Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Zanchi’s Aristotle (5): “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”

Zanchi continues his exposition of Adam as the first philosopher. His evidence? “Man gave names to all the animals.” (That’s a Bob Dylan song, of course; you can listen to Johnny Cash’s version here.) There is an important point about language in Zanchi’s position here: for him, it seems, language is not conventional (arbitrary signs attached to things merely by custom, habit, and agreement–and so signs that could be otherwise than they are) but essential or natural, at least in the case of Adam. That is, the names Adam gave to all living things corresponded to their natures.1 Because Adam knew the natures of things, he was the first natural philosopher, and not simply the first divine theologian. He then, says Zanchi, “revealed” this knowledge to his posterity, and thus was born the philosophical tradition.

For because Adam possessed this wisdom about nature and the things of nature in an outstanding way, and for that reason was the first philosopher of all, we, leaving other reasons aside, are able also thence to conjecture that , when all the living things of heaven and earth had been brought to him by God, he gave the names to each individual [kind of creature] that were proper for them–namely, [that is,] in accordance with their natures and properties. He would not at all have been able to do this, unless he had thoroughly known the natures and properties of all of them by means of this knowledge of natural philosophy [hac scientia Physica]. There is therefore no doubt that Adam was not only the first divine theologian of all, but also the first natural philosopher. But who could doubt that he received this philosophy from God? However, it is not probable that Adam concealed so illustrious a knowledge about nature and the things of the world from his own sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons; rather, in contrast, [it is probable] that he revealed however much he was able.2

  1. The nature of language was a topic of debate in antiquity as well. For the “essential” or “natural” view, see Plato’s Cratylus. For the “conventional” view, cf. Augustine, De doctrina christiana 2. For an entertaining anecdote about the ancient debate, see Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.4: ‘1 Publius Nigidius in his Grammatical Notes shows that nouns and verbs were formed, not by a chance use, but by a certain power and design of nature, a subject very popular in the discussions of the philosophers; 2 for they used to inquire whether words originate by “nature” or are man-made.213 Nigidius employs many arguments to this end, to shown that words appear to be natural rather than arbitrary. Among these the following seems particularly neat and ingenious:22 4 “When we say vos, or ‘you,’ ” says Nigidius, “we make a movement of the mouth suitable to the meaning of the word; for we gradually protrude the tips of our lips and direct the impulse of the breath towards those with whom we are speaking. But on the other hand, when we say nos, or ‘us,’ we do not pronounce the word with a powerful forward impulse of the voice, nor with the lips protruded, but we restrain our breath and our lips, so to speak, within ourselves. The same thing happens in the words tu or ‘thou,’ ego or ‘I,’ tibi ‘to thee,’ and mihi ‘to me.’ For just as when we assent or dissent, a movement of the head or eyes corresponds with the nature of the expression, so too in the pronunciation of these words there is a kind of natural gesture made with the mouth and breath. The same principle that we have noted in our own speech applies also to Greek words.”‘
  2. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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