BMCR 2021.12.46

Aristotle’s “De Motu Animalium”

, , Aristotle's "De Motu Animalium". Symposium Aristotelicum. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 576. ISBN 9780198835561 $70.00.


The subject of Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium (hereafter MA) is animal (including human) self-motion. It is not about the various ways that different kinds of animals move (e.g. swimming, walking, flying), “but generally about the common cause of this moving (ὅλως δὲ περὶ τῆς κοινῆς αἰτίας τοῦ κινεῖσθαι)” (1, 698a1-7). Apart from its inherent importance, MA is also significant owing to its connections to so many other parts of the Aristotelian corpus—the biological works (especially De Partibus Animalium), the De Anima and Parva Naturalia, Physics VIII and Metaphysics Λ, as well as the ethical works—and for its implications for Aristotle’s conception of the relationship between soul and body.

MA was the subject of the 19th Symposium Aristotelicum, which took place in Munich in 2011, and out of which came the book under review. This volume consists in effect of three sections, and it is difficult, in a brief review, to cover any of them sufficiently. First, there is the lengthy introduction in two parts: one on the argument of MA, the other on the text of MA, by the two editors (Rapp and Primavesi respectively). Second, there is the critical edition of the Greek text, based on a radically new stemma, with three apparatuses (by Primavesi), with an English translation (by Benjamin Morison) based on (and facing) the text.[1] Third, there are the eight chapters that amount to a detailed philosophical commentary on MA, followed by a final chapter on the place of MA in the corpus Aristotelicum. (There is also a bibliography and indexes locorum and nominum.)

Rapp’s 66-page “Introduction Part I: The Argument of De Motu Animalium” is a tour de force, covering (economically but not superficially) the topic, purpose, and structure of MA, as well as its authenticity and where it fits chronologically among Aristotle’s writings. Important issues connected to Aristotle’s philosophy and especially his ethics are also discussed: e.g. the practical syllogism, phantasia, desire, self-motion.

Regarding Primavesi’s 90-page “Introduction Part II: The Text of De Motu Animalium”, I lack the requisite expertise in textual criticism and codicology to do this material justice, so I’ll simply make a few brief points. Primavesi has collated all forty-seven extant Greek manuscripts (descriptions of which are provided in Appendix I). His discussion of the evidence for his edition is detailed, clearly written, and intelligible to a non-specialist. He claims to have established (with the help of Pieter De Leemans’s “outstanding edition of William of Moerbeke’s mediaeval Latin translation of De Motu Animalium”)[2] a new hyparchtype (β), the existence of which had been hypothesized by Martha Nussbaum, though not as a hyparchtype (‘Majuscule MS’ in her stemma).[3] Thus, every earlier critical edition of MA was based on only one of two hyparchtypes (namely α). In Appendix III, Primavesi lists the 120 differences between his text and Nussbaum’s.

On the basis of this new stemma, Primavesi corrects a number of problematic passages, four of which he discusses in considerable detail. I’ll mention only one of these, which has received a great deal of attention and been heavily emended. In MA 2, discussing the need for an animal, in moving, to have something unmoving external to it, the text in Bekker (698b15-17) has:

εἰ γὰρ ὑποδώσει ἀεί, οἷον τοῖς μυσὶ τοῖς ἐν τῆι γῆι, ἢ τοῖς ἐν τῆι ἄμμωι πορευομένοις, οὐ πρόεισιν.

For if it always gives way—as it does with the mice on earth, or with people trying to walk on sand—then the thing will not advance.

(Text and translation on p. 105.) Scholars have offered a number of conjectures for μυσὶ and γῆι. Primavesi’s new edition, however, gives us the reading πίττηι (from the β-family) in place of γῆι,[4] and so “with the mice in pitch.[5] I would have thought pitch impedes mobility not by always giving way, but by never letting go, though Primavesi provides a plausible defense of the aptness of the example (p. 107), as does Coope in ch. 2 (p. 242 n. 5).[6]

The critical edition itself is presented with two apparatuses beneath the text (an apparatus of parallel texts and a concise apparatus criticus), and there is a lengthy third one (apparatus plenior) appended to the text and translation. Morison’s excellent translation is smooth and (judging by the randomly chosen half-dozen passages I compared with the Greek) quite accurate. In addition to differences in this edition of the text owing to the elevation in status of the manuscripts subsumed under hyparchtype β, by my count there are also fifteen emendations, conjectures, and additions (in pointed brackets) from Primavesi himself.[7]

The nine essays that follow are of a uniformly high quality.

In MA 1, after announcing the subject matter of MA (described above), Aristotle refers to previous discussions of the first unmoved mover (in Physics VIII and Metaphysics Λ). What is required next, he says, is the application of the need for an unmoved mover “to particular cases, i.e. to perceptible things.”[8] This is the main topic of MA 1. Rapp’s chapter on MA1 (“The Inner Resting Point and the Common Cause of Animal Motion”) is a detailed account of both the preliminary material in MA 1, and the animal’s physical inner resting points (the joints). I found especially useful the comparisons with other Aristotelian works; and, in his excellent laying out of the argument of the second half of the chapter (698a14-b7), I found the discussion of the puzzling (to me at least) geometrical example (a21-24) quite clarifying.

After underscoring the importance of internal resting points in MA 1, Aristotle next (MA 2-5) turns to the need at the same time for external resting points, the discussion perhaps surprisingly including unmoved movers and celestial objects. This material is well served by Ursula Coope’s “Animal and Celestial Motion: The Role of an External Springboard” (on MA2-3) and Morison’s “Completing the Argument that Locomotion Requires an External and Unmoved Mover” (on MA 4-5). The ‘Coope-Morison’ hypothesis (as Morison refers to it, p. 274 n. 5) is, in brief, that the discussion of unmoved movers and celestial objects is not a digression, but an important part of Aristotle’s discussion of animal self-motion. I’ll add for what it’s worth that, as I have a special interest at the moment in Aristotle on myth and especially on Homer, I found Coope’s treatment of the Atlas story (3, 699a27-30) and Morison’s discussion of Iliad 8.20-21 (which Aristotle quotes out of order, 4, 699b35-700a3) particularly illuminating.

In MA 6-8, Aristotle returns to the inner source of motion—not the joints, however, but the soul and its parts. The topic, in brief, is “how the soul moves the body” (πῶς ἡ ψυχὴ κινεῖ τὸ σῶμα, 6, 700b10). In Metaphysics Λ.7, Aristotle says that what we desire is based on belief, rather than belief being based on desire, “for thinking is the starting point” (1072a29-30).[9] This conviction is fleshed out in MA 6-8, which are covered by three superb essays: Klaus Corcilius’ “Resuming Discussion of the Common Cause of Animal Self-Motion: How Does the Soul Move the Body?” (on MA 6),[10] John Cooper’s “The Role of Thought in Animal Voluntary Self-Locomotion” (on MA 7, 701a7-b1), and R. J. Hankinson’s “Aristotle and the Mechanics of Desire” (MA 7, 701b2 to the end of 8). Unfortunately, I do not have the space to say more about, for instance, Cooper’s impressive discussion of the role of νοῦς in animal self-locomotion: “that thought’s function is precisely to provide the needed connection between desire and the objective for action, so that that objective can act upon the animal’s desire” (p. 349).[11]

In MA 9, Aristotle continues (from MA 8) the discussion of the location in the body of the ‘psychic’ or ‘psychological’ principle of motion; and in MA 10, he discusses the role of connate pneuma in the motion of animals. These are the topics of Pavel Gregoric’s “The Origin and the Instrument of Animal Motion.” MA 11, the final chapter of the treatise, begins: “It has been stated, then, how animals are moved in voluntary motions, and by what causes.” The rest of the chapter is devoted to involuntary motion (e.g. movements of the heart and penis) and non-voluntary motion (e.g. sleeping, waking, and respiration). This material is examined by Pierre-Marie Morel in “Voluntary or Not? The Physiological Perspective.” Morel concludes (inter alia) that MA 11 “confirms that, whatever motion we are considering, it is necessary to assume the presence of an internal principle which acts both as an origin and as a destination for the motions the animal engages in.”

The volume ends with André Laks’ “Articulating the De Motu Animalium: The Place of the Treatise Within the Corpus Aristotelicum,” which is an excellent complement to the second section of Rapp’s introduction on the argument of MA. I found particularly valuable Laks’ discussion of the relationship between MA and De anima III.10, 433b21-28 (which is the focus of the second half of the article).

This is the second Symposium Aristotelicum volume to include, in addition to interpretive essays, a critical edition of the subject text, and they are two of the finest volumes in the series.[12] I doubt this could be the model for every Symposium Aristotelicum volume, but I do hope some others appear in the future.

Over forty years ago, Martha Nussbaum’s book on MA did much to generate interest in this work. An indication of its continued influence is the fact that (judging by the index nominum) no modern author is mentioned more often in the volume under review than she is. This latest Symposium Aristotelicum collection is sure to have (or at least it should have) as much of an influence on future scholarship on MA.


[1] The same edition of this text appeared in Aristoteles. De motu animalium. Über die Bewegung der Lebewesen. Historisch-kritische Edition des griechischen Textes und philologische Einleitung von O. Primavesi; deutsche Übersetzung, philosophische Einleitung und Kommentar von K. Corcilius (Meiner: Hamburg, 2018).

[2] Aristoteles, De progressu animalium, De motu animalium: Translatio Guillelmi di Morbeka. Aristoteles Latinus XVII 2.II-III (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011).

[3] Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium. Text with Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978). Her stemma is on p. 17; cf. Primavesi’s stemma (p. 133).

[4] Though, as Primavesi explains, this also turns out to be the reading of Parisinus gr. 1853 (ante rasuram), which is the oldest extant manuscript of MA and in the α-family.

[5] Primavesi (p. 106) and Morison (p. 165) render τοῖς μυσὶ τοῖς ἐν τῆι πίττηι “with the proverbial ‘mice in pitch’.” Primavesi is certainly right that this is a reference to a proverb (see pp. 106-107 nn. 197-198). Nevertheless, I would bracket ‘proverbial’ or leave it out of the translation entirely.

[6] Nussbaum (p. 27) prints τοῖς ἑμύσι τοῖς ἐν πηλῶι (ἑμύσι from Diels, πηλῶι her own conjecture): “with tortoises in mud….” Conceptually, I think “with mice on mud” works quite well.

[7] I was pleased that Primavesi provided detailed evidence for the title of the work (often missing in even the best critical editions).

[8] This is Morison’s rendering of ἐπὶ τῶν καθ’ ἕκαστα καὶ τῶν αἰσθητῶν (698a12-13). It is unsurprising, but perhaps worth mentioning nevertheless, that contributors do not always follow Morison. For instance, in the present case, Rapp translates these words “to particulars and the sensible things” (p. 218—though he is open to the epexegetical καί, n. 53). There are very few departures from Primavesi’s text in the interpretive essays: but see e.g. Coope p. 257 n. 51 and Cooper 367 n. 34.

[9] ὀρεγόμεθα δὲ διότι δοκεῖ μᾶλλον ἢ δοκεῖ διότι ὀρεγόμεθα· ἀρχὴ γὰρ ἡ νόησις.

[10] Corcilius rejects the ‘Coope-Morison’ hypothesis, “considering MA 3-5 as a digression from, rather than a preparation for, what follows in ch. 6” (see pp. 299-300, with n. 3).

[11] For more on the virtues of Cooper’s essay, see the second section of Andrea Falcon’s review of this same volume in Mind, published online 31 May 2021.

[12] The other is Carlos Steel ed., Aristotle’s Metaphysics Alpha. Symposium Aristotelicum, with a new critical edition of the Greek Text by Oliver Primavesi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.