“Modern science has learned a lot from Aristotle’s philosophical ingenuity”


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Interview with Michele Curnis

CONEX researcher at the UC3M Institute of Classical Studies

Roberto Garvía

Michele Curnis (Ivrea, Turin, 1975) researches the influence of Aristotle on Iberian politics within the framework of the CONEX program (CONnecting EXcellence) at Universidad Carlos III (UC3M). This talent attraction program is supported by the European Union (Marie Curie actions of the 7th Framework Program), the Ministry of Economy, and Competitiveness and the Banco Santander.

What is the goal of your research?

My aim is to study the reception of Aristotle’s’ Politics in the Iberian area between the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period. In particular, I endeavor to study the manuscript tradition of this work of Aristotle in the original Greek and in Latin translations.

Where are these documents located?

There is only one Greek manuscript of Politics in Spain, in Madrid, to be exact, in the National Library, and it was written in Italy by Constantine Lascaris in 1501. As for the Latin manuscripts, there are a lot in Spain’s big cities. The most important and probably the oldest is in Toledo, in the Chapter Library, where there is a Latin translation of William de Moerbeke done by St. Thomas Aquinas.

What is the hypothesis you are defending?

One must keep in mind that the first printed edition of the Latin translation of Leonardo Bruni is Spanish (Barcelona, 1473), not Italian, and that many editions of Politics (in Greek, Latin, Spanish) were printed in Spain in the 16th century. All of this shows the great interest surrounding Aristotelian treaties as of the latter half of the 15th century, something that was already known. What I want to show is that Politics was studied and practiced as a manual of political action more in 16th-century Spain than in classical antiquity in general or among Aristotle’s contemporaries.

Did Aristotle influence the politics of his era?

The philosopher did not want to influence the politics of his era, but instead he wished to analyze all the political systems that he knew. However, the Apostolic Fathers reproached Aristotle’s’ tutelage of Alexander the Great, because Alexander the Great was a tyrant. At any rate, Aristotle taught Alexander for two or three years, from when the young prince was 13 until he began his military career.

How would you assess his cultural influence?

The influence that Aristotle has had on cultural history is extraordinary, and greater than Plato’s. In medieval Europe, Platonic thought was not very well-known because there were not many texts. However, Aristotle’s were widespread thanks to Arab, Latin and modern translations and the entire tradition of commentary. That is why the whole of antiquity absorbed his enormous encyclopedia of wisdom. After the Renaissance, his body of work continued to have an impact--no longer on physics, but on the philosophical thought of all the great thinkers and philosophers--and still does today.

What does this Aristotelian encyclopedia include?

A great many of Aristotle’s texts, a whole library’s worth, have been saved, although many have been lost, too. He is a unique case in classical antiquity because the works that he wrote for his students and those who attended his classes at the Lyceum have been preserved. These form a collection of “esoteric”(“eso” in Greek means “inside”) treaties about rhetoric, poetics, politics, etc. However, only a few fragments of his “exoteric” writing (“exo” means “outside”) are known. Destined for publication outside the Lyceum, most of it was lost.

Is there any chance of finding any of these lost texts?

Today it would be improbable to find some big lost or unknown text by Aristotle, but there might be important fragments from different works on papyruses. The history of Aristotle’s library is fascinating, because after his death, his books disappeared for two centuries. Then, they appeared in Athens and later in Rome. After that, the transmission of the so-called Corpus Aristotelicum began in the Middle Ages. The Corpus Aristotelicum is a systematic group of works by Aristotle and other authors from the Aristotelian school. In this period, numerous books were lost, such as the famous second volume of Poetics, whose imaginary discovery was narrated by Umberto Eco in his novel The Name of the Rose (1980).

What is the most difficult aspect of addressing these texts?

The most difficult moment is undoubtedly the analysis of the manuscript codices, because my first task is to decipher a manuscript in Greek, Latin, Spanish or Italian correctly. At the same time, though, working with old codices is the most fascinating moment of the entire research: every manuscript is a whole world that we have to explore with respect and caution.

How does one research in this field?

The methodology that I want to set out and practice is textual philology, that is, a meticulous analysis of all the linguistic, stylistic and historical elements in a constant comparison of sources and texts. I do this work at the Lucio Anneo Seneca Institute of Classical Studies, whose director is Francisco Leonardo Lisi. Lisi is Full Professor of Greek and oversees my research. I also work with Professor Federica Pezzoli, who is a friend and a colleague from my university years in Italy, and I teach in the UC3M Department of Humanities.

Aristotle was a multi-faceted man, considered the father of logic and of biology. Why is he special?

Aristotle observed the phenomena of the world, analyzed characteristics and later drew conclusions. His realism is still an indispensable source of teaching and character formation in general. The proverb “One swallow does not a summer make” for example, appears for the first time in Nicomachean Ethics and might be a summary of Aristotle’s’ philosophical attitude: a rule or general norm cannot be deduced from only one case, because a single indication is not enough to ensure something; the instance must be observed to see whether it occurs with any frequency or regularity. Modern science has learned a lot from Aristotle’s philosophical ingenuity.

The master of those who know?

That is how Dante, the greatest medieval European poet, described him. And in that era, Aristotle was the most read and studied author, becoming the highest authority in numerous fields. In this regard, all the philosophy of the modern world comes from Aristotle’s’ works. And not only the research of what is “inside” men ,such as the structures of reasoning, logic, ethics, the meanings of the virtues, political philosophy and metaphysics, but also what is “outside,” like physics, astronomy, biology, botany, zoology, etc.