05 June 2005

Popular Aristotle

If a popular work of Aristotle gets popular treatment in our media, does it thereby become doubly popular, or extra-exoteric? You tell me. Here is a story in today's (Toronto) Globe and Mail, about Doug Hutchinson and Monte Johnson's new work on the Protrepticus.

I must confess the story disturbs me, because it seems to attribute to Hutchinson and Johnson, the credit for a discovery that belongs to Bywater (not even mentioned by name in the article). Or is it that the Protrepticus is not really discovered, until it can be confirmed that it was discovered? But did anyone doubt this until Rabinowitz? And even then, who was sufficiently convinced by Rabinowitz' arguments to doubt the fact of the discovery? (I don't know of many scholars who will not rely on Protrepticus fragments, when that's useful.)

Of course, too, if the advance now is one in confidence, then we must examine the arguments in the forthcoming OSAP piece, to see whether they really do justify a more solid judgment (which I haven't yet done).

If it's that we should reject Duering's reconstruction, and simply read the portions in order, then, again, aren't we back to Bywater? Or is it that the Hutchinson-Johnson effort is supposed to underwrite the use of the Protrepticus in classroom instruction, since now the work somehow definitely, or without fail, gets included in the canon (as Bobonich's comment seems to imply)? (But won't it always have an 'asterisk' next to it, as a reconstruction, no matter how successful that reconstruction is?)

In short, shouldn't the tone of this piece be: "We're simply confirming the work of Bywater and seeing that it's recognized that his discovery was real"?

Hiding in plain sight

Would an Aristotle by any other name seem as smart? As JOHN ALLEMANG
reports, a Canada-U.S. scholarly team is bringing attention to an
ancient Greek masterpiece long considered 'lost' -- but actually just


An original work by an ancient Greek philosopher would be a priceless
thing, if you could dig one up. And if that work was a seminal
masterpiece on the very nature of philosophy by the fourth-century BC
teacher Aristotle, surely few discoveries in the history of intellectual
thought could rival such a find.

So when Douglas Hutchinson of the University of Toronto and Monte
Ransome Johnson of St. Louis University say with complete confidence
that they have identified a long-lost published work of Aristotle, it's
not surprising that a fellow scholar can describe their discovery as

The surviving texts from ancient Greece are woefully few, occupying only
a few scant library shelves, and Aristotle is especially
underrepresented -- all we have from the pupil of Plato and the teacher
of Alexander the Great are unpublished lecture notes intended for his
inner circle, as brilliant and influential as they are.

What Prof. Hutchinson and Prof. Johnson are unveiling to the world is a
considerable part of Aristotle's long-lost Protrepticus, the great
man's very own introduction to philosophy.

"This is a work with real power," Prof. Hutchinson says. "It's brilliant
in content, written in beautifully polished Greek, and it's a
masterpiece that people will go to."
The Protrepticus (the Greek title translates as "exhortation") can lay
claim to being Aristotle's most famous and most popular work in
antiquity -- a contemporary of Aristotle's describes it being read out
in a humble cobbler's shop. And thanks to these two scholars, the
Protrepticus should now enjoy a long-overdue renaissance in the modern

"If it is in future accorded its proper recognition by Aristotelian
scholars, as they have shown it deserves," says David Sedley of Christ's
College, Cambridge, "it will make a real difference to our understanding
of Aristotle's ethics, his philosophy of nature and his metaphysics."

Now here's where the discovery gets a little complicated, as any claim
to recovering an ancient Greek text must necessarily be: As much as
those who thrill to the discoveries of ancient texts would like them to
turn up out of the blue and fully formed, the real world of classical
scholarship doesn't usually work that way.

Even seasoned academics have enough of the Indiana Jones spirit to hope
the preserving sands of the Egyptian desert or the stratified muck of
Vesuvius will suddenly reveal Aristotle's personal library or dozens of
Sophocles's missing dramas. But meanwhile, Aristotle's Protrepticus
has been staring them right in the face, if only they had known where
-- and how -- to look.

"It's been covered in a shroud of uncertainty," Prof. Johnson says.
"This was the most inaccessible and arcane Greek artifact, and we want
to turn it into the most popular introduction to Greek philosophy --
which is what Aristotle intended it to be."

The pages of Aristotelian Greek that the two scholars have isolated were
enclosed like a vein of ore within a later philosophical work -- which,
just to make matters worse, is also known as the Protrepticus --
compiled by a Neoplatonist teacher named Iamblichus, who taught in Roman
Syria in the third and fourth centuries AD.

Iamblichus was a borderline plagiarist, and didn't identify the authors
from whom he wove together his own exhortation to the study of
philosophy. But since the standards of acknowledging your sources were
looser in the ancient world, it may be fairer to say that what he did
was to put together a "greatest hits" study guide for his students with
his own narrative added to smooth the bumps from one unattributed
excerpt to another.

As long ago as 1869, a classical scholar intimately familiar with the
workings of Aristotle's mind spotted the presence of the master in
Iamblichus's compilation. The fact that Iamblichus's work bore the same
title as Aristotle's apparently lost work reinforced the suspicion. What
allowed the deduction to be made with even more assurance was that
Iamblichus had also lifted material from Plato -- philosophical
dialogues that still survive independently.

If classical scholarship had proceeded as it should from 1869 forward,
Aristotle's Protrepticus soon would have emerged with its own identity
and aspirations to greatness.

Instead, it remained a work hidden in the murky shadows of doubt and
disbelief. The magisterial Oxford Classical Dictionary, for instance,
does little more than mention its existence, and even then refers to it
as "lost."

It may as well have been, to judge from the way generations of scholars
have fiddled with Iamblichus and ad-libbed his text -- in one case, even
adding a pastiche of pseudo-ancient Greek -- to produce bits of
bargain-basement Aristotle that have inevitably been banished to the
"Fragments" section of the philosopher's Collected Works.

No one reads fragments, if they can help it, particularly when their
pedigree is so murky. And so it has come to pass that Aristotle's
Protrepticus has been effectively concealed from the wider world.
Prof. Johnson compares it to the way some books of the Bible became
canonical and others were banished to the Apocrypha, "just because
certain councils of people got together early on and said, 'This doesn't
count.' "

But much the way a cut-rate Italian painting later can be revealed to be
a valuable work of Titian -- or an unlabelled dress in a second-hand
shop can be recognized, and reappreciated, as a Chanel -- all the
Protrepticus needed was to be seen for what it was.

The patterns began emerging six years ago when Prof. Hutchinson and
Prof. Johnson (who was then a graduate student) studied the presumed
Aristotelian chapters of Iamblichus's Protrepticus with the
Greek-philosophy reading group at the University of Toronto. They
resolved to make a serviceable translation for university students.

They decided to study the techniques Iamblichus used to cut and paste
his Plato -- since we still possess the dialogues Iamblichus borrowed,
it was possible to determine his exact work habits. They discovered that
Iamblichus added very little to the text, except for a sentence or so of
over-enthusiastic introduction, a conclusion and an occasional passage
to bridge over the brief dialogue elements in Plato's original.
Otherwise, Plato flowed along on his own, faithfully in order.

"Iamblichus was incredibly precise," Prof. Hutchinson says. "He didn't
change a single word when he didn't have to."

To their surprise, no one ever had studied Iamblichus so methodically.
And when they turned to the Aristotelian section, they recognized
exactly the same compilation technique at work: Instead of trying to
sift out bits and pieces of Aristotle, all they needed to do was remove
the small (and easily predictable) contributions of Iamblichus and
voila -- pure gold.

Other issues remained: Were they certain all the material came from the
original Protrepticus? Was the treatise a dialogue in its
pre-Iamblichus form? How much was missing?

But the most persuasive proofs had been carried out with a rigour that
will be hard to match.

The detailed results are to be published this year in the Oxford Studies
in Ancient Philosophy, with a translation and full commentary due out
next year. In the strictest sense what the two scholars have done isn't
the same as turning up a papyrus scroll in the desert, but to scholars
in the field, the effect isn't so different.

"Their research comes very close to being a rediscovery of a lost work,"
says Chris Bobonich of Stanford University. "Only now will the
Protrepticus be studied by more than a handful of scholars."

And studied with greater respect -- a confident attribution to Aristotle
carries a lot more cachet than the name Iamblichus, in the
brand-conscious world of classical scholarship.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.


Thornton said...

I realize journalism is not scholarship, but I wonder why this piece fails to mention the reconstructions of not only Duering (as Michael noted) but also Anton-Hermann Chroust's edition (which unless I'm mistaken is the only English translation of the work that has ever been readily available). Is the assumption that these scholarly endeavours were somehow off track and what Hutchinson/Johnson are doing is radically different?

It will be interesting to see what they've come up with, but I can't help but wonder if this is simply a feature item telling how the local boys for a CA paper have done good. But who can lament that the Protrepticus (or ancient philosophy) is front page news?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Thornton, You're right to mention Chroust. One might also point to the full treatment accorded the Protr. in Barnes' two volume Aristotle, which doesn't quite denigrate the work in the way suggested in the article.

Doug Hutchinson said...

As co-author of the scholarly article that has been reported two days ago in the Globe and Mail, a report that has met with disbelief in this forum, I hope to shed some light.

I think it is a very fair comment to say, "In short, shouldn't the tone of this piece be: 'We're simply confirming the work of Bywater and seeing that it's recognized that his discovery was real'?" Bywater must always be credited as the re-discovery of this work, and nothing we say takes away from his achievement, only confirms and corrects it with the aid of laborious philological argument.

This is indeed the general tone of the original article written by Monte Johnson and me, which ends in the following way:

"All in all, the judgement of the young Bywater ('Lost Dialogue', 66) has been vindicated. His first words on the topic can serve as our last words. (The last paragraph is a citation from Bywater)."

Bywater did not succeed, however, in determining the limits of the citations in Iamblichus, which varied over the successive decades of scholarship (depending on the scholar), nor did he know how accurate or how modified these citations were (scholars disagreed).

The new research presented in our article is a based on a close study of the way that Iamblichus quotes the works of Plato in chapters 13-19 of his book, a study which shows a simple and mechanical construction technique on the part of Iamblichus. This close study of the Plato excerpts has NEVER been done before, not even by During or Rabinowitz, who published books on the subject.

The construction technique used by Iamblichus was to assemble solid and pure blocks of quotation (one or a few or them) into each chapter of the Aristotle and Plato section, marked off by thin comments of his own. Where he inserts a comment, it indicates a discontinuity in quotation; where he doesn't insert a comment, it indicates continuity in quotation; and his quotation has nothing added and nothing taken away.

Knowledge of this construction technique enables us also to show that all the material in chapters 6-12 comes from the Protrepticus, not from another work of Aristotle. This is a new result, as the thinking nowadays, if there is any consensus at all, is that Iamblichus probably used other works of Aristotle, especially his Eudemus.

Because he used a natural order, we now know that the order of citations that we find in Iamblichus mirrors the order of passages in Aristotle's text. All re-orderings of the dialogue, such as that of During or the translations made from During (his own into German, and by others into French, Italian, Spanish, and recently Romanian, as well as into English by Chroust or in the Barnes 2-vol Aristotle) or the different reconstruction of Schneeweiss (German translation recently published) are shown to be wrong.

Also wrong is the absolutely universal consensus that the end of chapter 8 in Iamblichus corresponds to the end of the Protrepticus in its original form.

We also studied the accidental manuscript variations in the Plato quotations and found that they always show one or another affiliation with Plato manuscript families. This shows that Iamblichus (or his scribe) was doing a fair copy from a decent manuscript of Plato, not working from memory or paraphrases, both of which would have effaced this textual-genetic information. This sort of reasoning has never before been applied to this problem.

I would have preferred it if the journalist had mentioned these new details, which are highly significant for qualified scholars such as the two who posted comments. But he or his editor evidently judged that this would be too taxing to the patience or the wits of the general public readership.

So the claim is, yes, that earlier scholarly endeavours were somehow off track, and what we have been doing is radically different.

The article is on the heavy side, being 102 pages long, quite a lot of it in Greek; but it will still be rewarding, I hope, to interested readers who may not care so much about the philology. One of its benefits is that it contains a complete translation of every part of chapters 6-12 of Iamblichus' Protrepticus, which gives us the lion's share of the surviving evidence.

The claims in the article and its significance will be discussed at a special workshop at the Pacific Meeting of the American Philosophical Association next March (2006) in Portland, Oregon.

In the meantime, I would be more than happy to correspond with any scholar of good will who wishes to find out what lies behind this news report. -- Doug Hutchinson


Posted by Doug Hutchinson

Anonymous said...

But Doug, are you saying that such phrases as "they have identified a long-lost published work of Aristotle" and "The pages of Aristotelian Greek that the two scholars have isolated" (which seem to credit you and Monte with the discovery, rather than Bywater) are misleading, or basically correct? 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Thornton said...


You've answered my question--quite succinctly and clearly, too, which I'm sure you do also before p. 102 of your article. I look forward to reading the result of your reseach.

I also think MP's bone to pick is more so with the journalist who wrote the article. But at the risk of Aristotelianism: you can only expect so much akribeia as the subject matter allows! Lamenting that a feature article in a newspaper doesn't subscribe to the canons of accuracy of peer-reviewed scholarship strikes me as out of place.

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