Antonio Mario Battegazzore (ed.), Teofrasto: Il Fuoco. Il trattato De igne. Sassari: Edizioni Gallizzi, 2006. Pp. 191. No price supplied.
Butler University, Indianapolis, U.S.A.
This volume includes the first Italian translation (and one of the very few modern translations) of Theophrastus’ interesting and regretfully understudied treatise on the nature of fire. Battegazzore is also the author of the six essays grouped in the second part of this book, all of which are meant to shed light on the purpose, merits and structure of this ancient scientific work; the essays are reprints of articles published by the author in Elenchos, Sandalion, and Epistemologia. As we learn from the two prefaces written by former colleagues and friends of Battegazzore, P. Meloni and W. Lapini, the author was prevented by his failing health from providing his own critical edition of Theophrastus’ text for the project directed by W. W. Fortenbaugh, as he had planned to do (the Greek text presented here being essentially based on Coutant’s edition) and from polishing his translation (Walter Lapini made the final, generally minor, adjustments). The reader should not expect to find here a general introduction (that could have placed De igne in the larger context of Theophrastus’ extant works and could have dealt with matters such as authorship) or a general index either. Still, those interested in ancient philosophy and especially in ancient science will find this book useful and revealing in many ways.
The translation (pp. 9-48) is meant to do justice to the Greek text in a way in which, for instance, Coutant’s English translation presumably does not (W. Lapini refers to the latter in his introductory note, p. 5 as 'imprecisa e spesso banalizzante'). Battegazzore’s translation is remarkably faithful and readable, despite the fact that Theophrastus’ style is sometimes tantalizingly elliptic (and, expectedly, often reminiscent of Aristotle’s style, which may implicitly raise questions, that can also apply to the Aristotelian corpus, for example, concerning the intended function of this text, which is possibly a collection of personal notes or the summary of a lecture). Due attention is paid to the conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbial constructions that connect the segments of this relatively short treatise (divided conventionally into 76 paragraphs), which is significant in so far as the reader is more easily led through this sometimes bewildering maze of comments on the nature, variety and dispositional properties of fire. To be sure, De igne – in Greek, PERI\ PURO/S – is no thoroughly structured and unified work; yet, it is important not to regard it as a mere jumble of disparate notes either. The connections between many of its segments are tighter than they might appear at first sight, and, for those who are not in command of classical Greek, these connections are clearly pointed out by the translation. Given that this is only the third modern translation of De igne (the first one is a 19th century Latin translation by F. Wimmer and the second one is Coutant’s 1971 English translation), and given the possible relevance of this treatise to other ancient theories of matter, Battegazzore’s translation certainly deserves the attention of the scholars in this field.
Theophrastus managed to tackle an impressive number of aspects in this relatively short work ranging from the uniqueness of fire (this simple body being capable of self-generation, unlike the other so-called elements: earth, water, and air) to the relation between light and warmth, from the ‘chemistry’ of fire and its interaction with other stuffs (for example, the fact that both air and moisture nourish, as it were, fire, if they are present in the right proportion or SUMMETRI/A) to the expected effects fire will have on a number of uniform materials under specific conditions (such as pressure and the temperature of the environment). Topics that are less crucial in this context, for example, spontaneous generation, the color and shape of flames, the noise that can accompany the process of combustion, the pores in certain types of solid uniform bodies (as a condition for the manifestation of some of the dispositional properties of fire) are also dealt with here. One of the dominant features of De igne is that, in good Aristotelian tradition, almost all the claims made by Theophrastus are immediately and scrupulously backed by arguments. An especially effective explanation for a number of phenomena discussed in this treatise seems to be the constant resort to the notions of density and pressure, and their correlation with force; thus, we learn that denser flames can be more devastating, whereas flames that appear to be as it were super-fluid and made of only loosely linked particles, tend to have a less intensely destructive effect. Theophrastus’ explanatory apparatus also relies on analogies, a particularly intriguing analogy being the one between the pyramid-like shape of flames and the shape of plants (paragraph 56), the link being the presence of warmth in both fire and plants.
It is chiefly the extent to which De igne departs from Aristotelian orthodoxy in method and substance that Battegazzora chooses to emphasize in some of his essays. The first one ('Aristotelismo e anti-aristotelismo del De igne teofrasteo'), which is also the longest (pp. 51-104), stresses the purely physical character of this trattatello, scarcely betraying any metaphysical propensity. Battegazzora seems to believe that Theophrastus’ terminology itself is a marker of this character (e.g. the Greek technical term for ‘elements,’STOIXEI=A, is avoided in favor of ‘bodies,’ SW/MATA). While Battegazzora somewhat overstates the sheer absence of any metaphysical agenda in this work, he is certainly right to draw our attention to Theophrastus’ fascination with concrete physical phenomena here (a feature that is reminiscent of much of Aristotle’s Meteorology IV). De igne also seems devoid of any interest in what the author of this study calls the anthropological dimension of fire (although, I believe, one can argue that this dimension looms in the background of the treatise, for example, when Theophrastus speaks about various ways of producing fire, for instance by striking a stone with another stone). One of the main respects in which Theophrastus’ theory deviates from Aristotle’s is the distinction between fire and heat or warmth (TO\ QERMO/N). While Aristotle appears to take fire (not the outermost layer of the sublunary world, but fire as we experience it here, on earth) to amount basically to excess of heat, Theophrastus distinguishes more neatly between fire and heat (for example, heat emanated by the sun) based on their respective effects: heat can have (or rather: can be) a generative and sustaining capacity, whereas fire is solely destructive (except that it can generate and increase itself in a peculiar fashion). I should add that this contrast becomes the object of Battegazzora’s scrutiny in the sixth and final appendix of this book as well (entitled 'Perché i semi ‘saltano’ sull’aia sotto l’assolato cielo di Babilonia?', pp. 171-90) dealing with warmth as vital force, indispensible to animals and plants. As I have already mentioned, Theophrastus believes that fire is also self-destructive and self- generative, whereas the other three so- called elements in the sublunary world only undergo reciprocal transformations; at the same time, however, fire, unlike the other three simple bodies, cannot exist autonomously. Rather, it depends necessarily on some substratum (the author reminds us that this concept, TO\ U(POKEI/MENON, just like the concept of matter, U(/LH, receives a completely physical treatment, purposely lacking metaphysical undertones); accordingly, fire can exist in air or even in water. An important theoretical consequence of this quasi-heretical view is that, while Aristotle speaks of the first sublunary sphere as being elemental fire (when the emphasis is on cosmology) or as being dry and combustible exhalation (when the accent is placed on meteorology), Theophrastus prefers to speak of that outer layer as being pure heat or warmth, which presumably eliminates the difficulty of conceiving of independently existing fire. Battegazzora further defends this interpretation of De igne in one of the appendixes in this volume ('Nuove spigolature su Teofrasto, De igne 4-6', pp. 123-46), where he responds to objections raised in a letter by R. Sharples.
Some of these tenets and speculations are examined also in the second essay ('Spigolature filologhiche e note esegetiche al De igne teofrasteo', pp. 105-22) where the author grapples with the formidable difficulties posed by many passages in this treatise, reflecting on their ambiguity and examining relevant aspects of the manuscript tradition. In his 'La posizione di Teofrasto tra metafisica e fisica' (pp. 135-56), Battegazzore moves beyond the confines of Theophrastus’ inquiry into the nature of fire; still, the Italian scholar reinforces there a major theme that he elaborated in his other papers, namely that it would be a misdirected approach to the study of the Peripatetic tradition to consider Theophrastus’ oeuvre as a consistently faithful continuation of the Stagirite’s doctrine and methods, despite the evidence yielded by a number of texts, such as De igne. By contrast, the scope of the next study (Il fluido che brucia, pp. 157-70) is very narrow and aims at elucidating only a few details especially in the third and the seventh paragraphs of De igne, by relating them, among others, to Theophrastus’ botanical research and to passages from Plato’s Timaeus.
Despite its limitations, due in part to the fact that the author had to leave his translation unfinished and that circumstances prevented him from providing a critical edition, this most recent translation of De igne, accompanied by detailed studies refreshing in their insistence on potentially major discrepancies between some of Aristotle’s physical theories and Theophrastus’ approach, will prove of great use to students of the Aristotelian tradition and to historians of science.