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Why does Aristotle think bees are divine? Proportion, triplicity and order in the natural world



Concluding his discussion of bee reproduction in Book 3 of Generation of Animals, Aristotle makes a famous methodological pronouncement about the relationship between sense perception and theory in natural history. In the very next sentence, he casually remarks that the unique method of reproduction that he finds in bees should not be surprising, since bees have something ‘divine’ about them. Although the methodological pronouncement gets a fair bit of scholarly attention, and although Aristotle's theological commitments in cosmology and metaphysics are well known, scholars have almost universally passed over the comment about bees and divinity in silence. This paper aims to show why that comment is no mere throwaway, and offers an exploration and elaboration of the ways in which divinity operates even at fairly mundane levels in his natural philosophy, as an important Aristotelian explanation for order, proportion and rationality, even in the lowest of animals.



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I would like to thank Orna Harari, Giora Hon, Yael Kedar and audiences at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.



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1 He directs the comment specifically at their mode of generation: ἡ δὲ τῶν μελιττῶν γένεσις ἔχει πολλὴν ἀπορίαν. Aristotle, Generation of Animals (hereafter GA) 759a8. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

2 Aristotle calls what we think of as queen bees ‘kings.’ See e.g. Rachel D. Carlson, ‘The honey bee and apian imagery in classical Literature’, diss., University of Washington, 2015; Mayhew, Robert, ‘King bees and mother wasps: a note on ideology and gender in Aristotle's entomology’, Phronesis (1999) 44, pp. 127134; Davies, Malcolm and Kathirithamby, Jeyaraney, Greek Insects, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

3 I here follow Aristotle in the use of the terms ‘species’ and ‘genus’, which often differs from modern usage. For Aristotle ‘bees’ are a ‘species’ relative to some more general category such as ‘animal’. The terms ‘genus’ and ‘species’ for him capture something closer to the English logical categories ‘general’ and ‘specific’ (which are in any case derived from the Latin genus and species). On the volume of Aristotle's references to bees versus humans see Byl, Simon, Recherches sur les grands traités biologiques d'Aristote, Brussels: Académie royale de Belgique, 1975, p. 340.

4 I add the ‘yet’ because of the optimism Aristotle seems to indicate as he looks forward to future investigations on bees, in a passage that leads up to the famous methodological pronouncement about how theory must accommodate observation in future investigations, not the other way around. GA 760b27 f.

5 One assumes (as is indicated by the following clause) that he means ‘without also giving such weapons to the males’, which the drones (the supposed males in this theoretical scenario) lack. The whole passage is at GA 759b1 f. On the roles of male versus female in Aristotle, the literature is vast. A good beginning would include Connell, Sophia M., Aristotle on Female Animals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016; Mayhew, Robert, The Female in Aristotle's Biology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004; Kosman, Aryeh, ‘Male and female in Aristotle's biology’, in Lennox, James G. and Bolton, Robert (eds.), Being, Nature, and Life in Aristotle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 147167.

6 The question in the Problems is why something born from seed counts as an animal's own proper offspring, but something born from the animal's excrement (a spontaneously generated maggot, for example), does not so count: the one is oikeios, and the other not. See Pseudo-Aristotle, Problems 878a1. On the Problems and the Aristotelian corpus generally see Mayhew, Robert (ed.), The Aristotelian Problemata physica, Leiden: Brill, 2015.

7 See GA 715b16; Aristotle, History of Animals (hereafter HA) 556b22 f., 539b10. For discussion of spontaneous generation and genus see Lehoux, Daryn, Creatures Born of Mud and Slime, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

8 Anthrenae is usually translated as ‘hornets’, although it is unclear what the precise distinction between wasps (sphekes) and anthernae was seen to be. I speculated in Lehoux, op. cit. (7), p. 49, that anthrenae may refer to parasitic wasps rather than stinging wasps. Given the uncertainty, however, I will leave the word untranslated in what follows.

9 GA 761a2–5.

10 On religion and science generally see, for example, Harrison, Peter and Roberts, Jon H. (eds.), Science without God? Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019; Harrison, Peter, The Territories of Science and Religion, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015; Lehoux, Daryn, What Did the Romans Know?, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012; Ferngren, Gary B. (ed.), Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002; Henry, John, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, London: Macmillan, 1997.

11 On bees in antiquity see e.g. Carlson, op. cit. (2); Kitchell, Kenneth F., Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z, New York: Routledge, 2014; Engels, David and Nicolaye, Carla (eds.), Ille operum custos: Kulturgeschichtliche Beiträge zur antiken Bienensymbolik und ihrer Rezeption, Hildesheim: Olms, 2008; Davies and Kathirithamby, op. cit. (2); Morley, Neville, ‘Civil war and succession crisis in Roman beekeeping’, Historia (2007) 56, pp. 462470; Beavis, Ian C., Insects and Other Invertebrates in Classical Antiquity, Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1988; Lawler, Lilian B., ‘Bee dances and the “sacred bees”’, Classical Weekly (1954) 47, pp. 103106; Cook, Arthur Bernard, ‘The bee in Greek mythology’, Journal of Hellenic Studies (1895) 15, pp. 124.

12 Aristotle, Metaphysics (hereafter Metaph.) 1072b23.

13 Reasoning: Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics (hereafter EE) 1248a25 f; νοῦς: GA 737a10; Aristotle, De anima (hereafter De an.) 408b29; Metaph., 1074b16; νοῦς or ‘something else’ either divine or the most divine thing in us: Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (hereafter EN) 1177a16; other things (planets, stars) ‘more divine’ than man: EN 1141b1; people can aspire to the divine: EN 1177b28; moral excellence: EN 1145a27; happiness: EN 1099b16–17, 1101b24, 1177a15; EE 1215a17, 1217a28.

14 I've long been puzzled by the qualification that humans have τὰς καλουμένας χεῖρας, ‘what are called’, or ‘so-called’, hands. I think there may be something interesting to say here but exploring that question is a task for another paper.

15 Aristotle, Parts of Animals (hereafter PA) 686a27–28.

16 τὸ γὰρ βάρος δυσκίνητον ποιεῖ τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ τὴν κοινὴν αἴσθησιν (PA 686a30–31). Note that Aristotle understates a crucial part of the argument: where I have said intelligence is ‘impossible’ for quadrupeds, Aristotle says merely that ‘it is not easy’.

17 PA 656a8. See e.g. G.E.R. Lloyd, Science, Folklore and Ideology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 28–29. Cf. Aristotle, EN 1141a33 f.

18 GA 736b29 f.; cf. GA 732a3 f.

19 And, indeed, to a limited extent it is true of all things: EN 1153b32.

20 De an. 415a29 f. On the eternality of biological species for Aristotle see Lennox, James G., ‘Are Aristotelian species eternal?’, in Gotthelf, Allan (ed.), Aristotle on Nature and Living Things, Pittsburgh: Mathesis Publications, 1985, pp. 6794.

21 Metaph. 980b22. On this passage see e.g. Aygün, Ömer Orhan, ‘On bees and humans: phenomenological explorations of hearing sounds, voices, and speech in Aristotle’, Epoché (2013) 17, pp. 337350. Contrast HA 627a15, where they seem to ‘rejoice’ in hearing certain noises.

22 HA 488b15, 611a16, 612a3, 612b1; GA 753a12–14. Aristotle also says that blooded animals (so excluding bees) whose blood is thin and cold are more phronimos at PA 648a8. People, though, are the most phronimos of all animals: GA 744a30.

23 PA 648a6. They also live longer than some blooded animals: Aristotle, On Length and Shortness of Life, 466a4; cf. Aristotle, On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration (hereafter Juv.) 475a4; HA 554b6.

24 PA 650b25 f. On the later history of ants as exemplars of moralizing qualities and their place in the hierarchy of intelligence see Sleigh, Charlotte, Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

25 Aristotle, Physics (hereafter Phys.) 199a23.

26 De an. 428a11.

27 HA 488a7 f.; cf. HA 589a2; and also Aristotle, Politics (hereafter Pol.) 1253a7, where man is said to be ‘more political’ than bees and other animals. On bees as political animals see Carla Nicolaye, ‘Sed inter omnia ea principatus apibus: Wissen und Metaphorik der Bienenbeschreibungen in den antiken Naturkunden als Grundlage der politischen Metaphor vom Bienenstaat’, in Engels and Nicolaye, op. cit. (11), pp. 114–137; Depew, David J., ‘Humans and other political animals in Aristotle's ‘History of animals’, Phronesis (1995) 40, pp. 156181; Cooper, John M., ‘Political animals and civic friendship’, in Patzig, Günther(ed.), Aristoteles ‘Politik’, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990, pp. 221241; Kullmann, Wolfgang, ‘Der Mensch als politisches Lebewesen bei Aristoteles’, Hermes (1980) 108, pp. 419443.

28 HA 625b3.

29 HA 614b18 f.

30 HA 627a27. Some modern commentators have tried to see in this passage an anticipation of von Frisch's discovery of the bees’ waggle dance but the evidence is weak. On the dance of bees see Munz, Tania, The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

31 HA 627b10.

32 HA 625b18.

33 HA 553b19, 625a16, 629a14 f.

34 HA 626b11 f.

35 HA 622b20 f.; cf. HA 625b24: συνεχῶς ἐργάζονται.

36 HA 623b22.

37 HA 626a25, 596b15.

38 HA 554b3, 625a17, 626a14, 626b14, 615b16, etc.

39 HA 627a14; cf. 627a31 f.

40 The literature here is vast and much of it centres on the Prime Mover and Metaphysics Λ. See e.g. Fabienne Baghdassarian, La question du divin chez Aristote: Discours sur les dieux et science du principe, Leuven: Peeters, 2016; Stephen Menn, The Aim and the Argument of Aristotle's Metaphysics, at, accessed 25 February 2019; Menn, Stephen, ‘Aristotle's theology’, in Shields, Christopher (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aristotle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 422464; Gourinat, Jean-Baptiste, ‘Le premier moteur selon Physique, VIII et Métaphysique, Λ: Physique et philosophie première’, in Bonelli, M. (ed.), Physique et métaphysique chez Aristote, Paris: Vrin, 2012, pp. 175206; Berti, Enrico, ‘Y-a-t-il une théologie d'Aristote?’, in Langlois, Luc and Zarka, Yves Charles, eds., Les philosophes et la question de Dieu, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2006, pp. 5571; Botter, Barbara, Dio e divino in Aristotele, Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2005; Frede, Michael and Charles, David (eds.), Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Coming at the question of divinity in Aristotle from very different angles, in some ways perhaps closer to my own approach here, are Walker, Matthew D., Aristotle on the Uses of Contemplation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018; and Bodéüs, Richard, Aristote et la théologie des vivants immortels, Paris: Belles lettres, 1992.

41 Aristotle, On the Heavens (hereafter Cael.) 286a8–9, cf. 270b10 and 1.9.

42 Planets: e.g. Cael. 279b1, 288a4, 292b22, 292b32; De an. 405a32; Metaph. 1074a30. Cosmos: Cael. 279a11, 286a11.

43 Cael. 279a31 f.; PA 644b25; Metaph. 1026a20 (on which see Menn, The Aim and the Argument, op. cit. (40), section I.γ.i); Metaph. 1064a37.

44 Prime mover: Aristotle, Movement of Animals (hereafter IA) 700b34. First cause(s): Cael. 279a30; GA 732a3 f.; EE 1248a27. First philosophy: Metaph. 1026a18. First principles: Cael. 284a4; GA 731a24 f.; EN 1102a4.

45 GA 761a2–5.

46 GA 759b27 f.

47 Also compare GA 741a33–37, where he speculates, again apropos of the erythrinus, that it may be possible for an animal that has only females (not a combination of the female and the male, as with bees) to reproduce: εἰ δ᾽ ἔστι τι γένος ὃ θῆλυ μέν ἐστιν, ἄρρεν δὲ μὴ ἔχει κεχωρισμένον, ἐνδέχεται τοῦτο ζῷον ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεννᾶν. ὅπερ ἀξιοπίστως μὲν οὐ συνῶπται μέχρι γε τοῦ νῦν, ποιεῖ δὲ διστάζειν ἐν τῷ γένει τῷ τῶν ἰχθύων· τῶν γὰρ καλουμένων ἐρυθρίνων ἄρρην μὲν οὐθεὶς ὦπταί πω, θήλειαι δὲ καὶ κυημάτων πλήρεις – ‘If there is a species which is [entirely] female and has no [distinct] male, it may be possible for this animal to generate from itself. This has not been reliably observed thus far, at any rate, but there is [an example] among fish that gives us pause, for in the so-called erythrini, no male has yet been observed, and the females are full of eggs’.

48 Illustrations by Jay Stephens (), commissioned by the author.

49 GA 760a12–14, and a26–b2.

50 ἀνάλογος is frequently used for proportionality in Aristotle.

51 Cael. 268a10.

52 There are minor exceptions. (1) Aristotle, Sense and Sensibilia, 439a31, where he remarks in passing that a Pythagorean term for colour seems to agree with a point he himself makes. (2) Aristotle, Posterior Analytics (hereafter APo.) 94b33, is non-critical but clearly hypothetical. (3) At Phys. 222b18 he cites with approval an otherwise unknown and likely fictitious Pythagorean named ‘Paron’. For what it is worth, Aristotle cites this Paron as saying that ‘time is very stupid’, which is metaphorical at best and inconsequential in any case. (Paron's name is simply the Greek participle for ‘being present’). See Burkert, Walter, Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon, Nuremberg: Verlag Hans Carl, 1962. ‘Paron’ is entirely omitted from the most recent comprehensive collection of Presocratic material. Laks, André and Most, Glenn W. (eds.), Early Greek Philosophy, 9 vols., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. (4) At Cael. 284b7, Aristotle more or less agrees with the point the Pythagoreans make, at least in outline, although he thinks his own version is ‘better’ (cf. 285a10, b25). For similarly qualified support see Aristotle, Meteorology (hereafter Meteor.) 986b1; and possibly EN 1186b30.

53 Cael. 268b24–26.

54 Bifurcations, where there are said to be two different aspects to a thing or two different ways of conceiving of an idea, are rarer, and in general individually less central to Aristotle's philosophy. There are some very important quadripartite divisions, to be sure (elements, qualities, causes), but not nearly as numerous.

55 Appetites: IA 700b22; EE 1223a27; animal and cosmic parts: Cael. 284b20; IA 704b20; animal reproduction: passim, but esp. in HA (this schematization is remarkably pervasive); animal parts: Juv. 468a13; argument: Rh. 1358a38; attributes: Topics (hereafter Top.) 115a16; audience: Rhetoric (hereafter Rh.) 1358a37; condensed bodies: Meteor. 347b12.

56 Coming-to-be: Phys. 190b28; composition of animal parts: PA 646a12; causes: Meteor. 1069b32; change, aspects: Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption (hereafter GC) 322b6–328b29; change, kinds: Phys. 224a19 f.: or differently at Meteor. 1067b19; channels from eye: HA 495a13; choice: EN 1104b30; contempt: Rh. 1378b13; commerce: Pol. 1258b22; constitution: EN 1160a31; courts of law: Pol. 1300b15; craftsman: Pol. 1282a3.

57 Deception: Rh. 1378a9; deduction: Prior Analytics (hereafter APr.) 25b27, 41b36 f. and passim; demonstration, kinds: APo. 75a39; dimensions: passim; dispositions: EN 2.6–8; education: Pol. 1342b34; elements: Cael. 277b13; emotions: Rh. 1378a24; excellence: Pol. 1332a40.

58 Friendship: EN 1156a7, 1162a34, etc.; good: EN 1098b13; Pol. 1323a25; government appointments: Pol. 1300a10; government branches: Pol. 1297b41; government forms: Pol. 1288a32; government equality: Pol. 1294a19; mixed government: Pol. 1294a35; growth: GC 321a18.

59 Happiness: EE 1214a31; harms: EN 1135b11; head: PA 686a19; heart actions: Juv. 479b17; heart cavities: HA 496a4 and passim; heaven: Cael. 278b10; homonymy: Sophistical Refutations 166a17; insect bodies: HA 531b25; insect development: GA 759a2; imitation: Poetics (hereafter Po.) 1447a16; justice: EE 1241b33.

60 Knowing: APr. 67b4; life: EN 1095b17; EE 1215a35; love: EN 1155b27; luck: Rh. 1361b39; magistrates: Pol. 1323a6; moral states: EN 1145a16; movement aspects: Phys. 227b24; De an. 433b12; Phys. 236b2, 266a13, 256b14, 262a19; movement kinds: Phys. 225b7 f.; Cael. 268b26, 310a23; Meteor. 1068a9 and passim; mover: Phys. 243a8; music: Pol. 1339b14; non-being: Meteor. 1069b27; nutrition: De an. 416b20.

61 Opposition: APr. 63b25; orator: Rh. 1378a8; people: Pol. 1295b2; perceptibility: De an. 418a8; perception: De an. 428b25; persuasion: Rh. 1356a2; physics: Phys. 198a29; poetry: Po. 1447b25; offices: Pol. 1309a33; power: Pol. 1.3; presentation: Po. 1460b9; problems: Top. 105b19; ‘productive’: Rh. 1362a31.

62 Relaxation: Pol. 1339a20; rhetoric ends: Rh. 1358b20; rhetoric forms: Rh. 1.3; rhetoric grades: Rh. 1359a7; rhetoric temporal horizons: Rh. 1358b13; sameness: Top. 103a7; vividness: Rh. 1410b35; speeches: Rh. 1403a34.

63 Soul characteristics: D e an. 405b10; soul critical faculties: IA 700b19; soul functions: GA 2.3; soul parts: EN 1139a17; soul variables: EN 1105b19; stasis: Pol. 1302a19; substance kinds: Meteor. 1069a30, 1070a9; substance meaning: De an. 414a14; sutures: HA 516a18.

64 Theoretical knowledge: Meteor. 1064b1; tiles: Cael. 306b5; toes: HA 498b1; Top. 101a25; tyrants: Pol. 1314a15; voice: Rh. 1403b30; ‘voluntary’: EE 1224a4; wrongdoing: Rh. 1368b3.

65 Cael. 268a19.

66 Meteor. 374b30 f. One may want to cavil about the specific division here, but cross-cultural, cross-linguistic and cross-temporal colour categories are notoriously foreign-looking. For present purposes let us simply grant him the categories as given.

67 Pol. 1326a32.

68 Aristotle's point is aimed in the first instance at the qualities of the good state, as the context makes clear.

69 GA 760b28.

70 Metaph. 1078a36–b5. I warmly thank Giora Hon for bringing my attention to the importance of this passage in the context of the present argument.

71 This last word might be translated as ‘specificity’ or even ‘limit’. For the meaning of ‘symmetry’ in this context see Hon, Giora and Goldstein, Bernard R., From Summetria to Symmetry: The Making of a Revolutionary Scientific Concept, New York: Springer Verlag, 2008.

72 Cael. 268a10.

73 GA 760a12–14, a26–b2.

I would like to thank Orna Harari, Giora Hon, Yael Kedar and audiences at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Why does Aristotle think bees are divine? Proportion, triplicity and order in the natural world



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