a more temperate and reasonable interpretation. One is reminded of the famous scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” where Allen stands in a movie line. Behind him a pedantic professor drones on about many subjects, including Marshall McCluhan. A frustrated Allen walks off screen and returns with Marshall McCluhan in tow. McCluhan himself debunks the professor to his face. Dr. Connell seems to do much the same, bringing Aristotle himself from his other works to say, “No, I really didn’t say that at all.”
Yet problems exist. The material is dense and complicated. This is not a book for undergraduates, and most classics graduate students or professional classicists, save those already steeped in ancient philosophy, will find the book very hard reading. This is regrettable, for its insights could enlighten the general Greek Civilization or Women in Antiquity classroom. And the situation is exacerbated by some stylistic tendencies which detract from the clarity of expression and exposition that one might wish to see.
The first difficulty arises in the structure of the book. By this I mean the author’s tendency to rather dryly state what is coming up and then to organize the book as if it were a legal document, using numbering such as 1.1, 1.2, etc., for each section of the work. This can be helpful, but combined with some other narrative tendencies the work exhibits, it renders the text a bit mechanical.
Too often terms and words are used without careful definitions for the non-specialist reader. Words such as “correlatives,” “contraries,” and “privatives” (p. 22), or “superfoetation” (p. 236), to give but a few examples, can make comprehension difficult for one not already armed with a philosophical background. There are other times when such definitions are offered — later chapters seem much more cognizant of this need than earlier chapters — but a basic glossary of terms might have helped overall. Twenty pages after the first introduction and explanation of hylozooism or pangenesis, the average reader is in need of a quick look up tool. Occasionally an in-text reference would have been welcome (cf. p. 46 where the reference to “the GA passage above” could be more precise).
Another difficulty is the author’s tendency to use tables or numbered lists to lay out options and possible arguments in an almost scholastic way. Consider Table 4.2 (p. 131), which lays out a postulated Aristotelian model for comparing a fetus to a plant. In the table we have the following lists:
Foetus | feeding on | Mother
F1: active | M1: passive
F2: form| M2: matter
F3: dynamic | M3: inert
F4: determines type/form | M4: resists type, causes disease and deformity
This in itself is not a problem, but on the next page, with the chart out of view, we read “While the female contribution is M1 and M2, it is not at either stage M3 or M4 . . . In the case of the initial construction, this cannot be characterized as M1, M3, or M4, but is F3 and F4 along with the male contribution.” Compare “We are left with (1)2, (1) 3, (2)1, (2)2 and (2)3, four of which make the female principle the subject” (p. 308). Such writing is hard to follow.1 Likewise, occasionally fuzzy diction makes one stop and reread sentences two or three times. Consider these examples from chapter 4: “Importantly, the particular constitution of blood is relative to the parts of the type of animal that is being kept alive by it” (p. 142); “Unlike his opponents, Aristotle focuses on the form of an animal and its overall goals as a living being so does think the composition of appropriate blood types occurs by chance” (p. 144); “For his parallel seed opponents the male generative contribution is their focus—a paradigm that the female contribution is required to fit to” (p. 150). Such statements could have benefited greatly from editorial intervention. There are places where the author strives for a less stilted style such as comparing parts of Aristotle’s craft analogies to the difficulties involved in following cryptic instructions while trying to assemble “parts of flat-packed Scandinavian furniture” (p. 158). Note also the insightful aside on Phyllis and Aristotle and its implications for charges of sexism (pp. 7-9). More writing in this style would have added to the book’s appeal and intelligibility.
I take time to point out such difficulties only because the material in this book is so well researched and so carefully thought out that it deserves to be presented in a manner which would make it more accessible to a wider readership. As it currently stands, this is a book for dedicated specialists only and, in light of the hefty price tag, a caveat emptor seems in order.2
Still, there is much here that is worth the effort it takes to mine it out. Those interested in the entire argument will surely find this a significant contribution to the field. If a general reader finds the bulk of the text difficult, a comprehensive index allows for selective use. Those interested in wind eggs, deformity, genetic inheritance, bees, crustaceans etc., and their relationship to the issue of the ancient Greek view of women, will also find that female animals are quite good to think with, indeed.
1. The examples are many. Cf. pp. 25, 36-7, 174-5, and 240-1, to cite a few.
2. There are few errors to be found in the text and they are minor. The plural of summetria is given as summetrias, anglicizing the form (pp. 275-6). Earlier the author offers Greek plurals, such as kineseis (e.g. pp. 166-7). The only English typographical error I noticed was “Aristotle found sort of account inadequate” (p. 185). An earlier sentence (p. 32) is puzzling for its Greek: “In any case, what the quote actually says is that human beings (hoi anthropoi), not just males (tes andres have the largest brains.”