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Zanchi’s Aristotle (4): Philosophy as Revelation

Despite the title, this is about Plato rather than Aristotle.

In the next section of the prolegomena to Aristotle’s Physica, Zanchi makes the case that philosophy ultimately comes to man by divine revelation. I’m afraid that I misspoke in the first note of the previous post, in which I said that Zanchi was about to express qualified disagreement with Plato himself. (I did this because I misunderstood the verb inficiantur, which I was having much difficulty construing, until rediscovering–this is not the first time this has happened, so one would think I might have remembered–that inficiantur is infitiantur, as often in early modern texts.) He is not disagreeing with Plato, but only with some of Plato’s interpreters–though I should say, as you will see, that he is presumably not in wholehearted agreement with Plato’s phrasing with respect to the “divine lot,” as ut ille loquitur may indicate.

That was a lot of throat-clearing. What’s the point? The point Zanchi wants to make is that philosophy’s taking its beginning in wonder (i.e., when a person sees effects but is ignorant of their causes and wants to investigate them) is not in contradiction to philosophy’s having a divine source (i.e., not being a human invention or discovery). Why? In a kind of meta-comment on what philosophy itself is Zanchi engages in a philosophy of philosophy, as it were, and shows that it too is an effect, and that as such it must have a cause. And God is the first cause of all good things, ergo, etc.

And yet we see that philosophy grows, changes, and develops over time. Zanchi easily accounts for this by the fact that philosophy, though in its origin a divine revelation, is understood more and more deeply as men continue to study it.

But not even those philosophers deny that [philosophy] has come forth from God as from the source of all good things, since Plato writes in the Meno that every virtue (however, this wisdom [under discussion] is a virtue, too) is not present in us either by nature or by teaching, but has been dispersed1 by divine lot (as he says) in those in whom it is present.2 Therefore I do not deny that everyone generally begins to philosophize–that is, to investigate the causes of things–from [the state of being in] wonder. But I deny that it was first discovered by men; rather, I contend that it was first revealed to men by God, [and] was then increased by men’s study. Indeed, Diogenes Laertius writes that philosophy spread from the Greeks, since they say that Musaeus and Linus were the first wise men [sapientes] among them.3 But I ask: whence did it come down among the Greeks? Therefore Eusebius of Caesarea responds that philosophy, just as the rest of the disciplines, was dispersed from the Hebrews to the Greeks. But then I ask again: whence did it spread to the Hebrews? Therefore some respond that philosophy [came] to the Hebrews from the Chaldeans. But again I shall ask: whence was this philosophy dispersed to the Chaldeans, or the Magi of the Persians, or to the gymnosophists of the Indians, or to the Phoenicians, or to the Thracians, or to the Libyans, or, in short, to any other barbarians? For we must finally arrive at some source, whence it took its first beginning. I therefore (in order to say freely what I think) say that, if we should look for the channels through which this philosophy has spread to us, the first channel was Adam, and the sons of Adam, then the Chaldeans, then the Hebrews, finally the Greeks: for from him it came down to the Chaldeans, thence to the Hebrews, and thence to the Greeks, and from the Greeks finally to us Latins.4

  1. All the verbs Zanchi uses in this section have, etymologically, a “liquid” meaning: derivare, emanare, defluere. Thus the imagery is very much that of “flowing” from a source on high through streams and channels.
  2. Plato, Meno 99e7-100a1: …ἀρετὴ ἂν εἴη οὔτε φύσει οὔτε διδακτόν, ἀλλὰθείᾳ μοίρᾳ παραγιγνομένη ἄνευ νοῦ  οἷς ἂν παραγίγνηται….
  3. Because philosophy comes from poetry, of course.
  4. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.