BMCR 2005.08.42

Simplicius. On Aristotle’s Categories 1-4.

, , On Aristotle's "Categories 1-4". [Ancient commentators on Aristotle]. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 192 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801441013. $69.95.

Michael Chase, (trans.), Simplicius. On Aristotle’s Categories 1-4. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. 192. ISBN 0-8014-4101-3.

Reviewed by Scott Rubarth, Rollins College,

“And the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Mt. 19.30). This biblical quotation is relevant in several respects to Michael Chase’s new translation of Simplicius’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, chapters 1-4.1 Chase’s translation of the first part of Simplicius’ commentary was the last of the four volume collection to appear. The other three volumes appeared in the following order: Chapters 9-15 by Richard Gaskin (2000); chapters 5-6 by Frans A.J. de Hass and Barrie Fleet (2001), chapters 7-8 by Barrie Fleet (2002); Hence the first was last and last first. But there is another respect in which the first was last and last was first that has some relevance to the text at hand. This has to do with the fact that the English translation, now complete, seems to be overshadowing the French translation and commentary that began to appear in Brill’s Philosophia Antiqua series a decade and a half ago. Keeping to the biblical motif, one might draw an analogy between current publications of translations of Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Categories to the 16th century race to produce the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament following the development of the Gutenberg printing press. By all expectations the first printed Greek edition of the New Testament should have been the superb Spanish Complutensian Polyglot, under the editorial leadership of Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (1437-1517). The multivolume Polyglot was an ambitious project of the highest quality which had a significant head start on other editions. Although Ximenes had an early lead, Desiderius Erasmus, seeing an opportunity hastily pulled together an edition drawn from limited available manuscripts and rushed the first Greek New Testament into print, thereby eclipsing the Spanish project. Erasmus’ clearly inferior edition became the Textus Receptus. The first was last and the last was first.

The Polyglot/Erasmus example has a degree of similarity to the recent development of both a French and English translations of Simplicius’ Commentary on the Categories. Mme Ilsetraut Hadot and her team began a modern language (French) edition of Simplicius’ Commentary on the Categories, presumably some time in the 1980s, publishing two volumes (fasc. 1 & 3), in the early 1990s.2 These were impressive editions that included rich commentary, analysis, and supplementary essays. Yet this project seemed to have been delayed and subsequently the English translations, as part of Richard Sorabji’s project of translating the bulk of the CAG into English, appeared one by one with Chase’s translation completing the Simplicius. On Aristotle’s Categories segment of the project. Hence once again the first was last and the last was first. But the analogy quickly breaks down since there is no Erasmus in this case prematurely rushing to press an inferior edition. Instead, both projects have been committed from the onset to the highest quality; nor is there any evidence of a race but rather, as far as an outsider can tell, the projects offered support and collaboration consistent with the highest ideals of scholarship. But the outcome might turn out to be similar. Will the availability of an English edition undermine the Philosophia Antiqua project? Subsequent volumes were anticipated to follow quickly in the Philosophia Antiqua series but these have not as of yet materialized. A new edition of Simplicius’ commentary on chs. 2-4 of Aristotle’s Categories has been published by Belles Lettres with a French translation by Philip Hoffman and commentary by Concetta Luna, but it is not clear how this relates to the original Philosophia Antiqua project or if further editions are forthcoming.3

Thus the comparison of English and French translation projects and that of the Polyglot/Erasmian editions of the Greek New Testament breaks down at a fundamental level. Whereas the Polyglot was clearly a superior scholarly work and Erasmus’ edition was clearly flawed, the English series represents outstanding scholarship and rigor. Though perhaps not as ambitious as the proposed Philosophia Antiqua series, it is nevertheless a serious, rigorous, and welcome addition to the field. How it will affect the reception or completion of the presumably forthcoming French edition remains to be seen.

Enough background. Let’s turn to the specific text under review.

Despite being the last volume to find its way into print, as the first volume in the series Chase was obliged to set up the series with an introduction which is general enough to serve the entire work. Chase accomplishes this task admirably. In his concise but informative introduction Chase provides biographical information (which remains sympathetic to Michel Tardieu’s Harran/Carrhae thesis), an overview of the place of the Categories in Simplicius’ larger corpus, a critical discussion of Praechter’s two-schools theory (which has been seriously undermined by I. Hadot), and a brief discussion of the methodology and place of Simplicius’ commentary in the context of the wider commentary tradition and neoplatonic pedagogy.

According to Chase, Simplicius’ commentary was intended for beginners. He infers this from the fact that Aristotle’s Categories was read early in the cursus studiorum, after the moral purifications of Epictetus or the Pythagorean Golden Verses but before the more advance metaphysical works of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato (strangely Porphyry’s Isagoge is not mentioned in the discussion of the prescribed reading). But just because students read Aristotle’s Categories early, does it follow that all the commentaries on the Categories are intended for entry level students? It seems plausible that beginners utilized the Dexippus’ commentary or Porphyry’s shorter commentary, but I suspect that not all commentaries were intended to supplement the cursus studiorum. Some were surely scholarly works for the more advanced students and professors (this may explain why Porphyry had two commentaries on the Categories).

Chase sticks closely to Kalbfleisch’s edition with very minor emendations. The text is heavily peppered with transliterated Greek terms augmenting the translation. The abundance, at times excess, of transliterated terms can be a bit overwhelming, and one wonders if it might have been more economical simply to produce a facing Greek text. Given the difficulty of getting hold of the CAG editions at non-research institutions, it is a shame that the series does not include the Greek text. It is often unclear how Chase decided when to include the transliterated Greek term, but in most cases he supplies Greek when the reader might make a false assumption, especially regarding key philosophical terms. Supplied words are included in square brackets.

The translation itself stays close to the Greek and is accurate, yet surprisingly readable (when the subject matter permits). Perhaps the most perplexing translations relate to the troublesome term logos. What is most surprising is the variety of ways he translates the same Greek term in the same context. Between pages 39 and 41 Chase translates logos in five different ways: discussion, speech, definition, account, and phrase (which is ironic given that the passage deals with homonymy and synonymy). I do not deny that logos permits this range of use, only that a note somewhere explaining the decision would have helped the reader immensely in this section. The following passage illustrates how the changing translation of logos can be perplexing:

He said ‘account’ (logos) rather than ‘definition’ (horismos), in order to include the descriptive account as well, which fits both with the highest genera and with individuals; these cannot be included by a definition (horismos), since it is not possible to take either a genus of the highest genera, nor differentiae of individuals. Descriptions (hupographê), by contrast, which give an account of the characteristic property (idiotês) of substance, extend to these as well. This is why he did not say ‘the definition (logos) in accordance with the name’ but the definition (logos) ‘of substance’: since a descriptive definition (logos) defines the characteristic property of a substance, whereas definitory (horistikos) one defines both the quiddity of each thing, and the substance itself. (p. 43 = Kalbfleisch 29, 16-25).

This passage illustrates the density of transliterated terms as well as my concern for consistency. On repeated readings I think I understand why he did this but as I said above, more discussion justifying the translation itself could help the slower readers such as myself. The translation, indeed, is richly documented with copious endnotes, 818 in all (pp. 93-153), but few comments on the translation itself. Nevertheless, the notes are detailed, scholarly, and informative, and offer researchers inestimable tools for further study but do not constitute a true commentary (hence another reason why I. Hadot’s forthcoming volumes are so needed). Chase’s mastery of this very dense secondary material is very impressive. The work concludes with bibliography, English-Greek Glossary, Greek-English Index, and a subject index.

In summary, Chase’s translation effectively concludes the English translation of Simplicius’ commentary on the Categories. The work is an example of the highest scholarship and rigor. Although the translation may be a bit too literal and safe for some, it was probably wise to err on the side of utility. The detailed notes are especially valuable and impressive. This edition along with its companion volumes are essential tools for scholars working in a range of areas of ancient, medieval, and renaissance philosophy as well as historians of logic and philosophy of language. The work is highly recommended for university libraries.


1. Simplicii in Aristotelis Categorias Commentarium, Vol 8 of CAG (Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca), edited by C. Kalbfleisch (Berlin, 1882), pp. 1-75.

2. Hadot, I., 1990. Simplicius, Commentaire sur les Catégories, traduction commentée sous la direction de Ilsetraut Hadot, fasc. I. Introduction, permière partie (1-9, 3 Kalbfleisch, traduction de Ph. Hoffmann (avec la collaboration de I. et P. Hadot), commentaire et notes à la traduction par I. Hadot avec des appendices de P. Hadot et J.-P. Mahé (= Philosophia Antiqua vol. 50), Leiden: Brill, 1990. Luna, C., Simplicius, Commentaire sur les Catégories, traduction commentée sous la direction de Ilsetraut Hadot, fasc. III. Introduction, première partie (21-40, 13 Kalbfleisch), traduction de Ph. Hoffmann (avec la collaboration de I. et P. Hadot et C. Luna, commentaire et notes à la traduction par C. Luna (= Philosophia Antiqua vol. 51), Leiden: Brill, 1990.

3. Simplicius, Simplicius, Commentaire sur les Catégories d’Aristote. Chapitres 2-4, traduction de Ph. Hoffmann (avec la collaboration de I. et P. Hadot), commentaire par C. Luna. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2001. Unfortunately this reviewer has not yet been able to acquire a copy of this work, but cannot continue to delay this review.