BMCR 2006.01.31

Philoponus. Against Proclus’s “On the Eternity of the World 1-5.” The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle

, , Against Proclus' "On the eternity of the world, 1-5. Ancient commentators on Aristotle. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (ix, 154 pages).. ISBN 9781472501219. $72.50.

The careful and expert scholarship of this well annotated translation, and the judicious argument of its eagerly anticipated introduction, make this volume even more welcome than the importance of the arguments of Philoponus and the influence of this treatise in the subsequent history themselves demand. It consists of the first five of the 18 arguments of Proclus (410-485 AD one of the Neoplatonic “successors” of Plato as head of the Academy in Athens, for the eternity of the world, together with part of the first and the full text of the other four attempted refutations by John Philoponus (c. 490-570 AD a Neoplatonic philosopher and Christian from birth (of the Monophysite persuasion) working in Alexandria, where, in contradistinction from Athens, such a combination was possible.

In his Preface, Richard Sorabji, the General Editor of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, points to “original arguments and ideas in these chapters” (p. vii). These Sorabji locates 1) in the use by Philoponus against Proclus of Aristotle’s concept of infinity, 2) in the notions that an eternal blueprint belonging to the divine mind need not have an eternal effect and that willing a change does not require a change in the divine will (both possible deductions from the general Neoplatonist principle, here associated with Iamblichus, that a thing is known according to the mode of the knower), and 3) in the notion of a “when” without time. There are new ideas in Philoponus as Helen Lang has shown,1 but whether all the arguments or conceptions Sorabji lists are “original” with Philoponus is doubtful and no demonstration of their originality is given.

More importantly, the treatises of Philoponus Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World 2 and Against Proclus on the Eternity of the World are crucial to Sorabji’s great interest, his view that the idea of the temporal beginning of the world is fundamental to the creation of modern natural science. Whether or not this be so, the arguments of the both the Neoplatonic Philoponus who promoted the general Neoplatonic reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle and also of the Christian who opposed the eternity of the world were certainly influential among the Greek and Syrian Christians in Late Antiquity, among their Islamic and Jewish successors, and among the Latin Medieval Christians who were the heirs of both.3 Indeed, the first of Proclus’ arguments comes to us only through an Arabic version, translated for this volume by Peter Adamson. Lloyd Gerson, when concluding his review of Sorabji’s The Philosophy of the Commentators. 200-600 AD, a selection of what he regards as most important in the commentaries, is right to represent John Philoponus as “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” which the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series places before us.4 Given his rejection of the concordism of the Neoplatonic commentators who take up by far the greater part of his series, Sorabji seems especially glad to see in this volume “one of the cleverest of the Neoplatonists … turn the pagans’ own views against themselves” (p. vii).

The question as to what Philoponus is up to in this treatise was raised in a sharply interesting new way by Helen S. Lang and A.D. Macro in their Proclus, On the Eternity of the World, De Aeternitate Mundi.5 Our knowledge of this work is dependent on that of Philoponus against it because Proclus’ arguments come to us only through the attack on them by Philoponus. Both Lang/ Macro and Share make critical use of the Greek text of Philoponus edited by H. Rabe (Teubner 1899), based on a single manuscript which is incomplete at the beginning and the end. It was not surprising, therefore, that in their introduction Lang and Macro ventured a view not only as to the purposes of Proclus (he was not addressing the Christians, at least not directly) but also as to those of Philoponus (his philosophy is not marked by his Christianity and he is not arguing as a Christian against a pagan but within a dispute between Platonists).6 When Dirk Baltzly reviewed their volume,7 he agreed with Lang and Macro about Proclus but judged that their arguments about Philoponus were not conclusive. He made the very probable suggestion that Philoponus used philosophical arguments and authoritative philosophers against Proclus because he needed to argue on the “basis of premises that Proclus himself would have to accept.” Baltzly went on to express the hope that “this subject will be discussed at length in the introduction to the translation of Philoponus’ Contra Proclum currently in preparation in Sorabji’s Commentators series.” Happily for us, justifying the excursus “because it has a bearing on some of my translation decisions” (p. 2), Michael Share fulfils Baltzly’s hope.

Share agrees with Lang/ Macro and Baltzly about Proclus and affirms that “there is no overt reference to Christianity or the Christians in any of the proofs and … it is highly unlikely that there was any reference to the Christians in the title of the work [see p. 10, note 3].” He judges that “this silence is … likely to have been the result of disdain or discretion, or a combination of the two …” (p. 2) Share goes on to quote a passage which he judges will do better than those Lang and Macro themselves cite to support their idea that arguments supposed to have been directed against the Christians were in fact aimed at “Atticus and his associates.” (p. 3) In the course of this discussion Share gives from Proclus what seems to me to be the heart of the philosophical argument for the eternity of the world both in Plato and Aristotle and in their successors, whether they are pagan or are adherents of one of the religions of the Book. Goodness constitutes the nature of the creator and he wills to communicate his goodness as completely as possible (e.g. Plato, Timaeus, 29e-30a; Aristotle, De Caelo, 279a12-279b2; Philo, De Opificio Mundi, V.21-22). In consequence “to downgrade the world is to downgrade God, and to pay due reverence to God one must pay due reverence to the world.” (p. 3) Philoponus and those who follow him in opposing the eternity of the world must show, and do in fact attempt to persuade us, that God is elevated by diminishing his creation. Share is not, however, with Lang and Macro when it comes to the character and purposes of Philoponus’ Contra Proclum.

Share agrees with them that “Philoponus does write as a Neoplatonic insider and his arguments are strictly philosophical.” (p. 4) This is certainly true. Indeed, we find in the arguments translated here not only that Aristotle is turned against Proclus at I.3, 9.14-11.17 (as Sorabji notes), and that Aristotle is employed against Plato to the same end (II.2-3, 27.1-33.1 ), but also that Plotinus (II.5, 39.1-40.26), Plato (V.3-5), and Proclus himself (II.5, 37.12-39.1 and IV.13, 91.7-91.26) are repeatedly set against his adversary. Nonetheless, Share produces explicit evidence from the text that Philoponus identifies himself as a Christian and that he is employing these philosophical arguments for Christian ends. Share finds seven quotations from the Christian Bible in the Contra Proclum. (p. 5) He points out in addition that the Contra Proclum was only the first of three or four books by Philoponus on the same subject, lost but known to us because they are attacked by Simplicius, who explicitly opposes Philoponus as a Christian. It seems clear, therefore, that the second part of the Lang/ Macro argument cannot stand. Nonetheless, I do not think that this is the end of the matter and we are led to the further consideration by the fact that the arguments of Philoponus are philosophical, in the sense that they do not use scriptural authority, even if Philoponus has a Christian purpose. In fact, in the future his arguments will play a role in the disputes between those who want to restrict what philosophical reason can prove about the matter and those who do not.

Shlomo Pines tells us that for Moses Maimonides “the doctrine of the kalam was originally taken over … from Christian doctors, who wrote in Greek or Syriac” and that Maimonides situates Philoponus at the origins of this dialectical theology.8 Both Maimonides and (following him) Aquinas determinedly refuse to make the question of the temporal beginning of the world a matter of philosophical demonstration after the manner of the kalam. Rather, although they both employ arguments which come to them from Philoponus’ Contra Proclum, whether or not they know their source, they separate philosophy and Biblical revelation, deriving the doctrine of the temporal beginning of the world only from the latter. Maimonides struggled in the opposition between Arabic philosophy, on the one hand, which generally followed Aristotle on the eternity of the world and maintained that the creation story could be interpreted to teach this, and the kalam, on the other hand. He is forced to demonstrate that Genesis must be interpreted literally so as to teach the temporal beginning of the world (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, II.14 and 25; his contemporary Cordoban, Averroes, the Islamic “lawyer, imam, judge and scholar” argued the opposite in his Decisive Treatise). Aquinas is in a comparable situation, knowing Philoponus both by his name among the Arabs, John the Grammarian, and as Philoponus, and receiving arguments from both sides of Philoponus, the Neoplatonist conciliator and the Christian Contra Proclum (Aquinas, In de Caelo, I, lect. 6). With him the creatio ex nihilo is ascribed to Plato and Aristotle and separated from the question of the temporal beginning of the world (Aquinas, In Physicorum,VIII, lect. 2) and the notion of an eternal creature is not contradictory.9 Thomas is saved, however, from having to show that the temporal beginning of the world is orthodoxy because in the first formal conciliar statement of the Christian Church on the matter, the Lateran Council of 1215, had only recently declared it so.

All of which reminds us that the question of whether or not the world is eternal was a disputed question among Jews, Christians and the followers of the Prophet from the time of the first encounter between Plato and Aristotle and Genesis in Philo Judaeus, who taught the eternity of the cosmos, at least until the thirteenth century.10 In consequence, while Proclus was not addressing Christians but fellow Platonists, and while Philoponus was probably immediately addressing Platonists as a Christian, he is not representing the settled position of those who adhere to biblical revelation and he is certainly also contributing to what would be an ongoing debate among them.

Very many difficulties confront the translator of the Contra Proclum. Some come from the greater richness of Greek philosophical language as compared to English, others derive from the problem of finding the right correspondence between the two languages. The one difficulty which Share uses to justify his excursus concerns when it is appropriate to translate theos as “god” and when as “God.” Share confronts them all with great care and with the same learned prudence with which alterations of the Greek text, translation, notes, and introduction are handled. The translation is accompanied by a lavish apparatus consisting in a list of departures from Rabe’s text, bibliography, English-Greek glossary, Greek-English index, subject index, and index of passages cited in the notes. Share takes advantage of being able to assess Rabe’s Greek text and of making his translation of Proclus in light of the decisions taken by Lang/Macro and he uses their extensive notes to limit his own. I found only one small proof reading error.

This volume is an essential acquisition for all those who need to know about the ancient commentary tradition and the history of Platonism, how they were passed on to their futures among the adherents of the religions of the book, and the role ancient philosophy played in the formation of the doctrines of those religions.


1. See Helen S. Lang, Aristotle’s Physics and Its Medieval Varieties, SUNY Series in Ancient Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 16-17, 97-124.

2. See C. Wildberg (trans.), Philoponus, Against Aristotle, on the Eternity of the World, The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987).

3. See Christina D’Ancona and Robert Wisnovsky in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, ed. Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 17-23, 97; Wayne J. Hankey, in The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach, ed. Stephen Gersh and Maarten J.F.M. Hoenen (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), pp. 289-92.

4. BMCR 2005.07.55.

5. Proclus, On the Eternity of the World, De Aeternitate Mundi, Greek text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Helen S. Lang and A.D. Macro (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

6. Ibid. 6-14.

7. BMCR 2002.10.19.

8. Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. with Introduction and Notes by S. Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. cxxvi.

9. J.A. Aertsen, “The Eternity of the World: The Believing and the Philosophical Thomas,” in J.B.M. Wissink (ed.), The Eternity of the World in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas and his Contemporaries, Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters 27 (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 9-19, at p. 13 and p. 16.

10. For a good recent treatment of Philo on the question see David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 59-64.