On the Heavens

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


Since there are some who say that there is a right and a left in the heaven, with those who are known as Pythagoreans-to whom indeed the view really belongs-we must consider whether, if we are to apply these principles to the body of the universe, we should follow their statement of the matter or find a better way. At the start we may say that, if right and left are applicable, there are prior principles which must first be applied. These principles have been analysed in the discussion of the movements of animals, for the reason that they are proper to animal nature. For in some animals we find all such distinctions of parts as this of right and left clearly present, and in others some; but in plants we find only above and below. Now if we are to apply to the heaven such a distinction of parts, we must exect, as we have said, to find in it also the distinction which in animals is found first of them all. The distinctions are three, namely, above and below, front and its opposite, right and left-all these three oppositions we expect to find in the perfect body-and each may be called a principle. Above is the principle of length, right of breadth, front of depth. Or again we may connect them with the various movements, taking principle to mean that part, in a thing capable of movement, from which movement first begins. Growth starts from above, locomotion from the right, sensemovement from in front (for front is simply the part to which the senses are directed). Hence we must not look for above and below, right and left, front and back, in every kind of body, but only in those which, being animate, have a principle of movement within themselves. For in no inanimate thing do we observe a part from which movement originates. Some do not move at all, some move, but not indifferently in any direction; fire, for example, only upward, and earth only to the centre. It is true that we speak of above and below, right and left, in these bodies relatively to ourselves. The reference may be to our own right hands, as with the diviner, or to some similarity to our own members, such as the parts of a statue possess; or we may take the contrary spatial order, calling right that which is to our left, and left that which is to our right. We observe, however, in the things themselves none of these distinctions; indeed if they are turned round we proceed to speak of the opposite parts as right and left, a boy land below, front and back. Hence it is remarkable that the Pythagoreans should have spoken of these two principles, right and left, only, to the exclusion of the other four, which have as good a title as they. There is no less difference between above and below or front and back in animals generally than between right and left. The difference is sometimes only one of function, sometimes also one of shape; and while the distinction of above and below is characteristic of all animate things, whether plants or animals, that of right and left is not found in plants. Further, inasmuch as length is prior to breadth, if above is the principle of length, right of breadth, and if the principle of that which is prior is itself prior, then above will be prior to right, or let us say, since ’prior’ is ambiguous, prior in order of generation. If, in addition, above is the region from which movement originates, right the region in which it starts, front the region to which it is directed, then on this ground too above has a certain original character as compared with the other forms of position. On these two grounds, then, they may fairly be criticized, first, for omitting the more fundamental principles, and secondly, for thinking that the two they mentioned were attributable equally to everything.

Since we have already determined that functions of this kind belong to things which possess, a principle of movement, and that the heaven is animate and possesses a principle of movement, clearly the heaven must also exhibit above and below, right and left. We need not be troubled by the question, arising from the spherical shape of the world, how there can be a distinction of right and left within it, all parts being alike and all for ever in motion. We must think of the world as of something in which right differs from left in shape as well as in other respects, which subsequently is included in a sphere. The difference of function will persist, but will appear not to by reason of the regularity of shape. In the same fashion must we conceive of the beginning of its movement. For even if it never began to move, yet it must possess a principle from which it would have begun to move if it had begun, and from which it would begin again if it came to a stand. Now by its length I mean the interval between its poles, one pole being above and the other below; for two hemispheres are specially distinguished from all others by the immobility of the poles. Further, by ’transverse’ in the universe we commonly mean, not above and below, but a direction crossing the line of the poles, which, by implication, is length: for transverse motion is motion crossing motion up and down. Of the poles, that which we see above us is the lower region, and that which we do not see is the upper. For right in anything is, as we say, the region in which locomotion originates, and the rotation of the heaven originates in the region from which the stars rise. So this will be the right, and the region where they set the left. If then they begin from the right and move round to the right, the upper must be the unseen pole. For if it is the pole we see, the movement will be leftward, which we deny to be the fact. Clearly then the invisible pole is above. And those who live in the other hemisphere are above and to the right, while we are below and to the left. This is just the opposite of the view of the Pythagoreans, who make us above and on the right side and those in the other hemisphere below and on the left side; the fact being the exact opposite. Relatively, however, to the secondary revolution, I mean that of the planets, we are above and on the right and they are below and on the left. For the principle of their movement has the reverse position, since the movement itself is the contrary of the other: hence it follows that we are at its beginning and they at its end. Here we may end our discussion of the distinctions of parts created by the three dimensions and of the consequent differences of position.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: On the Heavens

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: On the Heavens

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Aristotle, "2," On the Heavens, trans. J. L. Stocks Original Sources, accessed August 12, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4LYFCDPGFEHJA4G.

MLA: Aristotle. "2." On the Heavens, translted by J. L. Stocks, Original Sources. 12 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4LYFCDPGFEHJA4G.

Harvard: Aristotle, '2' in On the Heavens, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 12 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4LYFCDPGFEHJA4G.