Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.10

A.R. Lacey (trans.), John Philoponus, On Aristotle's Physics 2. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Pp. 241. $41.50 (hb). ISBN 0-8014-2815-7.

Reviewed by Patricia K. Curd, Purdue University.

Ancient commentaries provide modern readers with windows on both the subject of the commentary and the philosophical world of the author. From this commentary on Book 2 of the Physics we learn about Aristotle and about the philosophical issues that exercised Philoponus himself. Thus we see Philoponus comparing (and perhaps trying to reconcile) Plato and Aristotle, we hear echoes of Stoicism, and we find the work as a whole suffused with Philoponus' Neoplatonist arguments and assumptions. Internal evidence suggests that Philoponus was at work on his commentary in 517; it has recently been argued that the work was revised after 529, after Philoponus' conversion to Christianity.1 A.R. Lacey claims that there are no traces of Philoponus' later views in the commentary on Book 2 (but note for instance, the comments about Philoponus' use of the difficult KATADU/W at 197,34 and 308,23), and he remains agnostic about the exact date of composition.

This volume, another in the valuable series Ancient Commentators on Aristotle under general editor Richard Sorabji, touches on a number of issues central to Aristotle: the contrasts between nature and artifice or mathematics, the four causes, nature and teleology, and discussions of chance and necessity. Philoponus does his best to explain Aristotle's positions, but then feels free to go on, sometimes criticizing, sometimes expanding the argument far beyond the few comments Aristotle might make about an issue. As might be expected, Philoponus has most to say when his own views conflict with Aristotle's, as when he disagrees with Aristotle on the nature of formal causes (298,20 ff.) or suggests that there are actually six, rather than four, causes (see 241,18ff. along with Lacey's note 342); or when he attempts to harmonize Plato and Aristotle (again on the issue of causes). While recognizing Aristotle's authority, Philoponus does not hesitate to chastise and correct him. At 309,9ff. Philoponus disagrees strongly with the Aristotelian account of ends and necessity: "Thus Aristotle then; but this argument does not seem to me to be sound" (DOKEI= DE/ MOI MH\ U(GIW=S E)/XEIN TOU=TO TO\ E)PIXEI/RHMA).2 Tracing out the disagreements adds much to our understanding both of Aristotle's own positions and of the development of philosophical views since the fourth century BC. An example is Philoponus' repeated references to prime matter, something that is not, I am convinced, part of Aristotle's own theory of change.3

A.R. Lacey's translations are clear and colloquial without being folksy. He has done a fine job of dealing with Philoponus' tortured syntax and sometimes interminable sentences. (Occasionally the translator's exasperation does break through: note 288 reads: "Even Philoponus must end a sentence somewhere, and at this point [233,22] he ends the one he began at the beginning of this paragraph [233,4].") Lacey departs from Vitelli's Berlin text of Book 2 some 68 times, often following out suggestions made by Vitelli himself, and he is scrupulous in dealing with textual difficulties. The 135 pages of translation are accompanied by 910 notes, a short introduction, a bibliography, an English-Greek glossary, a Greek-English Index, and a subject index. The volume is rounded out, as are all the volumes in the series, with Sorabji's general introduction to the Aristotelian Commentators in an Appendix. The notes are gathered together at the back of the book, which is inconvenient for the reader, who often encounters as many as four notes in a single sentence, and ten or more notes on a page. The introduction places the notes at the bottom of the page, and this is the method followed in, for instance, Furley and Wildberg' s volume on Philoponus and Simplicius, and Dooley's translation of Alexander of Aphrodisias on Metaphysics I. The sheer number of Lacey's notes may have persuaded the editor and publisher to put the notes at the back, but it does make the reading difficult.

The notes are clear and helpful; there is discussion of textual, philological, and philosophical points, and Lacey works hard to keep the reader on track through long arguments and discussions. But these are notes and not a commentary. Lacey often (and generously) refers to the work of others, but it would have been helpful to have more idea of the points he wishes to make by such references. Too often, the reader is simply told, "on this point, see X." Those who are not Philoponus scholars or who wish fuller discussions would do well to read this volume in conjunction with Aristotle Transformed and Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science, both edited by Richard Sorabji.4

The name "Philoponus" means "lover of work." As Sorabji has pointed out, we have no way of knowing whether this name was given to John Philoponus for this reason.5 But all who care about ancient philosophy should be glad that Sorabji and his translators are lovers of work. This volume is an important addition to a wonderful series.


  • [1] The date of 517 is suggested by a reference at 703,16-17; the revised dating is argued for by Koenraad Verrycken in "The Development of Philoponus' Thought and its Chronology" in R. Sorabji, ed. Aristotle Transformed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) pp. 233-274. Lacey refers to a dissertation in progress by F. de Haas (Leiden) for further refinements of Verrycken's chronological views.
  • [2] Lacey's translation.
  • [3] This is, of course, a disputed point.
  • [4] Aristotle Transformed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).
  • [5] Sorabji also points out that the name "had also been given to groups of Christian lay workers." See R. Sorabji, "John Philoponus," pp. 1-40 in Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science. The discussion of Philoponus' name is on pp. 5-6.