Aristotle’s Topics and Cicero’s Topica

My chair, who has an article that touches on the subject via Aristotle’s Rhetoric, gave me a short mission not too long ago – read Aristotle’s Topics (of which I have Robin Smith’s translation of I and VIII with various excerpts of the rest) and Cicero’s Topica (of which I have the Loeb), supposedly based on the former, and try to figure out what the hell happened, as Cicero doesn’t seem to using anything resembling our text of Aristotle. Some initial thoughts follow.

Cicero‘s text is a lot more focused. This observation of mine is due to his much appreciated habit of giving a short and specific legal example for every topic that he discusses. Aristotle’s examples tend to be universal, as he is trying to not only list lines of argument but develop a system or definition of deduction and various means for generating and practicing such. Cicero is also calling upon his vast experience in the courts.

Cicero‘s text is also more impressive for three reasons – he composed it at the height of the intrigues in Rome – sending it to Trebatius in July of 44 BC, three months after the assassination of Caesar – and if he can be believed, entirely from memory without his library on hand – and at sea, no less. Writing it, with all its comforting classifications, was probably a welcome distraction from worrying about the situation in Rome. Of course, he plots with Brutus in August and the first Phillippic is in September, so let’s not fool ourselves – he’s a busy fellow – but he is also an exacting fellow. I hesitate at first to believe that he claimed to know cold Aristotle’s Topics in vain, especially since Trebatius seems to have appealed to his intellectual vanity by being “repelled from reading the books by their obscurity.” (Although maybe his Greek was poor.)

Cicero knew SOME text on topics attributed to Aristotle, which he kept in his villa in Tuscany, and it was a text he felt comfortable showing to a friend in a casual setting. So it was probably a scroll in good shape, a recent copy made specifically for his library rather than a ragged relic full of holes. The possibility that this copy was part of Andronius’ 1st century BC edition of Aristotle’s works seems very slim – Cicero never mentions the guy, anywhere, so that edition, which is probably ours, is post-Cicero, past late 43 BC.

We know by 55 BC Cicero managed to read some works attributed to Aristotle via Tyrannio or Faustus. Also, de Orator, written in 55 BC, contains a much shorter but very similar treatment of the topics as in the 44 BC Topica. Cicero does not attribute that earlier version to Aristotle (although A. is mentioned in passing not long before the subject appears). De Inventione, ~87 BC, has a longer account of topics that seems more Aristotelian; the predications, for example, don’t quite match up but the author admits that they have been cherry-picked from rhetorical textbooks.

What can be made of all this? Two possibilities spring to mind. One, Cicero had a copy made for his library of a pre-Andronicus version of Aristotle’s Topics – and that this pre-Andronicus version is shorter and more focused than ours, perhaps even missing completely the opening musing on deduction and Book VIII’s account of practice debates. Cicero simply substituted his legal examples for Aristotle’s for exploratory purposes and felt he’d done ok.

Two, Cicero is fibbing a bit, and giving his friend what amounts to Cicero‘s account of the topics, with a lot of help from Hermagoras, and not Aristotle’s account. I’m sure he thought his own system leaner and superior to that of Aristotle’s oft meandering account, and he knew his friend, thinking the text obscure, will not know the difference. In this light, what was in that text in his villa is immaterial. Stuck on his boat, probably seasick, wondering if Anthony & co was going to kill him if he tried to return to Rome, and racking his brains to remember that obscure text that he’d had copied, without any library resources, Cicero likely gave up on representing Aristotle fairly. He either didn’t know or didn’t care that a new edition of Aristotle’s works was soon to appear; he had no one to account to for misrepresenting a relatively unknown Greek author dead for well over 200 years. Neither, unfortunately, did Andronicus. And in this light, our Aristotle is as Roman as he is Greek.

Of course, tomorrow I will think the opposite.

You can leave a comment!