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De signis §§ 13 & 37 and Problemata physica 26.23 in the context of Peripatetic meteorology: Shooting stars as weather signs

Robert Mayhew

(Seton Hall University)

There survives a work on weather signs usually referred to as De signis, which in the manuscript tradition is sometimes ascribed to Aristotle and sometimes left anonymous, though from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries Theophrastus was generally considered its author (a view no longer widely accepted).
The De signis is for the most part a list of weather signs, and it has been declared inauthentic on the grounds that it neglects the causal explanation of the natural phenomena it mentions, and more resembles a collection of excerpts. Aside from some excellent work on the textual history of the work, scholarship on the De signis tends to repeat, with modifications, the results reached by earlier Quellenforschung.
In my view, like most works attributed to Aristotle in antiquity but later declared spurious, the nature of the De signis must be reassessed. I do not argue for its authenticity (Aristotelian or Theophrastean); rather, I consider reasons why Aristotle and/or Theophrastus might have compiled such a work that had those features that purportedly disqualify them from being its author. My hypothesis is that the De signis was originally a notebook compiled in ‘the collection of data’ stage of Peripatetic natural science. It is not a collection of excerpts compiled by someone else, taken from very different kinds of treatises, but a collection of endoxa, possibly compiled by Aristotle and/or Theophrastus, or under either or both of their direction. I further speculate that one purpose of problêmata was to process such raw data. To test this hypothesis, I focus on the sole problêma in the Aristotelian Problemata physica that appears to be related to Aristotle’s Meteorologica, Theophrastus’ De ventis, and the De signis: Problemata 26.23, which asks: “Why, whenever there are shooting stars, is it a sign of wind?”

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