BMCR 2021.06.24

Pseudo-Aristotle: “De Mundo” (“On the Cosmos”): a commentary

, , Pseudo-Aristotle: "De Mundo" ("On the Cosmos"): a commentary. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781108834780 $99.99.

A new study on the treatise De Mundo (On the Cosmos), which is traditionally ascribed to Aristotle, is more than welcome. The initiative for this volume was a conference of scholars from Central and South-Eastern Europe that was devoted to the subject at Rethymno in Crete. Its completion was delayed by the press-notice of a new English translation of the text together with a collection of essays, edited by the South African Johan C. Thom. This work was published in 2014.[1] The volume discussed here is subtitled ‘A commentary’ by the editors P. Gregorić and G. Karamanolis. On p. ix of the Preface they specify that it is ‘a philosophical commentary’ and on p. 6 of the Introduction (Chapter 1) they explain that it is intended to be a ‘section-by-section commentary’. There is also need for a genuine running commentary in English which integrally incorporates the literature published since the 1995 Italian study by G. Reale and A.P. Bos (the author of this review).[2] A subsequent plan ought to be drawn up to resolve all the remaining problems in an open discussion that is not restricted to confrères from Southern and Central Europe. For it can still be argued that Aristotle did in fact write the treatise, between 338, the year in which Prince Alexander of Macedonia succeeded his father Philip II as Hēgemōn of the Hellenic League, and 330 BCE, when the capital of Persia, Persepolis, went up in flames. Lately there cannot be any complaint about lack of interest in On the Cosmos. In 2018 Michel Federspiel published a French translation with introduction and commentary.[3]

 This new study does not primarily focus on Quellenforschung and the debate over the work’s non-authenticity. But in their Introduction (Chapter 1) pp. 6-7 the editors give three groups of arguments that compel rejection of Aristotle’s authorship: linguistic, geographical and meteorological details and also the theological outlook. The core thesis is that the philosophical theology of De Mundo is ‘a distinctly Aristotelian picture of God and the cosmos’, with a rejection of the Stoic views of Zeno and Chrysippus. But the author avoids challenging opponents explicitly, and presents himself systematically as Aristotle.

G. Karamanolis shows in ch. 2 how much literary quality the author of De Mundo displays in his introduction and the last chapters. The quotations of famous authors and the dedication to Alexander must help ‘to convince the reader of the treatise’s Aristotelian authenticity’ (p. 15). The aim of the protreptic work is to win over ‘a king’, ‘the best of leaders’ to the study of philosophy (pp. 17; 23).

In ch. 3 Karel Thein discusses the famous double definition of ‘cosmos’ with which De Mundo 2 opens. He then goes on to treat the divine astral sphere that consists of ether. With his view of ether as a special, fifth element, the author emphatically dissociates himself from the Stoa.[4] Thein underlines that the author talks about the ‘axis’ of the heavens with its extremities in the polar points, and that Plato and Aristotle did not yet use this term (pp. 48; 49).

The sublunary elements are dealt with by Jakub Jirsa in ch. 4. He raises the question of why the element of air is called ‘opaque and frosty’ in De Mundo – 392b6; pp. 67; 73; 74; 75. The relation between air and pneuma is left undiscussed. Jirsa also brings up the distinction between continent(s) and islands.

The geography of De Mundo is closely scrutinized in ch. 5 by Irene Pajón Leyra and Hynak Bartos (pp. 80-120). They pick up on interesting, previously unused details, for instance about the identification of the island Phebol (393b15-16), the date of Pytheas’ voyages from Marseille to the North Sea, and the view of the all-encircling world river Okeanos, in which the author of De Mundo ‘purposely deviates from Aristotle’ (p. 91).

The subjects of the meteorology of De Mundo are painstakingly treated by István Baksa in ch. 6 (pp. 121-148). I note in particular his observation that a discussion of the Milky Way is lacking, but that the author does report a (not very precise) relation between the tides of the sea and the circuits of the Moon.

Pavel Gregorić is the author of ch. 7 on ‘The Eternity of the Cosmos’, where he emphasizes the firmly anti-Stoic thrust of the proposition that the eternity of the cosmos, despite the changeability and transience of its sublunary parts, is established beyond doubt.

In their jointly written ch. 8 Gábor Betegh and Pavel Gregorić see a series of twelve closely connected analogies as the culmination of the theology of De Mundo, in which parts of the cosmos are used to clarify God’s relation to the cosmos.[5]

The last chapter (9), by Vojtech Hladky, is devoted to the many names of God, which are explained as designations of the various forms in which God’s Power acts on the parts of the cosmos. The consequence seems to be that God himself is nameless or unnameable, a view which has sometimes been attributed to Aristotle in the tradition.

The editors and also the various authors of the volume differ on the view the author of De Mundo takes on Stoic philosophy. This requires a decision on the question of whether the author abandoned Aristotle’s dualism between the sphere of the Intellect and the sphere of the physical for the hylozoism of the Stoics. However, such a position is not attested for the time after Aristotle, and certainly not in the splendid and powerful form presented by this text. Rather, the main proposition of the author of De Mundo, his advancement of the opposition between God’s essence and his Power (ch. 6, 397b19-20), is fundamentally contrary to the Stoic position and is illustrated by all kinds of details, such as God’s invisibility to all his subjects. It is also crucial to explain how the author could call God the ‘Begetter’ of all living entities, just as Aristotle in Generation of Animals II assigns a crucial role to the entelechy of the kind of living creature and the ‘power’ which is active in a fertilized egg-cell via the male semen.

The position proposed by Gregorić and Karamanolis in ch. 1 must be rejected, because De Mundo still fully represents God as Intellect and not as the material Logos that pervades and governs the entire cosmos. A distinct entity from this is God’s Power, which is active on all levels of the cosmos, first of all in the ethereal spheres of the astral heavens, but next, via the pneuma that is the vehicle of the soul in all mortal living creatures, in the sublunary sphere. The fact that he explicitly mentions the doctrine of pneuma in 4, 394b9-11, although it is not essential to his exposition on the cosmos, is a clear reference to Aristotle’s own view of pneuma as analogue of the ethereal body of the celestial beings, and as instrument of the soul as (immaterial) entelechy. This position is totally anachronistic in the time of Chrysippus or later.[6]

We can add that the author assigns the special role of ‘Leader’ to his student Alexander, more in the role of God’s Power than in the position of the supreme God himself, and at the end of ch.1 urges him not so much to practise theōria as a philosopher, but to utilize the insight of philosophy as an archon for the beneficial government of his empire.

Even today we can see De Mundo as Aristotle’s alternative to his teacher Plato’s Timaeus. The theological conception of God as the great Demiurge, the architect, the master of a variety of crafts, the eminent Technitēs, has been replaced here by a transcendent God and his cosmos-pervading Power, because Aristotle had come to see the cosmos in a biological model. He understood God as a Begetter (Genetōr) who indirectly creates a product that resembles him, via semen, in which not He himself but his Power is active. This grand scheme accommodates the view that pneuma in the sphere of mortal creatures is the analogue of the divine ether as the vehicle of life and movement and the instrument of the soul;[7] and even the introduction of a new series of names for the planets[8] related to the divine Power that permeates them all as a ‘Golden Chain’, to a lesser degree as the distance to the Origin is greater.

Just as De Mundo is the alternative to Plato’s cosmology of the Timaeus, so the treatise De Spiritu in my view is the alternative to the anthropological part of the Timaeus, 68-92. In both works the author is concerned with a view of ‘life’ as not dependent on respiration, but already present on a vegetative and nutritive level and therefore also present in plants, trees, and animals without respiration.

This conception in the work is so original and essentially coherent that it cannot possibly be viewed as a late construction by an obscure fan of Aristotle from post-Chrysippus times who did not want to write in a personal capacity but produced a fake Aristotelian theology that fits ill with the culture of thought in his period.

 Also, the designation hōgemōn used for Alexander in 1, 391b6 was the official title of Alexander as leader of the Federation of Greek states since 338 BC.[9]

The fact that the cities of Susa and Ecbatana are mentioned in On the Cosmos 6, 398a14 and a34 as residences of the Persian kings, but not Persepolis, is no longer conceivable after the great fire that raged there in 330 during a great festival organized in honour of Alexander. Mural decorations in situ still show that Greeks too came there to offer gifts and pay homage to the Persian Great King in ancient times. In fact Persepolis was also the treasury of the empire.


[1] J.C. Thom (ed.), Cosmic Order and Divine Power. Pseudo-Aristotle, On the Cosmos. Introduction, Text, Translation and Interpretive Essays (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

[2] G. Reale and A.P. Bos, Il Trattato Sul Cosmo per Alessandro Attribuito ad Aristotele. Monografia Introduttiva, Testo Greco con Traduzione a Fronte, Commentario, Bibliografia Ragionata e Indici (Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 1995).

[3] M. Federspiel, Pseudo-Aristote, Du Monde, Positions et Dénominations des Vents, Des Plantes, Introduits, Traduits et Commentés (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2018).

[4] On p. 52 Thein notes: ‘De mundo prefers to paint the aether in Aristotelian colours and to exclude any analogy with vital heat in sublunary living beings.’ In GA II.3, 736b37 Aristotle does talk about an analogy between ether and pneuma.

[5] In 2014 they published a fuller account in Classical Quarterly 64, 574-91.

[6] V. Hladky (ch. 9, p. 216) is even prepared to accept a date in the 1st century CE. Pneuma is not ‘breath’, as J. C. Thom translates, or ‘souffle’ (M. Federspiel), and is not something ‘which pervades all things’. Pneuma is not present in the ethereal sphere but only in the sphere of mortal creatures. It is ‘the ensouled and productive substance found in plants and animals which pervades them totally.’ Aristotle connected this with the distinction of the soul’s ‘sleep’ and its ‘being awakened’ – De Anima II.1, 412a23-6.

[7] K. Thein, in his treatment of ether in ch. 2, p. 52, writes without proper foundation that the author excludes ‘any analogy with vital heat in sublunary living beings’.

[8] De Mundo 2, 392a23-8 – Phainon, Phaethon, Pyroeis, Stilbôn, Phôsphoros. I have not been able to find a proposed explanation for this fact in the new book. But see K. Thein, pp. 55-6.

[9] Cf. Plutarch, Life of Alexander 14, 671.