BMCR 2004.01.09

Theophrastus of Eresus. On Sweat On Dizziness On Fatigue

, , , , On sweat ; On dizziness ; and, On fatigue. Philosophia antiqua, v. 93. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 324 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004128905. EUR 85.00.

Executive Summary: Excellent Greek editions and English translations of three Theophrastean physiological treatises, with ample commentaries and indices. Another first-rate production from Project Theophrastus.

In this season of holiday jingles, the title of the volume under review (On Sweat, On Dizziness, On Fatigue) must bring to mind a worn-out Santa Claus urging on his second-team reindeer at the end of a long night. But the three phrases of the book’s title do not in fact belong to a clause (ho ho ho); they are separate titles of separate works. Indeed, the volume under review is most accurately thought of as three volumes or fascicles bound together for convenience. Each treatise, both the Greek text and its translation on facing pages, is bundled together with its own introduction, table of contents, extensive commentaries, and indices, and each author is wholly and solely responsible for one bundle (Fortenbaugh for “On Sweat”; Sharples for “On Dizziness”; and Sollenberger for “On Fatigue”).

None of the treatises is long; the first amounts to 250 lines of Greek, the second barely exceeds the century-mark, and the third falls short of 150. These opuscula are nevertheless given lavish attention by their respective scholars; in addition to introductory comments and indices, the three scholars give roughly a page of commentary and notes for every three lines of Greek. As with even the best commentaries, they do not answer every question that you had — about the text, its grammar, meaning, and philosophical content — but they answer a great many of them, as well as a great many you didn’t.

I noticed only one instance of interdependence between the fascicles; Sharples (179) and Sollenberger (255) both refer the reader to Fortenbaugh’s introduction (5-15) for a fuller account of the textual transmission, and even here, Sharples proclaims his independence by systematically calling Fortenbaugh’s treatise “On Sweats”, a plural which more accurately reflects the Greek (peri Hidrôtôn), but suggests to the North American ear a treatise on athletic apparel.

The textual evidence is somewhat convoluted, because Theophrastus’ original treatises were first quarried by the compilers of the pseudo-Aristotelian “Problemata”, which comes down to us in the Corpus Aristotelicum, and then later read and excerpted by Photius in his “Library”. In addition, Photius seems to have read a manuscript that was independent of our best manuscript for Theophrastus’ own writings. Because of the interest of Photius’ excerpts, all three of the translators print Photius’ Greek in smaller type below the text of Theophrastus on the left-hand page, and translate it in smaller English below their translations of Theophrastus on the right-hand page. The result is less fussy than my description of it, in part due to Brill’s large and clear type, which makes for a handsome page (at a handsome price).

The translations are generally very accurate, and no more graceless than Theophrastus’ Greek, which Fortenbaugh (6) suggests may have been “lecture notes” written with “a brevity approaching opacity”. I noted only one instance (271) in which a rendering had not fully emerged from the translator’s preliminary crib into finished English: a sentence describing the fatigue induced by walking downhill ends “… so that also on what especially it falls forward and sustains the shock, on this especially it produces stress.”1

The commentaries are very full, as mentioned above, and each includes ample references to secondary literature (though Fortenbaugh’s discussion of the clepsydra (110-111) inexplicably fails to mention David Furley’s classic article on the topic2). Much of the most recent literature on these treatises was sponsored by Project Theophrastus, and was published in a volume that appeared only a year previous.3 The project as a whole, and Fortenbaugh in particular, are to be congratulated on this carefully planned and fruitful synergy.

It is in the treatise on Dizziness (section 3) that we find what I believe to be the most interesting passage in this volume:

Well, these and similar ones are more or less the reasons [aitiai] for the experience [of dizziness]. We must try to refer the particular occurrences, concerning which people are perplexed [aporousi], to the reasons for which they happen to come about….All these things and anything else like them have their reason [aitiai] in what was said before. (trans. Sharples; bracketed additions by the reviewer)

These lines, which come after a swift introductory review of the causes of dizziness and before the detailed consideration of cases, could stand as a rubric for the whole Peripatetic corpus of Problem-literature, showing how it conforms to the general philosophical methodology of Aristotle and his followers. Aristotle philosophized by considering the phenomena, thinking through the aporiai to which they give rise, and providing accounts of the aitiai that both explain the phenomena and dissolve the aporiai. As new phenomena arise, they constitute challenges to the theory’s explanatory power and comprehensiveness; can they be accounted for within the existing framework, or will they point up unsuspected limitations? Will they be tractable or recalcitrant? This is why problemata must be collected and studied, and the more perverse and recherché they are, the better they serve as test-cases of the theory’s adequacy.

If sweating is caused by heat, then why, after exertion, do people sweat more in the shade than in the sun (see On Sweat sect. 27)? If dizziness is caused by a whirling motion in the fluids of the head, then why does it afflict the unmoving subject who stares fixedly at an unmoving object (see On Dizziness sect. 9)? If fatigue is a sort of melting or colliquescence (Sollenberger’s rendering of ‘suntêxis’) and excess of moisture in the sinews, why is it alleviated by a long hot bath (see On Fatigue sect. 6)?

Each of these problem-cases — and such puzzles make up the bulk of all three treatises — stands as a prima facie counter-example to the official theory, an apparent refutation of the general causal account for the phenomenon in question. In some cases, the theory has an easy time showing how the vagrant datum can be brought back into the explanatory fold — it only seems that we sweat more, for instance, because the sweat standing on our skin is not so quickly evaporated in the shade as in the sun. In other cases, the job of accommodating theory to observation looks unnatural, implausible, convoluted, and ad hoc — an inadequate theory is being maintained in the face of evidence that should have caused a radical re-think, not just a patch-up or white-wash.

What all of the material in these treatises — the failures as well as the successes — makes clear to the reader is the immense ambition and optimism of the early Peripatos. For some decades, it must have seemed as though the outlines of the ultimate system had been secured, and now normal science could proceed to tick off the details one by one. Like the early Christian assurance that Jesus would return in a fortnight or two, it must have been a heady feeling while it lasted.4

Dorothea Frede once quipped that after Aristotle observed that one swallow doth not a Spring make (EN I.7), Theophrastus set to work on a treatise entitled “On the Number of Swallows Needed to Make a Spring”. It’s not just that Theophrastus handled topics ab Aristotele ante tractatos, as Cicero puts it (Fin. I.6) — it is rather that he plowed and replowed the same terrain with a methodical zeal that can sometimes resemble dunderheadedness, especially when time has proven certain acres to be barren. But neither these post-hoc judgements of failure, nor the invidious comparison to his master, should obscure the fact that he was an immensely clever and productive philosopher and scientist. These three little works are fine illustrations of Theophrastus’ value to the history of ancient philosophy and ancient science, and they receive exemplary editorial treatment in this volume.


1. In a similar though smaller slip, Sharples forgot to choose between “become” and “suffer” in the following from On Dizziness sect. 7: “…and those who look at swings and wheels or actually rotate their sight with them quickly become suffer blurred vision….” In addition, I note a few typos: 201 end of the third paragraph, the article “tês” has acquired an erroneous aspiration; 246 the Timaeus is cited at 176 n.12, not n.13; 247 “couting” should read “counting”; 290 end of the third paragraph “alled” should read “called”; 300 2 lines from the bottom “toal” should read “total”.

2. “Empedocles and the Clepsydra”, JHS 77 (1957) 31-34.

3. On the Opuscula of Theophrastus, ed. W. Fortenbaugh and G. Wöhrle = Philosophie der Antike, vol. 14. (Stuttgart: Steiner 2002).

4. See also the extraordinary anecdotes about Aristotle and Theophrastus recorded in Cicero’s Disp. Tusc. III.69: “Aristotle criticizes his predecessors for thinking that philosophy was made complete by their own ingenuity. ‘They were either very foolish or very vain,” he says, “and yet so great are the advances made in recent years that it appears to me as if the problems of philosophy will soon be completely solved.’ They say that Theophrastus, on his deathbed, reproached Nature for giving a long life to stags and ravens, for whom it does not matter in the least, but a short one to humans, for whom it matters a great deal. For if humans had had a longer lifespan, they would have perfected every discipline and schooled themselves in every branch of knowledge. And so he complained about being snuffed out just when he had begun to understand those things.” (translation by Margaret Graver from her book Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xli, 254. ISBN 0-226-30577-5, reviewed at BMCR 2002.09.15).