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Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon
Clara Auvray-AssayasClara Auvray-Assayas



aspect, apparence, exemple, forme, idée, modèle


eidos [εἶδος‎], idea [ἰδέα‎]


The Latin translations of the terms eidos [εἶδος‎] and idea [ἰδέα‎]—as used in the specific context of Plato’s writings—should be appreciated in terms of the full panoply of choices available to interpreters given that, in effecting transfers from one language to another, what is sought is not literal translation, unanimously scorned in classical Rome, but a global restitution of meaning. In the precise case of these two words, choices in translation indicate first of all different stages in the reception of Platonic doctrine, and bear witness in particular to a plainly “artificialist” inflection of the Platonic doctrine of ideas, under the crucial influence of the Timaeus. But what is at stake here is not a linear history proceeding by successive additions and rectifications: the translation proposed by Cicero, which privileges the Latin species, was maintained by neither Seneca nor Apuleius. Inversely, starting from Latin, it is surprising to observe that species, whose first meaning is “sight” or “vision” (cf. Lucretius, 4.236, 242), far from being always situated on the side of the eidos or model, refers no less frequently to image, spectre, and simulacrum, the eidolon [εἴδωλον‎], with Epicureanism having obliged it to reinterpret the cleavage (RT: Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine: Histoire des mots s.v. 2; cf. Lucretius, 1.125; see EIDÔLON). The choices in translation—beyond the contamination of different lexicons (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean …)—thus illustrate a characteristic feature of classical Latin philosophical translations: the superimposition of terms and the recourse to the Old Latin reserve, all the more “untranslatable” in the orbit of Romania as it will have been widely disseminated (see ESSENCE).

I. Eidos, Species: The Essential and the Apparent

In classical prephilosophical usage, eidos [εἶδος‎] and idea [ἰδέα‎] are polysemous terms (“form,” “appearance,” “structure,” “category,” “class”), from which Plato gave priority to certain meanings pressed into the service of his philosophical endeavors; thus the functions of intelligible forms in their various relations, given greater precision, are more easily graspable thanks to the semantic richness of the terms εἶδος-ἰδέα‎—structure and form: that which allows one to form categories and that which is given to be seen, that is, both the essential and the apparent, the most profound and the most superficial (Republic, 5.479–80, and 10.132–35).

The eidos from Homer to Aristotle


Eidos is connected to the root weid-, which expresses the notion of seeing (idein [ἰδεῖν‎]) and in the perfect tense that of knowing (oida [οἶδα‎]; cf. the Sanskrit Vedas, “possession, acquisition” [RT: Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, s.v.]). It is found in Homer with the sense of “aspect, form” (Iliad, 2.58; Odyssey, 17.308; 454), where it already refers to a conformity between the outer and the inner (see BEAUTY, Box 1), Empedocles, and Democritus. It commonly designates, in the prose of the historians, for instance, the “characteristic” of something, its type (e.g., Herodotus, 1.203; Thucydides, 2.50), in medical vocabulary, the “constitution” (Hippocrates, De natura hominis, 9), in geometry, the “figure” (cf. Euclid, Data, 53, “duo eidê tôi eidei dedomena [δύο εἴδη τῷ εἴδει δεδομένα‎],” rendered in RT: LSJ as “two figures given in species”).

It was Plato, then Aristotle, in a concerted displacement, who gave the word its philosophical configuration. The terminological meaning of eidos that emerges and predominates with Plato—“idea” or “Idea”—is to be understood first of all in opposition to eidôlon [εἴδωλον‎] (image, phantom), following the problematic of mimêsis [μίμησις‎], with the implementation of the three eidê of “beds” effected in The Republic, 10 (trisin eidesi klinôn [τϱισὶν εἴδεσι ϰλινῶν‎], 597b 14; see MIMÊSIS). The god fabricates from what must indeed be termed the three “species” of beds the one that alone deserves, in Plato’s words, the name of eidos or “idea”: he makes “what the bed is (ho esti klinê [ὃ ἔστι ϰλίνη‎]),” the bed-essence, unique and by nature (597c–d), a bed étantiquement [ontically] a bed (ontôs [ὄντως‎], 597d 1; see ESTI, III). The carpenter, for his part, makes not “the bed,” but “a bed” among others (klinên tina [ϰλίνην τινά‎], 597a 2), which is only “as” eidos (toulouton hoion [τοιοῦτον οἷον‎], 597a 6). The painter, finally, an “imitator” of the carpenter, paints a carpenter’s bed as it appears, a “third” bed (597a 3) in relation to the truth of the eidos: “it is that, the eidôlon” (598b 8). In a general manner, words are on the side of the eidôlon— the nomothete never works as anything but a carpenter, his eyes fixed on the eidos (Cratylus, 389a, 390e); but it is the eidos that is known: the dialectic that rises unto the idea of the good (“tên tou agathou idean [τὴν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέαν‎]”; The Republic, 6.508e), moves from idea to idea (“eidesin autois di’ autôn eis auta kai teleutai eis eidê [εἴδεσιν αὐτοῖς δι᾽ αὐτῶν εἰς αὐτά, ϰαὶ τελευτᾷ εἰς εἴδη‎]”; 511c).

The Platonic eidos never ceased governing the idea, but remodeled (and this is what renders the “idea” so complex) by its Aristotelian reappropriation, which can be made perceptible by making explicit the new oppositions and new translations that it induces. The Aristotelian critique bears on the “separation” introduced by Plato: “Socrates did not produce either universals or definitions as separate (ta katholou ou chôrista epoiei oude tous horismous [τὰ ϰαθόλου οὐ χωϱιστὰ ἐποίει οὐδὲ τοὺς ὁϱισμούς‎]), but they (hoi de [οἱ δέ‎], i.e., the philosophers after Socrates), they separated them (echôrisan [ἐχώϱισαν‎]), and called ideas (ideas [ἰδέας‎]) this type of entity” (Metaphysics, M.4.1078b 30–32; see HOMONYM, Box 1, and UNIVERSALS). To situate the eidos in its place, one has to render it simultaneously operative on different levels of intelligibility.

Physically, it becomes one of the four causes: it is as coupled with matter (to ex hou [τό ἐξ οὗ‎], what a thing is made of, for example, bronze for the statue) that the eidos intervenes (“cause in another sense is the form and the model” [allon de to eidos kai to paradeigma (ἄλλον δὲ τὸ εἶδος ϰαὶ τὸ παϱάδειγμα‎)]; Physics, 2.3.194b 26); to those two first causes there come to be articulated the motor cause, first principle of movement and rest (“hê archê tês metabolês hê prôtê ê tês êremêseôs [ἡ ἀϱχὴ τῆς μεταϐολῆς ἡ πχώτη ἢ τῆς ἠϱεμήσεως‎],” the father for the child, Polycletes for the statue—what we moderns designate customarily as “cause”), and the final cause (to telos [τὸ τέλος‎], to hou heneka [τὸ οὗ ἕνεϰα‎], the reason for the sculpture; see PRINCIPLE). One thus moves from eidos/eidôlon (intelligible “idea”/perceptible copy) to eidos/hulê [ὕλη‎] (“form”/matter) as causes necessary for the description and existence of a single and identical physical entity. Eidos and hulê are, in fact, analyzable as components: the suntheton [σύνθετον‎] (composite) or sunolon [σύνολον‎], an individuated and unique composite—for example, a bronze sphere—is a composite of eidos, designated as morphê [μοϱφή‎], “figure, configuration,” namely: a sphere, and hulê, brass (Metaphysics Z.3.1029a 1–7; cf. 8.1033b 5–10); the eidos is then more essential or substantial than the matter since it is act, activity, entelechy, energeia [ἐνέϱγεια‎] and entelecheia [ἐντελέχεια‎], whereas it is potency, dunamis [δύναμις‎] (cf. 8.1050b 2: “the essence, that is, the form, is an act” [hê ousia kai to eidos energeia estin (ἡ οὐσία ϰαὶ τὸ εἶδος ἐνέϱγεια ἐστιν‎)]).

The eidos, Aristotle specifies in the same passage of his Physics, is identical to the “affirmation which is that of the quiddity and its types” (ho logos ho tou ti ên einai kai ta toutou genê [ὁ λόγος ὁ τοῦ τί ἦν εἶναι ϰαὶ τὰ τούτου γένη‎] (194b 27; see LOGOS, TO TI ÊN EINAI): as with Plato, we are here at the heart of ontology, but the pairing has been twice displaced, not only physically, but also logically. Indeed, at the same time as it plays physically the role of “form,” the eidos plays logically the role of “species,” differentiating itself this time not from “matter,” but from “genus,” genre, genos [γένος‎]. The eidos articulates what is essential in the essence; it allows a far closer approach to what is singular than genos; this specific sphere is more a sphere than a shape or figure, Socrates is more a man than a living being: in other words, by virtue of the well-named “specific” difference, the toionde [τοιόνδε‎], the “such,” is closer to the tode ti [τόδε τι‎], the “this,” closer to the essence or the primal substance that it contributes to defining (1033b 21–26; cf. Categories, 5.2b 22: “the species is more essence than the genus” [to eidos tou genous mallon ousia (τὸ εἶδος τοῦ γένους μᾶλλον οὐσία‎)]; see ESSENCE). Thus it is that in Aristotle’s terms, the eidos can function as an ontological necessity, more essential and substantial than matter or genus, without having a separate existence.

Barbara Cassin

The Latin species offers the same possibilities of articulating distinct levels and exploits equally the root of vision (the root-word spex is used as a second term in compounds conserved by the language of religion [auspex-haruspex-exstipex]); and yet Cicero alone imposed species coherently as a translation for eidos—at least in all of his works written after 46 BCE. Neither the Stoic Seneca nor, more strikingly, the Platonist Apuleius would retain that use of species, which for them had largely the meaning of “species” (in English), and they used instead forma and exemplar. Calcidius, finally, restricted the applications of species and resorted most frequently to exemplum. This can be observed in the limited corpus in which the doctrine of intelligible forms is exposed: Cicero’s De oratore, Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius 58 and 65, Apuleius’s Plato and His Doctrine, and Question 46 of Augustine’s Ideas. One can draw as well on the two Latin translations of the Timaeus, that of Cicero and that of Calcidius.

In accounting for the diversity of the translations, one cannot neglect the history of philosophy, which is crucial on two distinct levels: that of the interpretation itself of Platonic doctrine and that of the dissemination accorded Aristotelian terminology by the Stoics. Nonetheless, a more attentive consideration of translation procedures and the semantic configurations implemented by them allows for a refinement of the observations one might make solely on the basis of the evolution of doctrines and the history of the language.

II. Cicero: The Distinction between Forma and Species

We shall first examine how Cicero constructed the equivalence eidos-species, then which configurations were exploited by his successors, thus better evaluating the coherence of the uses of species in the Ciceronian translation of Timaeus. We shall thus see that the choice of species entailed a polysemy so charged with philosophical problematics and was inscribed so much against the grain of certain uses dictated by the history of philosophy that, despite the authority of Cicero, it was not retained by those who, after Cicero, were to use and enrich the Latin philosophical lexicon.

A. Translating Plato: Species, model, and intelligible referent

It is in the text of De oratore (2.8–3.10) that one finds the first evidence of the use of species to evoke intelligible forms. Species (from the same family as Gr. skeptomai [σϰέπτομαι‎], to look at) is used with the precise meaning of “model,” or “vision” perceptible only by thought, cogitata species, which we see with our mind, speciem animo videmus. It is the context that gives it its meaning: species is the Form of the beautiful that inhabits Phidias. With species, repeated three times, Cicero is no doubt preparing, by means of a more expressive Latin term, the technical translation of the Platonic idea by forma. Associated with forma, the word species ultimately designates that which allows one to underwrite dialectical procedure, the intelligible referent. Two of the principal functions of intelligible form are thus expressed by a single Latin word that would subsequently, in the Academics and the Tusculan Disputations, be used alone, without forma:

My opinion, then, is,—that there is no human production of any kind, so compleatly beautiful, than which there is not a “something” still more beautiful, from which the other is copied like a portrait from real life [ut ex ore aliquo quasi imago exprimatur], and which can be discerned neither by our eyes nor ears, nor any of our bodily senses, but is visible only to thought and imagination [cogitatione et mente]. Though the statues, therefore, of Phidias, and the other images above-mentioned, are all so wonderfully charming, that nothing can be found which is more excellent of the kind; we may still, however, suppose a something which is more exquisite, and more compleat. For it must not be thought that the ingenious artist, when he was sketching out the form of a Jupiter [Jovis formam], or a Minerva, borrowed the likeness from any particular object;—but a certain admirable semblance of beauty was present to his mind [ipsius in mente insidebat species pulchritudinis eximia quaedem], which he viewed and dwelt upon, and by which his skill and his hand were guided [quam intuens in eaque defixus ad illius similitudinem artem et manum dirigebat]. As, therefore, in mere bodily shape and figure [in formis et figuris] there is a kind of perfection, to whose ideal appearance every production which falls under the notice of the eye [aliquid perfectum et excellens, cujus ad cogitatem speciem imitando referentur ea quae sub oculos ipsa cadunt], is referred by imitation; so the semblance of what is perfect [sic perfectae eloquentiae speciem animo uidemus]. Oratory may become visible to the mind, and the ear may labour to catch a Likeness [effigiem]. These primary forms of things are by Plato [the father of science and good language] called “Ideas” [has rerum formas appellat ideas ille]; and he tells us they have neither beginning nor end, but are co-eval with reason and intelligence; while every thing besides has a derived, and a transitory existence, and passes away and decays, so as to cease in a short time to be the thing it was. Whatever, therefore, may be discussed by reason and method, should be constantly reduced to the primary form [quicquid est igitur de quo ratione et via disputetur, id est ad ultimam sui generis formam speciemque redigendum] or semblance of its respective genus.

(De oratore, 2.8–3.10)

The same forma-species connection would be rediscovered much later in Saint Augustine in the form of a strict equivalence: “Ideas igitur latine possumus vel formas vel species dicere, ut verbum e verbo transferre videamur” (We can thus render ideas in Latin either by forms or by visions, translating literally). Augustine continues in this famous passage, proposing a definition of the idea, inscribed in the divine intellect, which would remain classic at least until Malebranche:

Ideas are in fact principal forms or essential reasons [sunt namque ideae principales formae quaedam vel rationes rerum], fixed and immutable, not informed themselves, and thus eternal and permanent in their mode of being, subjectivated as they are in the divine intelligence [stabiles atque incommutabiles, quae ipsae formatae non sunt, ac per hoc aeternae ac semper eodem modo sese habentes, quae in divina intelligentia continentur]. And admitting in themselves neither origin nor extinction, one nonetheless defines as formed in accordance with them all that admits of origin and extinction, and all that is born and expires [secundum eas tamen formari dicitur omne quod oriri et interire potest, et omne quod oritur et interit].

(Quaestio 46, 2)

B. Translating Aristotle and the Stoics: Forma

The difficulty of distinguishing between forma and species at work in this text of the Orator can be read as an echo of a passage in the Topics (dating from 44 BCE), which allows one to understand at the same time what is at stake in the choice of species. Cicero, in point of fact, uses the pretext that the flexion of species in the oblique cases—and in the plural—is a bit awkward to refuse to use that word to translate the eide [εἴδη‎], which designate, in the Topics, elements of the analysis of definitions: that meaning is the one retained by Aristotle and the Stoics. Cicero proposes to use for this meaning not species but forma:

In division there are forms which the Greeks call ideai; our countrymen who treat of such subjects call them species [formae sunt, quas Graeci [εἴδη‎] vocant, nostri, si qui haec forte tractant, species appellant]. And it is not a bad name, though it is an inconvenient one if we want to use it in different cases. For even if it were Latin to use such words, I should not like to say specierum and speciebus. And we have often occasion to use these cases. But I have no such objection to saying formarum and formis; and as the meaning of each word is the same, I do not think that convenience of sound is wholly to be neglected [Cum autem utroque verbo idemque significetur, commoditatem in dicendo non arbitror neglegendam].

(Topics, 30)

The argument from euphony or usage may not be without weight, but it is remarkable that Cicero should reject the use of species in a context marked by the Aristotelian and Stoic dialectic. In other words, Cicero rejects the evolution of the uses of eidos to impose the meaning given it by Plato. This movement in reverse, which committed Cicero to restore all the semantic possibilities offered by species, is particularly palpable in the translation of Timaeus; the extent of the phenomenon will be best gauged, however, once one examines the specific lexical system put in place by Seneca in an analogous context.

III. Seneca: Exemplar, the Model in Art

In Letter 58, devoted to Platonic ontology, Seneca recalls the definition of genus and species by invoking Aristotle (58.9; on genos, see PEOPLE, in particular, III.A); it is thus not surprising that he does not use species to translate idea. Seneca thus rejects Cicero’s linkage between forma and species to make the eidos explicit, whereas he draws on Cicero’s authority at the beginning of the same letter (6) in using essentia as a translation for ousia [οὐσία‎]. Now the term he chose would commit the entire interpretation of his thought. Whereas in Cicero the role of Forms is present starting with the example of the artist, but is not reducible to that of a model, in Seneca, on the contrary, the use of exemplar to render Form privileges that sole function of the model. Thus the translation of idea as exemplar is immediately illustrated by the example of the painter:

And this “idea,” or rather, Plato’s conception of it, is as follows: “The ‘idea’ is the everlasting pattern of those things which are created by nature (idea est eorum quae natura fiunt exemplar aeternum). I shall explain this definition, in order to set the subject before you in a clearer light: Suppose that I wish to make a likeness of you (imaginem tuam); I possess in your own person the pattern of this picture (exemplar picturae te habeo), wherefrom my mind receives a certain outline, which it is to embody in its own handiwork. That outward appearance, then, which gives me instruction and guidance, this pattern for me to imitate, is the “idea” (ita illa quae me docet et instruit facies, a qua petitur imitatio, idea est).


It will be observed, from the elaboration of this example, that Seneca uses exemplar for the sensory model, whereas facies and habitus render that toward which the imitation tends, namely, intelligible form. Moreover, when he distinguishes a fourth ontological level, that of the form of the work executed by the artist, Seneca reserves exemplar for the model and forma for its copy:

The “idea” was Vergil’s outward appearance, and this was the pattern of the intended work. That which the artist draws from this “idea” and has embodied in his own work, is the “form.” Do you ask me where the difference lies? The former is the pattern; while the latter is the shape taken from the pattern and embodied in the work. Our artist follows the one, but the other he creates.

(Idea erat Vergilii facies, futuri operis exemplar: ex hac quod artifex trahit et operi suo imposuit, idos est. Quid intersit, quaeris ? Alterum exemplar est, alterum forma ab exemplari sumpta et operi inposita: alteram artifex imitatur, alteram facit.)

Not without difficulty, since a gloss continues to be necessary: exemplar is thus to designate at once the intelligible model, the eidos, and the sensory model, the idea. Exemplarity at the level of the intelligible is illustrated at the sensory level by a mimetic duplication, in Seneca as in Plato (cf., in particular, the example of the “beds” developed at the beginning of book 10 of The Republic, 596b–597e; see Box 1). It is striking that Seneca is constrained to render exemplar more precise by way of facies, thus massively reintroducing the visible: “A statue has a certain external appearance; this external appearance of the statue is the ‘eidos.’ And the model or pattern itself has a certain external appearance, by gazing upon which the sculptor has fashioned his statue; this is the ‘idea’” (Habet aliquam faciem statua: haec est idos. Habet aliquam faciem exemplar ipsum, quod intuens opifex statuam figuravit: haec idea est). Thus facies, in turn, has a double—indeed, a triple—function, applicable to the sensory exemplar (Virgil’s facies), as well as to the completed work, the statue, and the intelligible model: the idos has its aspect, its “physiognomy” or “face,” and the idea has its aspect, its visibility. In using facies in this manner, not to translate, but to explain, Seneca reinforces the artificialist schema subtending the doctrine of ideas: it mobilizes as the most general of terms a word that refers to facere, the making of the artist, understood as an imponere faciem, to give form or shape (cf. Marcus Terentius Varro: “proprio nomine dicitur facere a facie, qui rei quam facit imponit faciem. Ut fictor cum dicit ‘fingo’, figuram imponit…, sic cum dicit ‘facio’ faciem imponit” [One says, properly speaking, to make (facere) from facies (fashion), for someone who imposes a form on the thing he is doing. Just as the modeler, when he says, ‘I am modeling,’ imposes a shape,…so, when he says, “I am making,” does he impose a fashion]; De lingua Latina, 6.78).

If the exemplar is not adequate to designate on its own an intelligible form, the term does nonetheless bring into relief the imitation in demiurgical creation, no doubt at the cost of an abusive reading of the myth presented in Timaeus. This emerges clearly in Letter 65, where Form is presented as a fifth sort of cause: “[To Aristotle’s four causes] Plato adds a fifth cause, the pattern or model which he himself calls the ‘idea’; for it is this that the artist-demiurge gazed upon when he created the work which he had decided to carry out” (His quintam Plato adicit exemplar, quam ipse idean vocat: hoc est enim, ad quod respiciens artifex id, quod destinabat, effect) (7).

In situating the artist and the god on the same level, Seneca gave priority to an “instrumental” conception of Form, which is defined in the process of an active imitation following the topical comparison of the creation of a statue (8). It is this interpretative perspective that gives its full pertinence to Seneca’s choice of exemplar:

Neither is the pattern a cause, but an indispensable tool of the cause. His pattern is as indispensable to the artist as the chisel or the file; without these, art can make no progress.

(Exemplar quoque non est causa, sed instrumentum causae necessarium. Sic necessarium est exemplar artifici, quomodo scalprum, quomodo lima: sine his procedere ars non potest.)

(Letter, 65.13)

On the basis of the use of exemplar, a semantic configuration was initiated that was determined by the model of artistic activity.

Apuleius: Forma /exemplum /exemplar

The model of art also inflected the vocabulary use of a Platonist like Apuleius in the succinct introduction of his brief work Plato and His Doctrine:

Ideas, that is, the forms of all things, are simple and eternal, without, however, being corporeal; it is among them that the models of things present and future chosen by god are to be found; in these models, one cannot find more than a single image of each species and everything that is born has, like wax, its form and shape traced in accordance with the imprint of the models.

(Ideas vero, id est formas omnium, simplices et aeternas esse nec corporales tamen; esse autem ex his, quae deus sumpserit, exempla rerum quae sunt eruntve; nec posse amplius quam singularum specierum singulas imagines in exemplaribus inveniri gignentiumque omnium, ad instar cerae, formas et figurationes ex illa exemplorum inpressione signari.)


As in Seneca, species is used in its common meaning, whereas forma-exemplum-exemplar designate Form following a progression determined in this case by the quite concrete image of a slab of wax on which the model is imprinted. This convergence might suggest that the interpretation of Platonic doctrine, which was certainly not the same for the Stoic Seneca—however influenced he may have been by middle Platonism—as for Apuleius, was inflected in a manner indicated by choices in translation: the translations of Seneca and Apuleius make use of a vocabulary intent on being explicit, but the explicitation of eidos [εἶδος‎] as exemplum inflects the meaning, or, more precisely, reduces it. In wanting to transmit, one congeals; by giving priority to the example, one impoverishes the thought.

IV. Cicero and the Translation of Timaeus: The Species/Exemplar Distinction

This was the pitfall Cicero managed to avoid in his translation of the Timaeus: to that end, he uses species whenever there is a need to render what can be grasped by intellection alone. That coherent effort is palpable on three levels: on the one hand, the occurrences of species are not mechanically dictated by those of eidos-idea; on the other hand, sequences in which species figures contribute to produce an augmented nominal sense that brings into greater relief the intellection at work; finally, the distinction between species and exemplar favors the precision of the meaning of species.

The fact that species is not a word-to-word equivalent is evident from the first occurrence of the word: Plato’s text (28a) distinguishes two phases, the time of the gaze that the artist-demiurge directs at what is conserved as identical and the time in which he achieves the form (idea) in his work; in his translation, Cicero condenses the time of the gaze and the apprehension of the form thanks to the use of species and thus anticipates the role of Forms in intellection.

ὅτου μὲν οὖν ἂν ὁ δημιουϱγὸς πϱὸς τὸ ϰατὰ ταὐτὰ ἔχον βλέπων ἀεί, τοιούτῳ τινὶ πϱοσχϱώμενος παϱαδείγmατι, τὴν ἰδέαν ϰαὶ δύναμιν αὐτοῦ ἀπεϱγάζηται, ϰαλὸν ἐξ ἀνάγϰης οὕτως ἀποτελεῖσθαι πᾶν‎.

(Thus each time that a creator fabricates something by resting his eyes on what remains always the same and taking as a model an object of this sort in order to reproduce its form and properties, all that he achieves by proceeding in this manner is necessarily beautiful.)

Quo circa si is, qui aliquod munus efficere molitur, eam speciem, quae semper eadem est, intuebitur atque id sibi proponet exemplar, praeclarum opus efficiat necesse est.

(When he who undertakes to achieve a work contemplates the form that remains always the same and takes it as a model, he necessarily accomplishes a masterpiece.)

In 39a–40a, one can observe the same type of displacement: the Forms comprised by the Living, “enousas ideas tôi ho estin zôion [ἐνούσας ἰδέας τῷ ὃ ἔστιν ζῷον‎],” become formae, whereas the Living is clearly rendered in its function as model by the group species rerum. It is equally remarkable that the use of formae, with a meaning close to genera, anticipates the description of the Forms contained by this world, namely, the four species.

ᾖπεϱ οὖν νοῦς ἐνούσας ἰδέας τῷ ὃ ἔστιν ζῷον, οἷαί τε ἔνεισι ϰαὶ ὅσαι, ϰαθοϱᾷ, τοιαύτας ϰαὶ τοσαύτας διενοήθη δεῖν ϰαὶ τόδε σχεῖν. εἰσὶν δὴ τέτταϱες, μία μὲν οὐϱάνιον θεῶν γένος, ἄλλη δὲ πτηνὸν ϰαὶ ἀεϱοπόϱον, τϱίτη δὲ ἔνυδϱον εἶος, πεζὸν δὲ ϰαὶ χεϱσαῖον τέταϱτον‎.

(Now as in the ideal animal the mind perceives ideas or species of a certain nature and number, he thought that this created animal ought to have species of a like nature and number.)

Quot igitur et quales animalium formas mens in speciem rerum intuens poterat cernere, totidem et tales in hoc mundo secumcogitavit effingere. Erant autem animantium genera quattuor.

(The number and the nature of the forms that the mind could discern by contemplating the Form [of all that exists], he decided to reproduce it in this world. There were four species of the living.)

If one now focuses on sequences containing species, one observes that the use of a (genitive) determiner renders more precise the role of species, which allows one to see mentally the object specified by the determiner. In 29a, the creator fixes his eyes on the eternal model, to aidion (paradeigma) [τὸ ἀίδιον (παϱάδειγμα‎)]; Cicero translates “speciem aeternitatis imitari”:

εἰ μὲν δὴ ϰαλός ἐστιν ὅδε ὁ ϰόσμος ὅ τε δημιουϱγὸς ἀγαθός, δῆλον ὡς πϱὸς τὸ ἀίδιον ἔϐλεπεν‎.

(If our world is beautiful and its creator is good, it is clear that the creator has fixed his eyes on what is eternal.)

(Atqui si pulcher est hic mundus et si probus ejus artifex, profecto speciem aeternitatis imitari maluit.)

This is confirmed by the fact that aeternitas by itself is sufficient, in the following sentence, to render the “eternal model,” once the process of intellection has been put in place by species: “It is clear to everyone that the creator fixed his eyes on what is eternal [παντὶ δὴ σαφὲς ὅτι πϱὸς τὸ ἀίδιον‎. Nonigitur dubium quin aeternitatem maluerit exsequi].”

These uses appear more characteristic still if they are situated parallel to “speciem optimi,” which translates, while turning the adjective into a noun, “tou aristou idean [τοῦ ἀϱίστου ἰδέαν‎]” in 46c (the best there is), and to “speciem rerum,” which translates “tôi ho estin zôion [τῷ ὃ ἔστιν ζῷον‎]” (the Living) in 39e.

The gesture favoring the determining noun is a choice in translation that was not retained by Calcidius, as may easily be seen by comparing Cicero’s text with his own in the four following passages, which were previously quoted and translated:

28: [Q]uocirca si is, qui aliquod munus efficere molitur, eam speciem quae semper eadem est, intuebitur atque id sibi proponet exemplar, praeclarum opus efficiat necesse est; quippe ad immortalis quidem et in statu genuino persistentis exempli similitudinem atque aemulationem formans operis effigiem honestum efficiat simulacrum necesse est. [In fashioning a representation of the work resembling and imitating an immortal model and conserving its original state, he necessarily achieves a work of beauty.]

29: Atqui si pulcher est hic mundus et si probus ejus artifex, profecto speciem aeternitatis imitari maluit. Namsi est—ut quidemest—pulchritudine incomparabili mundus, opifexque et fabricator ejus optimus perspicuum est, quod juxta sincerae atque immutabilis proprietatis exemplum mundi sit instituta molitio. [The construction of the world took place following the model of what is unaltered and unchangeable.]

39: Quot igitur et quale animalium formas mens in speciem rerum intuens poterat cernere, totidem et tales in hoc mundo secum cogitavit effingere atque ut mens, cujus visus contemplatioque intellectus est, idearum genera contemplatur in intelligibili mundo, quae ideae sunt illic animalia, sic deus in hoc opere suo sensili diversa animalium genera statuit esse debere constituitque quattuor. [when the mind…contemplates the kinds of ideas in the intelligible world]

46: deus, cum optimi speciem, quoad fieri potest, efficit…dei summam optimamque et primariam speciem molientis. [god implementing the first Form]

Whereas Cicero uses nouns to tighten the articulations governing the specific mode of intellection of the creator, Calcidius calls on adjectives and groups of qualifiers to specify what a model is. It is perhaps not a matter of indifference that in such passages, the term used three out of four times is exemplum, whereas the term species appears only once, qualified by the adjective primaria: systematic examination of Calcidius’s translation and commentary reveals that the word species is reserved for what is apprehended by the intellect, whereas exemplum appears whenever, in intelligible form, it is the function of model that is being advanced. If that distinction, however, seems more or less to adhere to the one established by Cicero, it is not maintained with the same rigor. And yet it is in the distinction between uses of exemplum and species that the specificity of the Platonic reading of the myth of the Demiurge-Creator would appear to reside.

Thus, in the previously quoted translation from 28, Cicero designates as species that toward which the gaze of the creator tends, but uses exemplar to evoke the role played by the species in the process of imitation; similarly, in the following paragraph:

Rursus igitur videndum ille fabricator hujus tanti operis utrumsit imitatus exemplar, idne, quod semper unumidem et sui simile, an id, quod generatum ortumque dicimus. Atqui si pulcher est hic mundus et si probus ejus artifex, profecto speciem aeternitatis imitari maluit.

(But one should further ask whether the artificer of such a work achieved it by imitating a pattern, that is, according to what is always identical and resembling itself, or according to what we call changing and created. If the world be indeed fair and the artificer good, it is manifest that he must have looked to that which is eternal.)


The exemplar is what is imitated by the fabricatoir (tektainomenos [τεϰταινόμενος‎]), whereas species aeternitatis is what is imitated by the artifex probus (dêmiurgos [δημιουϱγός‎]). Finally species aeternitatis is opposed to generatum exemplum.

This rigorously maintained distinction thus allows one to preserve on two distinct levels the description of the intelligible and the elaboration of its role in the sensory world: Calcidius made partial use of this distinction, but Seneca and Apuleius were unaware of it. Now, instead of invoking incomprehension or doctrinal inflection in their case, one might focus on the difficulties entailed by the choice of species. To do so it suffices to consider what the other uses of species were in philosophical discourse during Cicero’s era. Cicero himself also employed the term to designate all that could not be an object of certainty, an appearance constraining one to be satisfied with the probable while the Stoics were intent on founding their theory of knowledge on true representations bearing their distinctive mark. But he also used it to designate the image of the gods, whose mental vision, according to the Epicureans, provides us, with certainty, proof that the gods are beatific and eternal. Although the species dei is a little explored aspect of Epicurean theology, it cannot be contested that the use of species in an Epicurean context is quite pertinent. This can be observed in the occurrences of the term in Lucretius, where species is used above all to designate appearance in as much as it gives to be seen, that is, in conformity with the Epicurean theory of knowledge insofar as it is the necessary condition of knowledge: the syntagm “naturae species ratioque,” utilized on several occasions by Lucretius (De rerum natura, 1.148: “sight and the explanation of nature”) provides a gripping encapsulation of it.

The fact that species is used, in the Ciceronian corpus, to reject the certainties of the Stoics, but also to evoke the very conditions of intellection—and to do so in a context not only of Platonism, but also of Epicureanism—suggests the formulation of the following hypothesis in the way of a conclusion: if species does indeed refer us back, in its Epicurean and anti-Stoic uses, to Hellenistic philosophy on the conditions of possibility of knowledge, Cicero’s exploitation of it to translate Platonic Form can be explained by the frequently articulated wish to restore Plato’s method to its true place, which would entail leaving inscribed in the language a question that would remain open. Like Plato, Cicero exploited in species all the heuristic potential contained in the term eidos. In so doing, he challenged the evolution of the uses of the Greek word fixed by the history of philosophy. His successors preferred to take that evolution into account in their choice as translators, which does not derive from the authority of Cicero.

Clara Auvray-Assayas


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