Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.13

Peter Adamson, Han Balthussen, M.W.F. Stone, Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek, Arabic & Latin Commentaries, Vol. 1 (= BICS Suppl. 83.1).   London:  Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2004.  Pp. xii, 280.  ISBN 0-900587-94-6.  £60.00.  

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin (
Word count: 1817 words

This volume, along with its companion (which I am not competent to review!) represents the proceedings of a conference held at the Institute of Classical studies on 27-29 June 2002, in honour of Richard Sorabji -- who is, of course, among many other things, the 'father' of that splendid scholarly tool, the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series. The present volume deals with the Greek tradition, including one paper on Byzantine philosophy, and one on the Latin author Calcidius, who is really part of the Greek, and more specifically Middle Platonic tradition, whereas the second volume focuses on the Arabic tradition.

There are fourteen papers in this collection, covering more or less the whole extent of the commentary tradition, from its earliest traces in Plato himself to the Byzantine period. Following on a useful overview of the fortunes of the Aristotelian commentary by Silvia Fasso,' Aristotelianism as a commentary tradition', we have first two papers dealing with the earliest period of commentary, both of them full of interest: Han Baltussen on 'Plato Protagoras 340-48: commentary in the making?', and Gábor Betegh, on 'Exegesis in the Derveni Papyrus.' Baltussen, most acutely, picks on Socrates' spoof exegesis of a poem by Simonides in the course of his disputation with Protagoras as providing interesting evidence of an existing tradition of exegesis of poetry, probably on the part of certain of the great sophists, such as Prodicus, Hippias and Protagoras himself, in which a number of the rules and procedures of later commentary can be observed in at least a rudimentary form. He seems to me quite right in his conclusions. On one matter he rightly reproaches me (p. 22, n. 6): at one point in The Middle Platonists, p. 43, I note that "Crantor wrote the first formal commentary on a work of Plato," but in the Afterword to the second edition, at p. 437, I am caught "agreeing (with Heinrich Dörrie) that it is only in the generation of Eudorus that the tradition of formal commentary on both Plato and Aristotle seems to begin." Certainly one can't have it both ways! On further reflection, I would go with Crantor, though admitting that he appears to be an isolated figure within the Old Academy. Baltussen does, however, demonstrate that the idea of commentary in general was around long before Crantor.

In this connection, he makes a number of illuminating cross-references to the Derveni papyrus, dealt with next by Betegh (who has since produced a splendid study of the whole work). Indeed this contribution is very much a preview of that, but he raises interesting questions about the structure of the work and how far it should be identified as a commentary at all, as opposed to a work concerned with ritual or eschatology -- such as would indeed befit a document incinerated on a funeral pyre with a corpse! Betegh makes the interesting suggestion that the hermeneutics of oracles may have had an important function both in this text and in other early commentaries.

We turn next to a rather rebarbative contribution by Robert Sharples, a major authority on Alexander of Aphrodisias, on the nature of Alexander's Mantissa. This is really, as is admitted at the outset, the substance of an introduction to an edition and a translation of the work that Sharples was then preparing, and is in consequence an essay that is best read in conjunction with the work itself. Not that it does not contain a great deal of useful stuff about the nature and structure of the work, as well as a survey of the manuscript tradition; it is just not very readable as a self-contained piece. And I am still not quite sure, after all, what amantissa is!

This is followed by another essay involving Alexander, but also his contemporary Galen, by Inna Kupreeva, 'Aristotelian Dynamics in the 2nd Century School Debates: Galen and Alexander of Aphrodisias on Organic Powers and Movements'. She deals here with the reactions of, first, Galen and then Alexander to Aristotle's doctrines of matter and change, chiefly in the Physics and Generation and Corruption, and their efforts to develop coherent theories on this basis, while, in Alexander's case at least, trying to defend the coherence of Aristotle. The question of how growth takes place in a living organism remained a matter of great interest to scientifically-minded thinkers in the second century C.E., and Kupreeva does an excellent job of setting out the nuances developed by each of them.

Geroge Karamanolis, in 'Porphyry: The First Platonist Commentator on Aristotle', brings to our attention, I think correctly, the fact that Porphyry is actually the first Platonist to compose a commentary on Aristotle in the strict sense of the term. This, he maintains, implies a concern to facilitate and encourage the study of the author in question, and to assist in its teaching. This, in turn, "presupposes acceptance of the views expressed by the source text and implies an assertion of its authority." Such, one must agree, could not be said for the tradition of hostile critique of the Categories carried out by such figures as Eudorus of Alexandria, Lucius and Nicostratus, and Atticus, whether they composed extended criticisms of the whole work or not. Karamanolis surveys the whole of Porphyry's treatment of Aristotle and shows how his procedure is informed by a consistent ideology as to essential agreement between Plato and Aristotle, which then became the settled position of later Neoplatonism. This essay forms a useful appendage to his recent OUP book, Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle's Philosophy from Antiochus to Porphyry (2006).

Riccardo Chiaradonna's essay which follows, 'The Categories and the Status of the Physical World: Plotinus and the Neoplatonic Commentators', serves as a suitable complement to that of Karamanolis, focusing as it does on Plotinus' severe criticisms of Aristotle's doctrine of categories in Enneads VI 1-3. He opposes the recent view in some quarters that Plotinus is not as anti-Aristotelian as he appears in this treatise, despite his adoption of Aristotelian formulations elsewhere in the corpus. He concentrates on three topics in particular, substance, motion and time, and shows how Plotinus defends Platonism dialectically against Aristotle by replacing Aristotle's theory of sensible substance with his own theory of the substantial logos; and by replacing Aristotle's distinction between kinesis and energeia with his own theory of motion as complete actuality and with the distinction between motion in itself and motion in extent; and (adducing also Enn. III 7) by replacing Aristotle's account of time as the number of motion with his own conception of time in itself as the life of the soul. Altogether, a most useful contribution.

Next comes a fine paper by Jan Opsomer ('Plutarch's De Animae Procreatione in Timaeo: Manipulation or Search for Consistency'), in which he opposes Harold Cherniss's condemnation of Plutarch (in his Loeb edition of the Proc. An.) for manipulating the text of Plato to suit his interpretation of the Timaeus. Opsomer takes a much more balanced view of Plutarch's hermeneutical principles, showing how he is concerned above all to maintain Plato's doctrinal consistency, as he sees it. That is not to say, of course, that Plutarch's procedure would meet modern scholarly standards of accuracy, but he does emerge as in many ways rather more reasonable than Cherniss, and he does at least draw attention to the question of whether Plato entertained the idea of an independent principle of disorder in the universe, psychic, pre-cosmic, or otherwise.

Next, Harold Tarrant, who is currently engaged in an English translation of Proclus' Commentary on the Timaeus, contributes a stimulating discourse on Proclus' use of his sources, in particular Numenius ('Must Commentators Know their Sources? Proclus In Timaeum and Numenius'). Numenius is a particularly interesting case, since, though a Middle Platonist/Neopythagorean, he is a major influence on such Neoplatonists as Plotinus, Amelius and Porphyry, the last of whom constituted a major source for Proclus himself. While it would have been quite possible for Proclus to consult Numenius directly, Tarrant concludes (rightly, I would agree) that it is highly unlikely that he did so. In the process, Tarrant surveys much of Numenius' doctrine, derivable from the fragments preserved by Eusebius, and compares them with Proclus' interpretations, to the latter's detriment.

Next, Robert van den Berg ('Smoothing over the Differences: Proclus and Ammonius on Plato's Cratylus and Aristotle's De Interpretatione') compares, most fruitfully, the theory of names propounded by Proclus, basing himself on Plato, and by his pupil Ammonius, basing himself on Aristotle. These naturally emerge as significantly different, but it is also notable how far each tries to reconcile Plato and Aristotle to one another. In this connection, van den Berg concludes with some sage remarks on the relations between the Athenian and Alexandrian Schools, arguing that Ilsetraut Hadot goes too far in dismissing Karl Praechter's view of the distinction between them. On such questions as the theory of the function of names, he shows that a substantial difference of perspective is observable.

With the contribution of Anna Somfai ('Calcidius' Commentary on Plato's Timaeus and its Place in the Commentary Tradition: the Concept of Analogia in Text and Diagrams'), we turn to the Latin tradition of commentary, and specifically the commentary of Calcidius on the Timaeus, which enjoyed such dominance in the Latin Middle Ages. Somfai bestows warm commendation upon Calcidius, to an extent which might have surprised and delighted that rather modest man, but demonstrates well how the principle of analogy forms a basic element of his exposition. While she gives a good account of his sources (wisely, perhaps, sidestepping the issue of whether he is dependent on Porphyry), she appears to neglect the influence of the second-century Peripatetic Adrastus, from whom he seems to be lifting chunks of mathematical lore.

Last among the essays, we have a most interesting analysis by Katerina Ierodiakonou ('Byzantine Commentators on the Epistemic Status of Ethics') of discussions by the Byzantine commentators Michael of Ephesus and, in particular, Eustratius, in their commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics , as to whether ethics is a science (episteme), or merely a rational ability (dynamis). It cannot of course be a science in the strict Aristotelian sense, because it does not proceed from premisses which are eternal and universal, but on the other hand it is a step above such arts as rhetoric. In analysing Eustratius' sources, Ierodiakonou adduces most acutely evidence from the second-century medical tradition, and Galen in particular, in connection with the use of the term endeixis.

The volume is rounded off with a most useful Bibliographical Guide to the Aristotelian commentators, compiled by John Sellars, which, as he modestly insists, is designed merely to supplement the earlier one included in the volume Aristotle Transformed (1990) edited by Richard Sorabji, but is nonetheless full of interesting details. It is to Richard Sorabji, of course, that this whole enterprise is dedicated, so this rounds off the collection in a most fitting way.

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