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Review of Prof. Thomas Alexander Szlezŕk’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics


This review was published in “Freiburger zeitschrift für philosophie und theologie”, 51 Band, 2004, Heft 1-3.



By Jens Tomas Anfindsen

Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University



Thomas Alexander Szlezák: “Aristoteles metaphysik. Übersetzt und eingeleitet von Thomas Alexander Szlezák.” Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2003. 305 pp. ISBN 3-05-003879-9. Hardcover, € 49,80.


Aristotle’s Metaphysics has appeared in a new, German translation, with an introduction by Prof. Thomas Alexander Szlezák. The translation is principally based on the Greek text edition by Werner Jaeger (Oxford 1957), except for minor variants, and some significant variants which are indicated in a minimal textual apparatus.  Besides a complete translation of the fourteen books of the Metaphysics, there is also a 24-page introduction and a 3-page list of reference works and recommended readings. There is also an index of names in the back of the book.


Judging from the plan of the work, this edition carries all the marks of aspiring to become the new standard German translation. One is initially surprised that there is no commentary alongside the translation, but Prof. Szlezák does plan to write one to be published as a separate volume. Due to an unfortunate delay with the conclusion of the manuscript, however, the publication of this commentary is postponed. The absence of an index of sources and a general concordance to supplement the translation is perhaps to be explained by the intention to supply such information in the commentary. Yet, with the philological tools for the creation of indexes and concordances nowadays available, one wonders why the publishers have not been more insistent on having that included, for the public will expect such amenities in a scholarly publication of this format. For the fate of the public reception of Szlezák’s work, one can only hope that his commentary will appear soon. 


For it is indeed a worthy piece of work Prof. Szlezák has given us, and in my evaluation of it, the best German translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics presently available. Based on sample surveys of the text, it is my impression that Szlezák’s translation succeeds in preserving a sound closeness to the Greek text admirably well, while also providing a good and readable German. Yet perhaps the most appreciable quality of Szlezák’s translation is its calm preservation of some of the oddities and peculiarities of Aristotle’s style, and its allowance for difficulties which inhere in the original text to carry over into the translation. For the student of Aristotle, particularly for anyone who also reads the Greek text to any extent, the result is a much more interesting reading-text than one of airbrushed beauty. It is this closeness to the original which positively distinguishes Szlezák’s translation from competing versions. There are, needless to say, several German translations of the Metaphysics, of which the two most widespread are that of Friedrich Bassenge (Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1960), and Horst Seidl’s emendation of Herman Bonitz’s translation (Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1978); the latter appears to have obtained status as the present standard student-text. Compared with any of these, it is my impression that Szlezák’s translation is less interpretative and preserves more of the nerve- and vividness of Aristotle’s thought. To that extent it is also preferable.


To write an introduction to the Metaphysics must be a difficult task by any standard. The question of the status of the text is difficult; the question of a unitary plan for the text is difficult; the question of the unity of ideas that the text expresses is difficult; and at any rate, the subject matter (or subject matters) that the text treats of is itself difficult. To all of these difficulties one may add one no less difficult than any of them, that for all of them there are scholarly disagreements as to the correct answers, and the author of an introduction cannot avoid assuming some kind of stance on these controversies. A difficult task by any standard! Szlezák’s introduction follows a plan that aims at elucidating (1) the contents of the books of the Metaphysics, (2) the literary character of the books,  (3) the connection (thematic or literary) between the books, (4) the origin and name of the collection of books known as the Metaphysics, and (5), the unity of Aristotle’s metaphysical theory.


As an overall assessment, Szlezák’s introduction provides the reader, I find, with a very handy reference-guide to the most contentious and most discussed issues pertaining to questions of the literary character and literary unity of the various books and text-units contained in the Metaphysics. I would have concluded that Szlezák’s analysis would seem, on the whole, more informative than controversial, had I not been amazed by the following profound, and certainly controversial comment:


Von größter Wichtigkeit für das Thema der Bestimmungen, die dem Seienden als Seienden zukommen, scheint die verlorene Schrift Eklogę tôn enantiôn gewesen zu sein, auf die in  Γ 2 und Ι 3 verwiesen wird – wenn diese Schrift als Ganzes (oder wenigstens in ihren Hauptergebnissen) in die ‘Metaphysik’ inkorporiert wäre, würden wir thematisch wohl keinen Bruch erfinden (p.16).


This judgement entails some wide reaching consequences for the understanding of the material one encounters in the Metaphysics. For if there is a lost work of Aristotle, whose contents would provide us the key to the thematic unity between some allegedly discrepant themes of the Metaphysics, then there is a perspective, and an Aristotelian perspective, from which it can be seen that the contents of the work entitled the Metaphysics are subsumed under a unitary metaphysical theory. If that is true, the widespread zeal to deny thematic unity to the Metaphysics will not seem so wise.


Szlezák’s own treatment of the question of the unity of the Metaphysics benefits from a rigid distinction between the question of the connection between various books and pieces of text, i.e. the literary unity of the work, and the question of the connection between it’s various themes, i.e. the thematic unity of the work. While it is evident to anyone and denied by none that the Metaphysics is far from being written as a literary unity, Szlezák goes surprisingly far in denying sound connections between the various books. A disputable segment of Szlezák’s exposition, here, regards his assessment that the aporiai of book Β relate, hardly to the proceeding books (except for Γ 1-3), but primarily to problems integral to academic doctrine, not to the sought-after science of causes. Even more critical, and to my view, insufficiently founded, is his assessment that Λ is foreign to the composition of the Metaphysics as a whole. Against that assessment may be forwarded the following points:  that Γ explains to us how the study of causes and general ontology will reduce to the study of substance, that Z then tells us twice that an investigation of sensible substance will be undertaken in order to discover the nature of non-sensible substance, that E 1 then gives us a vital indication as to how the study of sensible and non-sensible substance are both subsumed by theology, and that K recapitulates these points before we arrive at Λ. This means that there are several central pieces of text preceding Λ that provide us solid ground for seeing why a treatment of non-sensible, divine substance should have a place within the composition of the Metaphysics, and thus, how Λ cannot be quite unreasonably placed where it is.


Turning now to the highly controversial discussion of the thematic unity of the Metaphysics, the reader will encounter an instructive and well balanced position of a philologist-philosopher. The philologist Szlezák concludes with scientific modesty that the text of the Metaphysics does not testify to any unitary metaphysical theory. As the evidence stands, there is no one body of knowledge, no “grandioses Ganzes” to be directly extracted from the pages of the Metaphysics, and any attempt to reconstruct such a system, he assesses, will be burdened with unsurpassable uncertainties. But shrewdly, he deems it rash to deny Aristotle the aspirations towards such a unitary theory, as it would go against the grain of the evidence to deny that the material one encounters in the Metaphysics was conceived as preliminary steps towards such an achievement. And so the philosopher-Szlezák concludes with insight, that the theory-pieces scrambled together in the redaction of the Metaphysics, willingly lend themselves to constructive attempts at grasping the unity of the science that Aristotle’s envisions.


For myself, I have sometimes wondered whether one must be prejudiced or just dull minded not to glimpse the architectonic outlines of the unitary metaphysical theory that Aristotle’s philosophical speculations aspire towards, or whether one must be seduced by muses and “drunk with nectar” to even imagine such a thing. Perhaps the Metaphysics provides both enough light to see, and enough muddle to confuse? For sorting out this and other contentious issues raised by the Metaphysics, Szlezák’s work will be of great service. It provides us with an instructive and useful introduction, and an excellent translation of the text. Let us only hope that Prof. Szlezák also grants us his commentary, soon!