Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.24

Barrie Fleet (trans.), Simplicius on Aristotle's Physics 2. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. 218. $45.00. ISBN 0-8014-3283-9.

Reviewed by Robert B. Todd, Classics, University of B.C. Vancouver, B.C., Canada,

"We always had on the table or close at hand for consultation such works as the commentaries of Alex. Aphrod., Simplicius and Philoponus." That is how J.A. Smith (1863-1939) recalled (at PBA 24 [1938] 419) the meetings of the Oxford Aristotelian Society in the 1920s and 1930s, presided over by Harold Joachim (1868-1938), who had organized them in order to revive a tradition first established in the 1880s by Ingram Bywater (1840-1914), the only British scholar to contribute to the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (CAG). The consistent object of this Society was to read an Aristotelian text closely, and to use commentators, Renaissance and modern as well as ancient, only in an ancillary role. Today, by contrast, these commentators are read less for their insight into Aristotle than for their independent philosophical value. Medievalists had long recognized the intrinsic merits of Arabic and Latin commentators. In the 1950s and 1960s Renaissance scholarship, largely under the influence of Paul Oskar Kristeller, began to explore the major (and mostly Italian) exegetes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then first in the 1970s, but more intensively over the last fifteen years, the Greek Aristotelian commentators came into their own. The flagship project in this development has been The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle (ACA), a series of English translations of which 27 volumes (if counted correctly; were this a German project, they would surely be numbered) have now been published.

The appearance of Barrie Fleet's version of Simplicius on Physics 2 means that nearly all of this sixth-century commentary (at 1366 pages the mother of all Greek commentaries) has appeared in ACA, although it will reportedly be duplicated by the English translation that will accompany L. Tarán's promised edition. Three parts have been published as separate treatises: the Corollaries on Place and Time (from Book 4) (tr. J.O. Urmson, 1992), and the polemic Against Philoponus on the Eternity of the World (from Book 8) (tr. C. Wildberg, 1991). In these essays Simplicius turned from the annotation of specific texts to criticize Aristotle from a Neoplatonist perspective, and to attack Philoponus for his radical challenge to the Aristotelian paradigm. Similar originality is not found in the books of the Physics commentary proper, where there is less scope for linking Simplicius to wider philosophical currents. This is certainly true of his treatment of Book 2, which Mr. Fleet has now effectively translated and annotated. As he notes in his Introduction (6-7), Simplicius' Platonism only rarely emerges in a handful of passages, which are magisterially surveyed (Introd. 3-5) by ACA's distinguished General Editor, Richard Sorabji. For the rest, Simplicius offers an "extensive and free-ranging treatise" (Fleet, Introd., 5), which reflects his freedom from the pedagogical requirements that marked the Aristotelian exegesis of his contemporary Philoponus, and severely limited that of his predecessor Themistius. He probably composed this, and his other Aristotelian commentaries, in the late 530s and 540s in the remote city of Carrhae, where he had only himself and a few scholarly friends to satisfy regarding the interpretation of Aristotle. (See I. Hadot, "La vie et l'ouvre de Simplicius d'après des sources grecques et arabes," 3-39 in I. Hadot ed., Simplicius: sa vie, son ouvre, sa survie [Berlin and New York, 1987]; English version at R. Sorabji ed., Aristotle Transformed [London, 1990], 275-303.)

What, then, do we get from having easier access to these 135 pages (or ca. 4700 lines) of the CAG? The superficial impression will be one of prolixity. It is hard to imagine anyone (except a conscientious reviewer) reading this material through, rather than just consulting it selectively. Sir David Ross (the most prolific member of the above-mentioned Oxford Aristotelians, and a veritable twentieth-century Simplicius) cites our commentator nineteen times in his commentary (Oxford, 1936) on Physics 2, but only for the purposes of textual criticism, or the interpretation of minutiae. Indeed, a modern reader wanting to understand the major issues surrounding the concepts of TU/XH and TO\ AU)TO/MATON ("luck" and "chance", as Fleet translates them) in the central chapters of this book, or the account of teleology in nature in its later chapters, would be best advised to begin with Sorabji's discussions in his Necessity, Cause and Blame (London 1980). The ancient commentator, unlike the modern scholar, simply does not have the freedom, or perhaps the professional pressure, to associate his exegesis with other relevant Aristotelian material, a general deficiency in much of the material in the Greek Aristotelian tradition. Such a commentator can also confuse a beginner: Aristotle's theory of the "four causes", for example, is placed in an enlarged Neoplatonist context (see Sorabji at p. 3 of the Introduction). In fact, anyone anxious to begin reading Physics with an older commentary should probably be directed, if they read Latin, to the scholarly Renaissance commentaries of Jacobus Zabarella (1533-1589) or Julius Pacius (1550-1635) (favorites of the Oxford Aristotelians)1 before being pointed to Simplicius. The Renaissance scholars supply handy summaries of their Greek predecessors, and are an excellent introduction to the Aristotelian tradition.

So this particular volume may not significantly advance the cause of studying Simplicius' commentaries "pour eux-mêmes", as Ilsetraut Hadot (article cited above) urges. What it may advance is the cause of using the Greek commentators selectively for specific problems and issues. But to pursue this task effectively the reader needs assistance to facilitate and expedite piecemeal study. Unfortunately, Fleet's Glossary (200-205) is incomplete, and his Greek-English Index (206-212) the sparsest that I can recall seeing in the whole series. A few examples will suffice. The term TO\ AU)TO/MATON, just mentioned, is missing from the Greek-English Index; and as philosophically sensitive a term as "meaning" (TO\ SHMAINO/MENON) is absent from both indices. This is inconvenient even for a reader of Greek, who will need the hefty CAG text at hand to track this important terminology. Again, the ubiquitous "purpose" (E(/NEKA TOY=) is astonishingly absent from the Glossary, as is "target", used to translate SKO/POS in a crucial sentence at 314.15 about the enmattered form being a "target for nature". These are not trivial omissions for while the Greek commentators are not always philosophically original, or engaged in lively debate, they do write in the language that Aristotle first made into an effective tool for philosophical analysis. They draw on his terminology, and on the body of philosophical language developed across the different Hellenistic schools, and in later Platonism. This makes them a precious source for our knowledge of philosophical lexicography. It is a pity that the present volume cannot contribute to scholarship in this area as effectively as many of its predecessors in ACA.

To take a further example, in the commentary on Physics 193b35ff., Simplicius addresses the issue of mathematical abstraction. Fleet surprisingly makes no reference to I. Mueller's paper, "Aristotle's doctrine of abstraction in the commentators," which was published in one of ACA's spin-off volumes, Aristotle Transformed (cited above), 463-480. This study might have suggested more felicitous equivalents for the description of mathematical objects being inseparable U(POSTA/SEI, but separable E)PINOI/A|. Fleet uses "in reality" and "mentally" for this pair of datives (though don't bother looking for either in the Glossary or Index!). Yet surely something involving "existence" is needed for the former, and with enough supporting annotation the Stoic origins of the term might have been utilized to justify "subsistence" (taken in the sense of substantial existence). For E)PINOI/A|, "in thought", or "conceptually" (used by J.O. Urmson in his ACA translation of Simplicius on Physics 4, 1992), would have been better.

One part of the translation that, for this reviewer at least, demands detailed comment is 291.21-292.31, which Richard Sorabji (Introd., 3) rightly describes as a "precious summary" of Posidonius' Meteorologica. This passage is F18 in L. Edelstein and I. G. Kidd eds., Posidonius: I. The Fragments, 2nd. ed, (Cambridge, 1989), and has been translated several times in this century. Fleet's translation and notes do not do it the justice that it deserves. It is a quotation from Alexander of Aphrodisias' lost commentary on the Physics, originating in an epitome of the Posidonian work made by Geminus (probably the first-century BCE author of a work of elementary astronomy). As Simplicius remarks, it has its "basis", or "starting-points" (A)FORMAI/) (loosely translated as "influence" by Fleet), in Aristotle, since it reflects his distinction (at 193b23ff.) between the natural philosopher and the mathematical astronomer. Posidonius used this distinction to reinforce the claim of natural philosophy to primacy over a science that, in his day, was threatening to wrest cosmology from its traditional place within larger philosophical systems and include it within its narrower methodology.

I note two problems. First, Fleet's emendation at 292.14 of TRO/POUS to TROPA/S is inadmissible. The relevant (and famous) sentence at 292.14-15 has to mean (in literal translation) that the astronomer "sometimes makes discoveries through hypothesis [not "assumption", Fleet], by furnishing specific ways, which if they are the case, the phenomena will be saved." Fleet's emendation turns "ways" into "orbits", and turns A)PODIDOU/S, my "furnishing" (often used of supplying a definition, or account, as at 292.2 in this very passage) into the impossible "demonstrating". But TROPH/ refers to the solstice, the point at which the sun "turns" in its course at mid-winter or mid-summer, not to any planetary orbit.

Moreover, TRO/POUS at 292.14 is very shortly picked up in a sentence (219.18-19) in which Posidonius says (or is epitomized as saying) that is necessary to "give a complete inventory of" (E)PECELQEI=N; not just vaguely "inquire into", Fleet) "the number of ways (TRO/POI) in which the phenomena can be produced". Here "ways" are the multiplicity of ways in which the phenomena are saved by an astronomer who plies his trade (i.e., formulates hypotheses) without reference to the theories of the natural philosopher. They are multiple, because the phenomena in themselves can indeed be saved in more than one way, an undesirable result for a "dogmatic" physical theorist like Posidonius, though acceptable to a Sceptic like Aenesidemus (ap. Sext. Emp. PH 1.181, where a compound of TRO/POS, POLU/TROPOS, is used with reference to multiple explanations).

Posidonius goes on (292.19-20) to claim that the result of this multiplicity of explanations will be that (as I would translate it) "the systematic treatment of the planets will resemble (E)OIKE/NAI) causal explanation that is based on any way [of explaining] (TRO/POS) that is possible". (Clearly KATA\ TO\N E)NDEXO/MENON TRO/PON has to be taken in this general sense of "any possible way" to fit with the plural forms of TRO/POS that precede it. G. Aujac's "dans l'ordre du possible" is felicitous; see her Géminos: Introduction aux phénomènes [Paris, 1975] 112.) So here is TRO/POS once again performing the same role as in the previous two cases by referring to the content of hypotheses (qua "ways [of explaining]") that are formulated by those astronomers who are unrestrained by any a priori physical theory but rely instead on observational evidence ("the phenomena"). Fleet, however, and this is my second problem, translates the result clause at 219.19-20 as: "so that the treatment of the planets is squared with [for E)OIKE/NAI!] the accepted method of causal explanation". This does not "square with" what Ian Kidd says (at least with reference just to this sentence) in his commentary on Posidonius (2 vols., Cambridge, 1988), which Fleet (n. 126) seems to endorse. Kidd sees this clause as indicating, as I have already argued, that "a number of alternative hypotheses =8A may accommodate the phenomena" (vol. 1, 132). Fleet's translation resembles (indeed "squares with") that of Sir Thomas Heath (Aristarchus of Samos: the ancient Copernicus [Oxford, 1913], 276), who also took this result clause to be a description of how to adjust a hypothesis to an "accepted method of causal explanation": he has "so that we may bring our theory concerning the planets into agreement with that explanation of the causes which follows an admissible method." But neither Heath nor Fleet sees that this clause has nothing to do with the practice of orthodox astronomy, but is instead an indictment of a perverted form of astronomy -- one that is out of control because it is in principle capable of generating multiple hypotheses from observational evidence.

It may seem unfair to pick on details like this. On the other hand, details are really the test of a work for which the raison d'être, as I have argued, can only be that of a tool for occasional reference. But of course the fact that Fleet's translation has successfully got this Simplician text into another language for the first time since the sixteenth century makes the pursuit of such details considerably easier, and nobody who in this day and age translates 135 pages of eye-straining CAG Greek into readable English should go unpraised. Had translations like this been on the table at the meetings of the Oxford Aristotelian Society in the 20s and 30s, then the Greek Aristotelian commentators might not have had to wait until the 1980s for their second renaissance. That is now under way, and all (!) that remains is the task of reading and rereading them just as closely as the Oxford Aristotelians used to read and reread Aristotle himself.


1. J.A. Smith told T.S. Eliot in 1914 that "he owed his knowledge of Aristotle chiefly to Zabarella". See The Letters of T.S. Eliot, ed. V. Eliot, Vol. I (1898-1922) (San Diego, New York and London, 1988), 67. See also 67 n. 2 for the evidence of Joachim making Eliot read Pacius' commentary on Aristotle's De Anima. I suspect that Ingram Bywater was the source of this interest in the Renaissance commentators, who are generally neglected by contemporary students of Aristotle in favour of their Greek predecessors.