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A2. From Homer to Aristotle

When expounding his theory of causal powers, the key word for Aristotle is dynamis. In Aristotle's time, this word was in common usage. It can already be found in Homer. Here are four quotes featuring this word: [1]

[Odysseus:] but bring ye healing, my friends, for with you is the dynamis. (Odyssey X 69; tr. Murray)

[Telemachos to Nestor:] O that the gods would clothe me with such dynamis, that I might take vengeance on the wooers for their grievous sin (Odyssey III 205 sq.)

[Alexandros to Hector:] we will follow with thee eagerly, nor, methinks, shall we be anywise wanting in valour, so far as we have dynamis (Ilias XIII 785 sqq.)

[Achilles to Apollo:] Verily I would avenge me on thee, had I but the dynamis.

(Ilias XXII 20)

In Homer, the dynamis is something with or within a man that allows him to fulfil a certain task or defeat his enemy, and sometimes the dynamis is thought to be given by a god. Later, the word is to acquire a wide field of possible meanings. It can even mean the riches of a wealthy man (cf. Plato, Rep. 423a: chrêmata te kai dynameis) or the army of a kingdom (cf. Mx. 240d: hê Persôn dynamis, the army of the Persians), and even the phonetic quality of a letter (cf. Cratyl. 412c: tên tou kappa dynamin) or the meaning of letters and syllables (cf. Hip. mai. 285d).[2]

From the sixth century BC onwards, we find the word dynamis in philosophical and medical contexts.[3] For example, Alcmaeon of Croton (ca. 570-500) uses the term to define health (hygieia) as the balance of powerful things (isonomia tôn dynameis), which means the equal presence “of moist and of dry, of cold and of hot, of bitter and of sweet” (DK 24 B 4). Here it is not clear whether Alcmaeon uses dynamis to denote an abstract power or the powerful thing itself, i.e. whether dryness or the dry is the dynamis. In a quotation from Democritus (ca. 460-370), it is clear that the dynamis to be healthy is not some concrete thing, but some property that resides in the human body (DK 68 B 234) – which is the reason why people should rather care for their health by adjusting their diet than pray that health may be given to them by the gods. This ambiguity may be reflected in Anaximenes' (ca. 580-520) remark that neither the hot nor the cold are substances, but properties of an underlying matter (DK 13 B 1 = KRS 143: pathê koina tês hylês epigignomena tais metabolais). For Anaximenes, powers “interpenetrate the elements or bodies” that are their bearers (DK 13 A 10 = KRS 145: tas endiêkousas tois stoicheiois ê tois sômasi dynameis).[4]

  • [1] There are six more occurrences of the word in Homer: Ilias VIII 294, XIII 786 and Odyssey II 62, XX 237, XXI 202 and XXIII 128. Though the noun is quite rare, there are in all about 140 occurrences of words (including verbs and adjectives) containing the root dyna-. It would be worth checking our findings against this much broader basis
  • [2] All occurrences of dynamis in Plato (and many in earlier authors) are collected and discussed in Souilhé 1919
  • [3] For a survey of dynamis in the Hippocratic texts cf. Plamböck 1964
  • [4] There is also a special use of dynamis and dynaton in geometry, which Aristotle explicitly mentions as a metaphorical use of the term (Met. V 12, 1019b 33-34; IX 1 1046a 6-9). Cf. section 2.2.6 for further references
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