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Werner Jaeger’s Explanation of Aristotle’s Philosophical Development



(This is the second post in a series of studies on Werner Jaeger's work on Aristotle's philosophical development. Follow these links to find the other parts: Post 1Post 3, and Post 4 It would be best to read part 1 prior to reading this post.)

            Having considered Jaeger’s method, noted some concerns with it, and having proposed our own method for determining the chronological order of the redaction of Aristotle’s works, let us turn, now, to how Jaeger develops his understanding of the development of Aristotle’s philosophical development.

In the first main section of Jaeger’s work he deals with Aristotle’s early years at the Academy, under Plato. Jaeger begins by claiming that Aristotle was, in his early years, mesmerised by Plato’s views,[1] and personality.[2] Indeed states Jaeger, and this appears to be, for Jaeger, the key to Aristotle’s philosophical development, “He [Aristotle] had accepted Plato’s doctrines with his whole soul, and the effort to discover his own relation to them occupied all his life, and is the clue to his development.”[3] Jaeger proposes that by the time Aristotle joined the academy it was in its “abstract and methodological period”,[4] which “gave Aristotle a definite direction, and opened up a field of work suitable to his particular disposition.”[5] In order to illumine the backdrop against which Aristotle’s time at the Academy played out Jaeger notes 4 primary elements in Plato’s thought that would have been influential on Aristotle: (1) “The phronesis or wisdom of Socrates”,[6] (2) Plato’s theory of Ideas, (3) the question of ousia, “to which Plato gave new material by the problem of the one and the many”,[7] and (4) Orphic dualism. Jaeger states that “it was precisely the non-scientific elements in Plato’s philosophy, that is, the metaphysical and religious parts of it, that left the most lasting imprint on his [Aristotle’s] mind.”[8] Most of Jaeger’s observations are gleaned from his interpretation of the fragments.[9]

Having given a general overview of Aristotle’s early years in the Academy, mesmerized by Plato, Jaeger gives a survey of some of Aristotle’s early, non-extant, works. Jaeger begins by claiming that in order to truly understand the Aristotle that is found in his major works, one must begin by studying the fragments, which refers to many of the lost works.[10] This is where we see the circularity of Jaeger’s theory. He uses the early works to show that the young Aristotle was favorable towards Platonism, but uses the supposed fact that the early works are favorable towards Platonism as proof that they are early. In the section on the early works Jaeger goes to great lengths to show that Aristotle was, and for a lengthy period of time, thoroughly Platonist. He then provides the reader with an indepth history and analysis of the Eudemus, one of Aristotle’s dialogues that is no longer extant, though parts of it can be gleaned from the fragments. He postulates that the Eudemus was complimentary to Plato’s Phaedo. In his analysis of the Eudemus Jaeger seeks to show that Aristotle adhered to a Platonic ontology, though he already possessed a rudimentary understanding of what would later become his logical and categorical developments. Turning to the Protrepticus, which Jaeger claims is “for us the most important work of all those written before Plato’s death”,[11] he once again seeks to show that Aristotle was a thorough-bred Platonist.

In the second main section of this work, Jaeger develops an intricate and detailed explanation of Aristotle’s philosophical endeavours from the death of Plato up to his return to Athens and the founding of his school in the Lyceum. He begins by tracing Aristotle’s travels from the time he left Plato’s Academy up to his tutorship of Alexander the Great and the death of Philip of Macedon. Having given somewhat of a historical overview of Aristotle’s travels, Jaeger turns to the work called On Philosophy. He seeks to show how Aristotle continued to develop, ever remaining faithful to his Platonic foundation. Jaeger examines, through an in-depth study of the fragments which seem to come from the work On Philosophy, how Aristotle develops his thoughts on cosmology, philosophy of religion, theology and the history of philosophy. Jaeger postulates that this treatise was written after the Physics, and notes that Aristotle clearly begins turning away from Platonic metaphysics. This look at the development of Aristotle’s metaphysics leads Jaeger into an examination of what he calls the original Metaphysics. Here he outlines his theory concerning the composition and date of redaction of the various parts of the Metaphysics. His primary claim is that the Metaphysics was not compiled and written, in the order that we have received it, by Aristotle himself. Rather, his disciples later collected a number of his writings on the same (or similar) subjects, and did their best to arrange them as coherently as possible. He states that, “internal analysis leads to the view that various periods are represented; and this is confirmed by the tradition that the collection known as the Metaphysics was not put together until after its author’s death.”[12] As such, Jaeger postulates, there is no intentional unity in the Metaphysics. Indeed, states Jaeger, “We must reject all attempts to make a literary whole out of the remaining materials by rearranging or removing some of the books, and we must condemn the assumption which overhastily postulates their philosophical unity at the expense of their individual peculiarities.”[13] Jaeger goes on to dissect our present version of the Metaphysics into different sections (the book is already divided up into books, but Jaeger even goes into the books themselves and divides them up), dating the different sections based upon their attitude towards Platonism. Jaeger’s theory, which is followed closely by W. D. Ross,[14] is, with a number of important nuances,[15] as follows:[16]

Books ΑΒΓ form a complete group (first group). Book A was apparently written quite early, while Aristotle was still a Platonist.[17] Book B was also, in its entirety, a part of the earlier version of the Metaphysics.[18]

Book Δ was an independent lexical work that was used in a number of Aristotle’s works.

Book E serves to transition from the first group to the second group.

Books ΖΗΘ form a complete group (second group) written at a latter period of Aristotle’s life than A and B, and are not part of the original plan of the Metaphysics (laid out in B).[19] Z is probably an independently written work on substance.[20] The final chapter of Θ is a late addition to Θ.[21]

Book Ι is a separate unity.

The purified early version of the Metaphysics included ΑΒΓEΖΗΘΙ and probably N.[22]

Book Κ is most likely a prior treatment of the same issues as are found in ΒΓΕ, and may be the lecture notes written down by a student in a lecture.[23] K is also prior to ZHΘ,[24] but was not included in the original Metaphysics.[25]

Book Λ is most certainly a separate treatises, written as the outline for a lecture,[26] standing in no relation to the others,[27] which was composed after N and influenced by N.[28] However, it is also evident, from the manner in which Aristotle seeks to show the existence of a God, that Λ is an early work, from Aristotle’s Platonic days, predating the anti-platonic section,[29] with the exception of chapter 8 which was most certainly, according to Jaeger, a later addition.[30] Indeed, says Jaeger, Aristotle’s “original metaphysics was theology, the doctrine of the most perfect being.”[31]

Books ΜΝ form a complete group, and “have no relation to the preceding”.[32] Furthermore, M was most certainly written at a later period, when Aristotle no longer considered himself to be a Platonist.[33] However, the preface of M 9-10 “is a part of the original Metaphysics (along with A and B).[34] Furthermore, book N is also from the original earlier Metaphysics, dating from a time when Aristotle still saw himself as a Platonist.[35] Book M was, in Aristotle’s mind, to replace N.[36]

Books αΚΛ and Δ are all intrusions in the Metaphysics.

So, in conclusion, ΑΒΓEΖΗΘΙ and probably N (though not necessarily in their entirety) formed the core of the original Metaphysics. M was a later addition, with the purpose of completing N. Books αΚΛ and Δ are all later intrusions.

Jaeger develops many of these observations in his chapter on the growth of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Though his arguments gain support from a superficial (or shall we say, in-depth but biased) reading of the Metaphysics, in the end his theory is based upon circular reasoning: We know that Aristotle began as a Platonist and developed away from Platonism because we see this movement in his written works, and we use the knowledge that Aristotle began as an ardent Platonist and developed away from Platonism as the key for the chronological organisation of his written works, and even as the key that helps us to discover which parts of his written works are early and which later. The circularity of Jaeger’s reasoning demonstrates the difficulties that any scholar will experience as they attempt to chronologically order Aristotle’s works, or trace Aristotle’s development.

In the remainder of the section concerning Aristotle’s travels Jaeger uses the same methods that we saw used on the Metaphysics in order to find the original Ethics, the original Politics, and to propose a theory concerning Aristotle’s physical and cosmological research. In the final part of Jaeger’s book we are introduced to the final period of Aristotle’s philosophical research, the mature period. We are told that circa 335-4 Aristotle returned to Athens to found his school of philosophy at the Lyceum. “About this time [334-5 BC] Aristotle came to Athens as the flower of Greek intellect, the outstanding philosopher, writer, and teacher, the friend of the most powerful ruler of the time, whose rapidly rising fame raised him with it even in the eyes of persons who stood too far from him to understand his own importance.”[37] Jaeger proposes that when, in 323, Alexander died Aristotle was forced to once again leave Athens, this time due to the anti-Macedonian sentiments that where predominant in the city.[38] This section concerning Aristotle’s later years concludes with the recitation of Aristotle’s will.[39] Jaeger proposes that Aristotle’s final years where occupied primarily with the study of nature, and the development of his numerous treatises on animals.[40] Indeed, states Jaeger, Aristotle’s works on Animals, “were written at a time when the metaphysical and conceptual attitude of his early decades, though still forming the constructive framework of his general view, no longer held any place in his creative activity.”[41] This does not mean, however, that Aristotle never returned to his work in the Metaphysics. On the contrary Jaeger goes on to propose that Aristotle did return to the Metaphysics, if only to revise and update his understanding of theology.[42] Though Aristotle did not, according to Jaeger, insert this revision into the Metaphysics himself, there is a major section of book Λ that was later inserted by the editors of Aristotle’s works, and was probably written, according to Jaeger, late in Aristotle’s life.[43]

Jaeger’s work finishes with a chapter concerning Aristotle’s place in history, that is, Aristotle’s impact on later thinkers. The purpose of this chapter is as follows: “What follows attempts to understand the organic significance of Aristotle’s philosophy within Greek culture purely through itself and its historical circumstances, abstracting from the material content of the particular disciplines and concentrating attention solely on the historical nature of his problem and its intellectual forms.”[44] In other words, in this section Jaeger will give an overview of Aristotle’s philosophy as it has had a lasting impact on the history of thought. One of his most important observations in this section is that Aristotle was not a system builder (as far as we know), but that he was a systematic thinker.[45]

            Concerning the importance of Aristotle’s metaphysical works, Jaeger notes, “All the lines of Aristotle’s philosophy run together in his metaphysics, while it on the other hand stretches out into all other disciplines. It expresses his ultimate philosophical purposes, and every study of the details of his doctrine that does not start from this central organ must miss the main point.”[46] Jaeger is certainly right on this point. It is, indeed, of the utmost important to understand Aristotle’s metaphysical thoughts in order to understand the place and role of every other domain of research in his thought. What, then, does Jaeger make of Aristotle’s metaphysical thought?



[1]Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, 2nd ed., trans. Richard Robinson (1948; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 12.

[2]Ibid., 21.

[3]Ibid., 13.

[4]Ibid., 15.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid., 21.

[7]Ibid., 22.

[8]Ibid., 22-23.

[9]Ibid., 22.

[10]Ibid., 24.

[11]Ibid., 54.

[12]Ibid., 168.

[13]Ibid., 170.

[14]Aristotle, Metaphysics, Introduction and commentary by W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 1: xiii-xxxiii. Cf. David Ross, Aristotle, 6th ed. (1995; repr., New York: Routledge, 2006), 11-12. Ross’s theory is as follows: Books ΑΒΓΕ form a complete group. Books ΖΗΘ form a complete group. Books ΜΝ form a complete group. Book Ι is a unity. Books ΑΒΓΕΖΗΘΜΝΙ form one continuous work (p. xx, xxiii). Books αΚΛ and Δ are all intrusions in the Metaphysics (p. xxix-xxvii, xxviii-xxix). Book Λ is most certainly a separate treatise (p. xxviii-xxix). Book Δ was a separate lexical work that was used in a number of Aristotle’s works. Ross follows Jaeger in arguing that Κ is most likely a prior treatment of the same issues as are found in ΒΓΕ (p. xviiifn5).

[15]The nuances are in relation to sections of the different books which are said to be earlier drafts or later interpolations.

[16]Cf. Jaeger, AFHD, 169-170.

[17]Ibid., 171.

[18]Ibid., 175-176.

[19]Ibid., 196-197, 198, 202.

[20]Ibid., 200-201.

[21]Ibid., 204-205.

[22]Ibid., 194.

[23]Ibid., 208.

[24]Ibid., 209.

[25]Ibid., 214.

[26]Ibid., 344.

[27]Ibid., 219.

[28]Ibid., 224-225.

[29]Ibid., 221-222.

[30]Ibid., 343-355.

[31]Ibid., 216. Cf. Ibid., 219.

[32]Ibid., 170.

[33]Ibid., 171, 177-178.

[34]Ibid., 188-189.

[35]Ibid., 189-191.

[36]Ibid., 194.

[37]Ibid., 312.

[38]Ibid., 319.

[39]Ibid., 322-323.

[40]Ibid., 329.

[41]Ibid., 338. Cf. Ibid., 339.

[42]Ibid., 342.

[43]Ibid., 342-343. Cf. Ibid., 348.

[44]Ibid., 369.

[45]Ibid., 374.

[46]Ibid., 376.

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