BMCR 2006.05.27

Philoponus, Against Proclus’ On the Eternity of the World 6-8

, , Against Proclus's "On the eternity of the world, 6-8". Ancient commentators on Aristotle. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. viii, 200 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0801442176. $75.00.

This volume of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series is a segment of a larger whole, to wit, of the 18-chapter work by John Philoponus, composed in 529 A.D., just as Justinian was closing down the School of Athens, attacking Proclus’ treatise — itself, it would seem, a piece of anti-Christian polemic, maintaining the thesis of the eternity of the world. It is warmly to be welcomed, both in itself, and as evidence of on-going progress towards bringing this large and important work to a wider audience.

The first segment of the De Aeternitate Mundi (arguments 1-5) has recently been reviewed in these pages by Wayne Hankey (BMCR 2006.01.31), and this review to some extent picks up on his. The present volume adds Philoponus’ critique of just three more arguments, 6-8, of which the first is very extensive, and of particular interest, while the other two are not without interest as well. Philoponus, it must be said, while plainly a first-class mind (as Richard Sorabji is at pains to emphasise in his preface — and indeed as he has adequately proved elsewhere) is man of considerable verbosity, and it is fair to say that not many people would be inclined to read this work through, without the aid of the clear and idiomatic translation of Michael Share. As it is, however, a larger audience will be able to appreciate the considerable force of Philoponus’ arguments.

Not, of course, that he is necessarily right. Philoponus’ argumentative strategy rests on the same basis as that of Aristotle long before him, that is, taking Plato’s utterances in the Timaeus at face value and criticising them on those terms. He knows perfectly well that the great majority of the Platonist tradition took the account of demiurgic cosmogony in the dialogue non-literally — indeed he constitutes a valuable source for our knowledge of their arguments, particularly those of the Middle Platonist Taurus — but he is not prepared to let them get away with that. Basically, Philoponus needs Plato, literally interpreted, as a buttress for his Christian view of the world as created at a point in time and subject to destruction in due course, and he is not going to allow later Platonist interpretation to stand in the way of that.

From a modern perspective, however (since most commentators do in fact take Plato literally), Philoponus comes across rather well. And it must be admitted that he does a pretty good hatchet job on Proclus. In his sixth argument, Proclus makes the claim that the Demiurge’s assertion at Tim. 41B-C that he will not dissolve the world makes it in effect imperishable, and this in turn entails (accepting Aristotle’s principle, enunciated in criticism of Plato!) that it is ungenerated. To the refutation of this claim Philoponus devotes over 120 Teubner pages, employing copious quotation of Proclus, Porphyry, Taurus, and Alexander of Aphrodisias, all from works otherwise lost to us.

The seventh chapter addresses Proclus’ argument that, if the soul of the universe is ungenerated and imperishable, then the world too is ungenerated and imperishable. This takes Philoponus only 46 Teubner pages to deal with (247-93). Proclus’ argument is based on the assumption that is of the essence of the world-soul to be a source of movement, and, if that is the case, and it is eternal, it must eternally have something to move, and that would be the physical world. Philoponus’ response to this is to maintain that, although self-motion may indeed be an essential characteristic of soul, it need only be potentially a source of movement for other things, not always actually. And in any case, he adds, it is the irrational soul rather than the rational that is the cause of all bodily life and movement; the rational soul only controls and orders the irrational movment of the passions. “Hence it is not necessary that as soon as there is a source and cause of this kind of movement, there should at once also be something that is moved by it.” (7, 10)

Proclus’ eighth argument is based on the premiss that there is nothing outside the universe into which it can perish, or out of which it can be generated. Philoponus’ response to this is much briefer, covering just four sections and about 16 Teubner pages. He sets out to refute Proclus on the basis of premisses accepted by Proclus himself, such as the Platonic principle that everything perceptible comes to be and perishes, and, once again, on his own literal interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus, and he scores a number of good points.

Share’s translation throughout reads very lucidly and idiomatically, and his notes are generally most helpful, though predominantly, perhaps, linguistic rather than philosophical. The volume is completed, as usual, by an English-Greek glossary, a Greek -English index, and a Subject Index.