BMCR 2016.02.12

Aristotle’s Categories in the Early Roman Empire. Oxford classical monographs

, Aristotle's Categories in the Early Roman Empire. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xii, 283. ISBN 9780198724735. $90.00.


The present work arises from a dissertation conducted at Oxford under Tobias Reinhardt, himself the author of a most useful edition of Cicero’s Topica, and of various essays on kindred subjects. Griffin himself has since attained distinction as Richard Sorabji’s right-hand man at the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle Project, and editor of a number of volumes in that series. Here he is putting his expertise to good use in providing a comprehensive survey of the fortunes of Aristotle’s Categories in the first two centuries of its life as the work that we all know and love—that is, as the first item in the Organon, at the head of the definitive collection and edition of Aristotle’s ‘esoteric’ works, undertaken by Andronicus of Rhodes in the mid-first century BCE. Indeed, it may be said that this whole work is based on the discerning excavation and analysis of material derived, primarily, from the vast commentary of Simplicius on the Categories —himself much dependent on Porphyry—but also, to a lesser extent, on the short commentaries of Porphyry himself and Dexippus, as well the later commentators Philoponus, Elias and (in Latin) Boethius.

The main problems concerning the Categories, as we know, are, first, the coherence of the work (particularly that of the Post-Praedicamenta with the rest, but also of the introductory chapters with what follows them); secondly, the subject-matter, or skopos : words, things, or words insofar as they refer to things; and thirdly, whether the list of ‘categories’, or predications, are redundant or deficient. All these questions are addressed, in one way or another, by the various figures dealt with in this work, and on all of them, in consequence, Griffin has much of interest to say.

After an Introduction, setting out his purposes and procedure, as well as surveying the structure of the Categories, the book is divided into seven chapters, arranged in three large parts: (A) Rediscovery and Endorsement: Andronicus and Eudorus; (B) Early Criticism: Platonists and Stoics; and (C) Peripatetic Synthesis and Response—dealing chiefly with Boethus of Sidon. The work is rounded off with three appendices, covering respectively ‘Persons and Sources’, ‘Andronicus’ Publication [sc. of the Aristotelian corpus] and Works’, and ‘An Outline of Aristotle’s Categories ’. I will survey these in turn.

The work known to us as the Categories, despite its familiarity, is in fact a very peculiar document. I was first alerted to the full measure of this by conversations with Michael Frede in Berkeley back in the 1970s,1 but Griffin’s chapter on Andronicus accentuates this oddness even further. It was probably Andronicus who gave the work its present title (as opposed to Pro tôn Top(ik)ôn, ‘Introduction to the Topics ’), as well as its situation at the head of the so-called Organon, and who makes the first effort to define its proper subject-matter. The question is a murky one, as Griffin fully recognises, but it would seem that, prior to Andronicus, the work was regarded rather as an introduction to the theory and practice of rhetoric than to logic. As he shows, Andronicus took the work as being designed to correct and refine our ‘preconceptions’, prolêpseis, in the area of logic. Griffin addresses such thorny issues as Andronicus’ relating of the Aristotelian categories to the Old Academic distinction of ‘absolute’ from ‘relative’ entities (pp. 50-4), his relation to Boethus of Sidon (probably his student), and to earlier Stoic logicians.

In Ch. 3, Griffin turns to consider the intriguing figure of Eudorus of Alexandria, who may or may not be independent of Andronicus, being more or less his contemporary. Griffin is inclined to postulate his independence, as Eudorus approaches the work from quite a different perspective, criticizing it as a (thoroughly inadequate) account of the whole of reality, intelligible as well as physical, but the difficulty there is that Eudorus does seem to be treating the work as ‘the Categories ’, and as being in the place that Andronicus assigned it to, so I would suggest rather that Eudorus is benefiting from the production of Andronicus’ edition, while composing his commentary independently of that of Andronicus. The same problem arises with Pseudo-Archytas, who seems best taken as dependent on Eudorus, but not on Andronicus, in his assumption that the Categories is a work of ontology. At any rate, Griffin lays out the evidence most usefully.

Following on this, in Ch. 4, he turns to the even more mysterious figure of ‘Lucius’, a Pythagorean, or Pythagoreanizing Platonist, and, following him, the second-century CE Claudius Nicostratus, the two being firmly linked together in later doxographies. Since Lucius’ criticisms are plainly being countered by Boethus, Griffin quite rightly rejects my suggestion that he might be identifiable with a Pythagorean ‘of the strict observance’ whom Plutarch met in Rome at the end of the first century CE. He must in fact be an approximate contemporary of Eudorus. Once again, it seems to me improbable that Lucius would date to a time before Andronicus’ edition, as he seems to be criticizing the work as assigned to its present place in the corpus.

Griffin makes a gallant effort to distinguish the positions of Lucius and Nicostratus, who are almost universally linked closely by later sources such as Simplicius, but in truth there is not much blue water visible between them. Lucius seems to have criticized Aristotle, on the assumption that the Categories is concerned with ontology, primarily for presenting an inadequate and incomplete account of reality, omitting such basic entities as the One, the Monad, or Intelligible Number. Nicostratus follows him in this, but seems to be more concerned than Lucius with the rhetorical coherence and internal consistency of the work, which he finds wanting.

Griffin turns next, in Ch. 5, to the Stoic critics of the Categories, Athenodorus of Tarsus (probably mid-first century BCE), and L. Annaeus Cornutus, the mid-first century CE tutor both of the poet of Persius and the Emperor Nero. Both these criticize the work from the perspective of Stoic logic, but Athenodorus seems to have taken its subject-matter to be words ( lexeis), rather than things, and to have complained that Aristotle omitted such items as articles and conjunctions, while Cornutus, taking the subject-matter to be rather ‘sayables’ ( lekta), finds comparable gaps in its coverage of them. Griffin shows how such misguided criticisms serve to provoke a sophisticated defence by Porphyry (relayed by Simplicius), which greatly contributes to establishing what the Categories is really about.

In the third part of the work, Griffin turns first (Ch. 6) to a study of the Peripatetic Boethus of Sidon, who comes across as the key figure of the period as regards the definition of what the Categories is about—‘words qua significant of beings’, those beings being sensible, not intelligible—and the refutation of critics, both Platonist-Pythagorean and Stoic. Simplicius tells us that he composed a line-by-line commentary on the work, but also dealt specifically with all aporiai that had been raised against it, thus laying the foundation for the later Neoplatonic tradition of commentary (as well, no doubt, as that of Alexander of Aphrodisias, which has been lost). A final short chapter covers the immediate predecessors of Alexander, such as Aspasius and Herminus.

All in all, this fine work provides an excellent overview of the first generations of exegesis and commentary on the Categories, a period previously—despite the fine work of such figures as Paul Moraux and, more recently, Jonathan Barnes, Riccardo Chiaradonna, and Marwan Rashed—sunk in obscurity. Not all of the obscurity can be lifted, admittedly, by reason of the nature of the evidence, but for his fine effort to do so Michael Griffin has put all of ancient philosophy in his debt. ​


1. Subsequently given permanent form in a very Fredean essay, ‘The Title, Unity and Authenticity of the Aristotelian Categories ’ reprinted in English translation in his Essays in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford, 1987), and given due recognition here by Griffin.