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Zanchi’s Aristotle (11): Unphilosophical Giants

After asserting that man’s physiology bears witness to the three kinds of “worlds” that exist and the kinds of knowledge that correspond to them, Zanchi notes that natural philosophy is useful for two of them (the lower and the middle), he adds–in reliance on the Platonici–that there are three kinds of men that correspond to these three kinds of knowledge, and tosses in a learned allusion to Hesiod’s Theogony to boot with respect to the first kind of men, to which this post is limited.1

Since these things are so, it is fitting that man, because he is a μικρόκοσμος [microcosm] and in him are contained the three remaining worlds, know the remaining worlds and himself. And yet it is natural philosophy that hands on the knowledge of this lower world, and also in large part the knowledge of the middle one–namely, the heavenly. Who, then, could not see that this study of natural philosophy is worthy of man? What the Platonists say can also be adduced here–namely, that there are three kinds of men. Of these, they call some sons of earth, namely those who are wise only in earthly things, and are not bound by any desire for virtue or philosophy. Some hand on the tradition that the giants [gygantes] were of this kind, whom Hesiod also called children of earth; even the very letters of the name indicate their being ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς [“from the earth”].2 Since they are wise only in earthly things, they are stooped downward toward food and sex.3

  1. The translation is my own.
  2. Zanchi refers to the mythical account of the origin of the giants in Hesiod’s Theogony and to the corresponding etymology of the word “giant” (γίγας); for the giants were born from the earth (γῆ, γαῖα). In the myth, Kronos castrates his father Ouranos, and the refuse from the mutilation is perversely fertile: “And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round [185] she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth” (in Greek: ὅσσαι γὰρ ῥαθάμιγγες ἀπέσσυθεν αἱματόεσσαι,/ πάσας δέξατο Γαῖα: περιπλομένων δ᾽ ἐνιαυτῶν/ γείνατ᾽ Ἐρινῦς τε κρατερὰς μεγάλους τε Γίγαντας,/ τεύχεσι λαμπομένους, δολίχ᾽ ἔγχεα χερσὶν ἔχοντας,/ Νύμφας θ᾽ ἃς Μελίας καλέουσ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν).
  3. Perhaps a further reference to Hesiod. The word Zanchi uses for “sex” here is Venerem < Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite–who was also born from Ouranos’ abscission: “And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, [190] they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass [195] grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, [200] and Philommedes because she sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

2 replies on “Zanchi’s Aristotle (11): Unphilosophical Giants”

I wanted to post this comment on the first post of this series. But since no comment trend is open, I’ll post it here. In the prologue to his commentary on Aristotle’s ethics, Vermigli also address critics of philosophy. Since Zanchi and Vermigli lectured on alternating weeks at the same university, it is worth comparing notes. He says the following. I’m taking this translation from the McLelland volume (13-16).

“Now I can easily proceed to the exposition of Aristotle, except that a certain hindrance must be first removed. It consists of what Paul said in Colossians 2: ‘Beware lest anyone prey on you through philosophy.’ Truly, wich such words he seems to frighten Christians away from the study of philosophy, but I am sure that if you grasp the meaning of the apostle’s statement properly, you will not be disturbed. Since true philosophy derives from the knowledge of created things, and from these propositions reaches many conclusions about the justice and righteousness that God implanted naturally in human minds, it cannot therefore rightly be criticized: it is the work of God and could not be enjoyed by us without his special contribution. But Paul censured that philosophy that is corrupted by human invention and by the bitter disputes of philosophers. If they had remained without limits and had discussed only what creaturely knowledge has revealed about God and nature by the most certain reasoning, they would not have strayed from the truth. Hence, the apostle says: ‘By this philosophy,’ that is, by epexegesis ’empty deceit’; then he adds: ‘which has its origin in human tradition and is inspired by cosmic forces.’ That the universe is eternal was taught by human beings, not by lower creatures. Nature did not show that the universe is composed of the random conjunction of atoms; this was conceived by empty speculation. Stoic fate and impassibility, the perpetual doubt of the Academics, the motionless and idle deities of the Epicureans–who would question that such ideas are ’empty deceit’? They dreamed of community of property, of wives traded openly, of pleasure as the highest good, and of gods worshiped in the manner of the vulgar; yet they did not learn such things by any natural illumination or practical principles known in themselves by sure reasoning. Surely these things are poisons and corruptions by which the devil, through evil men, perverts that gift of God, philosophy. This polluted and spoiled philosophy is what Paul wishes to avoid.

“Let us return to the point from which we digressed, namely, whether this discipline is repugnant to piety. I say that it is no more against it than astrology or the nautical or military arts, or else fishing and hunting, and also knowledge of human law that everyone understands as necessary for public administration. Jurisprudence forms its own laws and institutions out of propositions concerning the justice and goodness innate in our minds; moral philosophers analyze the same propositions and probe them most closely, so that not only might they themselves know them thoroughly, but also transmit them to others with great clarity. Thus among the Greeks wisdom is called sophia as if it meant ‘clarity’ and ‘wise’ is sophos as if it meant ‘clear,’ no doubt because it clarifies its subject matter and makes it obvious. Therefore those learned in the law may easily regard their own science as part of philosophy, even if concerning virtue, honesty, and justice, they pass less severe judgments through their legislation than philosophers do in their disputes. For examples, philosophy detests ingratitude in any human condition, but the laws do not punish it unless committed by children against parents or by freedmen against their patrons. Human laws compel no one to give his goods to the needy; but philosophy commends liberality and generosity towards all. What more should be said? In praise of this kind of philosophy Cicero exclaimed in ‘Tusculanus’ 5: ‘O philosophy, thou guide of life, O thou explorer of virtue and expeller of vice! Without thee what could have become not only of me but of the life of man altogether? Thou hast given birth to cities, thou hast called scattered human beings into the bond of social life, thou hast united them first of all in joint habitations, then in wedlock, then in the ties of common literature and speech, (thou hast discovered law), thou hast been the teacher of morality and order,’ and so forth. Everyone acknowledges how splended it is to know the power of herbs, rocks, metals, and medicines, and we do not deny this in the least. But does it not follow from all this that it is a worthwhile faculty by which human acts, choices, arts, methods, skills, virtues, and vices are to be perceived? What could be more noble than to know oneself?–and this we know in the first place through philosophy. We should also keep in mind what Plato said, that it may easily happen that ardent love for virtue is aroused in us if now and then its likeness meets our eyes. On the other hand, the chief cause of our vices is that we could never see virtue with our own eyes.

“The pleasure derived from the science is not small, to know within what bounds the illumination that nature sheds should confine itself, and how far it may extend itself in its own right. Moreover, the Christian religion is inflamed by knowledge of pagan ethics, for we understand through comparison how far those things taught in scripture surpass philosophy. For it is a common saying that when opposites are compared with one another they become clearer. Errors cannot be easily avoided unless they are first understood. Therefore, whoever knows both faculties will more easily avoid the mistakes of the one, namely, of human philosophy, especially when properly demonstrated.”

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