Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Invitation to the Protrepticus

Below is an address I recently gave to an Academy in Tripoli, Libya (via Skype). It is intended to serve as an overview of the project. An Arabic translation is available here.

An invitation to Aristotle’s lost work, the Protrepticus

2010 November 1

Dear Colleagues, Greetings.

Forgive me for speaking to you in English and thank you especially to those who are following along in a foreign language. I appreciate your extraordinary efforts to facilitate international philosophical dialogue. As Aristotle in the Protrepticus says: “wherever in the inhabited world the mind runs, it latches onto the truth equally as if it were present there”, and you have allowed your minds to run far and wide indeed.

Today we are going to discuss research into a lost work of Aristotle conducted by D. S. Hutchinson (Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto in Canada) and myself, Monte Ransome Johnson (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of California in San Diego).

Aristotle was born into a family of Physicians in 384 B. C. in Stagira in Northern Greece. His early education may have included training in medical techniques such as dissection. He moved to Athens and became a pupil in Plato’s Academy around the age of eighteen. He studied and worked in the school for about twenty years. During this time, Plato’s Academy was in an intense rivalry for students with a school led by Isocrates which also claimed to teach “philosophy”, but of a much more practical and rhetorical sort, focused on the composition of effective public speeches, especially on geopolitical topics. Isocrates criticized the Academy’s “theoretical” approach to philosophy and accused its members of being more concerned with mathematical investigations and cosmological speculations than concrete political affairs. Heraclides of Pontus is a figure of this kind: he studied and worked in the Academy (and was even put in charge of it for a time), but was heavily influenced by the Pythagorean philosophy, and he concerned himself with problems like: Does the Earth rotate on its axis? (He is said to have been the first to speculate that the earth does rotate on its axis every 24 hours.)

After Plato’s death, Aristotle moved from Athens to Assos (on the west coast of modern day Turkey) where he may have set up a satellite of the Academy under the patronage of the local king. There and later on the nearby island of Lesbos, Aristotle began his researches into marine animals that would become the basis of the life sciences. After this he tutored for several years the young Macedonian prince Alexander who later became known as “the Great”. In the last twenty years of his life, Aristotle returned to Athens and may have established his own school of philosophy near a public sanctuary called the “Lyceum”, and his followers became known as “Peripatetics”, probably because of the famous walking paths in the Lyceum. It was during this period that scholars think that Aristotle wrote many or most of those works of his that survive, such as the Posterior AnalyticsPhysicsOn the SoulMetaphysicsNicomachean EthicsPolitics, and Poetics. These works are technical and read sometimes like a scientific treatise and sometimes like notes, whether taken by student “scribes” in the audience of lectures, or prepared by the speaker himself.

In the third century A. D. work of Diogenes Laertius entitled Lives of the Famous Philosophers there is a list of almost 200 works attributed to Aristotle. Most of these works have been lost. The extant Aristotle Corpus consists of about 50 works. A very rough estimate is that between 20-30% of the works of Aristotle survived the process of being continually copied and preserved through the medieval manuscript traditions into the renaissance period, when the works of Aristotle were collected, edited, and printed. This is a very significant loss, especially when we realize that all of Plato’s published works (the dialogues) survived the same process, and so the Plato Corpus is complete. On the other hand, many other philosophers fared far worse, for example Democritus of Abdera, the great atomist philosopher admired by Aristotle for the sophistication of his theory of nature.

Although we know from various reports of ancient sources that Aristotle, like Plato, wrote dialogues, and that he was famous for these dialogues even in the Roman period, not a single one of these dialogues has survived intact into the modern period. The ancient list of Diogenes Laertius indicates that Aristotle wrote ten to fifteen dialogues, including some with the same title as dialogues of Plato (e.g. Symposium). Cicero, who compares Aristotle’s eloquence in these works to a “golden flow of speech” tells us that Aristotle innovated the dialogue genre by making himself one of the characters in the dialogue (a technique that Cicero himself uses in his own dialogues, such as On Ends).

The fourteenth title on the list of Diogenes Laertius is “Protrepticus, one book in length”.

The term “Protrepticus” literally means “a turning towards”, and the goal of protreptic speech, as Aristotle tells us in his Rhetoric, is to turn people around to your point of view and thus get them to take some action. In this case, Aristotle was encouraging young people to turn towards philosophy and, perhaps, away from business, legal, military, and political ambitions, although he argues that the person who takes up philosophy will become better at whatever he wishes to accomplish.

Aristotle’s Protrepticus was so famous that we have a report of a later Cynic philosopher reading it aloud in an Athenian shoe shop. Several later commentators, including Alexander of Aphrodisias, report that in the Protrepticus Aristotle exhorts a group of youths to philosophy. Parts of the work may have been copied out into textbook anthologies of famous passages of philosophy, and as late as the fifth century A. D. the anthologist John of Stobi quoted a passage that traces back to Aristotle’s Protrepticus. In the late nineteenth century a massive stash of papyrus was found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, including several scraps that partially overlap with the passage in John of Stobi, allowing us to establish that Aristotle’s work was also being read hundreds of years after his death in Egypt.

All of the evidence that I mentioned in the last paragraph amounts to meager scraps, from which we can recover perhaps 50 solid lines of Greek philosophy at the most. But in 1869 a young Oxford scholar named Ingram Bywater discovered that much more significant excerpts from Aristotle’s Protrepticus appear to have been preserved in several chapters of an introductory textbook written by a third century AD Syrian neo-Pythagorean philosopher named Iamblichus of Chalcis. Iamblichus work was entitled: Protrepetic to Philosophy.

In this work, Iamblichus collects together famous arguments for the conclusion that one should study, or rather devote one’s life to, theoretical and mathematically-oriented philosophy. Iamblichus is in many ways like a latter day version of Heraclides of Pontus. Iamblichus quotes from the spurious “Golden Verses” attributed to Pythagoras, from a dubious work attributed to the mathematical philosopher-king Archytas of Terentum entitled “On Wisdom”, from an otherwise lost Sophistical work now referred to as “The Anonymous Iamblichi”, and from a collection of obscure Pythagorean sayings or “Symbola”. But most of Iamblichus' book consists of extended excerpts from Plato and Aristotle.

It is very fortunate that Iamblichus quoted so extensively from Plato because, as I mentioned earlier, all of Plato’s works have survived in the manuscript tradition. This allows us to ascertain Iamblichus’ method of using and quoting sources, and to determine how much fidelity to the original source he preserves. We studied Iamblichus’ quotations of Plato very carefully, making a minute letter-by-letter comparison of his words with the independent manuscript tradition of Plato. In our 2005 article in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, we presented the following conclusions about Iamblichus method of quotation based on this close study:

1. When Iamblichus begins quoting from a certain work, he quotes only from that work, until he puts that work aside and moves onto another work, in which case he does not return to the earlier work. It is as if he takes one work off the shelf, for example the Phaedo, and works through it to find suitable protreptic passages, at which point he returns that work to the shelf and picks up another one, for example the Theaetetus. Further, when Iamblichus is quoting from a work, such as the Phaedo, he always works in a natural sequence, from beginning to end, for example quoting from 64a-69d, and then 82b-84b, and then 107c-d. He does not quote from a later part of the work, and then return to an earlier part, but quotes the passages in the sequence they are found in Plato’s work.

2. The only modification that Iamblichus introduces into the passages he excerpts is whatever is necessary to remove traces of dialogue, such as the responses of interlocutors to Socrates’ questions. This sometimes involves converting questions into assertions, and “stitching” together discontinuous sentences. But Iamblichus always makes the smallest possible intervention, and only around the edges of longer passages in which a speaker gives an extended speech. Iamblichus was working with good manuscripts, and in many cases preserves readings superior to those available to us in the manuscript tradition. His own interventions are very formulaic and mostly of a navigational or transitional nature.

We operated with the hypothesis that Iamblichus employed the same techniques in excerpting from Aristotle as he did with Plato, and came to the following conclusions.

1. Iamblichus only used a single work of Aristotle. This is because the excerpts in the Aristotle section interconnect in a way that cannot easily be pulled apart. Further, the ensemble as a whole has the structure of an investigation of the relative value of three “ways of life” (devoted to virtue, intelligence, and pleasure) that is identical with the structure of two of Aristotle’s ethical works, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Nicomachean Ethics. This suggests that Iamblichus excerpted from this one book, in its original sequence, which seems a natural thing to do, given that Iamblichus was endeavoring to create an anthology of protreptic arguments, and Aristotle’s work was a famous and readymade storehouse of protreptic arguments.

2. We cannot determine from Iamblichus’ excerpts what the genre of the work was, whether it was a dialogue, a letter, or a treatise along the lines of the Ethics. For we have every reason to expect that Iamblichus will have removed all evidence of dialogue, just as he did with Plato. Also, we can be sure that there are gaps in the Aristotle material, because we noticed that when Iamblichus introduces his transitional formulae he invariably indicates that he is skipping over text in the source. But we can be confident that when we are in the middle of an excerpt that Iamblichus has preserved his source as carefully as a manuscript of that very work. It is in fact very easy to tell where Iamblichus has written a sentence—after all his diction and style are much different and much later.

Once we isolated the excerpts of Aristotle, we closely compared them with the extant works of Aristotle, looking for any signs of anachronism or a conflict with fundamental ideas of the philosopher. What we found was that there are hundreds of parallels to various works throughout the Aristotle Corpus, and that what we have are different and probably earlier versions of several famous arguments of Aristotle, such as the “three lives” argument mentioned above, the “ergon” or “function” argument about the purpose of human existence, the argument for intrinsic teleology in nature, the method of disambiguating vague terms by isolating their focal meaning, arguments about political science, and about the nature of virtue and pleasure. Scholars will have to revise and in some cases reconsider their interpretations of Aristotle on the basis of the more complete set of evidence that is available to them now that significant portions of the Protrepticus have been authenticated.

Through this process we were able to authenticate roughly 500 lines of the “golden flow” of Aristotle. This allowed us to reconstruct the basic skeletal structure of Aristotle’s work. Much like paleontologists trying to reconstruct the morphology of an extinct vertebrate animal from scattered remains and comparisons to known animals, we are trying to reconstruct the shape of a lost philosophical work from scattered literary remains and comparisons to known works. The 500 or so lines from Iamblichus’ Protrepticus give us the backbone, and so we can now position the various smaller pieces (the papyrus fragments, reports from commentators, passages in anthologies, allusions in other writers, etc.) relative to this structure. Thus we have a solid basis for reconstructing Aristtle’s lost work.

One of the more striking conclusions of our work is that we are dealing with a dialogue, not a letter or a treatise. This would be natural for an earlier work of Aristotle, produced when he was a student of Plato; after all, Plato himself wrote protreptic dialogues, such as the Euthydemus. We also have more technical reasons for thinking the work is a dialogue, such as the fact that Iamblichus occasionally leaves traces of dialogue in the Plato sections (and thus failed to intervene in the text to the degree he probably wanted to do), and we have found several similar cases of dialogue “fossils” in the Aristotle section.

Although we have no traces of the beginning or end of the work, and thus little idea of the setting (other than that it involved Aristotle addressing some youths), we seem to be able to discern three different voices in the Protrepticus. First there is a character strongly resembling the historical Isocrates, who has a rival conception of philosophy as a practical political discipline, and who is highly critical of theoretical preoccupations, like mathematics and logic. Second, there seems to be a character of a deeply Pythagorean character, who invokes stories about the “Mysteries” and discusses sayings and doings of Pythagoras. Heraclides of Pontus would be a fitting character for the role, especially since we read strong parallels in the Protrepticus to other fragments of his work. Finally there is Aristotle himself, who rectifies the practical and theoretical perspectives, showing that the one wanting to succeed at practical pursuits can do no better than to study theoretical philosophy; and, on the other hand, “Aristotle” argues that theoretical contemplation gives one insight not only into nature and the cosmos, but also into the best form of political arrangement.

“To be intelligent and cognizant is in itself valuable for humans, for it is not possible to live as a human without these; and it is also useful for our way of life, for nothing good comes to us unless it is accomplished after we have reasoned and acted in accordance with intelligence. Moreover, whether living successfully consists in enjoyment or in having virtue or in intelligence, according to all these we should do philosophy, for these things come to us most of all, and in a pure way, through doing philosophy.” (Aristotle, Protrepticus, apud Iamblichus Protrepticus VII.41.7-15; on page 17 of the PDF)

I will conclude by telling you about the most recent, and I dare say spectacular, research results that we have achieved, but have not yet had a chance to publish. It has been known for more than a century that Iamblichus must have quoted from the Protrepticus in another work of his entitled On the Common Mathematical Science (DCM). This is because several passages that he quotes in chapter 26 of that work overlap with several passages quoted in chapter 6 of the Protrepticus. Philip Merlan and André-Jean Festugière showed that there is strong reason to believe that Iamblichus quoted from Aristotle’s Protrepticus in chapter 23 of DCM. Thus it is likely, given Iamblichus’ methods and practices of excerption, that he was quoting from Aristotle’s Protrepticus for at least four chapters of that work. We studied all the surrounding chapters and have come to the conclusion that Iamblichus excerpted from Aristotle’s Protrepticus in chapters 21-27 of DCM. We are thus in a position to authenticate around 500 more lines of Aristotle’s Protrepticus. This will considerably flesh out the vertebrate animal we are trying to understand.

The document entitled “Aristotle’s Protrepticus: A Provisional Reconstruction”, which I hope you have been able to access, contains the latest version of our reconstruction of the work, including some of the new material from the DCM, all of the material from Iamblichus’ Protrepticus, and several other pieces of evidence, including fragments of papyrus.

In that document, we have used the following conventions: words that we attribute directly to Aristotle and assume to have been contained in his work, we print in bold type; words that we are not sure whether they were the exact words in Aristotle’s text, but may be more of the nature of paraphrase or allusion, we leave in plain type. Our own scholarly comments, including our citations of the sources, we put in a reduced font size and in italics.

The main purpose of the reconstruction is to serve the purpose of students and other readers not interested in the philological complexities. We want to make available to the reading public as much of Aristotle’s work as can be reliably recovered and authenticated. We are also preparing a scholarly edition (including critical Greek text, translation, and commentary) of all of the source material, and plan to publish it with Cambridge University Press in the series: Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries.

I thank you for your interest. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.


Bywater, I. On a lost dialogue of Aristotle. Journal of Philology, 2 (1869), 55-69.

Festugière, A. J. Un fragment nouveau du “Protreptique” d’Aristote. Revue philosophique de la France et l’Étranger 146 (1956), 117-127.

Hutchinson, D. S. and M. R. Johnson. Authenticating Aristotle’s ProtrepticusOxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 29 (2005), 193-294.

Hutchinson, D. S. and M. R. Johnson. Aristotle, Protrepticus. A Provisional Reconstruction.Version of 2010 August 31. 

Hutchinson, D. S. and M. R. Johnson. Aristotle, Protrepticus (Greek text, translation, and commentary). Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries. Work in progress.

Merlan, P. A new fragment of Aristotle. In From Platonism to Neoplatonism. Den Hague, 1953. 2nd ed.,1960.

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