“You have turned us into great lovers of death”: Animals, Freedom, and Aristotle’s Book of the Apple

Bnf italien 917 37r – see also here, and here

According to its 1968 translation, the earliest surviving version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Liber de Pomo is Arabic (by the 10th century, the Kitab al-Tuffahah). It could have been translated from Greek, or Syriac, but the version we have is Arabic (and a version may still be in Aleppo): it would be translated from thence into Persian (Tarjuma-imaḳala-i- Arasṭaṭalis), and independently into Hebrew (the Sefer ha-Tappuah), by Abraham Ben Samuel, in Barcelona (1230s) and from Hebrew into Latin (before 1258?), perhaps by Manfred of Sicily himself. Despite some skepticism about its authenticity, the work entered the late medieval university corpus of Aristotle, where it wouldn’t be dislodged until after the Middle Ages (notably, print versions of Latin exist only in incunabula; Arabic manuscript copies date as late as the 17th c; a Hebrew print version survives from the late 18th). Other medieval translations exist, for example, into Catalan. Mary Rousseau’s superb introduction to her translation attests to some 90 extant manuscripts of the Latin: perhaps more have been found since.

The Book of the Apple adapts Plato’s Phaedo — the account of Sophocles’ deathbed lecture on the forms — to render Aristotle palatable for monotheists. In both the Persian and Latin (and presumably in their sources), Aristotle’s cheerily on his death bed, discoursing to his grieving students, as he smells an apple to keep himself alive. At the end, his energy dips, he drops the apple, and he dies. Each aims to dissuade us from the lusts of the body; to rejoice in death; and to hope for permanent things. And each has its Aristotle, unlike the actual philosopher, argue that the material world begins in time, and that the rational soul outlives the body. Given the popularity of the work in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, its lessons must have been ecumenical.

The Persian version is, after a fashion, philosophical (and indeed, all versions belong to a genre counted as “philosophical,” the protreptic). Aristotle’s disciples ask him a series of hard questions — what is brightness? does it come from warmth? what kind of knowledge does the present give us of the future? are mixed things worse than pure things? — but his responses are, effectively, supremely confident assertions. No one really worries about how to get to the answers. The Hebrew version is somehow even less worried. Aristotle speaks, at length, and his students accept it. He observes, for instance, that some say the soul shares its existence with the body: note, these people say, how boys cannot learn the sciences as easily as adults do, or how sickness makes us less able to think well. If that’s the case, the soul grows and diminishes with the body itself. But, he insists, “these men look for and apprehend the great science of God and His works in the members of the body, in its essence and sinews” (58). And that, apparently, is sufficient to disprove his opponents.

What the Hebrew/Latin Aristotle offers, too, unlike the Arabic/Persian Apple, is a contempt for the life of beasts. While the former never references nonhuman animals, the latter offers this:

you, if you are disturbed and afraid of death, which is the departure of the soul from the unknowing body and its entrance into comprehension of the divine degrees and union with wise and happy soul — you do not allow knowledge its proper rank or value; you are submerged in a bestial spirit along with other beasts. (52)

people must purge their soul “of its impurities,” for it must depart “from the uncleanness which is imprisoned with it–which is produced out of earth, and pursues the pleasures of eating, drinking, and amusement, as do other animals (52)

“the first ones we mentioned,” that is, those who follow philosophical precepts without understanding them or judging them as good or evil, are like “children,” or “like beasts. There is no difference between them and the beasts which are led along the right path by the man who bridles them. These are men who do not know how to think for themselves” (57)

And, from Manfred’s prologue:

he is so greatly impeded by the darkness of the companion [the body] subjected to him, from which every weakness of his corruption originates, that he is deformed by the vice of earthly desire and, like a beast of burden, understands nothing (48)

men, who seeking pleasures so licentiously, differ not at all from the beasts (47-48)

Becoming a philosopher means becoming a human being, while enjoying the pleasures of the body means being an animal. So we see, for example, a late medieval ritual of cutting the horns from the beani, the first-year students, so that they can advance into the higher ranks: see Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men, and for a medieval witness, the Manuale scholarium (Heidelberg, 1481), where two upperclassman insult and harrass a beanus:

Cam[illus]. First, I’ll get rid of his horns. Bart, hand me the saw. Little ass, would you fight against your physician?
Bar[toldus]. Check his attack, and restrain him like an intractable horse. Take care that he doesn’t strike you with his cruel hoofs, or injure you with his horned head.
Cam. How hard and deeply rooted are these horns! Look, the saw is broken, and almost all its rotten teeth shattered. Now look at your horns, violent beast! Before this you couldn’t see them, and didn’t believe us.

As the ritual shows us, “humanity” is always a moving target, and entering it is not only a matter of practicing dominance, routinely, but also of believing that someone, out there, is naturally suited for dominance. For university students, it’s the beani; for the Liber de Pomo, it’s the body itself.

The body is unknowing, heavy, a prison, an impediment; it is unfree, unable to think for itself. If the rational soul is the free soul, then we can sense how the notion of “freedom” depends on the idea of “subjection” or “subservience.” The free soul doesn’t know that it’s free unless there’s something that it dominates, or that it imagines that’s fit to dominate. We can witness, then, in the Liber de Pomo, an infection in the body of philosophical thought, namely, a belief in natural dominance at the heart of any claim to liberty or freedom. The claim to be thinking freely, necessarily brings with it a claim that others are not thinking freely, like animals, with all that entails. In this case, what’s to be dominated is the body, those beings thought of as excessively embodied (animals), and those beings who have let themselves be dominated by their bodies (non-philosophers).

It is in this context that we need to hear the Liber de Pomo‘s inherent praise of suicide. Aristotle’s disciples marvel at his deathbed happiness, and they try to understand whether the contempt for this corporeal world means we should rush to our deaths as soon as we find the necessary philosophical conviction. The Hebrew/Latin version even imagines an Abraham, perfectly enlightened, who might have justifiably killed himself (56). It is shocking to find statements like these in a work so widely read in religious traditions generally opposed to suicide, shocking, that is, until we realize that the Liber de Pomo is not arguing that existence is meaningless: rather, it’s that bodily death frees us for a better life, and leaves everyone else behind in a life unworthy of the name.

For in the Liber de Pomo, to become a lover a death is, at once, to become certain that one has oriented oneself towards the better life and convinced that those who haven’t are lovers of the wrong thing, namely, the body and its pleasures. This work’s faint call for suicide does not suggest that non-existence lies on the other side of death. If anything, non-existence is on the side of the only apparently alive, because things here are mutable, where everything that supposedly is is itself only for the briefest while. And with that, we can sense how the love of “freedom,” the love of escaping constraint, also consigns everything else to subjection, contempt, and a life not meriting the respect due to truly living things.

For more on these developing ideas, see my work on Marguerite Porete….