BMCR 2020.07.19

Aristote. Métaphysique Livre Alpha

, Aristote. Métaphysique Livre Alpha. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2019. 243 p.. ISBN 9782130820888 €12,00 (pb).

The new French translation of the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics by Jean-François Pradeau, published by Presses Universitaires de France, is destined to become a very useful tool for future work in the field of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Beyond the translation itself it provides an insightful and long introduction, a detailed plan of book Alpha, precise and copious endnotes, and a glossary of the main notions and proper names which Aristotle employs in Metaphysics Alpha.

Before expanding on the central philosophical aspects of the introduction, it is important to describe the text that Pradeau translates (see pp. 79-85). The manuscripts of Aristotle’s Metaphysics are usually divided into two families of manuscripts, indicated as alpha and beta, which contain different variants on which editors decide for linguistical reasons or for lexical or argumentative coherence (p. 79). The text that Pradeau follows in his translation is the one contained in Ross’s 1924 edition of the Metaphysics, which, though being principally based on the beta family, is less influenced by it than the 1957 Jaeger edition.[1]

Though a new critical edition of the entire text on the Metaphysics is being prepared, Pradeau believes that the new text will not differ substantially from those of Ross and Jaeger. “Le visage de la Métaphysique, et plus particulièrement de son livre Alpha, n’en sera pas changé au point que l’on doive redécouvrir ces textes d’Aristote” (p. 82). Nevertheless, Pradeau also takes into account Oliver Primavesi’s 2012 edition of book Alpha, which favours the alpha family of manuscripts.[2] This is also witnessed by some editorial choices, which he lists in the introduction together with some other passages where he did not follow Ross’s edition (pp. 83-85).

After dealing with the life of Aristotle and the editorial history of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (pp. 1-11), the introduction explains the subject of Alpha and locates it in its own historical context. Aristotle’s research concerns a specific kind of knowledge, that is, wisdom (σοφíα; sophía), a science (ἐπιστήμη; epistḗmē) of that which comes first: a science of the causes (αἰτία/αἰτίον; aitía/aítion) and principles (ἀρχή; arkhḗ) of all things (p.16). For Aristotle, as is well known, there are four causes, which are, in Pradeau’s translation (p. 97): (1) “la réalité, c’est à dire le ce que c’est que la chose” (“substance” or “essence”, in Ross’s translation), (2) “la matière et le substrat” (“the matter or substratum” in Ross’s translation), (3) “le principe du mouvement” (“the source of change”, in Ross’s translation), and (4) “le ce en vue de quoi, c’est à dire le bien” (“the purpose and the good” in Ross’s translation). These are more frequently designated as formal, material, efficient, and final causes, respectively, following the Latin tradition.

It is common practice to explain that, even though this description of the philosophical enterprise and this understanding of the causes are Aristotle’s own, he nevertheless attributes them to everyone who philosophized before him, from Thales to members of the early Academy. Naturally, this move may involve historical distortions of the thought of Aristotle’s predecessors, who perhaps were not thinking about philosophy in the same way and were not using the same vocabulary.

On the other hand, Aristotle’s inquiry was not born out of the blue, but rather has a precise birthplace and historical context, which the reader ought to be aware of. Pradeau thus strongly emphasizes that his research into the science of the causes is to be located in Plato’s Academy. He does so not so much for chronological reasons but rather for philosophical ones. Even though it cannot be determined whether Aristotle was still in the Academy while writing Alpha, Pradeau insists that the philosophical programme that Aristotle establishes in this first book is a Platonic programme (p. 16).

To show this, Pradeau recalls first of all Socrates’ desire in the Phaedo to attain that wisdom (σοφíα; sophía), which enables us to know (εἰδέναι; eidénai) the causes of all things and which, therefore, would be a true science (ἐπιστήμη;epistḗmē) (Phaedo 96a-b). When characterizing this science (p.22), Pradeau mentions also the passage in the Republicwhich says that the most noble science, that is to say dialectic, is the knowledge of the essence (οὐσíα; ousía), or, as Pradeau puts it, “reality” (réalité in French), of each thing (Republic VII, 534b4). Furthermore, it is also knowledge of the first or ultimate causes of all things, above all the Idea of the Good, illustrated through the simile of the sun, cause and progenitor of all things (p. 22).

In Alpha Aristotle seeks to fulfil these desiderata and philosophizes from the point of view of a Platonist and of a member of the Academy (p. 17). Now, the fact that Aristotle was a Platonist, should obviously not make us forget his fundamental criticism of the views of Plato and of the subsequent heads of the Academy (see Metaphysics A.6 and especially A.9). Indeed, if anything, by criticizing his own (Plato and the Academy), Aristotle shows that he is the only one who is able to bring philosophy back on track, according to Plato’s original project. As Pradeau underlines more than once (pp. 60-61; 69-70), by positing the Forms or Numbers as separated from the sensibles, Plato and the Academics were not able to make them the first causes of all things, since they could not explain how the intelligibles could have causal efficacy in sensible things. The Ideas are therefore proven to be useless from an aetiological point of view. Even while following the project of the Socrates of the Phaedo, Platonists fail to reach the first causes of all things.

Through Aristotle, however, philosophy, in the way it was conceived by Plato, has not only a past, but most importantly a lively future (pp. 70-72). Pradeau links Alpha with Beta, the book of the aporiai. Such a link he considers to be incontestable (p. 13). Book Alpha gives philosophy a programme and horizon for its realisation: it is necessary to develop the science of the first causes and principles (p. 13). But, in order to do so, the philosopher must face and solve all the difficulties and problems that are listed in book Beta (p. 72).

Apart from this interesting and philosophically relevant introduction, Pradeau’s translation is accompanied by a very large and useful series of endnotes of different kinds, covering all the problematic aspects which concern the text. In the endnotes, Pradeau not only explains his own editorial and interpretative choices, but also the arguments that are present in Aristotle’s text and that are not always easy to grasp, employing many useful references to primary ancient and medieval sources (starting with Aristotle’s own works), and also to secondary literature.

For the sake of brevity, I consider one example of an endnote, which is relevant for what I have already said – note 2 on p. 143. As we have seen, central to Aristotle’s philosophical programme in Alpha is the notion of cause, in Greek αἰτία. Commenting on the beginning of chapter 3, where Aristotle lists the four causes, Pradeau reminds us that to translate αἰτία as “cause” (cause in French) might not be a philosophically neutral operation. Indeed, we might be induced to read “cause” as meaning only the causal agent, whether inanimate or animate, that is the cause of which we take other things to be the effects. However, αἰτία does not only indicate the “cause” but also the “reason” (raison in French) or the explanatory account (explication in French). It is both the causa and the ratio of something. To indicate the cause of something answers both the question of how (comment in French) a thing came to be what it is and the question of why(pourquoi in French) it is that which it is: why it is constituted in a certain way, why it has certain qualities or dispositions and in view of what (p. 143). This double sense of αἰτία is once again, according to Pradeau, to be traced back to Plato: The Idea of the Good in the Republic is both the cause of the existence of the other things, and the cause that makes them knowable (p. 24). Pradeau can thus conclude decisively (pp. 71-72):

Aussi bien la question ne peut-elle être posée de savoir si Aristote s’oppose à Platon, et sans doute n’eut-elle guère eu de sens pour Aristote, qui de toute évidence parvenait à la fois à rester fidèle aux exigences platoniciennes, notamment celle d’une connaissance causale et formelle de toutes choses, et à s’opposer fermement aux impasses doctrinales où Platon s’était perdu avec la plupart de ses successeurs.

Those working with this book will also be very pleased with the glossary of the main philosophical notions and proper names that are provided in Greek with the corresponding French translations and the Bekker references to the passages in which Aristotle uses them in different contexts. This happens for example with the term οὐσíα, which is translated here primarily by réalité (“reality”) and then with substance (“substance”) or essence (“essence”) and is used by Aristotle in many passages throughout book Alpha, like when he lists the four causes (A.3, 983a27) or when he says that his predecessors did not clearly deal with “reality”, with the “what it is” (ce que c’est) (A.7, 988a35).

Therefore, Pradeau’s volume fulfils admirably well the purpose of a translation and edition of Metaphysics Alpha and is therefore useful as much for the student who has never yet read Aristotle as for the experienced Aristotelian scholar.


[1] W. D. Ross., Aristotle’s Metaphysics. A revised Text with Introduction and Commentary, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2. Vol., 1924; W. Jaeger, Aristotelis Metaphysique. Recognovit brevique adnotatione critica instruxit W. Jaeger, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1957. See E. Berti, “Introduzione”, in Aristotele. Metafisica, ed. Enrico Berti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2017, p. VII.

[2] O. Primavesi, “Aristotle, Metaphysics A, a New Critical Edition with Introduction” in C. Steel and O. Primavesi (eds.), Aristotle’s Metaphysics Alpha (Symposium Aristotelicum) (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 387-516.