Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.23


John Philoponus, On Aristotle on the Intellect: de Anima 3.4-8. Transl. by William Charlton, with the assistance of Fernand Bossier. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8014-2681-2. Pp. viii, 183. $52.50.

Ammonius, On Aristotle's Categories. Transl. by S. Marc Cohen and Gareth B. Matthews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8014-2688-X. Pp. 170. $46.50.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Few enough of one's classical friends have heard of Philoponus, the neo-Platonic Alexandrian philosopher of the sixth century A.D. (Fewer still have heard of Cosmas Indicopleustes, the retired sea captain turned Bible-pounding flat-earther against whom Philoponus wrote, but that's another story.) Philoponus has suffered from the common neglect of the ancient secondary literature: commentators on Plato and Aristotle are simply unworthy of the attention given to 'original' thinkers. (Unfair, really, for us as secondary writers to be so scornful of our predecessors!)

The difficulty with that neglect is that it has at different periods left much gold hidden beneath the surface. The publication of the Berlin Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca at the turn of the century marched pari passu with Diels' collection of the pre-Socratic fragments, many of which lurk in neglected secondary texts of late antiquity. But Quellenforschung of that sort still implies relative disdain for the late texts. Their original contribution remains untapped. And their contribution is significant: that the reigning mode of literary production was the commentary is itself an interesting fact about late antique readers and writers, but it is precisely the reigning mode to which we should look for the age's most original thoughts. In neo-Platonic Alexandria, the main line of contribution was the harmonization not merely of Platonism with Christianity (not a specially hard task, at least by that date) but of both of those streams of thought with Aristotle -- a much trickier business.

Now Richard Sorabji of King's College, London, has made it his mission to rescue Philoponus, the most productive and interesting of the neglected late antique philosophers, from modern oblivion. Starting with his 1982 inaugural lecture at London, he has himself led the investigations and has assembled an international team of co-workers to press the boundaries in all directions. The results have been numerous. Sorabji has published two books in his own write on issues that come to a head in Philoponus (Time, Creation and the Continuum, London, 1983, and Matter, Space and Motion, London, 1988); he organized the publication of a volume of essays entitled Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (London, 1987), which is the best general book on Philoponus, his thought-world, and his contribution; on a grander scale, he edited what is to my taste the best collective volume I have ever seen, Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and their Influence (London, 1990); and he has taken on the general editorship of the series of translations in which the volume noted above appears.

A note on the Aristotle Transformed volume. The history of Aristotle commentary in ancient and Byzantine times has been attacked piecemeal by specialists of all periods for many years. To pull together a synthetic volume, it would have been (relatively) easy to round up the usual suspects, parcel out the topics, and proceed to the production of a set of essays, some original, some potted. Instead, Sorabji had the much more useful idea of producing a collective volume consisting of a combination of classic studies that have not yet been replaced with new essays by specialists commissioned specifically for the volume. So after an introductory survey by Sorabji himself, the second item in the volume is a 1909 review by Karl Praechter from Byzantinische Zeitschrift of the whole Berlin Comm. in Arist. Graec. project, a masterly survey that still commands the field. Six essays in all are entirely new; five essays (ranging in date from 1958 to 1989) have been substantially revised for this volume; nine others are reprinted with lesser revisions (several of them translated from French or German). The result is a book of remarkable coherence and originality, every piece of which is an original contribution by a specialist working not to commission but to the sound of his own drummer. The result is a 500 page education in the history of Aristotelian philosophy from classical to Byzantine times: every student of classical philosophy should know this eye-opening volume.

The translations then: the series is called Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, in which eight volumes have appeared. All of these texts were published in the Berlin Comm. in Arist. Graec., of course, but many of those editions were little more than editiones principes, so much remains to be done for the proper interpretation of the texts. In the case of Philoponus, his commentary on the chapters of Arist. de anima dealing with the 'active intellect' survives only in a thirteenth century Latin translation by the Dominican scholastic William of Moerbeke. That text has been published not in CAG obviously but first in 1934, then again in 1966 in the series Corpus Latinum Commentariorum in Aristotelem Graecorum (William of Moerbeke also provides us for that series with translations of Themistius and Ammonius, for example). But editions proceed slowly, and in this case without distinction. It is a sign of the amount of work that remains to be done that the 105 pages of translation presented here are accompanied by a list five pages long of emendations to text and punctuation made by F. Bossier and accepted for this translation. As a specimen of the ingenuity required, Sorabji in a preface calls attention to this nice divination: Moerbeke's translation often uses the phrase 'si non' in places where sense is difficult to extract. Now this would evidently reflect Greek ei mê; but Bossier has intuited that what really lies behind those expressions is eidê, viz. Platonic forms. Make that global search-and-verify substitution and the sense of your text will be revolutionized at numerous points. (Also just now come to hand is the translation of Ammonius [Philoponus' teacher in Alexandria] on Aristotle's Categories by S. Marc Cohen and Gareth B. Matthews. The challenges here, where the Greek text considerately survives, are less than with the Philoponus/Moerbeke, but the volume is produced with comparable attention to detail, including several useful indices of technical terms, which will apparently be a standard and welcome feature of the series.)

This note is an 'Also Seen' because I do not feel qualified to sit in judgment on the work of these pioneers, but I feel compelled to applaud them. The translations are handsomely and thoughtfully produced (Charlton includes, for example, an English-Latin glossary, to trace the Latin substrate for his translation and a Latin-English index, for the benefit of the researcher coming from outside with a specific curiosity about terms.). The whole project is exciting, and the surface has just been scratched.

(In accord with an earlier promise, we point out that all the Sorabji-produced volumes mentioned in this note were originally published with Duckworth in London, an honorable commitment from a 'private' publisher unmatched in any scholarly field I know in this country since the postwar days of Schocken or Pantheon or Bollingen.)