A Source Book in Greek Science

Author: Theophrastus  | Date: 1906


Smell and Taste


Theophrastus, On the Senses 9, 21–22. Translation of G. M. Stratton

9. . . . Smell, according to Empedocles, is due to the act of breathing. As a consequence, those have keenest smell in whom the movement of the breath is most vigorous. The intensest odour emanates from bodies that are subtile and light. Of taste and touch severally he offers no precise account, telling us neither the manner nor the means of their operation, save the [assertion he makes with regard to all the senses in] common, that perception arises because emanations fit into the passages of sense.1 Pleasure is excited by things that are similar [to our organs], both in their constituent parts and in the manner of their composition; pain, by things opposed.

21. . . . It is silly to assert [as does Empedocles] that those have the keenest sense of smell who inhale most; for if the organ is not in health or is, for any cause, not unobstructed, mere breathing is of no avail. It often happens that a man has suffered injury [to the organ] and has no sensation at all. Furthermore, persons "short of breath" or at hard labour or asleep—since they inhale most air—should be most sensitive to odours. Yet the reverse is the fact. For in all likelihood respiration is not of itself the cause of smell, but is connected with it incidentally.


Theophrastus, On the Causes of Plants VI. 1.6. Translation of J. I. Beare, Greek Theories of Elementary Cognition from Alcmaeon to Aristotle, p. 164 (Oxford, 1906)

Democritus investing each taste with its characteristic figure makes the sweet that which is round and large in its atoms; the astringently sour that which is large in its atoms, but rough, angular, and not spherical; the acid, as its name imports, that which is sharp in its bodily shape, angular, and curving, thin, and not spherical; the pungent that which is spherical, thin, angular, and curving; the saline, that of which the atoms are angular, and large, and crooked and isosceles; the bitter, that which is spherical, smooth, scalene, and small. The succulent is that which is thin, spherical, and small.1


Aristotle, On the Soul II. 9–10. Translation of R. D. Hicks

9. . . . As with flavours, so with odours: some are sweet, some bitter. (But in some objects smell and flavour correspond; for example, they have sweet odour and sweet flavour: in other things the opposite is the case.) Similarly, too, an odour may be pungent, irritant, acid or oily. But because, as we said above, odours are not as clearly defined as the corresponding flavours, it is from these latter that the odours have taken their names, in virtue of the resemblance in the things. Thus the odour of saffron and honey is sweet, while the odour of thyme and the like is pungent; and so in all the other cases. Again, smell corresponds to hearing and to each of the other senses in that, as hearing is of the audible and inaudible, and sight of the visible and invisible, so smell is of the odorous and inodorous. By inodorous may be meant either that which is wholly incapable of having odour or that which has a slight or faint odour. The term tasteless involves a similar ambiguity.

Further, smell also operates through a medium, namely, air or water. For water animals too, whether they are, or are not, possessed of blood, seem to perceive odour as much as the creatures in the air: since some of them also come from a great distance to seek their food, guided by the scent. . . .

The inability to perceive what is placed immediately on the sense organ man shares with all animals: what is peculiar to him is that he cannot smell without inhaling. . . .1

10. The object of taste is a species of tangible. And this is the reason why it is not perceived through a foreign body as medium: for touch employs no such medium either. The body, too, in which the flavour resides, the proper object of taste, has the moist, which is something tangible, for its matter or vehicle. Hence, even if we lived in water, we should still perceive anything sweet thrown into the water, but our perception would not have come through the medium, but by the admixture of sweetness with the fluid, as is the case with what we drink. But it is not in this way, namely, by admixture, that colour is perceived, nor yet by emanations. Nothing, then, corresponds to the medium; but to colour, which is the object of sight, corresponds the flavour, which is the object of taste. But nothing produces perception of flavour in the absence of moisture, but either actually or potentially the producing cause must have liquid in it: salt, for instance, for that is easily dissolved and acts as a dissolvent upon the tongue. . . .

The organ of taste, then, which needs to be moistened, must have the capacity of absorbing moisture without being dissolved, while at the same time it must not be actually moist. A proof of this is the fact that the tongue has no perception either when very dry or very moist. In the latter case the contact is with the moisture originally in the tongue, just as when a man first makes trial of a strong flavour and then tastes some other flavour; or as with the sick, to whom all things appear bitter because they perceive them with their tongue full of bitter moisture.

As with the colours, so with the species of flavour, there are, first, simple flavours, which are opposites, the sweet and the bitter; next to these on one side the succulent, on the other the salt; and, thirdly, intermediate between these, the pungent, the rough, the astringent, and the acid. These seem to be practically all the varieties of flavour. Consequently, while the faculty of taste has potentially the qualities just described, the object of taste converts the potentiality into actuality.2

[Aristotle], Problemata XIII. 2. Translation of E. S. Forster

Why is it that things of unpleasant odour do not seem to have an odour to those who have eaten them? Is it because, owing to the fact that the sense penetrates to the mouth through the palate, the sense of smell soon becomes satiated and so it no longer perceives the odour inside the mouth to the same extent—for at first every one perceives the odour, but, when they are in actual contact with it, they no longer do so, as though it had become part of themselves—and the similar odour from without is overpowered by the odour within?


Theophrastus, On Odors 1, 5. Translation of Arthur Hort

1. Odours in general, like tastes, are due to mixture: for anything which is uncompounded has no smell, just as it has no taste: wherefore simple substances have no smell, such as water, air, and fire: on the other hand earth is the only elementary substance which has a smell, or at least it has one to a greater extent than the others, because it is of a more composite character than they.

Of odours some are, as it were, indistinct and insipid, as is the case with tastes, while some have a distinct character. And these characters appear to correspond to those of tastes, yet they have not in all cases the same names, as we said in a former treatise; nor in general are they marked off from one another by such specific differences as are tastes: rather the differences are, one may say, in generic character, some things having a good, some an evil odour. But the various kinds of good or evil odour, although they exhibit considerable differences, have not received further distinguishing names, marking off one particular kind of sweetness or of bitterness from another: we speak of an odour as pungent, powerful, faint, sweet, or heavy, though some of these descriptions apply to evil-smelling things as well as to those which have a good odour.

5. Now the odour of some things which have a good odour resides in things which are used for food, for instance that of stone-fruits, pears, and apples, the smell of which is sweet even if one does not eat them; indeed it may be said to be sweeter in that case. However, to make a general distinction, some odours exist independently, while others are incidental;1 those of juices and things used for food are incidental, those of flowers exist independently. And, as was said above, things which have a good odour are generally of unpleasant, astringent, or somewhat bitter taste. Again some things which have a good taste have also an evil odour, such as the carob, which is sweet (this is true of some regions, if not of all). Again the Phoenician cedar, though it is sweet to the taste, when chewed produces a sort of evil odour, though it makes the water fragrant.

1 The reference is to the pores, which played a part in all sense perceptions in the theory of Empedocles. [Edd.]

1 The dependence of sensations on atomic sizes, shapes, arrangements, and motions is cardinal in the philosophy of the Greek atomists. Thus Democritus formulated the distinction between what came to be called primary and secondary qualities when he said, "By convention we speak of color, and of sweet and bitter, but in reality there are atoms and void." (Frag. 125, Diels.) [Edd.]

1 Taken literally, this is not true. Other air-breathing animals also smell while inhaling breath. . . .

2 Cf. the treatment in Plato, Timaeus 65C–66C. Theophrastus in his discussion of plant saps (On the Causes of Plants VI) has much to say about flavors. [Edd.]

1 I.e., the smell is a kind of "accident" or by-product of the taste.


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Chicago: Theophrastus, "Theophrastus," A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. Arthur Hort in A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 547–551. Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9KADSBMJVKTLD5.

MLA: Theophrastus. "Theophrastus." A Source Book in Greek Science, translted by Arthur Hort, Vol. XIII, in A Source Book in Greek Science, edited by Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 547–551. Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9KADSBMJVKTLD5.

Harvard: Theophrastus, 'Theophrastus' in A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. . cited in 1948, A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.547–551. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9KADSBMJVKTLD5.