111. Parva Naturalia by Aristotle (c. 350 BC)

Plot: These are seven short treatises on biological phenomena, directly flowing on from the lecture De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle. I will discuss my thoughts on each one separately below, so get comfy because this might take some time.

My copy is from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952.

My thoughts:

i) On Sense and Sensibilia

Not Jane Austen’s excellent novel unfortunately.

This picks up straight after On the Soul, and was a little easier to follow, either from having some of the ideas about the sense organs and senses already covered or perhaps a more sympatico editor/translator (J. I. Beare in this case)

Points worth sharing include:

  • Colours are a mixture of particles of black and white, sometimes in specific ratios. Likewise, flavours are combinations of sweet and bitter in different ratios. (Aristotle likes his maths!)
  • There are 2 distinct types of odours : those related to nutrition where an animal can identify what is good or bad to eat and locate it, and those related to pleasure which only humans appreciate, and once inhaled rise up to the brain where they promote health.
  • Flavours range from sweet, which directly provide nourishment, to salty, acid and bitter which act as seasoning

ii) On Memory

  • Only animals which perceive time can have memory
  • Memories are sensory imprints, and weakest in the very young and very old as their receiving organs do not imprint due to their bodies’ rapid state of growth or decay.
  • Remembering is not the same as recollection : the latter requires active effort and searching to reach the required memory.  Connection of memories allows recollection more easily.

Digression #1.  I can still remember a UK comic I read as a child (I’m sure it was in an issue of Whizzer and Chips) where the sport-mad boy was in an exam that he hadn’t studied for. The next panel showed a view inside his brain of this enormous pile of tiny pieces of paper, each with some obscure fact written on it (“Don’t eat peanut butter after cleaning your teeth”, etc.) and two little men sifting through it all one by one to find the answer to the question. It remains my favourite image of the human memory at work.

iii) On Sleep

  • Since sleep is the resting of organs of sense-perception, then it follows that plants do not sleep or dream (shame : I love the idea of dreaming trees!)
  • Since all sense organs rest simultaneously during sleep, they must be controlled by a central primary organ, which must be the heart
  • Because heat from the food eaten rises to the head, making it heavy ; then you will feel tired after a big meal. Logical.

Digression #2. Does anyone else, when reading novels, decide to call it a night when the characters in the story go to sleep? Almost as if you can be assured they won’t go off and continue their adventures while you sleep. Or should I book into a good psychiatrist?

iv) On Dreams

  • Perceptions from sense organs during waking time have a momentum or afterimage which gets distorted from the heat travelling in the body.
  • The eye can cause an effect on things it sees as well as receive an image. Hence, a woman having her period can cause a highly polished or new mirror to develop a blood-coloured haze (Aristotle had rejected belief in reciprocal effects on objects caused by the sense organs in his earlier work On the Soul,so how he came to state this is disappointing)

v) On Divination in Sleep

Aristotle is undecided on believing in the ability to tell the future via dreams. He admits that many people have reported such instances, but dismisses most as coincidence. He also thinks that most people who claim such prophetic dreams are unlikely to be sent messages from God as they are base commoners and so too ignorant and unimportant to be chosen.

vi) On Length and Shortness of Life

Some animals live longer than others, just as some plants live longer. The secret is the amount of humidity and warmth in their bodies. As the humidity cools and congeals, or dries up, we age and die. Larger organisms tend to live longer as they have a larger quantity of this humidity. Plants have a oiliness or viscosity to their liquid which resists these changes, but they also renew parts of themselves by growing new shoots and roots.

vii) On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration

  • Some animals continue to live and move after parts like the head are removed as they still have the soul attached via the dominant organ with supreme control of the sensory and digestive functions – the heart (although others thought it was the brain).

More is made of the gradual dissipation of the body’s fire with age until death ensues in a natural way. There was also a lot of talk of the need for a certain degree of cooling of the body during life, presumably to stop all the fire from escaping too quickly, but the logic here escapes me.


Aristotle was no doubt a brilliant observer of many things, even if his conclusions were not always spot on – shame he didn’t develop the Scientific Method. But in the spirit of Herodotus as Father of History, I think Aristotle merits the title of the Father of Science.

More diversions and digressions:  Some unfamiliar words turned up while reading these lectures. How many do you know?

sapidity : flavour

sanguineous :  resembling or containing blood

gustable :  a thing which can be tasted

deglutition:  act of swallowing

desiderative:  something someone wants to do (a little vague, sorry 🙂  )

murex: sea snails, used by the Ancient Phonecians to make purple dyes

atrabilious : melancholy or (probably more likely) irritable, related to an excess of bile perhaps?

Try using two or more in a sentence today (extra points for sounding either Wodehousian or Dickensian) ….

“Ah, these murex have a sapidity which is quite likely to make me atrabilious”

“Then you should refrain from deglutition, old bean!”

Personal rating: Better than De Anima, but still a struggle to understand some parts. Only  a 3.

Next :  More Aristotle. Historia animalium (History of animals)


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