Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.19

Simplicius, On Aristotle's Physics 5, translated by J.O. Urmson, notes by Peter Lautner. The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. 199. ISBN 0-8014-3407-6.

Reviewed by Wayne J. Hankey,, Department of Classics, King's College and Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., Canada.

This welcome volume is yet another in the important series The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle. Edited by Richard Sorabji, about 30 volumes have now been published (they are not numbered). As in all the volumes, Sorabji's General Introduction is reprinted as an Appendix, (pp. 151-60), though its accompanying lists both of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, in the Berlin edition of Hermann Diels, and of English translations of the ancient commentators are found only in the first of the translations: Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World (1987). Uniformly with the series, there are, as well as the translation (here in 110 pages), a short introduction (here in two parts: one by Peter Lautner, who did the notes, and the other by J.O. Urmson, who translated the text), a list of textual emendations, extensive notes (305, in fact, compensating for the shortness of the introduction), an English-Greek glossary, a Greek-English index, and indices of names and of subjects.

Other compensations for the regrettable shortness of the introduction are the affiliated publications from the Cornell University Press: Sorabji's Time, Creation and the Continuum (1983), his Matter, Space and Motion (1988), and the collections of articles Sorabji has edited: Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (1987), Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence (1990). These are indispensable for negotiating Lautner's notes. Also useful on the Aristotelian tradition, and the place of Simplicius in it, is a new collection of articles edited by Sorabji but published by the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London in 1997: Aristotle and After.

Understanding the character and significance of what Simplicius is doing here, especially of his very consequential modifications of Aristotle, requires consultation with excellent, but inconvenient, endnotes and with their references to this and other, less accessible, literature. As a result, In Physics 5 and its mates are volumes for well formed scholars with first class university libraries at their disposal.

With this volume, we near the completion within this series of the translation of Simplicius' enormous commentary on the Physics. It joins, of Simplicius, the Corollaries On Place and Time, On Aristotle On the Soul 1.1-2.4, and On Aristotle's Physics 2, 4, 6, 7; all of which have appeared since 1989. They manifest in the English speaking world a renewed scholarly and philosophical interest in Simplicius which has produced translations, editions, and research by American, Belgian, English, French, German, and Italian scholars. Their work and projects were collected in Simplicius: sa vie, son oeuvre, sa survie, (1987), edited by Ilsetraut Hadot.1 Indeed, a contributor to that collection, Leonardo Tarán, promises us a new edition of the Greek text of the commentary on the Physics as well as another translation of it. Another contributor, Philippe Hoffmann, is reediting the commentary on the De Caelo.

The renewed labor on the commentaries is given justification by those who undertake it. The first place to find this is in Sorabji's General Introduction which, beyond indicating the influence of the Neoplatonic commentaries, calls them "incomparable guides to Aristotle" (p. 159). A claim he supports by reference to the "minutely detailed knowledge of the entire Aristotelian corpus" possessed and conveyed by the commentators.2

In his article for the French colloque, Tara/n maintained that Simplicius' on the Physics remains the best commentary on that work "even today" (p. 247). Since her Le Problème du Néoplatonisme Alexandrin: Hiérocl`s et Simplicius (1978),3 Ilsetraut Hadot has defended Simplicius and the commentators of the Athenian Neoplatonic school from denigrating comparison with the production of the Alexandrines. She demonstrates that Praechter was wrong in supposing the Alexandrian commentaries to have been more devoted to the "vrai sens" of Aristotle in contrast to their own Neoplatonic philosophical projects. In fact, the commentaries of both schools were produced within a tradition initiated by Porphyry and were required by the essential role Aristotle's writings played in teaching. The value of the commentary may be diminished by the service given to such Neoplatonic scholastic projects as the reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle, but Hadot's demonstrations elevate Simplicius by diminishing the preeminence given to Alexandrines. In a review in this journal (BMCR 97.9.24), Richard Todd produced good reasons for choosing, as the place to begin among the older scholarship on Aristotle, the Renaissance commentaries of Jacobus Zabarella or Julius Pacius, but still he would have these Renaissance humanists bring readers back to Simplicius. By the Renaissance, his commentaries lost to the Latins until the 13th century were well known and highly respected.

So none will deny the enormous importance of Simplicius' commentary. Beyond its illumination of Aristotle, its application and defense of the Neoplatonic interpretative framework is skillful and creative. Moreover, it is the great treasury for our knowledge of previous Greek physics from the Pre-Socratics onward and of the commentaries before his own. Both of these he preserves by quotation, often at greater length than his argument requires, as if Simplicius, like Boethius, saw himself preserving a disappearing heritage in a darkening age. Much of In Physics 5, is a dialogue with Alexander of Aphrodisias, and enormous passages of his commentary are reproduced. They remind us of one of the essential tasks of scholarship that has only begun, which will be assisted by this translation. Since so much of what we know about the natural philosophy before Simplicius is dependent on him, we need to deepen our understanding of his thinking in order to consider how his selection and reproduction shape our knowledge of ancient philosophy.

The conservative labor was successful; evidently the commentary of Simplicius survived and carried his past with it. In consequence, another reason for the great importance of this work is its influence. His understanding of Aristotle constituted an essential element in the thinking of the Arabic Neoplatonists and, from the 13th century on, his comments were communicated to the Latin west in their treatises and in their own commentaries on Aristotle's texts, as well as through direct translations from the Greek by Latins like William of Moerbeke. Thus he reached the scholastics of the medieval west.4 The conscientious continuation by Simplicius of the great Neoplatonic enterprise of reconciling Plato and Aristotle helped determine the Latin understanding of Aristotle. Moreover, ideas of his own, developed in that context, became fruitful again as the Aristotelian physics was transformed in the construction of modern natural philosophies.5

Simplicius was with Damascius and the other pagan philosophers who headed east after Justinian closed the Academy in Athens. He probably composed this, and his other Aristotelian commentaries, in the remote city of Harrân (Carrhae). Whatever the activity of the philosophers gathered there, as distinct from his predecessors like Themistius, or contemporaries like Philoponus the Christian, Simplicius' commentaries no longer show characteristics which mark them as having been developed as lectures. Evidence points to composition after 538, and Peter Lautner shows that at least part of the commentary on the Physics was written before the commentary on the Categories.6

Simplicius assiduously carries forward the reconciliation of Aristotle with Plato. Whether, with Sorabji, we will call this project "perfectly crazy" (p. 156), we will agree it stimulates Simplicius to his greatest creativity. Here the philosophic commentator is moved by his religion. Since Porphyry, and fervently with Iamblichus, Proclus, and their successors, piety in respect to the old gods demanded that the unity of that by which they revealed themselves and their cosmos be exhibited. Further, defending the Hellenic spiritual tradition against its critics and effectively marshaling its forces against the Christian enemy required this unification. Like the philosophical Christians and the Jews, those who held fast to Hellenic religion had also to show that what was revealed to the ancients, barbarian and Greek, could be harmonized with philosophy. The Platonic tradition which effected this must itself be made consistent.7 Within book five of the Physics, concerned as it is with the relation of METABOLH/, here translated as transformation, and KI/NHSIS, here translated as change or motion, the greatest problem for Simplicius' pious reconciling work is that Aristotle subordinates KI/NHSIS to METABOLH/ as species to genus.

In the Laws, Plato does the opposite, making transformation a species of change. Simplicius proposes that the difference is "merely verbal" (p.29: 821,22; p.30: 822,29). In fact, the reconciliation requires that change be elevated into intellect where Aristotle refuses to allow it. There KI/NHSIS becomes Neoplatonic spiritual PRO/ODOS (p.29: 821,26; p.32: 824,14ff.). So "intellect changes by a change that is without transformation and timeless" (p.31: 824,2-3). This is the motionless motion, the character and place of which in Proclus Stephen Gersh described. Subsequently, Gersh gave us some indications of its later history.8 This "different kind of motion", the "act of the perfect", Aquinas learns about from the Arab Neoplatonists. Thomas employs it when he follows Averroes in a reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle enabling him to work out how intellectual life can be ascribed to God. Aristotle's intellectual activity, which, in De Anima III,7 (431a6) is different from motion, has become a different kind of motion, the comparative genitive is now partitive.9 Hans-Georg Gadamer has indicated how intellect understood in this Neoplatonic way enables the unification simultaneously of being and becoming and of intellect and being, so "Plotinus' concept of the soul ... has completely transformed the concept of being into the concept of a self-related power, a dynamis which thinks itself. With this he has for the first time given priority to reflection in the field of ontological questions. He stands at the threshold of a new age."10

Yet this is not all that those attentive to how the Neoplatonists were "doing philosophy ... by writing commentaries" (Sorabji, p.151) will discover of importance in this volume. There are also a distinction between active and passive transformations (note 9 and p.30: 822,18-22), a defence of infinite regress so as to avoid the Christian notion of a temporal beginning of the cosmos (note 11 and pp.50-1: 846,3ff.), an assimilation of Aristotle's prime matter to extension, reconsiderations of the relation of quality and quantity (p.66: 864,15ff.) and of the mathematical as abstraction (p.80: 880,1ff.). Simplicius is one of those who build the world on the other side of the Plotinian threshold.

Simplicius helps work through completely what the Neoplatonic reconciliations and unifications require. He assists with its momentous move from substance to subjectivity. For what it furthers and transmits in this greatest of western transformations his commentary is philosophically important. Those who have made it more accessible are to be thanked.    


1. Simplicius: sa vie, son oeuvre, sa survie. Actes du colloque international de Paris (28 Sept.-1er Oct. 1985), ed. Ilsetraut Hadot, Peripatoi 15 (Berlin & London: de Gruyter, 1987).  

2. R. Sorabji, "The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle," in R. Sorabji, ed., Aristotle Transformed. The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990), 15. The list of CAG texts is reproduced here, pp. 27-29.  

3. Ilsetraut Hadot, Le Problème du Néoplatonisme Alexandrin: Hierocles et Simplicius, (Paris: Etudes augustiniennes: 1978).  

4. See R. Sorabji, Matter, Space and Motion. Theories in Antiquity and Their Sequel, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988), 249-85; Fernand Bossier, "Traductions latines et influences du Commentaire In de Caelo en Occident (XIIIe-XIVe s.)," Simplicius sa vie, son oeuvre, sa survie, 289-325; and Barbara Obrist's review of David Furley (trans), Place Void, and Eternity, BMCR 3.6 (1993).  

5. See, for example, R. Sorabji, "Simplicius: Prime Matter as extension," Simplicius: sa vie, son oeuvre, sa survie, 148-65.  

6. See R. Sorabji and I. Hadot in Sorabji ed., Aristotle Transformed. The Ancient Commentators and their influence, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990), 18 and 278ff. and Lautner's introduction to the In Physics 5, 4.  

7. See Philippe Hoffmann, "Simplicius' Polemics," R. Sorabji, (ed.) Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 57-8; Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1996), 1ff.; H.-D. Saffrey, "Les debuts de la theologie comme science (IIIe-VIe)," Rev. sc. phil. theo., 80, # 2 (Avril, 1996), 213ff., translation by W.J. Hankey, "Theology as science (3rd-6th centuries)," Studia Patristica, vol. XXIX, edited by Elizabeth A. Livingstone, (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 332ff.  

8. See Stephen Gersh, KI/NHSIS AKI/NHTOS: A Study of Spiritual Motion in the Philosophy of Proclus, (Leiden: Brill, 1973); idem, From Iamblichus to Eriugena. An Investigation of the Prehistory and Evolution of the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition, Studien zur Problemgeschichte der Antiken und Mittelalterlichen Philosophie VIII (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 67ff., 243ff.  

9. See W.J. Hankey, God in Himself, Aquinas' Doctrine of God as Expounded in the Summa Theologiae, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 103-5.  

10. Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Plato's Parmenides and its Influence," Dionysius 7 (1983), 16.