BMCR 2011.10.35

Gloses et commentaire du livre XI du Contra Proclum de Jean Philopon. Autour de la Matière première du monde. Philosophia antiqua 125

, Gloses et commentaire du livre XI du Contra Proclum de Jean Philopon. Autour de la Matière première du monde. Philosophia antiqua 125. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011. viii, 236. ISBN 9789004202467. $141.00.

At least according to the Christians, the Platonic philosopher Proclus (412–485) wrote eighteen arguments in order to oppose the Christian doctrine of the creation of the world. These arguments are only known to us through a polemical work by Philoponus (ca.485/90–ca.570), who cites them in extenso before proceeding to their refutation. Pascal Mueller-Jourdan deals in his study with Philoponus’ refutation of Proclus’ eleventh argument ( De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum [henceforth CP ], 405.1-465.22 Rabe), which seeks to prove that matter is ungenerated and imperishable. Before addressing the argument (chs. 9-15), Philoponus sets out his own view of what (prime) matter is, namely qualityless body or unqualified tridimensional extension (which traditional philosophers held to be the second substratum of sensible forms). He supports his position by refuting the traditional view of prime matter as absolutely incorporeal, that is, as matter devoid of any sort of form (chs. 1-8). Mueller-Jourdan doubts that Proclus’ own doctrine is refuted here (see esp. 34-35) and speculates as to possible motives behind the Philoponan work. It is clear, however, that Philoponus took Proclus to be a traditionalist, for he states at the end of ch. 8 that it might now seem superfluous to refute Proclus’ argument, since the doctrine of incorporeal matter has been overall refuted. In general, Mueller-Jourdan’s book contains a great deal of speculation and is not entirely free from apparent contradiction. In what follows, I will present and assess what I take to be his four central theses.

The book begins with an introduction (chs. 1-2), in which Mueller-Jourdan presents his view of the ‘Sitz im Leben’ (7-23) and of the theoretical background to Philoponus’ polemical treatise (25-46). Chapter 3 provides a French translation and commentary (47-214), presented in alternating sequence. A conclusion (215-218), a bibliography (219-226) and two indexes of loci and verba (227-236) bring the book to an end.

According to Mueller-Jourdan (19), Proclus’ arguments in favor of the eternity of the world were probably a ‘dossier’, i.e. a collection of theses to be discussed in class – this hypothesis was previously advanced by Clemens Scholten,1 although Mueller-Jourdan does not acknowledge it. Mueller-Jourdan takes the hypothesis further and argues that CP could be the report of a disputatio on Proclus’ arguments, one that took place at Ammonius’ School, such that the contribution by Philoponus is largely one of systematization (see 8; 19; 20). Two objections, a historical and a textual one, can be raised against this hypothesis: First, the CP is dated with certainty to 529, while Ammonius was most probably dead by 517. Why then did it take Philoponus so long to act as the reportator of his teacher’s activities? Secondly, and more importantly, the CP exhibits a personal style of composition, attested to by the frequent use of strong verbs in first person singular (e.g. 407.21-23: ὅπερ καὶ ἔμπροσθεν ποιήσειν…ἐπηγγειλάμην, 410.15-16: ὃ δὲ λέγω, δι᾿ὑποδείγματος ποιήσω φανερόν etc.). Simplicius, a contemporary of Philoponus and a former student of Ammonius, shared precisely this view of the Philoponan oeuvre, taking it to be an attack by Philoponus against philosophical Hellenism. Mueller-Jourdan is content to defend his thesis by referring (18; 22) to a discussion in Zacharias of Mytilene’s Ammonius, or, on the Creation of the world. He does not consider, however, the ‘Sitz im Leben’ of the bishop of Mytilene’s dialogue, and so he perilously treats as a historical report what is otherwise known to be an apologetic work (elsewhere [43], Mueller-Jourdan himself recognizes its apologetic scope). At any rate, it is hard to imagine that Ammonius stood ‘more voiceless than stones and fishes’ before his Christian student’s arguments,2 as Zacharias would have us believe. Moreover, one should not exclude the possibility that the discussion Zacharias gives on matter is dependent upon Philoponus; indeed, some similarities in the vocabulary suggest this.3

Mueller-Jourdan further hypothesizes as to a ‘Quaestio disputata’ in the circle of Ammonius (16-23), that is, a question presented for debate by Ammonius and which divided his students into two camps: first, those who, like Philoponus, endorsed the view of prime matter as qualityless body, and second, those who claimed that matter is incorporeal. According to Mueller-Jourdan, this dispute in turn likely traces back to a debate between Proclus’ students at Athens (20; see also 34). Here again, Mueller-Jourdan provides no compelling evidence. He appeals to the words of Simplicius, taking them purely at face value and out of historical context. Simplicius, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (233.2), refutes what he calls the ‘dominant conception of matter’ (ἡ κρατοῦσα περὶ τῆς ὕλης ἔννοια) as qualityless body, a conception that, earlier in the Commentary (227.23-26), he ascribes to the Stoics and to Pericles of Lydia, whom we know to have been a student of Proclus. According to Mueller-Jourdan, it must have been Pericles’ view that enjoyed ‘great popularity’ (20) among Ammonius’ students at Alexandria. But if so, it is hard to explain how such a popular view left no traces in the Alexandrian philosophical literature other than those we supposedly find in CP. It is also hard to see why Philoponus, or even his colleagues at the debate stage, while they referred to the Stoics, did not mention Pericles by name, were they indeed aware of his doctrine. In fact, our only testimony of Pericles’ doctrine is provided by the Athenian Simplicius, who wrote his commentary in the 530’s, probably while in exile in the Middle East, and so he could hardly have been well informed as to what was being debated on in Alexandrian classrooms at the time. The fact that Simplicius refers to the identification of matter and qualityless body as the κρατοῦσα ἔννοια is best explained on other grounds: As often in Athenian Neoplatonist literature,4 κρατέω and its derivatives are used to describe, in a codified way, the Christian authority and anything related to the dominant Christian religion. In his Commentary on Aristotle’s De caelo (135.26-136.2), written shortly before his Commentary on the Physics, Simplicius refers explicitly to Philoponus’ ‘audacious’ doctrine of prime matter as qualityless body in CP; it is reasonable to assume that in his later work he decided to put forward a refutation of what he had earlier felt was another Christian attack on philosophical Hellenism.

The introduction is further handicapped, as is the whole book, by Mueller-Jourdan’s assumption that some scholars erroneously view the Philoponan doctrine on prime matter as characteristically Christian. Although I am not sure what ‘characteristically’ means in this context, I do not think that such a view has ever been defended in the scholarly literature.5 At any rate, Mueller-Jourdan is content to dismiss Philoponus’ Christianity as irrelevant to his doctrine of prime matter on the basis that no scriptural or patristic text seems to have preceded it (18) and since Philoponus himself did not have any recourse to Christian theological presuppositions (217). This cursory treatment prevents him from providing a more in depth analysis of the hermeneutical principles underwriting Philoponus’ philosophical commitments. There are at least three ways in which Christian affiliation can be said to have an impact on a late antique thinker: a) it leads to a defense of a professed Christian doctrine by way of scriptural, rhetorical or philosophical means; this is what Christian apologists usually do, and this is certainly not what Philoponus does in CP; b) it launches a Christianizing appropriation of (a part of) Hellenic philosophy, so that Christian truth can be established solely by philosophical means and independently of the acceptance of Christian religious dogmas; this is what Philoponus manifestly does in CP, given that he has no recourse to Christian arguments and that he adduces the testimony of Plato’s Timaeus in order to defend the creation of the world; c) further, it enables an unconditioned reading of Hellenic philosophy itself, i.e. unconditioned as to late ‘Hellenic’ premises, such as the respect for philosophical authority, the demand for sumphônia between Plato and Aristotle and the conception of philosophy as playing a role in salvation; the unconditioned nature of Philoponan hermeneutics has been aptly addressed by Christian Wildberg in a ground-breaking article that Mueller-Jourdan does not seem to have taken into account.6 Had he considered cases b) and c), this would have enabled a more profound assessment of Philoponus’ doctrine. Simplicius, for instance, who would have probably classified Philoponus under b), would likely have opposed the Philoponan denial of unformed matter on the grounds that it is impossible for Being to reflect itself as tridimensional extension, since this requires a substratum, namely unformed matter. Philoponus would probably respond that, to use his own words, ‘the idea that first matter must be unformed is a demand, not a proof’ (426.5-6), and that, unless a proof is furnished by its proponents, it will remain ‘a demand which is not proved…, even if a thousand Platos and all the catalogue of ancient philosophers have introduced it’ (445.7-11).

Unfortunately, by disregarding CP as a personal composition, Mueller-Jourdan also fails to comment on an important passage (435.2-7) in which Philoponus states that a philosopher’s theory must be in accordance with the way things empirically are, an epistemological statement that is also found in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 578.11-13. Failing to take any notice of Philoponus’ subversion of late antique thought, Mueller-Jourdan associates the doctrine of generated prime matter in CP to a sort of an ongoing antimanichean project at Ammonius’s school (37-43). He sees Manichean metaphysical dualism, which takes matter to be one of two ungenerated principles, as the target of CP XI, although he admits (26) that Proclus himself would never have accepted any sort of dualism. He nonetheless thinks that Proclus’ denial of the generation of matter could have been appropriated by the Manicheans, who he thinks must have attended Ammonius’ courses (41-42; 196; 214; 217). I see absolutely no reason to accept such an extraordinary reconstruction, and Mueller-Jourdan does not give any, save for one passing reference to the Manicheans in CP XII (cf. 43, n. 87). Why not limit one’s examination to CP XI, where a rather contemptuous reference to the ‘Hellenes’ in 442.2 suggests that Philoponus is lecturing to a Christian audience?

The translation can be said to be the best part of the book, since it provides a fairly accurate text. However, it contains one serious mistake, since it repeatedly renders πεποιωμένα σώματα, i.e. ‘corps qualifiés’ (‘qualified bodies’), as ‘corps créés’ (‘created bodies’), as if Philoponus had spoken of πεποιημένα σώματα. This is a rather significant mistake in the context of a work that views prime matter as unqualified body. The commentary, which is intentionally repetitive (47), mainly attempts to reformulate Philoponus’ thought and arguments in clearer terms.

Mueller-Jourdan’s book seems to have gone to print too hastily. At times it provides helpful information for better understanding Philoponus’ treatise, but the problematic assessment of the secondary literature and the lack of in depth analysis of both the historical and philosophical issues at stake leave it with little to offer as a guide to Philoponus’ thought, and to CP XI more specifically.


1. See C. Scholten, Johannes Philoponos. Über die Ewigkeit der Welt. Turnhout, 2009, 23.

2. Cf. Zacharias Scholasticus, Ammonius sive De mundi opificio disputatio. Patrologia Graeca 85, col. 1109C.

3. Cf. Zacharias, op.cit., 1104B and Philoponus, CP XI, 445.7.

4. Cf. Simplicius, In De caelo, 59.13-15 (referring to Philoponus): …οὐδεὶς μέντοι κακοσχόλως οὕτως εἰς μόνον ἀπέβλεψεν τὸ ἀντιτετάχθαι δοκεῖν τοῖς ἀίδιον τὸν κόσμον ἀποδεικνῦσι διὰ τὰς κρατούσας εὐτελεῖς ἐννοίας περὶ τοῦ τὸν κόσμον δημιουργήσαντος.

5. Mueller-Jourdan persistently speaks against such a view; e.g. (18): “Je ne pense pas et je le redirai à plusieurs reprises que la conception philoponienne de la matière première […] soit caractéristique d’une théologie cosmologique chrétienne…”. It is strange that Mueller-Jourdan credits me with this view; see my comment on the BMCR blog here.

6. C. Wildberg, ‘Impetus Theory and the Hermeneutics of Science in Simplicius and Philoponus’, Hyperboreus 5 (1999), 107-124.