BMCR 2005.07.55

The Philosophy of the Commentators. 200-600 AD. A Sourcebook. Three volumes

, , The Philosophy of the Commentators. 200-600 AD. A Sourcebook. Three volumes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. xv, 430; xix, 401; xvii, 394. $39.50 (each).

Almost 20 years ago, under the general editorial direction of Richard Sorabji, a series of translations of the Greek commentaries on Aristotle’s works began to appear. This massive collaborative effort has resulted in the publication of about 60 volumes with 20 or so more to come over the next five years. When the series is complete, we will have available for the first time in English (and, in the case of many of the works, in any language) translations of a large part of the record of ancient Greek philosophy between 200 and 600 C.E. The volumes under review contain a substantial selection from this material, thematically ordered and ranging over virtually the entire array of philosophical topics taken up in antiquity. A careful study of all three volumes would constitute quite a spectacular crash course in ancient Greek philosophy.

The general themes covered in the first volume are: perception, phantasia, thought, self-awareness, recollection and concept formation, soul-body, immortality of soul and of intellect, vehicles of soul, knowledge of other minds, definitions of soul, types of soul, immateriality of soul, emotion, theories of action, methods of ascent to god, ineffability and the rejection of words, ethics, and religious practice.

In the second volume, the themes covered are: nature, change, divine knowledge and power, providence and evil, determinism and fate, causation, idealism or bodies considered as bundles of god’s ideals, creation of the material universe, the question of whether or not the universe had a beginning, infinity and infinite divisibility, time, eternity, place and space, infinite space, extension, vacuum, prime matter, body, light, mixture, degrees of latitude, thresholds and supervenience, dynamics, the heavens, and scientific astronomy.

The third volume contains sections on: the character of logic, methodology, categories, predicables, universals, particulars, philosophy of language, the syllogism, induction and certainty, modal logic, the existence of the subject in affirmative and negative statements, philosophy of mathematics, simplicity and the need for the One, the three hypostases Soul, Intellect, and One, realism vs. intentionality, consciousness as pervasive in the universe, the unity of minds, and the problem of the differentiation of selves.

There are at least two ways in which the series of individual volumes and Sorabji’s Sourcebook constitute one of the most important contributions to the study of ancient Greek philosophy in our time. First, in a practical vein, the profession of ancient Greek philosophy in philosophy departments in North America has hitherto largely been supplied by specialists who in their graduate studies focused mainly on Plato and Aristotle. This is less true in Europe, though there the profession is populated to a significant extent by scholars trained primarily in philology, not philosophy. The result is that there has been a lot of overfishing in the waters of the 4th century B.C.E. and a consequent marginalization of ancient Greek philosophy within the larger enterprise of professional philosophy. I do not expect that these volumes will inspire more dissertations on, say, Simplicius, and fewer on Aristotle among those aiming for Ph.D.s in philosophy. It can hardly be supposed that, where the serious study of Aristotle’s Physics is regarded as being outside the mainstream of a philosophy department’s work, the study of Simplicius’ Commentary on the Physics will fare any better. Yet what might happen is that the study of the entire canon of ancient Greek philosophy will be reinvigorated, including its two central figures.

Second, and by way of explanation for the series’ potential to alter the field, is the fact that the ancient Greek commentators on the works of Aristotle approached their task in a way quite unlike the way we typically approach the history of the philosophy of antiquity. Whereas it is almost universally the case today that ancient philosophy is studied chronologically, applying the usual categories of “influence” and “background” and “development,” the ancient commentators approached their own history first and foremost as philosophers. They studied Aristotle as preparation for the “greater mysteries” of Platonism. The underlying assumption for this approach — one which Sorabji himself is reluctant to acknowledge as anything other than preposterous and a “myth” (see pp. 3; 14-19 of the general introduction in volume 1) — is that the philosophy of Aristotle is in harmony with the philosophy of Plato. Since the commentators were, with a few notable exceptions, Platonists, they were especially keen to explicate the Aristotelian analysis of the sensible world, since this was thought to be the most suitable preparation for the Platonic analysis of the intelligible world. Even in their Platonism, the commentators were philosophers first and historians of philosophy second. They generally held that Plato was the greatest but by no means the first or only exponent of the true philosophy. It is that true philosophy upon which they focused. Accordingly, they were less interested in getting right who influenced whom or what is and what is not an anachronistic interpretation of a text. They called themselves “Platonists” because they were attached to a philosophy and left it for later historians to designate that as “Platonism.”

It is perhaps worth adding here that the term “Neoplatonism,” originating in 18th century German scholarship, was intended to be and in many circles still is a term of opprobrium. It is supposed to indicate a deformation or defacement of the “pure Hellenic philosophy” of Plato. A serious study of the material in the Sourcebook might help to dispel this naïve notion, especially if that material is approached as the authors no doubt intended it, namely, as an exploration of the version of true philosophy promulgated by Aristotle.

Another principle underlying the commentaries excerpted in the Sourcebook is the philosophical (as opposed to historical) principle that if an author says A, if A is true, and if A in fact implies B, then one who affirms A is committed to B. Such a principle is rightly viewed by the historian as dangerous. Plato may well not have accepted many implications of his claims. But the commentators did not approach the history of philosophy as a self-justifying enterprise. Like Aristotle himself, they could revere the founder of the Academy and revere the truth even more.

Precisely because the commentators approached Aristotle’s works with a view to the (Platonically based) truths they contained, they were permanently attuned to fundamental philosophical arguments. Leaving aside the delicate question of whether this is a better or worse way to approach Aristotle than that which is typical today, it is certainly different. The student or professional coming to these texts cannot help but be stimulated by their analytic depth. Combined with the commentators’ extraordinary knowledge of the entire breadth of ancient Greek philosophy — Simplicius said that the would-be commentator on any work must start by mastering all of Aristotle (in Greek!) — they repeatedly open up for us new avenues of reflection. The accessibility of the translations surely means that many more will go down these avenues than would otherwise be the case.

In Sorabji’s wide-ranging general introduction to the three volumes (1-32), he explains that he has striven to include especially those texts of the commentator that display their own philosophical ideas. In this he has surely succeeded. The reader is able to see again and again how philosophy can be done in a creative manner through the medium of commentary on the works of Aristotle. But as I have already emphasized, the aim of the commentators was primarily philosophical, not historical. This aim did not of course prevent the commentaries themselves from being a part of the history of philosophy in the sense that they were mined by later philosophers. In fact, they are part of the “missing link” between ancient Greek philosophy and the philosophy of the Latin Middle Ages. The other link — Arabic philosophy — is itself increasingly a subject of the attention of Western scholars.

Although Sorabji does not emphasize this point, the Sourcebook perforce displays a crucial underlying assumption held by virtually all the commentators. This is the assumption that Aristotle’s thought did not “develop” in any significant way. The opposite assumption — introduced in the 19th century, defended most famously by Werner Jaeger in the early part of the 20th century, and now ubiquitous — encourages either a fragmentation in the study of the Aristotelian corpus or some one or another ad hoc hypothesis about why there appear to be contradictions or at least tensions among the texts. Some of these hypotheses border on the absurd. By contrast, the commentators assumed that Aristotle’s philosophy was a whole, including both the “exoteric” and “esoteric” works, and that philosophy was a version of Platonism, albeit a version coming from a dissident within the Platonic school. Accordingly, they read all of the works in the corpus as based on identical (Platonic) principles. But of course their assumption was no less of an assumption than was Jaeger’s. The assumption did, though, impel them to think hard about what those principles were and how they might be variously applied and misapplied. In short, it impelled them to philosophy more than to excavation.

Sorabji has wisely not limited his selection of material from the extant commentaries to those in Greek, for there is a significant amount of material that survives only in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic translations. In addition, the central Neoplatonic philosophers Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus — the first mentioned did not write commentaries on Aristotle and the last two did but these works are not extant — are well represented. Also included are important bits of the non-Neoplatonic Aristotelian commentary tradition, especially from the writings of Alexander of Aphrodisias. Although the Sourcebook does not purport to be a history of philosophy in the period 200-600, it would be a superb companion to any such history.

The Sourcebook is intended to be of service to a number of readers besides those who specialize in ancient Greek philosophy. These include Islamicists, Latinists, theologians, historians of science, scholars of commentaries as a genre, Medievalists and Renaissance specialists.

Sorabji does an admirable job of selecting texts which show the commentators and others in this period grappling with contemporary anti-Platonists and especially with the enemy destined to overwhelm them, namely, Christianity. As much as the Neoplatonists wanted to show that Aristotle was at heart a Platonist, they were also increasingly desperate to show that there was a single perennial pagan philosophy at least as attractive as anything that Christian thinkers had to offer. This circumstance goes some way in explaining their desire to represent Aristotle as part of the tradition whose defense was now in their hands. John Philoponus (well represented in the Sourcebook) is the Neoplatonist whose embrace of Christianity actually marks the beginning of the unraveling of the entire enterprise of constructing and articulating the perennial pagan philosophy. After him, the shifting perspective meant that the works that the commentators treated were read differently. The Sourcebook is the best place to go to try to begin to appreciate what these most acute thinkers thought Greek philosophy was and why they thought it was worth defending.