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  • Aristotle on God's Life-Generating Power and on Pneuma as Its Vehicle by Abraham P. Bos
  • Ignacio De Ribera-Martin
BOS, Abraham P. Aristotle on God's Life-Generating Power and on Pneuma as Its Vehicle. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018. vi + 333 pp. Cloth, $95.00; paper $29.95

One of the most intriguing and disputed questions in Aristotle is the nature of pneuma and the role it plays in his philosophy. In this book, against the widely accepted and longstanding standard interpretation, and recapitulating many years of personal research, A. P. Bos defends his novel view of the centrality of pneuma in Aristotle's philosophy as the "organic" (instrumental) body of the divine power in the sublunary sphere. The "organic body" that Aristotle refers to in his famous definition of the soul as entelecheia (see De anima 2.1), according to Bos's reading, is not the visible body equipped with organs (an interpretation for which Bos blames the ancient commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias), but rather pneuma itself. Pneuma, Bos explains, is neither one of the four terrestrial elements (it must be carefully distinguished both from natural fire and from air or breath) nor separated from them, but analogous to the fifth element, ether, in the astral sphere. It is not a sixth element either, but the instrument by which the divine power is present in the sublunary sphere "incognito," as Bos himself puts it. The book shows the advantages of Bos's novel interpretation of Aristotle. I will briefly point out some of them. First, it makes good sense of Aristotle's criticism of Plato's account of the soul: For Aristotle, the divine does not make, but rather begets, all things through its power, and there is a clear distinction between intellect and soul. Second, Bos's interpretation is able to bring together Aristotle's theology, on the one hand, and his cosmology and natural philosophy (in particular his account of generation and life), on the other, explaining why in nature we find teleology and a desire for the divine and immortality among lower, material beings. Third, Bos's interpretation makes good sense of passages such as Generation of Animals 2.3 (pneuma is different from fire and analogous to the element of the stars) and Physics 1.9 (matter desires form as the ugly desires the beautiful), which are more difficult to explain on the standard interpretation. Fourth, Bos's view makes room for the authenticity of two treatises (On the Cosmos and On the Life-Bearing Spirit), which, on the standard interpretation, have not been considered genuinely Aristotelian. Finally, Bos's account of pneuma [End Page 143] provides a compelling explanation of why Aristotle would attribute life to plants, which do not breathe, as well as to animal embryos from the moment of fertilization and long before they develop lungs and start to breathe: Life requires a specific body, but not necessarily, at its lowest (vegetative) level, a body equipped with organs; the soul, the entelecheia, is present in the pneuma as its proper instrumental body.

These advantages notwithstanding, Bos's account of pneuma in Aristotle remains open to debate, because it relies heavily on Bos's interpretation of what "organic body" means in Aristotle's definition of the soul in De anima 2.1 and also on the authenticity of the treatises On the Cosmos (De Mundo) and On the Life-Bearing Spirit (De Spiritu). On both accounts, there is still room for discussion, which in a sense boils down to whether Alexander's reading or Bos's is the correct interpretation of Aristotle, an issue that does not appear likely to be settled. The reader will find textual evidence and careful argumentation in favor of the author's view in this book, remarkable in its comprehensiveness, very informative in the footnotes, and with a complete and updated bibliography including but not restricted to the more familiar English literature on Aristotle. Of particular value, I think, is the long chapter 10, which Bos dedicates to the nature of pneuma and in which he raises key questions to understand it, for example, whether pneuma is the material or...