Aristotle's history of animals: in ten books
From the introduction:
The following Translation of Aristotle's History of Animals has been made from the text of Schneider. In a work of considerable difficulty, it is hardly possible entirely to avoid errors, but it is hoped that those which have escaped are neither numerous nor important.
The notes of Schneider have been consulted throughout; and in places of difficulty, the English translation by Taylor, the French of Camus, and the German of Strack has been severally referred to. The work itself is the most ancient and celebrated contribution to science which has come down to us; and it is hardly possible when we consider the means of observation which were accessible at the time, to imagine a work of more accurate observation.
From the numerous quotations in which our author avails himself of the experience of his predecessors in the same field, as well as corrects their errors, there can be no doubt that Aristotle had the advantage of many works which have perished in the lapse of ages.
In the Appendix to the present Translation will be found the Essay of Schneider on the sources whence Aristotle derived his knowledge of the animals he describes; and these sources, together with his own accurate observations, are probably sufficient to account for the correct knowledge of the history of animals displayed throughout the work.
It is right, perhaps, to observe in this place, that Dr Smith, in his Dictionary of Biography, speaks of the ' His- tory of Animals ' as partly the result of the royal liberality of Alexander; and doubtless Aristotle would gladly have introduced it into his work any fresh materials which might have been made available to him either during his residence at the Macedonian court or by the subsequent victories of Alexander in the East, if the information so obtained had reached Athens in sufficient time to be incorporated. But in the first instance he would naturally use the materials ready to his hand in the works of his predecessors, aud these were not few.
The animals also which he de- scribes are principally those of Greece and of the countries with which the enterprising Greeks had frequent and commercial intercourse.
He says little of the animals of the interior of Asia and of India and speaks very cautiously of such as he does mention, and one who quotes his authorities so freely would hardly have failed to notice the sources of his information. The study of at least the knowledge of the classification of animals appears to have been carefully pursued in the earliest period of man's history.
The oldest records that we possess contain abundant notices of the peculiarities of animals. The Mosaic law abounds in them, in its distinctions between the clean and the unclean, a distinction not then first established, but of the most remote antiquity. Indeed it could hardly be otherwise than that men engaged in the pursuits of agriculture and the chase should study the habits of the animals that were valuable to them, as well as those which were injurious.
A study thus commenced by necessity would eventually be pursued for its own sake; and not a few would be found who would investigate, and, as far as they could, record the various phenomena they observed. The paintings of Egypt and the sculptures of Assyria are our witnesses of the skill with which animals and plants were drawn, and of the minute perception of their external forms; and the knowledge thus gained in the ancient centres of civilization would be sure to circulate and increase when the intercourse with foreign nations spread the knowledge and philosophy so acquired.
In the writings of Homer, we find that the knowledge of the anatomy of the human body had already made considerable progress; and the inspection of the animals offered in sacrifice cannot fail to have added much to the general knowledge of their history. A century later, we have the poems of Hesiod, devoted to the encouragement of agriculture and rural pursuits. Pythagoras, in the seventh century B.C., may perhaps have left no writings, but we know that he was an eminent student and exponent of natural phenomena.
His contemporary, Alcmseon of Crotona, is specially mentioned by Aristotle; and he is eminent among natural philosophers as the first who is said to have recommended to his followers the practice of dissection. Empdocles of Agrigentum left a work on the phenomena of nature, of which a few fragments still remain, and there were also others who, if they did not enter into the details of what we now call natural history, treated generally the nature of things, and opened the field to those who would study the subject in its particular parts.
The empire of Persia was still the dominant power and was carrying the civilization of the East to every part of the known world when Ctesias wrote his great works, of which, un- happily, only a few fragments remain.
He described not only the history of his own time, but also the natural history of Persia and of India, and that probably with more accuracy than has been usually attributed to him. India he had not visited personally so that he could order describe it from the information of others, but this implies that he was not alone in the studies which he devoted to natural objects.
With such predecessors and aided by his own acute observations, we need not wonder that Aristotle produced a work which has ever been admired by naturalists, and must continue to rise in their estimation the longer it is in their hands.
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