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Why Do Ancient Questions Still Matter?

Por: | 16 de diciembre de 2012


By Joyce van Leeuwen, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Solving the puzzle of the Aristotelian Mechanics.

Have you ever wondered why dentists can more easily draw teeth by using a forceps than with the bare hand? In antiquity authors were already fascinated by these types of questions and wrote profusely about the working of simple machines.

The text of the Aristotelian Mechanics focuses on 35 questions relating to different mechanical devices such as a balance, lever, and wedge. These questions originate from the authorʼs fascination of the circle, which is the underlying principle of all such mechanical phenomena. While reading, you may wonder about the practical nature of these questions, which had already been asked in the third century B.C. But through them, we learn not only precisely how a dentistʼs forceps works, but also why nuts are easily cracked with nutcrackers, or why missiles travel further from a sling than from the hand. The Aristotelian Mechanics is the earliest known theoretical treatment of machines, and this text may contribute significantly to our knowledge of the history of ancient science.

If we want to discover what the ancient text looked like, we need to go back to the earliest traces of the Mechanics, namely, those found in handwritten Greek manuscripts. Unfortunately, the original texts of Aristotle have been lost and all that remains are later copies mainly from the fifteenth century. Thus, it is difficult to restore the authentic picture of this treatise. However, in order to enhance our understanding of the subsequent developments in mechanics, it is necessary to solve this puzzle. Only an accurate reconstruction of the Aristotelian Mechanics, which is at the root of mechanics, will allow us to correctly interpret the later developments in this discipline.

The first part of the puzzle is the text itself. The present editions of the Mechanics are highly erroneous, so the material needs to be re-examined. To this end I compared the texts of all 31 available manuscripts and established a family tree that shows the relationships among the different manuscripts. From my work on the Greek manuscripts, a new text appears that differs greatly from the text found in current editions of the treatise. The different editions all contain foreign elements from a Byzantine paraphrase of the Mechanics, which need to be removed in order to obtain a much more authentic text.

Although part of the puzzle is now solved, some of its pieces are still missing. We also find many diagrams in the manuscripts of the Mechanics. None of the editors of the text paid any attention to these diagrams, which is remarkable, especially since the diagrams play a decisive role in our understanding of the text. Reading the Mechanics without the accompanying diagrams is like trying to build an IKEA bookcase without any construction figures. You will be able to build the bookcase using the instructions alone, but the significance of the outcome and what the result should look like remain unclear.

This important illustrative function also applies to the figures in the manuscripts. The author makes constant use of letter labels to refer to the corresponding parts of the figure. And without these figures, the text would not make any sense at all. For example, a dentistʼs forceps is described as follows: “Let A be one end of the forceps and B the other which draws the tooth. Now ADF is one lever and BCE the other, and CHD is the fulcrum; the tooth is at the point I, where the two levers meet; this is the weight. The dentist holds the tooth with BF and moves it at the same time.” Looking at a picture of a forceps helps us to understand the text better. Apart from this apparent illustrative function, the figures in the Greek manuscripts also contain important information on how this principle was understood in antiquity. For this reason, it is important to study the forceps from the authentic manuscripts instead of inserting an arbitrary figure of this dentistʼs tool as is found in modern texts.

By collecting all evidence from the manuscripts of the Aristotelian Mechanics, a much more authentic picture of this treatise could be developed. My work on the transmission of the text enables us to reconstruct a better and more reliable text, while the interpretation of the diagrams in their historical context contributes greatly to our knowledge of the history of ancient science. For it is not until these ancient questions on simple machines are completely understood, that one can fully grasp the subsequent developments in mechanics which ultimately led to the birth of modern science.


Joyce van Leeuwen
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Hay 1 Comentarios

Great article. The Manuscrit. Many questions will be asked, and will never be answered. It always happen

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