Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.06

Place, Void, and Eternity. Philoponus: Corollaries on Place and Void. Translated by David Furley. With Simplicius, Against Philoponus on the Eternity of the World, translated by Christian Wildberg. London: Duckworth, 1991. Pp. 153. ISBN 0715622501.

Reviewed by Barbara Obrist, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Strasbourg.

Studies devoted in recent times to the last phase of ancient philosophy, taken together with new translations (some for the first time into a modern language) of Aristotelian commentators, not only represent an important step forward in our knowledge of the philosophy of the ancient world, but also contribute to the history of medieval philosophy before the twelfth century. It is from the point of view of a medievalist that I would like to say a few words on the relevance of these figures to the Middle Ages, and of their speculations on place and time.

Simplicius and Philoponus belong to a period in which were elaborated the ideological foundations of medieval society, since it was during this period that philosophical systems and concepts were either discarded or modified to meet the needs of medieval society. Undergoing modifications were all the classificatory systems derived from Aristotle's Categories; discarded was his natural history. This important period, however, has been almost completely neglected; even the principal commentaries on Aristotle by Boethius are not yet available in translation. And hardly anyone (with the notable exception of S. Sambursky) before R. Sorabji had acknowledged Philoponus's effort to establish a Christian philosophy of nature.

Like the philosophy of the 6th century, that of the early Middle Ages (ca. 9th to 11th centuries) has also failed to attract sufficient attention. One of the main obstacles to proper study lies in the fact that the sources for philosophical speculation for this latter period are to be found not in the form of entire and independent treatises, but as glosses and short passages, in many cases, in still unedited manuscripts. In order to establish the frame of thought presumed by these isolated passages, a knowledge of late ancient philosophy is essential. Only after these texts are available can we accurately evaluate the way in which these ideas were later altered and readjusted to meet new needs. Too much emphasis has been laid on ancient philosophy as it has been transmitted by the Church Fathers. Without wishing to deny the importance of, say, Augustine, I must stress that other strands were at work in shaping the transmission. Owing, however, to the scarcity of studies and readily available texts, many details of the transmission remain unclear. Furthermore, it still has to be determined whether the early Middle Ages were as impenetrable to philosophical speculation as is generally assumed. For a balanced judgement of the process of rejection and adaption, we also need to know which works were not read.

In this respect, the writings of John Philoponus throw an interesting if negative light on the fate of ancient philosophy in the Middle Ages, for it was he who established the foundations of a philosophy of nature which was based on the Christian view of the creation of the world. They show the results of high-level Christian philosophical speculation based on Aristotle's physics which allowed for a breaking away from Aristotle a thousand years before the scientific revolution. In the West, however, Philoponus's work did not have any impact whatsoever before the 13th Century, when his arguments against Aristotle's conception of infinity were taken up. Thus arises the question why it did not initiate the tradition of a Christian cosmology combining truths of revelation with the principles of philosophy of nature. One lesson which may immediately be learned from Philoponus's case is that one has to make a distinction between the role of Christian religion within Roman society and a society dominated by the clergy. The latter came to be victorious at the very time Philoponus was writing, that is, when the ancient urban structures were being destroyed which had made possible relatively independent philosophical and theological speculation. As A.H. Armstrong has cogently pointed out,1 the ecclesiastical cosmos replaced the natural one. And indeed the defense by Philoponus of the creationist view against Aristotle's conception of the eternity of the world was insufficient to satisfy ecclesiastical ideology. As far as we are able to judge from recent studies and texts in translation, the Incarnation has no place in it. Moreover, the desacralization of celestial dynamics was not only unacceptable to the pagan Neoplatonist Simplicius, but even more so to a clerical world view.

It would be particularly instructive to examine the medieval evolution of the central notions of place and time against the battles fought in the transitional period of the 5th and 6th Centuries. It is noteworthy that before the 13th century there was no speculation on the nature of place in accord with Aristotelian natural philosophy, such as that practiced by Philoponus. Beyond this general statement, however, it remains to be investigated what kind of conception of space underlay the world picture of the earlier Middle Ages. What were the reasons for adapting the Aristotelian conception of space -- or place -- as the outer surface of a body's volume and for conceding to it merely the status of an accident, while the notion of space as extension (as defended by Philoponus in his Corollaries) was rejected? Unlike place, time remained a central preoccupation, owing to the time-regulating function of liturgy. From Isidore of Seville on, the various treatises de rerum natura were centered on the practical problems of time division rather than those of place.

The case of Simplicius, although he was no more known to the Latin Middle Ages than was Philoponus, illustrates another process that should be followed through the centuries of the Middle Ages, that of the Neoplatonic manipulation of Aristotelian physical concepts of place and time, which were applied analogically to spiritual principles. Much of this kind of elaboration takes place within the frame of dialectic criticism of and commentary on the Categories.

On the whole, then, the decision to produce translations rather than new editions of these Greek texts appears to be fully justified, especially when they appear in versions as accurate and readable as those provided by Furley and Wildberg. Documents which would otherwise remain closed to all but specialists are now accessible to a far wider circle of students, who will be able to go beyond modern histories of philosophy to confront the primary sources at first hand.


  • [1] "Man in the cosmos: A Study of some differences between Neoplatonism and Christianity," in Plotinian and Christian Studies (London 1979) p. 9.