Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.05.05


R.W. Sharples, Alexander of Aphrodisias: Quaestiones 2.16-3.15 (Ancient Commentators on Aristotle). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. 212. $42.50. ISBN 0-8014-3088-7.


Reviewed by Robert B. Todd, University of British Columbia (bobtodd@unixg.ubc.ca).

On confronting this translation, the eighth volume devoted to Alexander of Aphrodisias in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, the present reviewer cannot help recalling the scholarly situation that prevailed when he began a doctoral dissertation on this Aristotelian commentator in 1968. The last monograph on Alexander had been a thèse by Paul Moraux published in 1941. There were few current articles, and in fact more recent work on Alexander and the other Greek Aristotelian commentators in publications by students of medieval or renaissance philosophy and science than in those of students of ancient philosophy. That situation is now totally changed, thanks in no small measure to the prolific work on Alexander by the present translator, R.W. Sharples of University College London, and to the present series under its energetic editor, Professor Richard Sorabji of King's College London. We shall also soon have the final "Alexandrian" volume of Moraux's Der Aristotelismus bei den Griechen, completed from his Nachlass by several hands, and can anticipate English translations in the Ancient Commentators series of Alexander's most important treatise, the de anima (of which there is also an Italian version under way), and of its ancillary collection, the mantissa. Budé editions of all his minor works are also in preparation.

But it may still be some time before a graduate student will be told that Alexander has been "done", as the avowedly ground-breaking nature of the present volume reveals. This is the third part of Sharples' translation of a heterogeneous collection of four books of texts known as the Quaestiones, of which the modern edition is by Ivo Bruns in Supplementum Aristotelicum 2.2 (Berlin 1892). It succeeds, in admirably efficient biennial order, this scholar's versions of Book 4, the Ethical Problems (1990), and of Quaestiones I.1-2.15 (1992). The texts in this particular volume are notable for some interesting discussions of Aristotle's de anima (qu. 2.24-27; 3.2-3, 6, 7, 9), and for an important defence (qu. 3.12) of the closed world of Aristotelian cosmology against the Stoic and Epicurean alternatives, a text that deserves to be better known as a contribution to an important and popular theme in the history of science. (3.12 is, for example, entirely neglected in E. Grant's magisterial survey of arguments about the void, Much ado about Nothing [Cambridge, 1981].) Sharples is also to be commended for including (at 89-94) translations of two texts in a Florentine manuscript that clearly belong in the milieu of this collection.

The Quaestiones were assembled in late antiquity, and parts survive in Arabic, and thence in a few medieval Latin versions. They are called skholikai, "school-discussion" (Sharples 2; or just "school" at 12); certainly their often elliptical and abbreviated form suggests links with some procedure of formal instruction. Perhaps they should even be termed "lecture-related", since skhole can specifically mean a lecture in later Greek. The adjective skholikos turned up 22 times in a search in the TLG disk (which I thank Chris Morrissey for executing). Most relevant are occurrences in the titles of commentaries by Ammonius and Philoponus (instances to be added to that from Dionysius of Harlicanassus noted by LSJ) where "lecture-related" is clearly the sense; e.g., Philoponus on the de generatione et corruptione [Comm. in Aristot. Graec. 14:2] is entitled skholikai aposemeioseis ("notes based on lectures"). In anachronistic terms, many of these texts are essentially "handouts": documents to be supplemented by further discussions that the modern commentator must try and reconstruct. It is hard to imagine Alexander or anyone trying to arrange for their wide diffusion.

In content this whole collection is peculiar and problematic: items are arranged in no obvious order; many are not "questions and solutions" at all; and the majority can be linked with Aristotelian works on which Alexander is either not known to have written commentaries, or for which his commentaries no longer survive. These features raise problems, some of which Sharples defines (2-3), but understandably cannot puruse in detail, although in notes to this and the other volumes he has touched on a number of important issues affecting the chronology and even authenticity of individual texts.

Sharples (7) hopes that his translation will "stimulate and facilitate" further research on these texts. It deserves to achieve the former, and will surely accomplish the latter. The translations are careful and painstaking, and the notes invariably helpful and suggestive. (For what I gather are economic reasons the footnotes in this series are now unfortunately relegated to the end of the volume [110-145], along with the Textual Emendations [100-109].) There is as usual an English-Greek Glossary (161-174) and Greek-English Index (175-204), as well as an index locorum and subject index (205-212). Sorabji's useful survey of the commentators is reprinted (151-160), but without any cross-reference at 153n4 to the annotated translation of qu. 3.12 in the present volume. The text is usefully revised; Ivo Bruns, like many participants in the Berlin Academy edition of the commentators, was not always the most careful and thoughtful editor. Sharples must be warmly congratulated on completing this project. The remainder of this review will deal with some sundry details, and briefly suggest ways in which some of these texts might be further explored.

Sharples (5-6) warns us that he is not going to be rigidly consistent in the translation of terminology at the expense of readability, but will usually aim to be consistent within single quaestiones. This principle seems to have been effectively applied, and so my queries involve relatively minor points. For example, the particle ê used to introduce solutions to problems is always rendered "or rather", but where it introduces more than one possible solution (as in qu. 2.25) "perhaps" (favoured by other recent translators) might be more appropriate. But in qu. 2.19 (at 63.16) ê introduces a single solution, and so something like "now then" might best introduce the dogmatic response. Also, why if aporia is "puzzle" in the title (p. 11; 44.1) does it become "difficulty" elsewhere? Certainly "raise/resolve a difficulty" (qu. 3.3, 82.34-36) arguably introduces needless variety when the specific "difficulty" is identified by a question.

I swear off comment on qu. 3.12 since I am cited in connection with it. I would, however, note that my emendation en hautoi for en hautois at 101.25 is referred to at n. 320, but not included in the list of textual emendations at p. 105.

Qu. 3.13 is a text of particular interest because it is part of Alexander's discussion of phantasia, an account that is rightly beginning to attract the kind of attention hitherto confined to discussions of this subject by the neoplatonist commentators. Here I would just suggest that 3.13, and other Alexandrian material, needs to be more carefully discussed in its Aristotelian context. Most of Sharples' notes (nn. 359-366) gather Alexandrian parallels, while D. Modrak's recent article ("Alexander on phantasia," in Ancient Minds [= Southern Journal of Philosophy 31 (Supplement), 1993] 173-97) fails to identify effectively the exegetical context of Alexander's account. Before this commentator is treated like an original thinker, his ever-present exegetical goals (cf. his de anima 2.4-6 Bruns) -- no less important for often being latent -- should be acknowledged. For example, the reader should know that the "strict" definition of phantasia at 3.13, 108.3-4 reproduces Aristotle, de anima 429a1-2 (cf. 428b13-14), a fact as important as the Alexandrian references gathered at Sharples n. 364.

For qu. 3.15 the title could arguably be translated "About 'what is as it were without parts'", making its subject the expression hoionei ameres. The formula "as it were without parts" is probably a hypothetical, rather than an actual, attempt (see Sharples n. 391) to escape the difficulty that atoms that are defined as partless bodies are not bodies at all. Sharples initially translates just hoionei in italics or in inverted commas, but ceases to do so as the quaestio proceeds. There is a case for representing Alexander throughout as mentioning rather than using this whole phrase, since it may be an echo of Aristotle de anima 3.6, 430b11-13 where a line thought of as divided into two parts is said to have halves that are hoionei meke ("as it were lengths"; "new wholes of length" [Smith; Oxford translation]). A commentator as imaginative as Alexander may have digressed on what sense could be made of the expression "as it were without parts", given that this would be the status of a length thought in undivided time. that is "as it were" a magnitude could also be without parts, an issue that can, as Sharples rightly notes, be linked to discussions of atomism. Indeed, this quaestio may have originated in a discussion of the critique of atomism at de generatione et corruptione 1.2, an Aristotelian treatise represented elsewhere in this collection (cf. qu. 2.22, 3.4, and 3.5).

Finally, in the bibliography the reprints of at least the articles by Ackrill and Pines might have been noted: thus Ackrill's celebrated paper "Aristotle's definitions of psuckhe," is also in J. Barnes et al. (eds.), Articles on Aristotle: 4, London 1979; and Pines' paper on a fragment of Xenocrates is in his Studies in Arabic Versions of Greek Texts and in Medieval Science, Jerusalem and Leiden 1986. Also, if "Donini (1982)" (= P.L. Donini, Le scuole, l'anima, l'impero: la filosophia antica da Antioco a Plotino, Turin 1982) is recommended (146) for its general survey of Alexander, it should be included in this bibliography, as it is in earlier volumes of Sharples' translations.