The Balance, the Lever and the Aristotelian Origins of Mechanics

  • Jürgen Renn
  • Peter McLaughlinEmail author
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 270)


The Mechanical Problems traditionally attributed to Aristotle is a short problem collection that also contains an ambitious project of reduction, which traces various mechanical devices back to the lever, the balance and the radii of a circle. This work is thus not just a collection of problems, but also the first theoretical mechanical treatise that has come down to us: Basic concepts of technical mechanics such as force, load, fulcrum are abstracted from an analysis of simple technology, and the workings of this technology are explained by arguments cast in syllogistic form. This chapter traces the origins of mechanical theory in this work and analyzes the form and structure of its argument. The key steps in the concept formation of basic mechanics carried out in this treatise are analyzed in detail. We focus on the special role of the balance with unequal arms in the early development of mechanics, on the interaction of various forms of explanatory practice and on their integration into systems of knowledge in the Peripatetic school.


Mechanical problems Aristotle The balance The lever Peripatetic school 


  1. Abattouy, Mohammed. 2001. Nutaf min Al-Hiyal: A partial Arabic version of pseudo-Aristotle’s ‘Problemata mechanica. Early Science and Medicine 6: 96–122.Google Scholar
  2. Aristophanes. 1998. Peace, ed. S. Douglas Olson. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  3. Aristotle. 1995. The complete works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Asper, Markus. 2008. The two cultures of mathematics in ancient Greece. In The Oxford handbook of the history of mathematics, ed. E. Robson and J. Stedall, 107–112. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bacon, Francis. 1858. Novum organum. In The works of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding, R. Ellis, and D.D. Heath, vol. 4. London: Longmans.Google Scholar
  6. Baldi, Bernardino. 1621. In mechanica Aristotelis problemata exercitationes: adiecta succinta narratione de autoris vita et scripti. Mainz: Albinus.Google Scholar
  7. Bechio, Philippo. 1560. Georgii Pachymerii Hieromnemonis in universam fere Aristotelis philosophiam epitome. Basel: Froben.Google Scholar
  8. Bekker, Immanuel, ed. 1831. Aristotelis opera, 2 vols. Berlin: Reimer.Google Scholar
  9. Berryman, Sylvia. 2009. The mechanical hypothesis in ancient Greek natural philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Biancani, Giuseppe (Blancanus). 1615. Aristotelis loca mathematica. Bologna: Coch.Google Scholar
  11. Bodnár, István. 2011. The pseudo-Aristotelian mechanics: The attribution to Strato. In Strato of Lampsacus: Text, translation and discussion, ed. M.-L. Desclos and W.W. Fortenbaugh, 443–455. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  12. Clagett, Marshall. 1959. The science of mechanics in the Middle Ages. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  13. Crombie, Alistair C. 1961. Augustine to Galileo. Vol. 2. London: Mercury Books.Google Scholar
  14. Damerow, Peter, Jürgen Renn, and Simone Rieger. 2002. Mechanical knowledge and Pompeian balances. In Homo Faber: Studies on nature, technology, and science at the time of Pompeii, ed. G. Castagnetti and J. Renn, 93–108. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider.Google Scholar
  15. De Gandt, François. 1982. Force et science des machines. In Science and speculation: Studies in Hellenistic theory and practice, ed. J. Barnes et al., 96–127. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. De Groot, Jean. 2009. Modes of explanation in the Aristotelian mechanical problems. Early Science and Medicine 14: 22–42.Google Scholar
  17. ———. 2014. Aristotle’s empricism: Experience and mechanics in the fourth century BC. Las Vegas: Parmenides.Google Scholar
  18. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 1970–1980. Ed. Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner.Google Scholar
  19. Duhem, Pierre. 1905. Les origines de la statique. Vol. 1. Paris: Hermann.Google Scholar
  20. ———. 1913–1959. Le system du monde: Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic. Vol. 10. Paris: Hermann.Google Scholar
  21. Fausto, Vittore. 1517. Aristotelis mechanica ... ac latinitate donata. Paris: Badii.Google Scholar
  22. Flashar, Hellmut, ed. 1961. Problemata physica. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.Google Scholar
  23. ———, ed. 2004. Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie. Die Philosophie der Antike. Bd. 3. - Ältere Akademie, Aristoteles, Peripatos. 2nd ed. Basel: Schwabe.Google Scholar
  24. Forster, E.S. 1995. Mechanics. In The complete works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Galilei, Galileo. 1638. Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche: intorno à due nuoue scienze attenenti alla mecanica i movimenti locali. Leiden: Elsevir.Google Scholar
  26. ———. 1968. Le opera: Nuova ristampa della edizione nazionale 1890–1909. Vol. 21. Florence: Barbera.Google Scholar
  27. ———. 1974. Two new sciences, including centers of gravity and force of percussion (trans: Stillman Drake). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  28. Heiberg, Johann Ludwig. 1904. Mathematisches zu Aristoteles. Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der mathematischen Wissenschaften mit Einschluss ihrer Anwendungen 18: 3–49.Google Scholar
  29. Hein, Christel, ed. 1985. Definition und Einteilung in der Philosophie: Von der spätantiken Einleitungsliteratur zur arabischen Enzyklopädie. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  30. Hero of Alexandria. 1900. Heronis Alexandrini opera quae supersunt omnia, vol. 2, Mechanica et catoprica. Leipzig: Teubner. (Reprint 1976. Stuttgart: Teubner).Google Scholar
  31. Hett, W.S., ed. 1936. Aristotle: Minor works. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Loeb Classical Library.Google Scholar
  32. Koyré, Alexandre. 1943. Galileo and Plato. Journal of the History of Ideas 4: 400–428.Google Scholar
  33. ———. 1961. Les philosophes et la machine. [Critique 1948]. In Études de la pensée philosophique, 279–309. Paris: Armand Colin.Google Scholar
  34. Krafft, Fritz. 1970. Dynamische und statische Betrachtungsweise in der antiken Mechanik. Wiesbaden: Steiner.Google Scholar
  35. Laird, Walter Roy. 1986. The scope of renaissance mechanics. In Osiris, 2nd Series, vol. 2, 43–68. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  36. ———. 2013. The text of the Aristotelian Mechanics. The Classical Quarterly 63: 183–198.Google Scholar
  37. ———. 2016. The Aristotelian mechanics: Text and diagrams. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science. Vol. 316. Cham: Springer International Publishing.Google Scholar
  38. Liddell, Henry G., Robert Scott, and Henry S. Jones. 1996. A Greek-English lexicon: With a revised supplement. Compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. Revised and augmented throughout by Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie and with the cooperation of many scholars. 9th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  39. Merton, Robert K. 1939. Science and the economy of seventeenth-century England. Science and Society 3: 3–27.Google Scholar
  40. Monantheuil, Henri de. 1599. Aristotelis mechanica graeca, emendata, latina facta, et commentariis illustrate. Paris: Perier.Google Scholar
  41. Netz, Reviel. 1999. The shaping of deduction in Greek mathematics : A study in cognitive history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Piccolomini, Alessandro. 1547. In mechanicas quaestiones Aristotelis, paraphrasis, paulo quidem plenior. Rome.Google Scholar
  43. Plato. 1962. Laws. In Platonis opera, ed. John Burnet, vol. 5. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  44. Renn, Jürgen, and Matthias Schemmel. 2006. Mechanics in the Mohist canon and its European counterparts. In Studies on ancient Chinese scientific and technical texts: Proceedings of the 3rd ISACBRS. International symposium on ancient Chinese books and records of science and technology. March 31–April 3, Tübingen, Germany, ed. Hans Ulrich Vogel, Christine Moll-Murata, and Xuan Gao, 24–31. Zhengzhou: Elephant Press.Google Scholar
  45. Rhodius, Apollonius. 1967. In Apollonius Rhodius, the Argonautica, ed. Seaton Robert Cooper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Loeb Classical Library.Google Scholar
  46. Robens, Erich, Shanath Amarasiri A. Jayaweera, and Susanne Kiefer. 2014. Balances: Instruments, manufacturers, history. Heidelberg: Springer.Google Scholar
  47. Rose, Valentine. 1854. De Aristotelis librorum ordine et auctoritate commentatio. Berlin: Reimer.Google Scholar
  48. Rose, Paul L., and Stillman Drake. 1971. The pseudo-Aristotelian Questions of mechanics in renaissance culture. Studies in the Renaissance 18: 65–104.Google Scholar
  49. Schiefsky, Mark. 2009. Structures of argument and concepts of force in the Aristotelian mechanical problems. Early Science and Medicine 14: 43–67.Google Scholar
  50. Shapin, Steve. 1996. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  51. Stevin, Simon. 1586. De beghinselen der weeghconst. Leiden: Plantijn. (reprint 1955. The principal works of Simon Stevin, vol.1. Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger).Google Scholar
  52. Tannery, Paul. 1915. Sur les problèmes mécaniques attribués à Aristote. In Memoires scientifiques, vol. 3. Paris: privately published.Google Scholar
  53. Tomeo, Niccolò Leonico. 1525. Aristotelis quaestiones mechanicae: Opuscula nuper in lucem aedita. Venice.Google Scholar
  54. van Cappelle, J.P., ed. 1812. Aristotelis quaestiones mechanicae. Amsterdam: den Hengst.Google Scholar
  55. van Leeuwen, Joyce. 2012. The tradition of the Aristotelian mechanics: Text and diagrams. Berlin: Diss. Humboldt University.Google Scholar
  56. Vitruvius. 1931–1934. On architecture. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Loeb Classical Library.Google Scholar
  57. Westfall, Richard S. 1993. Science and technology during the Scientific Revolution: An empirical approach. In Renaissance & revolution, ed. J.V. Field and Frank James, 63–72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Whitehead, David, and Philip H. Blyth. 2004. Athenaeus Mechanicus. On machines (Peri mechanêmatôn). Wiesbaden: Steiner.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Philosophy Department, University of HeidelbergHeidelbergGermany

Personalised recommendations