BMCR 2008.02.08

Simplicius, lecteur du Sophiste

, Simplicius lecteur du Sophiste : contribution à l'étude de l'exégèse néoplatonicienne tardive. Etudes & commentaires ; 108. Paris: Klincksieck, 2007. 231 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9782252036266 €25.00.

This book undertakes to study the totality of references to Plato’s Sophist in the Aristotelian commentaries of Simplicius (hereafter S.), with a view to examining his interpretation of that dialogue. Gavray (hereafter G.), who has worked both with the Presocratics and their interpretation by Plato and in the area of Neoplatonism, is well qualified to produce an interesting study of this sort, since the study of S.’s use of the Sophist inevitably involves some attention to Parmenides himself, in particular, as well as, to a lesser extent, Heraclitus.

The book is divided into two parts: first, a series of three chapters, examining, in turn, the use made of the dialogue by Neoplatonists before S., namely Plotinus, Proclus and Damascius, then, a (rather programmatic) listing of all of S.’s quotations of or references to the dialogue, and lastly, a detailed study of S.’s methods of exegesis of the dialogue. The second, and rather longer, section of the work is taken up with a most useful collection of the relevant texts, giving the original Greek with French translation and some notes. It is rounded off by a bibliography, and indices locorum, nominum and rerum.

As regards the opening chapter, there is much here that is useful. As he emphasizes, Plotinus’ main recourse to the Sophist is as a source of the five genera of Being that he adopts, particularly in Enn. VI 2, as a counterweight to Aristotle’s ten categories, which he wishes to restrict to the physical world. Proclus also makes good use of the five genera but subordinates them more explicitly to the realm of the One, as does Damascius.

One curious omission that I would note is G.’s ignoring of the contribution of Iamblichus, who seems to have composed a commentary on the dialogue (cf. In Soph. Fr. 1 Dillon), identifying the Sophist with the Sublunary Demiurge. I can see that such a line of exegesis would hardly be relevant to G.’s main theme, but at least it deserved a mention in what is presented as a comprehensive survey. (I do note however, that it is recognised in a note on p. 92, linked to the pertinent observation that S. made considerable use of the Statesman in his commentary on the De Caelo — this latter dialogue concerning the Heavenly Demiurge!)

In chapter 2, we find a useful survey of the citations of the dialogue by S., in his commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories, Physics and De Anima — 7, 72, and 3 citations respectively. Plainly, it is in the Physics commentary that most citations are found. This might have been because S. in fact recognised the Iamblichean position that the dialogue concerned the sublunary world, but he gives no indication of this, and in fact the main focus of his interest is the doctrine of relative non-being, and consequently the theory of five Greatest Kinds. G. provides a full list of citations, with notes on any variations from the text of Plato, usually pretty minor.

Chapter 3, ‘Simplicius, lecteur du Sophiste‘, constitutes the core of the work (pp. 55-89). Here G. gives us a comprehensive analysis of the use made of the dialogue by S. He finds him noticeably more faithful to the meaning of Plato than his predecessors of the Athenian School, but this may be a function of his having to deal with Aristotle and the problem of reconciling him with Plato. In the Categories commentary, the topics arising out of the text are homonymy/synonymy, arising out of Aristotle’s opening remarks and making use of Soph. 218, and symploké, a question that Aristotle at 1a16 precisely say he will not be dealing with in this work, but on which S. decides that something must be said, and this involves adducing Soph. 252-3.

In the Physics commentary, the chief topic, is Not-Being, arising out of I 2, where Aristotle is examining the senses of One and their relations to Being, and leading to the adducing of Soph. 244-5, 250-3, and 258-9. S. is concerned to combat the allegation of Alexander of Aphrodisias that Plato introduces absolute Non-Being here. S. stoutly maintains that all references are to relative Non-Being, or Otherness, and he is surely justified. Other issues dealt with briefly are movement and change as types of non-being.

In the De Anima commentary, the only issue arising is the nature of phantasia, raised by Aristotle at De An. III 428a24-7, with which S. confronts Soph. 256-9 and 264, performing some fairly fancy footwork to reconcile the two.

The rest of the work, as I say, comprises a most useful collection of texts (only a sample from the Physics commentary, 14 in all, but enough for his purposes), with relevant introductions and notes. All in all, what G. shows is that the Sophist is the most-quoted dialogue by S. apart from the Timaeus and Parmenides, the two ‘summits’ of Platonic teaching, and in the Physics commentary, the Sophist actually outranks the Parmenides. The book succeeds in giving an excellent insight into how S. makes use of a Platonic dialogue in the context of commenting on Aristotle.