Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.34

Richard Sorabji (ed.), Aristotle Re-Interpreted: New Findings on Seven Hundred Years of the Ancient Commentators. Ancient commentators on Aristotle.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.  Pp. ix, 673.  ISBN 9781472596567.  $206.00.  

Reviewed by Irini-Fotini Viltanioti, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (

[The Table of Contents is given at the end.]

It would be superfluous to reiterate the services that Richard Sorabji’s project on the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle has offered to scholarship and the extent to which it has changed the landscape in the study of the history of philosophy, and beyond. Since 1987, more than one hundred annotated translations of large portions of the Berlin edition of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (Reimer, 1882-1909) and of several related texts and fragments preserved either in the original Greek or in Latin, Arabic, and Syriac translations, have seen the light, thanks to the contribution of over 280 academics worldwide.1

In 1990, Sorabji’s edited volume, Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence (hereafter AT), launched the project, by bringing together twenty seminal articles which set the background to the work done. A second edition, supplemented with an up-to-date introduction, appeared in 2016. Aristotle Re-interpreted (hereafter AR) is a sequel to that classic companion. It aims at tracing the progress done in the twenty-five years that have followed the publication of AT, by offering a collection of twenty-three key papers in the field. The two books are to be read together, as is also shown by the frequent references to AT. However, while AT focuses chiefly on the Greek commentators ca. 200-600 CE, AR expands the timespan, covering a period of nearly seven hundred years, and investigates also the spread of the philosophy of the Commentators into other cultures. This is indicative of the scholarly achievement the project represents and of the growth in the field to which it has given rise.

The twenty-three chapters of [AR] are preceded by an eighty-page Introduction and usefully supplemented with a list of the translations published in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series (1987-2015), a rich bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index. The collection is elegantly presented by Bloomsbury Academic, which has hosted the series since 2011. It is only unfortunate that a few typos have escaped the proofreader’s attention: for example, Porphyry (c. 234-305 CE) goes to Sicily in “368”, while Plotinus (204-270 CE) dies in “370” (p. 30); Hypatia is a “Christian mathematician” on p. 40; highlighted footnote numbers throughout chapter 21 (pp. 531-40); “late antiquity” (e.g. p. 532) versus “Late Antiquity” (e.g. p. 569).

The Introduction, which summarises and comments on the chapters, can also be read on its own, as a concise but instructive synopsis of the philosophy of the Commentators, from its Middle Platonist origins to its Medieval aftermath in Byzantium and the Arabic world. Sorabji engages with the latest scholarly discussions, often juxtaposing views expressed in AT with the new developments of AR. One will especially appreciate his mastery of details, the new insights on controversial matters, and the reassessment of received ideas. Such examples, which open the floor to further debates, include: the discussion about the meaning of ἐπιγίγνεσθαι (“supervene”) in the psychology of Alexander of Aphrodisias, where the editor consolidates the non-materialistic interpretation of Alexander’s account of the soul (p. 16);2 the view that Themistius was neither an Aristotelian, as proposed in AT,3 nor a Neoplatonist (pp. 19-20); the reappraisal of Porphyry’s place in the Neoplatonic tradition, which does justice to his “monumental achievements” (p. 26) while, most interestingly, raising doubts as to whether he “can have been the rabid enemy of Christians that many Christians believed him to be” (p. 32); the portrait of Ammonius (p. 47), which converges with the most recent depiction of the Alexandrian School.4

The twenty-three chapters of the volume – some brand new, others already published elsewhere – cover questions of textual edition and transmission, logic, metaphysics, physics, ethics, and epistemology. Some of them present newly discovered fragments, others put forward groundbreaking interpretations or propose new identifications of authorship. They are generally organized according to chronology, except for the two essays on Themistius, which are situated before Porphyry, since Themistius’ identity as a Neoplatonist is disputed. A scan of the contents (listed at the end of the review) reveals the remarkably broad thematic and chronological scope of AR. Given the richness of the material, it is impossible to discuss here all contributions one by one; it is, however, possible to briefly present some key ideas.

Let us first draw attention to the volume’s contribution to Porphyrian studies, through the presentation and annotated translation of a new fragment of a previously unknown commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, recovered from the Archimedes Palimpsest and attributed to Porphyry’s Πρὸς Γεδάλειον (chapter 8). In addition, chapter 9 proposes a new interpretation of De abstinentia, which throws new light on Neoplatonic ethics as a whole.

The chapters on Themistius show how both Platonists and Aristotelians could be accommodated within the discussion of spontaneous generation. A more general account, which sees the Neoplatonic theory as anticipating in some respects Louis Pasteur’s conclusions, is offered in chapter 7. In some cases, stimulating developments are found in the footnotes (chapter 6).

An entirely new portrait of Stephanus the Philosopher emerges in chapters 15, 22, and 23: Stephanus is no longer the author of the Commentary on Book 3 of Aristotle’s De anima, now re-attributed to Philoponus, nor the polymath appointed by the emperor Heraclius (610-641) to teach philosophy in Constantinople. Rather, he is related to the school of Olympiodorus in late sixth-century Alexandria. In ch. 22, Roueché argues that Stephanus’ expansion of Plato definition of philosophy to read “the practice of death – while the living being is still preserved” is due to the influence of his Christian faith; but any pagan Platonist could have endorsed such an amendment.

The figures of Alexander of Aphrodisias and John Philoponus have a prominent place in the collection. Five chapters deal (wholly or partly) with Alexander, focusing, among others, on his denial of a certain principle of Stoic ethics (chapter 3) and on his criticism of Stoic eternal recurrence (chapter 4). Chapter 23 makes a significant contribution not only to the study of Alexander and Stephanus but also to that of (Aristotelian) commentaries in Late Antiquity and of their Byzantine reception.

Nine chapters deal (wholly or partly) with Philoponus, of which three concern his legacy into the Arabic world: chapter 19 recovers fragments of Philoponus’ On the Eternity of the World Against Proclus in Arabic, while chapter 20 investigates Arabic theological speculations on the eternity of the world traced back to Middle Platonism via Philoponus.6 The dispute over the eternity of the world is also discussed in chapter 18 - which concerns Arabic reception more generally – although one wonders how clear-cut the distinction between physics and theology is within the Greek tradition itself. Chapter 14 proposes a possible chronological order of Philoponus’ commentaries on Aristotle. Chapter 16 goes as late as Latin medieval and Renaissance theories of mixture, while chapter 17 situates Philoponus’ approach to Aristotle’s theories of sense-perception with respect to contemporary interpretations. Chapter 12 interestingly uses Philoponus’ and Simplicius’ evidence to reconstruct Proclus’ lost defence of Plato’s Timaeus against Aristotle.

Chapters 13 and 21 tackle issues of (epistemic) authority, on which there is currently a rise of scholarly interest.7 The former explains the differences between the linguistic philosophy of Proclus and his pupil Ammonius on the basis of different ways of reading Plato in connection to Aristotle in the Alexandrian and Athenian Schools. Chapter 21 exemplifies the attitude of a philosopher of Late Antiquity towards those who, in his eyes, count as authorities, while chapter 11 also shows how Iamblichus’ “intellective theory” harmonizes Aristotle’s Categories with Plato’s theory of Ideas.

A number of papers deal with Aristotle’s Categories (chapters 2, 8, 10, 11), while universals and particulars are the focus of chapters 10 and 4 respectively. Chapter 10 traces the transformations of the idea of universals in the Commentators, from Boethus to Eustratius of Nicaea, while chapter 2 studies in depth Boethus’ reading of the Categories which amounts to a peculiar Aristotelianism that was criticized by Alexander (in Arabic) and stands at the background of later developments.

Finally, chapter 1 usefully sets the general background by discussing the organization of the canonic Aristotelian corpus, which was seminal for the Neoplatonic commentary tradition as much as it is for us.

In conclusion, building on the extraordinary achievements of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle project, AR is a valuable collection of groundbreaking studies, which, together with AT, constitutes a must-read for any scholar and student of philosophy and Classics as well as an indispensable acquisition of any library in these fields.

Authors and Titles

1. The Texts of Plato and Aristotle in the First Century BCE: Andronicus’ Canon, Myrto Hatzimichali
2. Boethus Aristotelian Ontology, Marwan Rashed
3. The Inadvertent Conception and Late Birth of the Free Will Problem and the Role of Alexander, Susanne Bobzien
4. Alexander of Aphrodisias on Particulars and the Stoic Criterion of Identity, Marwan Rashed
5. Themistius and the Problem of Spontaneous Generation, Devin Henry
6. Spontaneous Generation and its Metaphysics in Themistius’ Paraphrase of Aristotle’s Metaphysics 12, Yoav Meyrav
7. The Neoplatonic Commentators on ‘Spontaneous’ Generation, James Wilberding
8. A Rediscovered Categories Commentary: Porphyry (?) with Fragments of Boethus, Riccardo Chiaradonna, Marwan Rashed, and David Sedley
9. The Purpose of Porphyry’s Rational Animals: A Dialectical Attack on the Stoics in On Abstinence from Animal Food, G. Fay Edwards
10. Universals Transformed in the Commentators on Aristotle, Richard Sorabji
11. Iamblichus’ [Noera Theôria] of Aristotle’s Categories, John Dillon
12. Proclus’ Defence of the Timaeus Against Aristotle: A Reconstruction of a Lost Polemical Treatise, Carlos Steel
13. Smoothing over the Differences: Proclus and Ammonius on Plato’s Cratylus and Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, R. M. van den Berg
14. Dating of Philoponus’ Commentaries on Aristotle and of his Divergence from his Teacher Ammonius, Richard Sorabji
15. John Philoponus’ Commentary on the Third Book of Aristotle’s De Anima, Wrongly Attributed to Stephanus, Pantelis Golitsis
16. Mixture in Philoponus: An Encounter with a Third Kind of Potentiality, Frans A. J. de Haas
17. Gnôstikôs and/or hulikôs: Philoponus’ Account of the Material Aspects of Sense-Perception, Peter Lautner
18. The Last Philosophers of Late Antiquity in the Arabic Tradition, Peter Adamson
19. Alexander of Aphrodisias versus John Philoponus in Arabic: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Ahmad Hasnawi
20. New Arabic Fragments of Philoponus and their Reinterpretation: Does the World Lack a Beginning in Time or Take no Time to Begin? Marwan Rashed
21. Simplicius’ Corollary on Place: Method of Philosophising and Doctrines, Philippe Hoffmann and Pantelis Golitsis
22. A Philosophical Portrait of Stephanus the Philosopher, Mossman Roueché
23. Who were the Real Authors of the Metaphysics Commentary Ascribed to Alexander and Ps.-Alexander? Pantelis Golitsis


1.   For a sourcebook, see R. Sorabji, The Philosophy of the Commentators 200-600 AD: A Sourcebook, 3 vols, London, Duckworth, 2004; repr. Bloomsbury 2013.
2.   See also R. Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 252-72.
3.   Chapter 5, by H. J. Blumenthal: “Themistius: The Last Peripatetic Commentator on Aristotle?”
4.   E. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006; Hypatia. The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017. See also R. Sorabji, “Divine Names and Sordid Deals in Ammonius’ Alexandria” in A. Smith, ed., The Philosopher and Society in Late Antiquity, Swansea, The Classical Press of Wales, 2005, 203-13.
5.   Full Greek text in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 44, 2013, pp. 129-94.
6.   Despite being the actual ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Bardas was not an “emperor” (p. 504) but a chief minister awarded the title of Καῖσαρ.
7.   See e.g. J. Opsomer and A. Ulacco, “Epistemic Authority in Textual Traditions. A Model and Some Examples from Ancient Philosophy” in J. Leemans et al., ed., Shaping Authority, Brepols, Turnhout, 2016, pp. 21-46; J. Opsomer, “Jamblique et l'autorité des mythes” in J.-B. Gourinat and F. Baghdassarian, eds., L'interprétation philosophique des mythes religieux, Paris, forthcoming.

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