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, Volume 3, Issue 4–5, pp 249–422 | Cite as

Das Parallelenproblem im Corpus Aristotelicum

  • Imre Tóth


In the Corpus Aristotelicum are numerous items suggesting that the assertion of the fifth postulate in Euclid'sElements had been preceded by attempts to demonstrate this postulate itself, or some equivalent fundamental proposition, within the rigorous frame of Absolute Geometry in Bolyai's sense. Thus geometers contemporary with Aristotle tried to solve the problem which became known commonly in later centuries as the Problem of Parallels.

Probably these geometers first attempted a direct solution. Only one text at our disposal supports this hypothesis: (1) Anal. Prior. 65 a 4–7. My analysis below in Chapter I shows that a mathematical meaning can be read from this somewhat obscure text only if it is interpreted as an allusion by Aristotle to those geometers who believe they are demonstrating, obviously in an absolute way, the proposition Elem. I 29, equivalent to the fifth postulate, but do not realize that in the process they are using lemmas which result themselves from the proposition to be demonstrated. Such a lemma would assert the uniqueness of the parallels, existence of which was shown in an absolute way in Elem. I 27. My conjecture and reconstruction afford a natural explanation for an inconsequence singular for Book I of the Elements, namely, the presence of the proposition Elem. I 31 in the purely Euclidean part of the book, in spite of the fact that the assertion merely repeats the absolute proposition Elem. I 27 without explicitly containing any Euclidean element.

It is probable that the failure of these direct attempts led to an indirect approach to the problem through reductio ad absurdum of some hypothesis contrary to what was to become Postulate V or to some equivalent proposition. Numerous texts survive from which it is clear that geometers contemporary with Aristotle followed fairly far the consequences of an hypothesis contrary to the fifth postulate, obtaining important results which are partly identical with some theorems of Saccheri. Some of these texts attest first of all that what Saccheri called the Hypothesis of the Obtuse Angle had been stated in an independent and explicit way and that the fundamental result, identical with Prop. 14 of Saccheri'sEuclides ab omni naevo vindicatus (1733), had been obtained, namely, that within Bolyai's Absolute Geometry this hypothesis leads to the remarkable formal contradiction that parallels intersect. This conclusion followed from two different formulations of the Obtuse Angle Hypothesis: (2) Anal. Prior. 66a 11–14, if the exterior angle (formed by a secant which intersects two parallel straight lines) is smaller than the interior angle (opposite and situated on the same side of the secant), and (3) 66a 14–15, if the sum of the angles in a triangle is greater than 2R. Finally, an item in (4) Ethica ad Eudemum 1222b 35–36 shows us that by investigating the Obtuse Angle Hypothesis, the Greek geometers also discovered the quadrilateral in which the sum of the angles is equal to 8R; this quadrilateral, which does not appear even in Saccheri's book, is the maximal quadrilateral of the Riemann geometry, a quadrilateral degenerated into a straight line closed upon itself (Chapter IV 20).

Nowhere in the Corpus does the Hypothesis of the Acute Angle appear in an independent formulation. Nevertheless in (5) Anal. Poster. 90a 33–34 this Hypothesis is mentioned along with the other two: namely, Aristotle states that the essence of the triangle consists in the sum of its angles' being equal to, greater than or less than 2R (Chapter V 27). The formulation of the fifth postulate in the Elements allows greater probability to the conjecture of independent existence of the Acute Angle Hypothesis as well. Indeed, in its original formulation the fifth postulate is redundant, since it unnecessarily specifies in which of the half-planes (bounded by the secant) the intersection of the two straight lines occurs; this specification is itself a theorem. The Acute Angle Hypothesis must have been formulated not only symmetrically to (3) Anal. Prior. 66 a 14–15, that is, the sum of the angles of the triangle is less than 2R, as results from (5) Anal. Poster. 90 a 33–34, but also symmetrically to (2) Anal. Prior. 66 a 11–14. In the latter case the following final conclusion should have been reached in order to reduce to absurdity the Acute Angle Hypothesis: Two straight lines cut by a secant are incident if the sum of the interior angles (on the same side of the secant) is smaller than 2R, and the incidence occurs on that side of the secant where the sum of the angles is less than 2R. In the frame of the Acute Angle Hypothesis, this end conclusion is relevant only if this final specification (concerning the half-plane where the incidence occurs) is explicitly emphasised. According to my conjecture, it was precisely the practical impossibility of reaching this conclusion as a theorem of Absolute Geometry that later determined Euclid to transpose this decisive end conclusion from the Acute Angle Hypothesis, without changing its wording, and to include it among the postulates (Chapter II 13).

A queer passage of Proklos (In primum Euclidis Elementorum, ed. Friedlein p. 368, 26–369, 1) in which the Acute Angle Hypothesis is presented in the form of a Zenonian paradox reinforces the conjecture that this hypothesis was studied independently by the ancient geometers (Chapter VI 33). Thus failure to solve the Problem of Parallels preceded not only the later Non-Euclidean geometry but also Euclidean geometry itself.

The general undifferentiated Contra-Euclidean Hypothesis appears in the following form in all the other texts examined: The sum of the angles in the triangle is not equal to 2R. This hypothesis is nowhere qualified by Aristotle as being absurd or impossible: On the contrary, he takes it always as being just as much justified a priori as is the Euclidean theorem Elem. I 32 which contradicts it. For instance in (6) Anal. Poster. 93 a 33–35 Aristotle puts the problematical alternative: Which of the two propositions is right (or, which of the two constitutes the Logos, the raison d'être of the triangle), the one that states that the sum of the angles in the triangle is equal to 2R, or on the contrary, the one that states that the sum of the angles in the triangle is not equal to 2R (Chapter V 28)?

In a number of texts the theorem Elem. I 32 itself and the general Contra-Euclidean Hypothesis are treated as being a sort of principle, and stress is laid on the idea that the logical consequences of each of these items invariantly preserve its specific (Euclidean or non-Euclidean) geometrical content [(7) 1187 a 35–38 (Chapter IV 18); (8) 1222 b 23–26 (Chapter IV 19); (9) 1187 b 1–2 (Chapter IV 18); (10) 1222 b 41–42 Chapter IV 21); (11) 1187 b 2–4 (Chapter IV 18)]; (12) Physica 200 a 29–30: If the sum of the angles in the triangle is not equal to 2R, then the principles of geometry cannot remain the same (Chapter V 25); (13) Metaph. 1052 a 6–7: It is impossible that the sum of the angles in the triangle be sometimes equal to 2R and sometimes not equal to 2R (Chapter V 24). Finally, the most important item of this sort is to be found in (14) De Caelo 281 b 5–7: If we accept as a starting hypothesis that it is impossible for the sum of the angles in the triangle to be equal to 2R, then the diagonal of the square is commensurable with its side (Chapter III).

Another group of texts reveal Aristotle's attitude as regard these Contra-Euclidean theorems: (15) 1222 b 38–39 (Chapter IV 20); (16) 200 a 16–19 (Chapter VI 30); (17) 402 b 18–21 (Chapter VI 31); (18) 171 a 12–16 (Chapter VI 32); (19) 77 b 22–26 (Chapter V 26); (20) 101 a 15–17 (Chapter VI 31); (21) 76 b 39–77 a 3 (Chapter VI 31). These passages reveal Aristotle's conviction that these paradoxical Contra-Euclidean propositions (which cannot be annihilated by reductio ad absurdum) are nevertheless inacceptable as “bad”, probably because their graphical construction requires curved lines for representing the concept of straight lines.

Finally, another group of texts show that Aristotle sensed in a way the necessity of adding to the foundations of Geometry a new postulate, from which the proposition Elem. I 32 should follow rigorously.


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© Springer-Verlag 1975

Authors and Affiliations

  • Imre Tóth
    • 1
  1. 1.Lehrstuhl f. Grundlagen d. MathematikUniversität Bukarest

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