Preserved by Arabic mathematicians and canonized by Christian scholars, Aristotle’s works have shaped Western thought, science, and religion for nearly two thousand years. Richard McKeon’s The Basic Works of Aristotle—constituted out of the definitive Oxford translation and in print as a Random House hardcover for sixty years—has long been considered the best available one-volume Aristotle. Appearing in paperback at long last, this edition includes selections from the Organon, On the Heavens, The Short Physical Treatises, Rhetoric, among others, and On the Soul, On Generation and Corruption, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and Poetics in their entirety.
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About the Author
C.D.C. Reeve is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several books on ancient Greek philosophy, most recently Practices of Reason: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and translator of Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Cratylus and Republic.
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The study of an ancient writer might appropriately envisage one or more of three objectives: the re-discovery and appreciation of past accomplishments and thoughts, the assemblage for present employment of odd, edifying, or useful items of information or knowledge, or the inquiry into truths whose specifications do not change with time. Although these three ends sometimes coincide in the reading of a philosopher who has been studied for centuries, the usual fate of philosophers, notwithstanding the concern for truth evinced in their writings, is to suffer doctrinal dismemberment by later philosophers and to undergo at the hands of historians and philologists reconstructions in which doctrine is barely discernible. As a result of the possible diversification of these ends, the influences that have been attributed to the thoughts of philosophers are not always easily calculable from examination of their own statements, yet the paradoxes, no less than the cumulative lines of progress, in intellectual history suggest the three ideals relevant to an introduction to the philosophy of Aristotle and selections from his works.
An introduction to the works of a philosopher should, first, since it is intended to supply aids to understanding the man and his thought, be specific and clear in its authentication of the information it conveys. The words of the philosopher himself are the best means by which to achieve such authenticity, and therefore the works of Aristotle have been reproduced intact and unabridged so far as the generous limits of space in this large volume have made such reproduction practicable and, where omissions have been unavoidable, the fact of the omission and the character of the omitted portions have been indicated as explicitly as possible. To select and rearrange small fragments of a philosopher’s works is to recompose them and often to alter the doctrines they express. Therefore instead of parcels and snatches selected and pieced together with an eye to what seems more likely to catch the interest of the reader, the entire texts of seven of the most important books are included, and even when omissions have been made from the other seven works of which parts are published in this edition, entire books or entire chapters have been retained.
The vast labors which have been expended on the text of Aristotle during the last century have greatly facilitated the study of his philosophy. The monumental Oxford translation of his works into English, completed in 1931, was made possible by antecedent scholarly efforts, in which philologists have engaged at least since the publication of the great modern edition of Aristotle’s works by the Berlin Academy between 1831 and 1870, to determine and to clarify what Aristotle says. That translation is readable and makes Aristotle’s philosophy available to readers untrained in Greek as no previous English translation had. The eleven volumes of the Oxford translation can be reduced to a single volume, once the clearly inauthentic works have been excluded from consideration, without too serious loss of portions that bear on problems of general philosophic interest. The texts of seven works are complete: the Physics, On generation and corruption, On the soul, the Metaphysics, the Nicomachean ethics, the Politics, and the Poetics. For the most part omissions are from the four biological works; several of the Short natural treatises are omitted; of the physical works only the Meteorology and a portion of one of the four books of On the heavens are omitted; similarly three of the six books of the Organon and one of the three books of the Rhetoric are in part omitted; the Constitution of Athens is not included. Of the works which are commonly held to be authentic only three are not reproduced even in partial selection—the Meteorology, On the progression of animals, and the Constitution of Athens; or, if the tendency to accept On the motion of animals and the Eudemian ethics as genuine is justified, the number omitted is five, although it might be held, since three books of the Nicomachean ethics appear without alteration in the Eudemian ethics, that selections from the latter work may be found in the text of the former.
Explanatory notes and cross references by which difficult passages and interrelations have been elucidated by the translators have for the most part been retained. Purely philological notes, on the other hand, have been omitted, although major problems which have led to emendations, interpolations, and transpositions are indicated. The pagination of the Bekker edition of the Greek text of Aristotle, which is published in the first two of the five volumes of the Berlin edition, has become the customary means to locate a passage in Aristotle, and it has therefore been reproduced in the margins of the present edition. Thus, a reference to, say, Metaphysics xiii. 4. 1078b27, would place the passage in question in Chapter 4 of Book 13 (or Book M) of the Metaphysics, on line 27 of the second column, i.e. column b, of page 1078 of the Berlin edition. Since the two volumes are paged continuously, no special designation of the volumes is needed; since the line references are to lines in the Greek text, they are of course only approximate in the English translation.
To make a difficult writer like Aristotle available in translation without, in the second place, supplying the dubious reader with more specific and urgent motivation for study than the recommendation that Aristotle is of the select group of timelessly great philosophers would scarcely constitute adequate introduction to his philosophy. For good or evil our interests and our erudition are grounded in the age in which we live, and the justice of our view of the past is moderated by the contemporary angle which can never be wholly removed from the perspective in which we see it. The words, the aphorisms, the distinctions, and even the ideas of Aristotle have in many instances become commonplaces in our culture and in other instances have been made the familiar whipping horses by which we castigate old errors and so boast of our own advances. It is wise to profit by our limitations and to make the familiar vestiges of a philosopher’s thoughts in present-day inquiries and interests the beginning point of the study of his philosophy. The ordered presentation of Aristotle’s doctrines in the Introduction finds its emphases precisely in such vestigial remains selected as points of interest for the reader who comes to Aristotle for renewed acquaintance or for the first time.
An introduction to a philosopher which did no more than confirm the student in established opinions, or an edition whose apparatus did no more than supply the reader with instruments by which to find what he had conceived to be useful prior to his reading of the philosopher and prior to philosophic analysis of his standards of utility, would aid the reader to find what he was looking for but at the expense of its subject, for the philosophy would almost certainly not be understood, and misconceived philosophic doctrines, however ingeniously contrived, are of doubtful ultimate utility. The third objective of an introduction to the works of a philosopher, to which the preceding two must be subordinate since there is no adequate reason for reading the works of a philosopher other than the philosophy they express, is more easily obscured than achieved by aids to reading or to philosophy. Some aid is needed, however, and therefore a method of reading Aristotle’s works is suggested in the Introduction by a brief statement of the interrelations and continuity of his doctrines. The reader is advised to treat this interpretation skeptically until and unless he can find it confirmed in his own reading of the text, for it is useful only as a device by which to permit Aristotle to speak for himself. The achievement of Aristotle can be discovered only by reading and rereading his works, and the appreciation of that achievement depends quite as much on the deepened sense of value and the precision of criteria which he inculcates as on the materials he treats. The Middle Ages may seem to have exaggerated in calling him the Philosopher, but the understanding of what he said is still an unparalleled introduction to philosophy.
It is as difficult to reconstruct some notion of the appearance of Aristotle as to determine the lineaments and characteristics of his thought. The representation of him which was most familiar a generation ago, the statue in the Palazzo Spada in Rome, is almost certainly not a portrait of Aristotle. It was long supposed to be Aristotle because of its fragmentary inscription which should in all probability be restored more correctly as “Aristippos,” and in any case the head does not belong to the statue. The portrait reproduced as the frontispiece, a bust in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, has rather better claim to rank as a genuine portrait of Aristotle, although the identification rests on a tortuous argument. As proposed by Studniczka (Das Bildnis des Aristoteles; Leipzig, 1908), the identification goes back to a bust which was found in Rome about 1590 and which was bought by the learned antiquary Fulvio Orsini. It was identified by an inscription on its base. This bust is lost, but two drawings, one of them by Rubens, have survived. A family of twelve busts, varying in quality, preservation, and probable date, has been assembled, which seem, from their close correspondence, not only to represent one man but to imitate one original portrait, and which further, from their similarity to two drawings of the lost bust, may be portraits of Aristotle. The identification is plausible, though by no means certain. The style places the original portrait approximately in the time of Aristotle, and of the twelve extant busts the Vienna head probably gives the best idea of the original. The nose is almost entirely modern, but there is little other restoration. Several features ascribed to Aristotle by ancient tradition may be seen in these portraits: small eyes, short beard, and thinning hair.