BMCR 2008.05.07

Peri tou Mêlou ê peri tês Aristotelous Teleutês (Liber de Pomo sive de Morte Aristotilis). Seira: Philosophia 12

, Peri tou mēlou, ē, Peri tēs Aristotelous teleutēs : (Liber de pomo). Seira Philosophia ; 12. Thessalonike: Ekdoseis Thyrathen, 2007. 370 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9789608097339.

It is no longer customary for Greek Classical scholars to publish original research in their mother tongue. When they do, this usually involves editions (translations and commentaries) of ancient texts. This book is one of the rare cases where an edition is combined with detailed scholarly treatment of a text’s content and themes in Modern Greek. Somewhat surprisingly, this is achieved by venturing into the medieval reception of Aristotle and his thought. The book’s topic is one of the Aristotelian pseudepigrapha widely read in the Middle Ages (from the 13th century onwards), titled Liber de Pomo sive de Morte Aristotilis. The Latin text features Aristotle on his deathbed surrounded by a group of associates (‘sapientes’ in the text (section 2): a scene reminiscent of Plato’s Phaedo). His life is feeble, but the scent of an apple, which he holds in his hand, sustains him (sections 2, 4). Aristotle converses with his companions on the nature of the soul, its relationship to the body, and its fate after death. They conclude that philosophy is the only science that guarantees true knowledge. Despite the text’s dialogue form, these positions are offered not as arguments in a dialectical context, but as a set of exposés on the fundamentals of Aristotelian philosophy. It is puzzling, in this respect, that the interlocutors are urged by ‘Aristotle’ to consult the Aristotelian treatises De anima and Metaphysica, as these fundamental positions (more Platonic than Aristotelian) contradict those of the latter works.

The Latin account of Aristotle’s death is a fascinating literary and cultural palimpsest, as it purports to be a translation of a translation: its model is a Hebrew translation (also extant) of an original account in Arabic going back to the 9th century (perhaps even earlier). We know the names of the Latin and Hebrew translators (Manfredus of Sicily and Abraham Ibn Hasdây respectively, both first half of the 13th century). The Arabic original, however, was in all likelihood different from the Arabic tradition of the story that is known today to Western scholarship mainly through the edition of its Persian translation by Margoliouth in 1892,1 as the latter is not only much lengthier than the Latin and Hebrew versions (though this might simply imply that the Hebrew translator also epitomised the Arabic text), but also significantly diverges from it in crucial parts of its content. The possibility that the Arabic original was based on a (now lost) Greek model is another complicated question. Most scholars, however, think of the work as an imitation of the Phaedo.

The author’s (henceforth K.) principal objective, as she sets out clearly in her Introduction (pp. 12-15), is to broaden the basis of consideration of the work’s literary and philosophical background by examining it not simply as an imitation of the Phaedo but as a distillation of a wide range of Greek biographical and philosophical ‘traditions’ (K. insists on the need to discuss broader philosophical ‘traditions,’ rather than ‘sources,’ utilising Mansfeld’s methodological principle),2 themselves part of the multilayered history of Aristotle’s reception (pp. 13-14). This follows from K.’s research interest in Aristotle’s Categoriae and its Greek and Latin reception.3 It was the recurrent reference to the apple in philosophical examples from the Neoplatonic commentaries on the Categoriae, as she says (p. 5), that prompted the present study. This focus also partly justifies K.’s choice to take as her basis the Latin text of the Liber de Pomo, and only discuss the Hebrew and Arabic versions when they present significant divergences from the ‘core’ of the story, thought to be the same in all three main versions (p. 15). Both her commentary and analysis contain much, however, on the content and background scholarship of these parallel traditions (including an appendix with Margoliouth’s English translation of the Persian (Arabic) version), which can be useful to the reader who is interested in this aspect, and prompt further study.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part begins with an informative Introduction (Eisagôgê, pp. 9-36), which gives the historical and textual background, discusses current scholarship on the text, and sets K.’s own research aims. Next, K. provides a translation of the Liber de Pomo into Modern Greek (with Latin and Modern Greek parallel texts) (pp. 38-57), followed by a detailed philosophical commentary (pp. 59-100). The commentary discusses a wide range of textual material (including medical writings and the Old Testament), but, in accordance with K.’s aims, it introduces parallels mostly from Plato, the Aristotelian and Peripatetic corpus, and Peripatetic and Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotle. This neatly paves the way for the thorough discussion of the work’s relationship to the Aristotelian tradition later on in the study. Those readers with a Classical background would probably have welcomed comments (or perhaps simply a brief note) on the De pomo‘s medieval Latin features, which would have conveyed some of the text’s medieval flavour. Similarly, a sense of the background (in the Latin tradition) of the Latin medical and philosophical terms used in the Liber de Pomo would also have been useful (and could, at times, also have enriched the philosophical discussion). But overall, the commentary is of a very high scholarly standard, complementing the translation’s clarity, precision and elegant style.

The second part offers K.’s scholarly analysis of the traditions of the Liber de Pomo, with a view to connecting its key themes with the broader background of Aristotelian study and reception in antiquity. The first chapter (‘O Phaidon kai to Peri tou Mêlou‘, pp. 103-112) lists point-by-point the structural, thematic and philosophical similarities between the Phaedo and each of the two main traditions of the Liber de Pomo (Hebrew-Latin and Arabic-Persian), as well as comparing the two traditions with each other against the Phaedo. It concludes (somewhat abruptly, and without discussing the ramifications in detail) by summarising the different possibilities about the ways in which the Phaedo might have been read by the author(s) of the Liber de Pomo, all of which invariably point to a partial, perhaps even indirect, use of the text.

The next four chapters form a tight unit. Here K. succeeds in uncovering a web of traditions that is considerably more complex than what Quellenforschung on the Liber de Pomo has admitted. The first (‘Oi “thanatoi” tou Aristotelê’, pp. 113-127) establishes that both Aristotle’s death by illness and the ‘socratisation’ of his death in the Liber de Pomo go back to very early strands in the Greek biographical tradition connected with the philosopher. The next chapter (‘To mêlo’, pp. 129-159) goes on to dismantle the argument that the device of the apple is an adaptation of the anecdote of Democritus’ death (in which Democritus is kept alive by smelling hot bread). Instead, K. shows that both stories draw from an undercurrent of discussion in the Greek medical tradition (to which Aristotle himself contributed insights) on whether scents generally operate as a substitute to nourishment, or as a means of reviving a weak organism. Further, the apple and its scent are recurrently used, from the 2nd century CE onwards, as examples in philosophical debates on the corporeality of qualities ( poiotêtes), on the problem whether the accidents ( sumbebêkota) of substances ( ousiai) can exist separately from them, and in discussions of the soul’s parts or faculties, and whether these exist separately from the body. K. reconstructs these debates principally through the commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories. She then proceeds to discuss extensively the character of the (now almost entirely lost) corpus of Aristotle’s exoteric works (focusing on the Eudemus) and the reasons why their psychology appears to have deviated substantially from positions found in the treatise De Anima (‘O exôterikos Aristotelês’, pp. 161-201). She also charts the reception of these ‘platonising’ positions from the early Peripatetics to the early 1st century CE. This is followed by an examination of the later Platonists’ reception of Aristotle, and the ways in which they sought to harmonise his teaching with Plato’s (‘O “Platônikos” Aristotelês’, pp. 203-222). It was this ‘Platonic’ Aristotle that was then passed on to the Arabs, the chapter concludes. What were the intermediate stages in the transmission of these ideas from Greek antiquity to the Arab world, and then to 13th century Europe, though? This question is of course beyond the scope of this book, yet it is one many readers will inevitably ask, especially in view of the chapters that follow.

The next (and lengthiest) chapter examines in detail the psychology of the Liber de Pomo (‘Ê psuchologia tou Liber de Pomo‘, pp. 223-264). K. here returns to her Latin text, highlighting especially its distinction between two kinds of soul ( anima sensibilis and anima intelligibilis), the faculties (designated as ‘animae’) ascribed to the latter, and its independence from the body (sections 5-11). K. also thoroughly examines the background to the text’s positions on the composition of the body and its relationship to the anima sensibilis (sections 5, 12). These views are then compared with the psychology of the Aristotelian corpus (especially the treatises De Anima and De Generatione Animalium), as well as with that of the Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotle’s psychological works (especially that of Philoponus), to conclude that the positions of the Liber de Pomo on the soul are certainly set within an Aristotelian framework, but most probably derive from a background of Neoplatonic exegesis (perhaps a commentary?) of Aristotle’s De Anima (pp. 257-264).

The two final chapters offer a set of observations on the Hebrew background of certain sections of the Liber de Pomo,4 as well as on the relationship between the Hebrew and Arabic versions of the text (pp. 265-279, and 281-301 respectively). Whereas K. acknowledges the presence of a Hebrew layer in the text, she demonstrates that this may be the end product of a long process of interaction between the Hebrew and Aristotelian traditions going as far back as Philo of Alexandria. Alternatively, she argues next, the Hebrew translator and epitomator (Abraham Ibn Hasdây) may well have been working with material of Arabic origin. This possibility is discussed in detail in the next chapter, which uncovers multiple connections between the Hebrew-Latin tradition of the Liber de Pomo and key Arabic philosophical texts of the 9th century. The analysis leads K. to call for a re-examination of the character of the Arabic original that Abraham Ibn Hasdây translated, as well as of his own profile as a translator and epitomator.

A concise epilogue closes the book, followed by an appendix with Margoliouth’s English translation of the Persian version of the Liber de Pomo (pp. 307-322), a thorough and up-to-date bibliography, an index locorum and a general index.

K.’s book clearly envisages two sets of readers: on the one hand it seeks to make an original contribution to the study of the Liber de Pomo, by utilising clear methodological principles, citing a rich set of primary textual material, and engaging extensively with previous scholarship. In dispelling a number of assumptions about the models and literary-philosophical background of the Liber de Pomo, it underlines that what we call ‘reception’ is often a very complicated story (much more complicated than a simple question of how certain texts were used by later authors), especially when one deals with medieval texts and the ancient traditions from which they derive. Scholars of reception studies, besides philosophers, will find many valuable insights here. On the other hand, by giving ample details of historical and philosophical background, taking pains to explain philosophical concepts, and generally presuming no familiarity with Aristotle’s work, K. also seeks to appeal to non-specialist readers — though with a Classical background, as the (often extensive) citations from ancient sources in the commentary and chapters of analysis are only occasionally translated into Modern Greek. The clarity of exposition and careful blending of philosophical analysis with a broader outlook into the history of ideas and transmission ensure that the reader’s interest remains constant, even when the most abstruse elements of Aristotelian philosophy are discussed.

The book is well produced, and contains only a few minor typographical errors. Despite the fact that the publisher, Ekdoseis Thyrathen, is not an academic press (and has a rather peculiar cultural-political agenda, as one may read on their website) it has succeeded in producing a volume of academic standard aimed at a wider public. The book under review is part of the publisher’s philosophical series, featuring commentaries on mostly Epicurean and other ancient philosophical texts, as well as a wide range of translations of influential academic studies on Greek antiquity into Modern Greek.5


1. Margoliouth D. S. (1892), ‘ The Book of the Apple, ascribed to Aristotle, edited in Persian and in English by D. S. M.’, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, N.S. 24, 187-252.

2. Mansfeld J. (1999), ‘Sources,’ in Algra K. et al. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge, pp. 3-30.

3. Kotzia-Panteli P. (1991), O Skopos tôn Katêgoriôn tou Aristotelê. Sumbolê stên Istoria tôn Aristotelikôn Spoudôn ôs ton 6o Aiôna (PhD diss., Aristotle University of Thessaloniki).

4. Particularly the rejection of voluntary death on the grounds that life is valuable as the only opportunity to reach the highest degrees of philosophical knowledge (section 13). This justification (different from Phaed. 61c-62c), together with the contrast that is drawn next between true knowledge of the Creator-God and the worship of stars, and the section that follows (section 14), in which Noah is described as ‘the first who recognised the creator of the spheres’ ( qui fuit primus ad cognoscendum creatorem sperarum) has been attributed to the ‘intervention’ of the Hebrew translator-epitomator (pp. 265 ff.).

5. Including Sharples R. W. (1996) Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy, London; and (forthcoming) M. Nussbaum’s (1994) The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Princeton.