An Ancient Treatise on Attention

At the time of his death in 1961, the German classicist Werner Jaeger was widely reputed to be the greatest scholar of Aristotle’s philosophy in the modern period. His reputation was secured already with the Studien zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Metaphysik des Aristoteles of 1911, while much of his later work was dedicated to the recovery and edition of lost or unknown texts of classical antiquity. These include, notably, two treatises of Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius, which he published in a critical edition in 1954. Among the papers in his considerable Nachlaß are transcriptions of three Greek texts attributed to a Pseudo-Aristotle, which is to say an author, likely of late antiquity, writing in a consciously Aristotelian style, or even in imitation of the Stagirite with intent to deceive readers. These are entitled On Napping, On Foam, and On Beans and Pulses.

A fourth text, archived along with these others at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, is found only in German translation, written out in Jaeger’s own hand, and is attributed, puzzlingly, to a “Pseudo-Pseudo-Aristotle”. Some scholarly debate over the past decades has been focused on the question whether this curiously monikered author was pretending (the common interpretation among French and Italian scholars) to be someone pretending to be Aristotle  —l’imitation d’une imitation, as Grillet (2003) wrote, evidently riffing on Plato’s dismissive characterisation of figurative art–; or whether (as Germans and Anglophones generally believe) the “Pseudo-Pseudo-” may be read as a double negation, so that the author was in antiquity falsely believed to be falsely believed to be Aristotle, which would be so much as to say, in other words, that he was Aristotle. The title of the text in question is On Attention.

We cannot resolve the question of authorship here, nor can we determine under what circumstances Jaeger acquired the text, nor what happened to the Greek original, nor indeed, with any certainty, whether there ever was one. We shall, nevertheless, here below (scroll over the bust), provide a translation of the German manuscript, supplementing it only sparingly with footnotes, where the text plainly requires interpretation, or where it evidently alludes to other parts of the Aristotelian corpus.