Tutors Talk Books: David Bolotin on Aristotle and Soul
August 19, 2019 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)
Tutor David Bolotin is a veteran reader of the Great Books. He started at St. John’s College on the Annapolis campus in 1974, then moved to Santa Fe where he was on the faculty for 31 years until his retirement in 2012. He’s spent a great deal of time in recent years studying Aristotle, and he recently completed a new translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, which was published in August 2018 by Mercer University Press.
Bolotin gave his translation the English subtitle On Soul, rather than the traditional On the Soul. The title in the manuscripts does not have a definite article before the Greek word for “soul,” and though it not simply an error to add one in English translation, Bolotin thinks that it is better not to.
“Soul is not something that comes into a body or leaves a body, it’s not anything on its own; it’s a set of activities. Just like you wouldn’t say ‘On the Sense Perception,’ I think it’s best not to say ‘On the Soul,’” Bolotin explains.
Over the years, Bolotin has come to think of Aristotle as superior to other philosophers. While Descartes has argued that the world as it appears to us is illusory, and Kant that we know only the world of appearance (rather than things in themselves), Aristotle was right, in Bolotin’s view, to think that the world as it is given to us is the true world, or reality in the truest sense. And if this is so, Bolotin claims, Aristotle’s account of soul, and its relation to the world, must be right—at least in its fundamentals.
“Aristotle presents the true teaching about what our relation to the world must be, if, as I believe, the world as it’s given to us, the world in which we’re born, the world in which we die, is not just illusory or apparent, but it’s the truth," Bolotin says. "It’s the most real thing there is. It’s not just the necessary beginning of our thinking, but the truest object of our thinking as well.”
Bolotin says he wanted to pay more attention to Aristotle’s exact words than any other translator had to date. The text most English scholars and translators rely on is the one by Sir David Ross from over 50 years ago. Bolotin says that particular text has too many conjectural emendations. Even though he acknowledges that the surviving manuscripts date from many centuries after Aristotle’s death, he thinks that the manuscript readings, even and precisely when they are difficult to interpret, should be preferred to modern conjectures.
“The Ross edition is too cavalier in not trusting that some of that readings [in the manuscripts] might be the most revealing evidence about what Aristotle really wrote,” Bolotin says.
He went back to an older edition of the Greek text, while paying close attention to the critical apparatus at the bottom of each page that gives alternate readings from different manuscripts.
He says he learned more about the text than he’d ever learned before, even though he’d read it many times for many years. The most fundamental teaching he saw was about the relationship between sense perception and the given world that’s the object of sense perception.
“Our sense faculty receives the perceptible form like the red that is already present in the world, for instance, in a red ball. Somehow the red which is present in the external being, that form, that perceptible quality, is received in us thanks to our faculty of sense perception,” Bolotin says.
He thinks many people are embarrassed by that teaching because it comes across as naïve and simple-minded. However, he says that Aristotle’s understanding of what it means to be receptive of perceptible forms—an understanding that requires an attentive reading—is not at all naïve, and that it makes good sense to him.
“It makes the best sense of any account I know of how our faculties of perception are related to the world.”
Soul includes more than the activity of sense perception, but even the higher activity of thinking, according to Bolotin, is an activity of a certain kind of body, namely, the body that we are, and the path to understanding it is through understanding the activities of that body.
“You can’t understand soul except as the activities of this kind of body, and you can’t understand this kind of body, except as alive,” Bolotin says. “You can’t go back to earth, air, fire, and water, or hydrogen and helium and carbon and understand a living being as their product. Nor can you understand any of the activities of soul except as belonging to a living body.”