BMCR 2022.05.17

“Parva naturalia” with “On the motion of animals”

, Aristotle: 'Parva naturalia' with 'On the motion of animals'. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 248. ISBN 9780881467840. $45.00.

The book under review consists of a new translation of Aristotle’s short essays on natural philosophy collectively known as Parva naturalia augmented by the De motu animalium (hereafter De motu). The decision to add the De motu to the Parva naturalia is by far the most interesting, and indeed most welcome, feature of this book. This decision, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, is now widely accepted. In fact, it feels like a natural development considering the recent progress made in situating the De motu in the context of Aristotle’s philosophical thought. Those who thinks that there can be little or no progress in our discipline should pay attention to what scholars have accomplished over the past fifteen years or so in the study of Aristotle’s De motu (most notably, Corcilius 2008, De Leemans 2011, Corcilius-Primavesi 2018, Rapp-Primavesi 2020).

Surprisingly enough, very little of this scholarly work is evident in the book under review beyond the momentous decision to publish the De motu along with the Parva naturalia. And yet, this decision deserves a few words of elaboration and defense. One would like to know what is gained from reading the De motu in the context of the Parva naturalia, and what the De motu contributes to the project attempted in the short essays collectively known as Parva naturalia. One would also like to know why the translator, who has also produced a recent translation of the De anima(Bolotin 2018), has decided to detach the Parva naturalia (augmented by the De motu) from the De anima. I approve of this decision, since, while the De anima provides a theoretical foundation for the project attempted in Parva naturalia, it is itself a different kind of project. As the translator himself tells us, the essays of the Parva naturalia are not concerned with the soul but rather with the activities that involve body and soul together (p. viii). And yet, although wise, this editorial decision requires elaboration and defense, especially considering that a recent translation of De animaaugmented by the Parva naturalia (but without the De motu) has been published under the less-than-ideal label of “psychological writings” (Miller 2018).

Presumably the author felt that his translation of the Parva naturalia augmented by the De motu could stand on its own without a robust introduction situating these works in the context of Aristotle’s philosophical thought. I beg to differ: the expert reader may be able to supply the arguments and reasons for the editorial choices made in this volume, but the average reader, who is most likely an undergraduate or a graduate student, would have benefitted from some expert guidance. More to the point: while it is true that the translation of the Parva naturalia and the De motu is supplemented by a wealth of footnotes, the footnotes fall short of providing much-needed first orientation in Aristotle’s project. This is especially true for transitional passages such as the opening lines of De sensu et sensibilibus. This text, which marks the transition from the De anima to the project of the Parva naturalia, could have been used to defend the two key editorial choices made in this book—namely, the inclusion of the De motu in the Parva naturalia and the detachment of the Parva naturalia from the De anima. Instead, this pivotal text is not given a full discussion either in the introduction or in the footnotes.

The translation of the Parva naturalia is not based on the text established by David Ross (Ross 1955). We are told that Ross was “too ready to introduce modern conjectural emendations into the text” (p. ix). I do not dispute this assessment. In fact, many if not most scholars share it. However, I find the decision to base the translation of the first two treatises of the Parva naturalia on the Teubner text established by Wilhelm Biehl (Biehl 1898) and the translation of the rest of the Parva narturalia on the Budé edition produced by René Mugnier (Mugnier 19652) far from ideal. Biehl was not an ambitious editor. As he himself explains in his praefatio (p. vii), his edition is not the outcome of a direct study of the manuscript tradition; rather, it largely relies on the collation of the manuscripts made by Immanuel Bekker for his edition of Aristotle (Bekker 1831). Unlike Biehl, Mugnier engaged in a fresh and in-depth study of the manuscript tradition of the Parva naturalia but was not able to find a principled way to decide between the two main families already known to Biehl. Hence, his translation does not really mark a breakthrough. It is worth stressing that we do have an alternative to both Biehl and Mugnier. Paul Siwek produced a critical edition of the Parva naturalia (Siwek 1963) after having published a study on their manuscript tradition in Siwek 1961. We are not told what is wrong (if anything) with this critical edition. Here the translator should have been more forthcoming about his reasons for ruling out Siwek. An educated guess is that the editorial choices made by Siwek are felt to be rather opaque.

All the above shows that a critical edition of the Parva naturalia based on a full collation of all the extant Greek manuscripts and on a better understanding of their relationships should rank very high on the list of our desiderata. While we eagerly wait for such an edition, the solution cannot be returning to Biehl, or adopting an eclectic combination of Mugnier and Biehl, with the caveat that we are free to depart from their chosen readings whenever we deem it appropriate. At least in my view, the translator would have done better to adopt Mugnier for the whole Parva naturalia if he did not trust the Greek text established by Ross and Siwek.

What is most disconcerting, however, is to discover that the translation of the De motu is based on the Budé edition produced by Pierre Louis (Louis 1973) rather than the most recent one produced by Primavesi (Corcilius-Primavesi 2018, reprinted in Rapp-Primavesi 2020). The translator explains his choice as follows: “the family of manuscripts that Primavesi has brought to light stems from some medieval scribe or scribes who, like many modern editors, tried to smooth over passages in which Aristotle deliberately challenges his readers with difficult thoughts” (p. x). I infer from this explanation that the translator either does not understand the rules of the stemmatic method, or that he does not believe in their virtues, since those rules are precisely meant to avoid the sort of scenario described in this quotation. More to the point: the βreadings, which are the readings preserved by the family of manuscripts that Primavesi has brought to light, almost invariably preserve the lectio difficilior in relation to the αreadings. As Primavesi himself suggests in the epigraph of his introduction to the Greek text in Rapp-Primavesi 2020, his critical edition is a fine vindication of an old philological dictum that was dear to Giorgio Pasquali: recentiores, non deteriores (“later, not inferior”). In other words, late manuscripts need not be inferior witnesses; in fact, they can be good copies of important witnesses that are no longer extant.

The translation of the Parva naturalia and the De motu offered in the book under review is generally accurate and clear. When the translator amplifies the Greek text, the additional words are offered in square brackets. This allows the reader to have an educated guess about the original Geek text. The footnotes are generally thoughtful. As it is reasonable to expect, they tend to be denser where the text is more difficult. There is no bibliography or list of references at the end of the volume. And yet, a short but up-to-date bibliography would have provided helpful information to ambitious undergraduate or graduate students who would like to continue their research on and around the Parva naturalia and the De motu.

In sum, the book under review stands out for the commendable choice to print a translation of De motu along with a translation of Parva naturalia. I applaud this choice, which should make the book an appealing alternative to what is currently available in English for the Parva naturalia. I recommend the book for an upper-level course on Aristotle’s natural philosophy, but not without reservations. The absence of a robust introduction and an updated bibliography, coupled with the decision to bypass the most recent scholarly results made on and around the De motu, undercuts the original choice. Instructors who adopt this book will have to supply additional readings to their students.

List of References

Bekker 1831, Aristotelis opera. Ex recensione Immanuelis Bekkeri. Academia Regia Borussica. 2 volumes. Reimer, Berlin.

Biehl 1898, Aristotelis Parva naturalia recognovit Guilelmus Biehl. Teubner, Leipzig.

Bolotin 2018, Aristotle, De anima. Translated by David Bolotin. Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia.

Corcilius 2008, Klaus Corcilius, Streben und Bewegen: Aristoteles’ Theorie der animalischen Ortsbewegung. Walter de Gruyter, New York / Berlin

Corcilius-Primavesi 2018, Aristoteles, De motu animalium. Historisch-kritische Edition des griechischen Textes und philologische Einleitung von Oliver Primavesi; deutsche Übersetzung, philosophische Einleitung und Kommentar von Klaus Corcilius. Meiner, Hamburg.

De Leemans 2011, Aristoteles, De progressu animalium, De motu animalium: Translatio Guillelmi de Morbeka. Aristotles Latinus XVII 2.ii-iii. Pieter De Leemans (ed.). Brepols, Turnhout.

Louis 1973, Aristote, Marche des animaux; Mouvement des animaux. Texte établi et traduit par Pierre Louis. Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

Rapp-Primavesi 2020, Aristotle’s De motu animalium: Symposium Aristotelicum. Edited by Christof Rapp and Oliver Primavesi, with a new critical edition of the Greek text by Oliver Primavesi and an English translation by Benjamin Morison. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ross 1955, Aristotle, Parva naturalia. A revised text with introduction and commentary by D. Ross. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Siwek 1963, Aristotelis Parva naturalia graece et latine. Edidit, versione auxit, notis illustravit Paulus Siwek. Desclée & Co., Rome.

Siwek 1961, P. Siwek, Les manuscrits grecs des Parva naturalia d’Aristote. Desclé & Co., Rome.

Miller 2018, Aristotle: On the Soul and Other Psychological Writings. A new translation by Fred D. Miller. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Mugnier 19652, Aristote, Petit traités d’histoire naturelle. Texte établi et traduit par René Mugnier. Les Belles Lettres, Paris.