Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.46

Thomas Bénatouïl, Emanuele Maffi, Franco Trabattoni (ed.), Plato, Aristotle, or both?: Dialogues between Platonism and Aristotelianism in Antiquity. Europaea memoria. Reihe 1, Studien, Bd 85. Diatribai, 4.   Hildesheim; Zürich; New York:  Georg Olms Verlag, 2011.  Pp. ix, 278.  ISBN 9783487145457.  €42.80 (pb).  

Reviewed by George Karamanolis, University of Crete; Humboldt University of Berlin (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]

The dialogue between Platonism and Aristotelianism is one of the most characteristic features of late ancient philosophy and has rightly attracted attention in the last few years.1 The present volume contains eleven papers that explore diverse aspects of this dialogue, range over a variety of philosophical areas, and focus on many different authors (Boethus, Plutarch, Alexander, Plotinus, Proclus, Damascius, Philoponus).

The first essay, by Franco Trabattoni, deals with the criticism of the immortality of the soul in Plato’s Phaedo made by the Peripatetic Boethus. The remains of this criticism are preserved by Eusebius, who cites from a treatise of Porphyry against Boethus’ doctrine of the soul. I have tried myself to reconstuct Boethus’ doctrine and make sense of Porphyry’s criticism.2 Trabattoni tries instead to reconstruct Boethus’ criticism of Plato’s arguments in the Phaedo for the immortality of the soul. And he shows that Boethus’ strategy was to put pressure on the final argument in the Phaedo, supposedly the decisive one, by arguing that it fails to establish what it sets out to prove. Boethus claims that the faculties of the soul, which account for living functions, hardly demonstrate the soul’s immortality, unless the soul is immortal in the sense that the animate body is, in which case it is only imperishable. This is precisely the view that Boethus endorses about the soul, namely that it is imperishable but not immortal, a view that Porphyry criticizes, charging Boethus with a category mistake, which is that he confuses the soul with the animation of the living body.

The second essay by Carlos Lévy focuses on Philo’s alleged debt to Aristotle’s philosophy. Levy takes issue with studies arguing for Philo’s indebtedness to Aristotle, especially in his conception of God as an intellect and a prime mover, and shows, convincingly in my view, that Aristotle’s thought hardly plays a prominent role in Philo and that his debt to Aristotle is merely terminological. In ethics, for instance, Levy argues Philo’s doctrine is different from, or even opposite to, that of Aristotle, while his conception of God as a mover of beings is the Biblical one. This conclusion about Philo’s relationship to Aristotle gains some confirmation from a note that Philo makes about Aristotle’s conception of God in the De aeternitate mundi, where he approves Aristotle for not taking the Stoic view of God, but also notes, as Levy perceptively remarks, that Aristotle’s God is a visible one (De aet. m. 10), a position from which Philo is apparently distancing himself.

I found the following paper of Geert Roskam quite interesting, and not just because it takes issue with some of my views about Plutarch’s attitude to Aristotle.3 Roskam sets out to present and evaluate all major references that Plutarch makes to Aristotle. This very welcome enterprise yields an impressive number of references to Aristotle in Plutarch’s writings. In them Plutarch cites Aristotle with varying degrees of approval, speaks about Aristotle’s development as a philosopher, and also distances himself from Aristotle, when, for instance, he points out Aristotle’s differences from Plato; In all these cases Plutarch’s judgement is justified. If all that does not suggest Plutarch’s direct knowledge of Aristotle, I do not know what does. Roskam claims that there is no instance of Plutarch’s Auseinandersetzung with Aristotle and that Plutarch uses Aristotle as a second best to Plato. Both make perfect sense, which is not, as is often argued and Roskam repeats, that Plutarch uses Aristotle as an ally in his polemics or as a second authority to Plato. Rather, Plutarch uses Aristotle only when he considers him to be agreeing with or complementing Plato. This is suggested by Plutarch’s comments on Aristotle’s philosophy in De virtute morali and the Adversus Colotem. While both works are polemical, in the former Plutarch uses Aristotle approvingly, while in the latter he takes critical distance from Aristotle.

Next comes the paper by Pierre-Marie Morel on Alexander’s cardiocentriism, the view, advocated by Aristotle, that the heart is the principal part of the soul. Morel shows that Alexander favors a cardiocentric position more rigorous than that of Aristotle, which amounts to a more unitarian position of the soul, such that the rational and appetitive faculties of the soul exist united in the heart. This, Morel argues, in turn shapes a theory of moral motivation which opposes both the Platonic and the Stoic theory of partite soul. That much is clear. What would require more elaboration is what comes at the conclusion of the paper, namely the discussion of how Alexander’s view of psychological continuity informs a theory of assent according to which assent is not dependent on antecedent sense- impressions and the impulse generated from them.

The following short but original paper by Marwan Rashed examines the lists of works of Alexander of Aphrodias preserved by three Arabic bibliophiles. The lists testify to the existence of lost works of Alexander, and the titles show an engagement with logical and metaphysical questions, especially with the question of the division of being into genre (genos) and species (eidos). Rashed argues that in these works Alexander takes Platonists to task, as is suggested by the title of one of the treatises, in which Alexander is said to relaunch Aristotle’s criticism on Plato’s method of division. But such works may also address Peripatetics, like Boethus, who also denied that eidos is not a candidate for substance in Aristotle.

Valérie Cordonier’s paper sheds light on another side of the volume’s central topic, the joined polemic of Platonists and Aristotelians against Stoicism. Cordonier focuses on Alexander’s argument against the Stoic doctrine of mixture and shows how this shapes Plotinus’ polemic against them in EnneadsII.7 and IV.7. In his his De mixtione , Alexander criticizes the Stoic arguments for the distinction of three kinds of mixture, and he does this, Cordonier suggests, by taking into account earlier Platonist suggestions on the role of qualities in explaining the constitution of things. Cordonier shows how Plotinus revives this argument in order to maintain that it is a logos that accounts for a body, not matter, and implements it further against the conception of the soul- body relation as some kind of mixture, arguing that such a compound is not a mixture of matter, bodies, or qualities, but an intelligible union shaped by the soul.

Next come two papers on Plotinus, which share a concern with Plotinus’ views on intelligibles. The first, by Riccardo Chiaradonna, focuses on Plotinus’ science of beings in Enneads VI.4-5, while the second, by Daniela Taormina, examines Plotinus’ treatment of memory, a topic much discussed recently.4 Chiaradonna argues that for Plotinus intelligible beings are both a kind of being and a kind of knowledge, namely real being and knowledge. This resembles what Aristotle says in Metaphysics VI and Posterior Analytics but, as Chiaradonna rightly argues, Plotinus, inspired by the Parmenides, goes beyond that, maintaining that it is by participation in, or reference to, the intelligible substances that all entities exist and are known. Taormina examines Enneads IV.3 and IV.6 and shows persuasively that Plotinus draws on Aristotle’s De memoria, but he probably used an epitome of it, attested in Stobaeus’ Anthology. This explains, she claims, why Plotinus employs the term katochê instead of Aristotle’s hexis when referring to the retention of an image by memory. Taormina tries to reconcile the accounts in Enn. IV.3 and IV.6, arguing that we deal with two kinds of memory, dispositional and actual memory. Yet Aristotle is also operating with a similar distinction, and it would be interesting to see how precisely Plotinus avails from this.

The following paper by Pieter D’Hoine is one of the best of the collection. The paper focuses on the forms of accidents in the Neoplatonic commentators. The issue is roughly this. The aporiai raised in the Parmenides about the range of Forms together with Aristotle’s criticism regarding the existence of non- substantial Forms, raise for Platonists the question as to whether Forms account for substances, for properties, or both. The paper charts three ways of dealing with the problem. The first is that of Plotinus, who rejects the existence of substantial and non-substantial Forms, holding that it is the soul that constitutes sensible entities and that within the latter there is no distinction between substance and quality, since sensible entities are mere conglomerations of qualities. The second way, followed by Platonists like Porphyry and Philoponus, is to assume that there are Forms for all attributes of sensible entities, since Forms are constitutive of sensible entities either as substances or as properties. There is finally the alternative of Platonists like Proclus, who accept Forms for attributes that are constitutive of substances but do no consider as such properties and differentiae. They deny, for instance, that there are Forms of whiteness, or largeness. I cannot discuss here the issues arising from these positions, but the paper outlines them well and can serve as starting point for future research.

With the next paper by Gerd van Riel we move to Damascius and his concept of matter. We should remember that Platonists since Moderatus and Plutarch follow Aristotle in identifying as matter Plato’s receptacle in the Timaeus and are puzzled about its ontological status. The case of Damascius is interesting for the topic explored in the volume, because it shows how a Platonist tries to articulate a Platonist answer on what matter is by combining the views of Plato and Aristotle. The paper argues that Damascius’ position was that matter is an ineffable entity, as it is caused by an ineffable cause, the highest, ineffable principle, and as such it has independent existence, as is suggested in the Timaeus, but it is also receptive of forms as Aristotle’s prime matter is. What also plays a role in the formation of this position is Proclus’ view on matter, against which Damascius reacts. Van Riel succeeds in showing that by carefully comparing the two views.

The last paper, by Frans De Haas, discusses the input of mathematics in philosophy that is found already in the early Academy and continues with Neoplatonists, such as Iamblichus, Proclus, Philoponus. An example of this continuity is the debate between Plato and Aristotle and contemporary mathematicians on the notion of an element and its role in deduction, on which Proclus reports in his commentary on Euclid’s Elements while also giving a ‘mathematical turn’ to this discussion. This turn is evidenced also in Philoponus’ treatment of Aristotle’s Analytics. De Haas shows well that Philoponus’ treatment of Aristotle’s logic, despite its limits, sheds some light on Aristotle’s discussion of syllogistic conversion through the choice of good examples of vaid conversion and circular proof.

All papers of the collection are of high quality, written with historical sensitivity and philosophical acumen. Some of them will prove to be particularly important for future research and may set the example for the work that remains to be done in late ancient philosophy. The editors succeeded in producing a collection of papers in three different languages that is almost free from errors.5

Table of contents

Introduction by the editors
1) Franco Trabattoni, Boeto di Sidone e l’immortalità dell’anima nel Fedone
2) Carlos Lévy, L’aristotélisme, parent pauvre de la pensée philonienne?
3) Geert Roskam, Aristotle in Middle Platonism. The Case of Plutarch of Chaeronea
4) Pierre-Marie Morel, Cardiocentrisme et antiplatonisme chez Aristote et Alexandre d’Aphrodise
5) Marwan Rashed, Un corpus de logique anti-platonicienne d’Alexandre d’Aphrodise
6) Valérie Cordonier, Du moyen-platonisme au néo-platonisme: sources et postérité des arguments d’Alexandre d’Aphrodise contre la doctrine stoicienne des mélanges
7) Riccardo Chiaradonna, Plotino e la scienza dell’essere
8) Daniela Taormina, Dalla potenzialità all’attualità. Un’introduzione al problema della memoria in Plotino
9) Pieter d’Hoine, Forms of symbebèkota in the Neoplatonic Commentaries on Plato and Aristotle
10) Gerd van Riel, Damascius on Matter
11) Principles, Conversion, and Circular Proof. The Reception of an Academic Debate in Proclus and Philoponus


1.   See L. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists, Ithaca 2005;my Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle from Antiochus to Porphyry, Oxford 2006; H. Tarrant, ‘Eudorus and the early Platonist interpretation of the Categories, Laval théologique et philosophique 64 (2008), 583-595; M. Bonazzi - J. Opsomer (eds.), The Origins of the Platonic System. Platonisms in the Early Empire and their Philosophical Contexts, Leuven 2009. Earlier work includes R. Sorabji (ed.), Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science, London 1987 and R. Sorabji (ed.), Aristotle Transformed. The Ancient Commentators and their Influence, London 1990.
2.   In my Plato and Aristotle in Agreement?, 288-297 and in my ‘Porphyry’s notion of empsychia, in G. Karamanolis and A. Sheppard (eds.), Studies on Porphyry, London 2007, 92-98.
3.   In my Plato and Aristotle in Agreement?, ch. 2.
4.   See especially R. King, Aristotle and Plotinus on Memory, Berlin/New York 2009.
5.   The only serious mistake I noticed is the omission from the bibliography of a work by Concetta Luna cited in paper 9.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 20:02:16, Monday, 21 November 2011