Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 384 BCE to 322 BCE. He studied under Plato, tutored and advised Alexander the Great and founded the Lyceum (a sort of ancient university). Along with Plato, he is today regarded as one of the two colossi of ancient Greek thought, and is seen by many as the single most important influence on the intellectual history of the West. Yet his surviving writings constitute only a fraction of his original output (as little as one-fifth according to traditional sources), and those that we possess are often fragmentary, cobbled together by later editors from what were effectively Aristotle’s lecture notes.Which of his writings are missing, how were they lost, and might they still be recovered?
Many works of antiquity are known to us today only via passing mentions and odd quotes. Aristotle was one of the most important thinkers of antiquity, so his missing body of work is correspondingly significant, but it also stands as an exemplar of all the other blank spots in the history of classical Western literature, from Homer’s lost epics and the missing verses of Sappho to the absent plays of Aeschylus.
Aristotle was a prolific writer who remains famous for the breadth of his intellectual scope (he has been described as one of the first polymaths). He covered subjects from metaphysics, logic, poetry and ethics to zoology, meteorology and economics. His work can be divided into two main groups. His acroatic writings, meaning those taught orally, by word of mouth, and now known as treatises, were mainly composed as study and lecture notes for use in his school (the Lyceum) and as such were not written as ‘books’ per se and not intended for publication. They were not in a polished literary style and can be difficult to read, self-contradictory and obscure,much as a modern lecturer’s course notes for him/herself might be. Some may even be notes taken by Aristotle’s students rather than his own work. Ironically, these are the only writings that survive. In classical times they were collected into some 30 works (or ‘books’), known as the Corpus Aristotelicum.
The traditional story of what happened to Aristotle’s literary estate after his death is derived from the ancient writers Strabo and Plutarch. According to their accounts, Aristotle left his writings to his successor at the Lyceum, and when he died they passed into the hands of Neleus of Scepsis.Neleus’ family later consigned the material to a cellar or pit to avoid the attentions of the royal book collectors, where it languished for decades in less than perfect conditions. In the 1st century BCE the writings were sold to a scholar who took them to Athens, where, in 86 BCE, they were snaffled up by the conquering Roman General Sulla, dispatched back to Rome and sold to Tyrannion the grammarian. Not until 70 BCE, some 250 years after the great man’s death, did they come into the possession of Andronicus of Rhodes, who compiled the scattered acroatic material into systematically organised books for the first time. It is these versions we know today. This is almost certainly not the whole story. Some of Aristotle’s works would have been available during this time –particularly his Dialogues, which had been published as books during his lifetime – and the account does not explain what happened to the majority of them subsequently.
Presumably the fate that befell the majority of Aristotle’s oeuvre was similar to that which afflicted so much other ancient literature. Although we speak of ‘books’ being ‘published’, ancient literature was handwritten on expensive papyrus (from reeds) or parchment or vellum (made from animal skin). Few copies would have been produced, and the lending and copying process was fraught with problems, including the still familiar issue of borrowers failing to return material. Since copying was difficult and expensive, only popular/in-demand books would have multiplied.
Many parchment and vellum documents were reused as palimpsests, which involved scraping off the top layer so that the new material could be written on the same surface – early medieval Christian scribes were particularly guilty of destroying antique literature in this fashion.
From the 3rd century CE the fragile, vulnerable scroll form preferred by the ancient Greeks and Romans was superseded by the sturdier codex form, which more closely resembles today’s book. Not all works successfully made this transition, again due to expense. Hungarian scientist Béla Lukács theorises that the teachers at the Lyceum, who were the main guardians of Aristotle’s literary inheritance, might have spent their scant budget on transcribing to codex form only those works they used most in their day-to-day teaching – namely the acroatic texts of the Corpus Aristotelicum.
The more widely held theory, first proposed by German classicist Werner Jaeger, is that Aristotle’s Dialogues are part of his early, less mature work – his juvenilia, which were effectively superseded by his later writings. This could explain why they were not copied as much. More recently, a historian A.P Bos has argued that it was more a matter of the changing philosophical-literary fashions of antiquity. In his reconstruction of the lost works, the themes and arguments Aristotle uses are mature but the way heillustrates them is through the use of myths and mythical narratives, a mode that went out of style from the 3rd century BCE.
Accordingly, later scholars only concerned themselves with Aristotle’s later writings. Whatever the reasons, the consensus appears to be that the rule for ancient literature was ‘multiply or die’, and Aristotle’s early works fell foul of this rule. By the time the Roman Empire collapsed and the Dark Ages swept over Europe, there were simply too few copies of the Dialogues, and of his other lost works, to survive the long roll of book-destroying calamities.
In the late 19th century, the discovery of ancient papyri in Egypt gave fresh hope to Aristotelian scholars. In 1880 fragments of a copy of a lost work of Aristotle, The Constitution of Athens, the most important of a series of 158 treatises on the constitutions of Greek states written by the great man and some of his pupils, were discovered in Egypt and purchased by the Egyptian Museum at Berlin. Then, in 1890, a group of four papyri with a complete copy of the same work was discovered by an American missionary in Egypt and purchased by the British Museum.
Inspired by this discovery, two young archaeologists from Oxford University, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, began to excavate rubbish mounds at Oxyrhynchus, to the south-west of Cairo in Egypt. Oxyrhynchus, which derives its name from the ‘sharp-nosed fish’ of Egyptian myth that was venerated by the inhabitants, was the capital of a province of Ptolemaic (Greek), and later Roman, Egypt. For over a thousand years it was a centre of administration and bureaucracy, as well as a typical, bustling market town with all the comings and goings of daily life. The inhabitants, and particularly the bureaucrats, made liberal use of papyrus to record everything from tax returns and accounts to school work and love letters. When a papyrus was finished with, it was dumped with the rest of the garbage on mounds outside town. Fortunately for posterity, conditions combined to preserve this material to the present day – the location is far enough from the Nile to have escaped the annual inundations, while the mounds themselves were above the water table, and were eventually covered up by hot, dry sand.
Grenfell and Hunt employed teams of labourers to unearth thousands and thousands of papyri from the rubbish mounds, more or less inventing a new discipline known as papyrology in their efforts to decipher the ancient texts. Keen students of classicism, they nurtured the hope that they would find all the lost works of antiquity. Although they were disappointed to discover mainly tax records, accounts and suchlike, they and their successors (for the project continues to this day) did uncover a wide range of previously unknown ancient literature, including poems of Pindar and Sappho, most of the works of Menander, some Sophocles and some early Christian gospels, including fragments of the ‘Sayings of Jesus’ (aka the ‘Gospel of Thomas’).
Lost works of Aristotle do not seem to have been among the treasures, but recent advances in imaging techniques are now revolutionising the science of papyrology, so new discoveries may yet be made from the Oxyrhynchus scrolls or from other finds. At present there seems to be no specific prospect of uncovering the lost Dialogues of Aristotle, but the hope remains that somewhere in the world there may exist an as-yet untapped cache of ancient scrolls or codices that has somehow survived millennia of neglect and strife. The most obvious candidates in Europe and the Near East are ancient monasteries, where books were collected from late antiquity onwards, and where the flame of scholarship continued to burn during the Dark Ages. The hope of discovering a lost Aristotle in some hidden library forms the plot of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in which a Franciscan monk discovers Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy in the concealed library of a Benedictine Abbey in Italy in 1327. Eco’s plot echoes the widespread belief in conspiracy circles that the Catholic Church is concealing a huge cache of material in the Secret Vatican Archives, a real library of material deemed too controversial, sensitive or heretical to be made widely available.
It seems unlikely that there could be a European monastery with hitherto undiscovered chambers, and even if there were the climate is unlikely to have favoured the survival of delicate manuscripts. But perhaps there are monasteries yet to be properly explored/surveyed by modern methods in the Islamic world, which may also have a more conducive climate – for instance, where Egypt, Libya and the Levant were major centres of early Christianity and early monasticism.
Lost Histories: “Exploring the World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy;