BMCR 2009.04.76

Les commentaries de Simplicius et de Jean Philopon à la “Physique” d’Aristote: tradition et innovation. Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca et Byzantina. Quellen und Studien; Bd. 3

, Les commentaries de Simplicius et de Jean Philopon à la "Physique" d'Aristote: tradition et innovation. Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca et Byzantina. Quellen und Studien; Bd. 3. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. ix, 306. ISBN 9783110195415. $118.95.

For Simplicius of Cilicia (ca. 480-ca. 540 A.D.), pagan antiquity’s last major Platonist and its greatest philosophical scholar, the year 2008 was a good one. Han Baltussen published a pioneering and wide-ranging account of his methodology,1 while Alan Bowen completed a richly annotated translation of the astronomical material from the commentary on the De caelo.2 Finally, in the volume under review (part of de Gruyter’s new series on the Aristotelian tradition) Pantelis Golitsis has, despite his title, dealt with the “tradition” upheld by Simplicius more extensively than the “innovation” introduced by his contemporary, the anti-Aristotelian Christian John Philoponus (ca. 490-ca. 570 A.D.).

This monograph emanates from a 2006 Paris ‘thèse de doctorat’ on the interpretation of Aristotle’s Physics from late antiquity to the Byzantine period, and like some well-known papers by one of its supervisors, Philippe Hoffmann, it aims to put material occasioned by Aristotelian exegesis into a context that more adequately reflects a commentator’s individual projects. In this vein it primarily focuses on digressions, that is, passages in which Simplicius and Philoponus expressed views in a more discursive and original fashion than when commenting on successive parts of the text ( lêmmata).

Pt. 1 (chs. 1-3: 7-80) covers (1) the intellectual and institutional careers of the commentators; (2) their general conception of the Physics and their exegetical methodology; and (3) their sources and their assimilation of the earlier Greek philosophical tradition. Simplicius dominates chs. 2 and 3, which amount to a more concise version of the main thrust of Baltussen’s study, in which “particular emphasis” (Baltussen, p. 8) is also placed on Simplicius’ commentary on the Physics.

Pt. 2 (chs. 4-6: 83-280) surveys the digressions first in general terms (83-88), then by analysing seventeen that cover fourteen topics (89-195), with just four from Philoponus. A brief conclusion (196-203) precedes an appendix of clear, accurate, and annotated translations of thirteen passages (207-280), two of which are from Philoponus. The ancillary material (bibliography; indices of names ancient and modern, and of terms and loci) is unusually well presented.

Ch. 1 points up the contrast between the two commentators’ careers and exegetical procedures. Simplicius, faced in 529 with the closure of the philosophical schools at Athens, where he had migrated from Alexandria, became “un maître sans école,” a status that helps explain the “purely literary” (22; cf. 18) character of his commentaries as detailed compilations rich in source material rather than the product of oral presentation.3 Golitsis wisely follows others in rejecting any definitive hypothesis about Simplicius’ final post-Athenian location, while allowing that he was “isolé peut-être en Syrie” (203), maybe in an exiles’ collective (21-22). Philoponus, by contrast, published commentaries derived from lectures, but in the case of that on the Physics was sharply critical of Aristotle. Golitsis joins the growing consensus (27 n. 82) that rejects Koenraad Verrycken’s elaborate theory4 that this critique represents a revision of an earlier version of this commentary that had been derived from his education at Alexandria under the pagan Ammonius. Ch. 2 shows that the learned Simplicius gave more attention than Philoponus to the various “headings” ( kephalaia) under which commentators classified treatises (goal, title, structure, ordering, authenticity, utility), while Ch. 3 discusses how Simplicius, unlike Philoponus (65 with n. 1), offered detailed documentation of earlier Greek philosophy and used the original works of earlier commentators.

As a whole, Pt. 1 offers a good orientation, well documented and helpfully enriched, as is the whole book, by generous amounts of quoted Greek, which is, with a few minor exceptions, translated. Particularly noteworthy are the two codas on, respectively, the method of reading the text for its meaning (its nous) rather than its literal sense (its lexis) (55-57), and on commentary as “recomposition.” (58-64). In the second case the two commentators’ dependency on Alexander of Aphrodisias’ lost commentary on the Physics is shown to derive in Philoponus’ case from Ammonius’ teaching whereas Simplicius used Alexander’s text directly. But to illustrate the nature of such dependency Golitsis helpfully juxtaposes (at 62-64) passages from Asclepius’ commentary on the Metaphysics with their sources in Alexander’s commentary, an exercise impossible for Simplicius’ Physics commentary due to the loss of Alexander’s commentary. As Golitsis notes (64), a commentator’s originality is circumscribed by reliance on such inherited material, which can often go unacknowledged. Hence the significance of this study’s focus on digressions, since, as in rhetorical practice generally, these afford an opportunity for more independent thought.

Pt. 2 opens with a nuanced sketch of a typology (“esquisse d’une typologie”) (Ch. 4) of the digressions that are to be analysed and translated. While digressions are self-conscious deviations from textual exegesis, they can also be more autonomous segments of text, such as Simplicius’ refutation of Philoponus’ treatise Contra Aristotelem (described as an “excursus” on p. 4, but appended to a list of digressions at p. 86), and asides such as his discussion of the theological dimension of physics (1359.5-1360.23), part of a comment on Phys. 267b17-26 but involving a “harmonizing” comparison of Aristotle and Plato. That there should be some ragged edges in defining this sub-genre is perhaps inevitable, and Golitsis extends it to include texts like the lengthy Corollaria on time, place and void in Simplicius, and on place and void in Philoponus, which are more like mini-treatises.

Such digressions, I would note, are not without precedents in the Aristotelian exegetical tradition, and perhaps have a forerunner in Plato’s self-conscious remarks at Theaetetus 177b7-c2. Thus the fourth century commentator Themistius includes a digression on the concepts of matter and the substrate in his paraphrase of Physics 1.7, while in his paraphrase of De Anima 3.5 he offers an independent and discursive account of the intellect, in which he seeks to harmonize material from Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus to support an interpretation coloured in places by neoplatonic language.5 The CAG editors failed to identify these digressions, just as Hermann Diels failed to isolate several of the Simplician digressions discussed here (Golitsis, 85).

But digressions matter most for their content and purpose. Golitsis (87-88) divides the genus digression into the species of the “harmonizing”, the “scientific”, and the “polemical.” The first two of these dichotomize the texts analysed in Ch. 5, with a Philoponan polemic on the eternity of time (124-127; 274-276) added to the first group to identify this commentator’s non-harmonizing program. The passages translated in the Appendix are mostly from the digressions that involve harmonization. The “scientific” digressions on matter, place, void, time, the general theory of nature, and the case of contra-natural motion involved in Philoponus’ impetus theory6 receive more analysis (127-195) but less translation (just 240-251 on nature, and 277-280 on the impetus theory).7 This “scientific” material has received considerable attention in the recent past, with the exception perhaps of the theory of nature (139-149; 240-251), where Aristotle is taken to task by both Philoponus (147-149) and Simplicius.

Ch. 5 and the Appendix are in effect a source book (supported, for example, by meticulous outlines; see 96, 131-132, 141, 152, 169, 175, 191), complete on the topic of harmonization, but unfortunately incomplete on the aforementioned topics in physical theory. In the Appendix the translations are arranged in a different order from the items in ch. 5 and have markedly different titles; they might just as well have been appended to the relevant analyses, if only to avoid lengthy quotations in ch. 5 being repeated in the Appendix.

The digressions on harmonization (“les digressions ‘concordistes'”) are unquestionably the most important and valuable part of this study. The goal of reconciling Aristotle with Plato goes back to Antiochus of Ascalon in the first century B.C., and has been the subject of two recent studies.8 Golitsis offers what must be the first detailed treatment of the most important evidence in Simplicius for a practice also found in his standard “lemmatized” exegesis.9 He shows that harmonization is not just a way of reconciling Plato and Aristotle on a topic such as “mouvement” ( kinêsis; 108-121; 252-262), where differences can be seen as superficial, but can also be a device for embracing the earlier Greek tradition in natural philosophy (89-100; 207-219). This is notably so in case of Parmenides (100-108; 220-231), with whom Simplicius’ engagement is seen not merely as generating those much studied quotations in Diels-Kranz but as having been part of a creative exercise in self-definition (108). Of particular interest is Simplicius’ “harmonizing” reconstruction of Aristotle’s account of tukhê in religious terms (108-114; 252-258).

Ch. 6 and its coda (202-203) offer a comparison and contrast: Philoponus is seen as liberated by his Christian beliefs from adherence to the pagan philosophical tradition, Simplicius as seeking to sustain that tradition in a strongly personal project. But this familiar polarization now rests on the neglected evidence of the digressions so that the main objective (“objet principal”) of this study, that of putting the digressions into relief (“la mise en relief des digressions”) (3), is duly realized. Simplicius is perhaps implicitly privileged by the amount of attention he receives, for if Philoponus is, as has been claimed, “philosophically the most brilliant of all the commentators”,10 this is not how he emerges in a study in which he tends to be used as a foil for Simplicius,11 albeit to good effect at 196-201 on exegetical methodology, and which ends (200-201) with an eloquent appreciation of the Simplician project of using digressions as an exercise that leads to truth.

Golitsis has, then, provided a valuable account of some central issues in the study of two major Aristotelian commentators, and in particular has made Simplicius’ unique contribution to the practice of harmonization more easily understood and appreciated. One must hope that he will soon manage to fill the hiatuses left by the present study.


1. H. Baltussen, Philosophy and Exegesis in Simplicius: the methodology of a commentator (London, 2008). A review is forthcoming in BMCR. My review will appear in Aestimatio.

2. See A.C. Bowen, “Simplicius’ Commentary on Aristotle, De caelo 2.10-12: an annotated translation,” Sciamus 4 (2003) 23-58, completed at Sciamus 9 (2008) 25-131.

3. Alexander’s commentaries can be similarly characterized; see R.W. Sharples, “The School of Alexander?”, in R. Sorabji (ed.), Aristotle Transformed (London, 1990), 95-97, to be added to the references at 60 n. 75, where the fortuna of the Alexandrian method of commenting is traced to Simplicius via Proclus (cf. also 57).

4. See his “The Development of Philoponus’ Thought and its Chronology,” in Aristotle Transformed (preceding note), 233-274.

5. See Themistius, In Physica, 25.24-27,13 (from which 26,12-24 is cited at Golitsis, 71 n. 21), which has (27.12-13) the formulaic conclusion used in various genres, as a TLG search confirms, namely, “back to the point from which we digressed” ( επανιτέον ὅθεν εξέβημεν), which Golitsis, 86 n. 9, quotes from Philoponus as though it was original with him. On the intellect see Themistius, In De anima 102.30-109.3.

6. Regarding the secondary literature on this theory Golitsis, 188 n. 146 refers to a criticism by Christian Wildberg (“Impetus Theory and the Hermenuetics of Science in Simplicius and Philoponus,” Hyperboreus 5 [1999] 107-124) of a paper by Michael Wolff, “Philoponus and Rise of Pre-classical Dynamics,” in R. Sorabji (ed.), Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (London, 1987), 84-120. Wildberg, 113-114, in fact reserves his main criticism for Wolff’s earlier Geschichte der Impetustheorie (Frankfurt, 1978) and at 114-115 describes the paper that Golitsis cites as “a less objectionable account.”

7. Golitsis plans to publish translations of the Corollaria mentioned above, and the Simplician polemic against Philoponus’ Contra Aristotelem‘; see 4 n. 4.

8. See L.P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca, 2005), reviewed at BMCR 2005.11.17 and G.E. Karamanolis, Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle from Antochus to Porphyry (Oxford, 2006), reviewed at BMCR 2007.05.36.

9. R. Sorabji (ed.), The Philosophy of the Commentators 200-600 A.D.: a sourcebook (London, 2004), vol. 3, 37-40 has only a few texts on harmonization in a section on methodology in a volume on logic, none of them the Simplician texts discussed by Golitsis. Baltussen (note 1) addresses harmonization at various places in his book, and in an appendix (218-220) lists instances in Simplicius’ commentaries of the term sumphônia in a lexicographical exercise that picks up only one case from the Physics commentary that coincides with one of the texts discussed by Golitsis.

10. Sorabji, The Philosophy of the Commentators (preceding note), 10.

11. See 196-197 where Philoponus is said not to have replicated Simplicius’ engagement with harmonization and religion but to have developed the criticisms of Aristotle that led to his theories of impetus and place by relying on a purely philosophical truth, founded on experience of things themselves (“une vérité purement philosophique, fondée sur l’expérience des choses elles-mêmes”), which could be taken to imply Philoponus’ philosophical superiority to Simplicius. See further Wildberg (note 6), 120-121, and idem Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.