Aristotle's History of Animals

Page 11 of 14

[Pg 293]



Translated from the Latin of Schneider.

Aristotle had very likely more authorities, whom he has followed, or converted to his own purposes, than those whose names he has given. These are, however, a few, whom he has named, as Alcmon of Crotona; Dionysius of Apollonia; Herodorus of Heracleum in Pontus, the father of Bryson the sophist; Ctesias of Cnidos; Herodotus of Halicarnassus; Syennesis of Cyprus; Polybus; Democritus of Abdera; Anaxagoras of Clazomene; Empedocles of Sicily; and if there are any more which do not just now occur to my memory, they are accurately enumerated in the index, with the names of the places to which they belonged. I have said that it is probable, that Aristotle has derived information from more authorities than he has named; and a reason for this conjecture is found in a passage which he extracts, almost verbatim, from Herodotus, on the Nilotic crocodile (Euterpe, 68). This I have shewn in a note on the passage, book v. ch. 27, 2. And there are many places, both in his natural history and his other works on animals, where our philosopher refers to the ancient fables of men who were transformed into the nature and forms of various animals. The oldest author of such fables is Boeus (or Boeo, in the feminine gender, as some have conjectured). From this book Antoninus Literalis has extracted many chapters in Greek. Nicander of Colophon, and others, followed the example of Boeus. Among Latin writers, the Metamorphoses of Ovid have always commanded attention. All who have read the work of Antoninus, and [Pg 294] the Metamorphoses of Ovid, will easily perceive how much information on the nature and habits of animals our philosopher could have derived from the very character of the books which had come down from the remotest antiquity to the time of Aristotle (compare note 9, 17, 1), especially if they bear in mind that the ancient teachers of physics always compared the habits of animals with those of man, and conjectured the causes and reasons of their actions, from similar impulses in man. This may be seen in the fables of sop, for they contain the first elements of the doctrines of the ancients on physics and morals. We might also offer a surmise on Eudoxus, and Scylax, and others, who wrote "Travels Round the Earth," in which they described the animals of different countries; for our philosopher appeals to the testimony of both these authors, in his work on Meteorics, and elsewhere. There is more doubt whether Aristotle used, or could have used, the numerous notices of animals, of the interior of Asia and India, which the companions of Alexander, in his Asiatic and Indian expeditions, brought back to Greece; which Theophrastus, the pupil of Aristotle, and his successor in the schools, is found to have used so well in his History of Plants. For this I consider to be proved, that the written notices of the companions of Alexander were published after the death of the king, though we have no proof of the exact year in which they were made public. Indeed I have never found any evidence in the History of Animals which could lead us to suppose that Aristotle was acquainted with the animals of the interior of Asia and India, by information derived from the companions of Alexander; nor have I been able to find the slightest information from which I can form a conjecture as to either the place or time when this history was written: but, in order that others may institute a more rigorous inquiry into the date and place of its authorship, if any such have escaped my notice, I will place before my readers that portion of the Aristotelian chronology which relates to this work, from the disputation of St. Croix, a learned French author (Examen Critique des Historiens d'Alexander le Grand, p. 603, second edition). Aristotle, therefore, at the invitation of Philip, King of Macedon, undertook the education of his son, Alexander, [Pg 295] when he was thirteen years of age, in the second year of the 109th Olympiad, when Phythodotus was Archon of Athens. Aristotle returned to Athens in the second year of the 111th Olympiad, in the Archonship of Evnetus. He taught at Athens for thirteen years, from whence he fled to Chalcis, and there he died, in the third year of the 114th Olympiad, during the Archonship of Philocles.

There is, indeed, a passage in Pliny, (book x. ch. 64, sect. 84, on the fecundity of mice,) where he says, that among other things Aristotle has spoken in his History of Animals (vi. 29) of the gravid ftus of the Persian mice; but the Greek exemplar contains no authority from which Pliny could have derived the words which he has added: "More wonderful than all is the ftus of the mice, which we cannot unhesitatingly receive, though derived from the authority of Aristotle, and the soldiers of Alexander the Great." In this and in two other places he calls those soldiers whom others are in the habit of calling the companions of Alexander the Great. But there is also a passage in the Meteorics of Aristotle (iii. 1), where he mentions as a recent event the destruction of the temple of Ephesus, by the incendiary Herostratus, on the day of Alexander's birth, in these words: "As it has just now happened in the burning of the temple of Ephesus." This book, therefore, appears to have been written at the commencement of the 106th Olympiad, and with it the History of Animals is very closely connected, as I have shown in my treatise on the order of the books of Physics; so that we may suppose that they were written in nearly the same Olympiad, if we regard only the series of the works; and no interruption occurred with which we are unacquainted. On the other hand, in the Meteorics (iii. 5), he speaks of a lunar rainbow, and says that it is rarely seen, and then adds, "that it has occurred but twice in more than fifty years." If we reckon these fifty years from the birth of Aristotle, in the first year of the 99th Olympiad, that book will fall in the third or fourth year of the 111th Olympiad; and from this calculation it would follow that this book was also written in Athens, but that the first date is to be taken in a wider sense.

From all this, we may easily perceive that at this day we are entirely ignorant of the sources of information collected [Pg 296] either from ancient or contemporary writers, to which our philosopher had access in composing and completing a work of such multiplied and varied information. Even if we assume that they were as large as the mind of Aristotle was great, acute, and transparent, still, for a work so various and extensive, spread over seas, rivers, earth, and heaven, even that mind would require some assistance from other sources to which it might apply in constructing and building up a system of general instruction from the materials collected in different places about various animals, and from the observations used in describing and arranging them together in orders, classes, genera, and species. The following were the sources Aristotle used, according to the narrative of an uncertain author quoted by Pliny (viii. 16, 17)—"King Alexander the Great," he says, "was possessed with the desire of knowing the natures of animals, and therefore delegated the work to Aristotle, a man of very great learning. Some thousands of men in the whole region of Asia and Greece obeyed his commands, all, namely, who obtained their livelihood by hunting, hawking, or fishing, or who had in their care menageries, herds, beehives, fishponds, or aviaries; so that nothing in nature might be unknown to him; and from his examination of these, he compiled those fifty celebrated volumes, which I have collected into one, together with those animals with which he was unacquainted, and I hope that they will be consulted by good scholars." In all this there is nothing contradictory to the mind and liberality of Alexander, or the confidence or strength of his empire. But some may prefer the story published by lian, in his various history (iv. 19), who, I know not on what authority, transfers the narrative to Philip, the father of Alexander—"Having supplied abundance of riches to Aristotle, he was the means of many other undertakings, and especially of his knowledge of living creatures; and the son of Nichomachus completed his history by the liberal assistance of Philip; who also honoured Plato and Theophrastus." If this be true, it evidently refers to those seven or eight years in which Aristotle was in Macedonia presiding over the education of Alexander, the son of Philip.

These abundant supplies for the studies of Aristotle are not at all inconsistent, either with the liberality of Philip, [Pg 297] or his love for his son and his son's tutor, nor do they surpass credibility. The gold mines of Philippi supplied the munificence and liberality of Philip. But there are difficulties in the narrative which make us question the credibility of the author of this munificence. For instance, the names of Plato and Theophrastus are mentioned; but the name of Theophrastus could not be so great and illustrious, even if it were known to the Greeks at all, as to have attracted the liberality of Philip, before the death of his master Aristotle, whom also he succeeded in the School at Athens. I should, therefore, rather imagine that lian, who was more diligent in the accuracy of his Attic diction than his historical fidelity, has committed some error in the name of Philip, or in those of Plato and Theophrastus, whom he has appended to his narrative.

The narrative of Athenus, (ix. 398,) derived from the report of an unknown author, is very different; he calls the History of Animals a very expensive work, and then adds—"There is a report that Aristotle received 800 talents from Alexander, for writing the History of Animals"—a sum of money which Perigonius, in his Notes on lian, estimates at 1,440,000 caroli. To this narrative, or, as it may be more justly termed, rumour, is opposed the opinion of Io. Henr. Schulzius, in his History of Medicine (Leipsic, 1738, p. 358). "When I consider this matter aright, it appears to me that the whole story is very doubtful, and, for the most part, fabulous. And it can easily be proved, that the whole revenue of Macedon, if Alexander had paid it all to Aristotle for several years, would not have amounted to this sum. It is impossible, therefore, that he could have paid so much to Aristotle before the conquest of Asia; and after his expedition had been successfully accomplished, his affection was alienated from Aristotle, and, in order to annoy him, he liberally enriched other philosophers, who had done nothing to deserve his patronage. Their labours, therefore, are in vain, who demand justice of our excellent Aristotle, even in his grave, because he did not use such an immense sum of money in the composition of a more veracious history.

"I am certainly of opinion that a great deal has been made, as usual, of a very little matter, namely, that if Aristotle [Pg 298] derived any assistance in that kingdom, all the materials were provided for him while Philip was alive, and before Alexander's expedition was undertaken, or in the first years of the expedition. But afterwards, when Alexander had set out, Aristotle returned to Athens, and was engaged in teaching: nor could he have derived any advantage from the resources which Pliny mentions, and the multitude of persons who were instructed to place themselves under his command, for he was not only occupied with other pursuits, but would have been in danger of being destroyed by the fury of the Athenians, on the plea that he was attempting innovations, if he had even ventured to dissect animals, not to say men."

In a note he adds these observations:—"Aristobulus, no unworthy companion of Alexander in his expedition, bears testimony, according to Plutarch, that the whole military chest did not contain seventy talents of coin. For the preparation of so arduous an undertaking, however, the same person says, that two hundred talents ought to have been taken for mutual exchange. I remember also to have read in Eustathius's commentary on Homer, a very learned disquisition on the scarcity of money amongst the Macedonians, at the time of Alexander's expedition; but I cannot lay my hands upon the passage."

I must confess that I am not influenced by this annotation, nor does the whole of this controversy appear to me to have been properly conducted. For the greatest doubt prevails as to the number of talents which Alexander is said to have paid to Aristotle, to help him in his task; and the report only rests on the authority of a writer who lived centuries after the death of Alexander. To refute this is useless labour, both because its origin is obscure, and also because a sum of money set down in figures might be easily corrupted by transcribers. But the testimony of Aristobulus will give little or no assistance to the opinion of the learned, if we adopt that which is most probable, namely, that Philip, or his son Alexander, gave large sums of money to Aristotle, to enable him to pursue his studies in Natural History, while he lived in Macedon, and was employed in the education of Alexander. The question about the date when Aristotle arranged and published [Pg 299] the materials and notes he had collected is quite distinct, and I do not think that it can be precisely ascertained at the present time. The conjecture I have hazarded (light enough, I must confess) does not say much in favour of the story of abundant treasures supplied by Philip, or Alexander, to our philosopher, for the composition of his Natural History. But these persons form a very poor estimate of the study and labour bestowed by Aristotle upon the History of Animals, who imagine that our philosopher had only access to such books as now remain, forgetting those of which time has robbed us.

Most of all we must regret his , which appears to have given a more accurate description of animals, and his , which further contained notices of their internal structure, and was illustrated by drawings to which he often refers in his Natural History, as well as in his works on the parts and the generation of animals. It will scarcely be possible to fix with any accuracy on the number of books he employed, after the great carelessness of librarians, and the many facilities for error in copyists, arising from the method of notation by letters. Antigonus Carystius, in his sixty-sixth chapter, increases the number of volumes given by Pliny, for he writes seventy; and if the titles of the books, as they are given by Diogenes Laertius and Athenus, are compared with those published, the number of books relating to Animal History to which he may have had access are readily estimated, even should every book of every work be reckoned as a separate book, and the list compared with the number given by Pliny.

In the memory of our fathers and grandfathers (for, alas! at the present time few trouble themselves with the works of the ancients) there were many who blamed Aristotle for these works, both for his manner of treating the subjects and his narratives of the lives and habits of animals, and vexed them with questions and disputations.

These objections will be better answered, when we come to those passages of the History. It may, however, be of some general avail to put a stop to these objections, which were urged against his manner of teaching; and I hope to be able to point out some peculiar sources from which Aristotle appears to have derived the more difficult [Pg 300] parts of his History, and those which were obnoxious to dispute.

Amongst other foolish and trifling questions with which some Grammarian, in the Deipnosophist of Athenus, (viii. p. 352,) has endeavoured not only to impugn, but even destroy our philosopher's credibility, is the following:—"I do not much admire the diligence of Aristotle, though others praise him so highly. At what time, I should like to know, or from what Proteus or Nereus ascending from the deep, to give him information, did he learn what the fishes were doing there, and in what manner they slept and took their food; for he writes things of this kind, which are only 'the miracles of fools,' as the comic poet says."

I will not follow the rest of his argument, which relates to terrestrial and winged animals; for the aquatic, and especially the marine creatures, seem to offer the greatest opportunity for questioning the fidelity of his narrative. In the first place, then, we may observe, that of all mankind the Greeks were amongst the greatest eaters of fish, at least after the heroic and Homeric ages; for Homer is never found to mention fish at the suppers and festivals of his heroes. So that I should not wonder if the frequent and repeated industry and observation of fishermen, following their labours both in rivers and seas, to adorn the tables of their fellow citizens, supplied ample and varied information to learned men who were engaged in the investigation of natural objects. By the same means they might learn from hunters the haunts and dispositions of wild beasts, and those of domesticated animals from husbandmen. The whole life and labour of such men was devoted to the uses, advantages, and food of man; and their observations would be particularly directed to those animals which could assist in sharing the labours of mankind, or whose flesh or other parts were required for food or medicine. Their parturition and its proper time, the number of their young, the manner of bringing them up, their nutriment, the pastures and food of the parents, and the proper time for hunting them, were observed with the greatest accuracy. And if any diseases arising from the weather, their food, or their drink impended over them, and threatened their production or the life of the wild cattle, or if a peculiar or common enemy [Pg 301] laid in wait for the life of one or all, it could not easily escape their observation; and from these circumstances we may manifestly derive the origin of those fables and narratives in which the opinions of animals are compared with the life and manner of human beings, such as the simple minds of hunters, fishers, and rustics could comprehend. In these books of natural history we find traces of many stories of this kind which it is unnecessary here to point out.

In the aquatic and marine orders of animals there is, besides these sources of information, the diligent investigation instituted by certain writers throughout the seas and rivers of Greece, at a time when every useful fish, and marine and river animals of this class, mollusca, shell fish, and worms formed part of their food. The time and manner of their coition, parturition, pregnancy, and life, the nature of their food, places and manner of taking fish, the times in which they were not accessible, the faults and diseases of aquatic animals, were minutely described. The twentieth chapter of the eighth book of our History is on this subject, where the food and diseases of aquatic animals are described, and particular notice is taken of their use as food, besides the observations on the manners of quadrupeds.

It is very evident that the life of one man would hardly suffice for the observation of all these facts even in a single class of animals; but, as I have said, there were writers before the time of Aristotle who provided for the tastes and tables of these fish-eating Greeks a most exquisite apparatus from the rivers and seas of Greece, especially in Sicily, which has been remarkable for its wealth ever since the reigns of Gelo and Hiero, and had surpassed the rest of Greece not only in its knowledge of nature, but in the art of poetry.

There is a passage in Plato's "Gorgias," (sect. 156, p. 246, ed. Heind.) where mention is made of "Mithcus, the author of a work on Sicilian cookery, and Sarambus, the publican. One furnished the best of food, the other the best of wine." That the art of choosing and preparing food for the table was treated of in this book we may conclude from the use of the word , which the Greeks especially used to signify the kinds of fish used for food. A passage from this book on the manner of cooking the fish called tenia is [Pg 302] quoted by Athenus, who makes the title of this book , vii. p. 282, and xii. p. 506.

We cannot accurately ascertain the age of Mithcus. The most ancient author of such a book that we can call to mind is Epicharmus, a Sicilian poet and physician, from whose fragments, collected by Athenus, we may certainly conclude he was acquainted with the nature of aquatic animals.

To this class we may, in the first place, refer those passages which are extracted from the drama called the Marriage of Hebe, or the Muses, and not only teach us the nature of fishes, but also the manner of procuring and cooking them. A learned writer in the "Literary Ephemeris" of Jena, 1810, (Nos. 156, 157,) attempted to collect all these and reduce them to order. There remain, however, many more passages which the conjectures of the most learned could hardly amend or explain, from the corruption of the text by librarians and the variety of Sicilian names. And before the time of Epicharmus, Ananius, an Iambic poet, nearly contemporary with Hipponactus, an Ionian poet, composed, among other poems, a similar work on cooking fish, as we learn from a passage extracted by Athenus, (vii. p. 282.) After Epicharmus there was Terpsion, a Sicilian, who was the first to write a gastrology, in which he taught his disciples from what kind of food they ought to abstain. He is mentioned by Clearchus Solensis, a disciple of Aristotle, in his work de Parmiis, in "Athenus," (viii. p. 337.)

Clearchus also mentions Archestratus, the Sicilian, the pupil of Terpsion, who, after having travelled through the whole of Greece, wrote a work in heroic verse on the nature of fishes, those especially which were fit for the table, and on the manner of cooking and preparing them. We learn that his book was called , not only from the testimony of Athenus, but from an imitation by Ennius. For Ennius, who died A.U.C. 584, one hundred and fifty-two years after the death of Aristotle, translated and in part imitated the poem of Archestratus, and called his work "Carmina Hedypathetica," as Apulegius tells us in his "Apologia." We have good reason for supposing that Archestratus was either contemporary with Aristotle, or a little older. For Archestratus mentions Diodorus Aspendius, the Pythagorean, as his contemporary, to whom Timus, [Pg 303] the historian, tells us that the Epistle of Stratonicus was written ("Athenus," iv. p. 136). Therefore Archestratus, Diodorus, Aspendius, and Stratonicus, an eminent harpist, were contemporaries, and so they were with Aristotle and Demosthenes; and this conjecture is confirmed by many passages in Athenus, where Stratonicus is reported to have been alive with those persons whom Demosthenes mentions in his orations. Aristotle, therefore, may have used this work of Archestratus in that part of his Natural History which treats of the nature of fishes.[230]

The writings of physicians who prescribed the food, both of sick and well, have handed down similar and much more extensive observations on the animals and fishes which were brought to the tables of the Greeks. Of this kind Athenus has given many passages from Dorio, and Diphilus of Siphnus. Oribasius has made a long extract from the work of Xenocrates, on the aquatic animals used in food, which I purpose some day to publish with Xenocrates, if my life should be spared long enough.

Free Learning Resources