BMCR 2019.01.11

Elias and David: ‘Introductions to Philosophy’ with Olympiodorus: ‘Introduction to Logic’. Ancient Commentators on Aristotle

, Elias and David: 'Introductions to Philosophy' with Olympiodorus: 'Introduction to Logic'. Ancient Commentators on Aristotle. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. viii, 257. ISBN 9781350051744. £85.00.


At least some readers of BMCR have at some point taught a class with a title like ‘Introduction to Philosophy.’ Suppose that a record of your lectures were to survive for 1500 years. What conclusions about twenty-first century philosophers’ understanding of the nature of their discipline would scholars in the far future draw on the basis of these materials?

The question of what philosophy is and how it differs from other intellectual pursuits is a philosophical question that is as old as western philosophy itself. Plato’s Socratic dialogues depict the philosopher contrasted with sophists, rhapsodes and religious experts like Euthyphro, while texts like Book V of the Republic or the opening chapters of Aristotle’s Metaphysics develop arguments to distinguish philosophy from other bodies of knowledge or belief.

The texts translated in this volume provide a classroom presentation of the synthesis of previous reflections on the nature of philosophy from the sixth-century Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. A superficial reading of the works conveys a sense of arid scholasticism. ‘This,’ the texts seem to say, ‘is the truth handed down from ancient authorities. Memorise it and you will know what philosophy is.’ But a more carefully contextualised and imaginative reading undermines this initial impression, for it is clear that these were lectures delivered in a classroom setting. If we supplement the text with contextual information about the audience and the place of philosophy within the broader course of elite education in the late Roman empire, we can begin to construct some hypotheses about the practice of living philosophically in this period. We know that the lectures on which these texts were based were part of a project in living philosophically, for the texts tell us that philosophy is—in one sense— becoming like god insofar as this is possible. I think most people who teach a class called Introduction to Philosophy hope that students will emerge from the experience changed. Though of course we cannot put this in the unit’s learning objectives—objectives that must be couched in the language of Bloom’s taxonomy lest your unit outline draw the ire of the university’s learning-and-teaching experts!—most of us hope that the experience of being introduced to philosophy will be at least mildly transformative. The teachers of the Alexandrine school had much higher and more explicit ambitions with their introduction to philosophy. It behoves us to look carefully at what they said and to ask ourselves what kind of transformation we seek to bring about in our students. If we cannot take seriously the idea that the study of philosophy holds the potential to divinise the person who studies it, do we nonetheless aspire to a more secular version of ‘becoming like god’?

Sebastian Gertz provides careful translations of three short, related works from three authors. Elias’ Introduction to Philosophy forms the first part of a larger Commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge. (Porphyry’s Isagoge was itself, of course, an introduction to Aristotle’s Categories which was, in turn, the starting point for the study of philosophy in the Neoplatonic curriculum.) The Greek text that Gertz translates appears in Volume 18.1 of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, edited by Busse (1900). The second work is attributed to David and is similarly entitled Introduction to Philosophy. There is also a Commentary on the Isagoge under David’s name and it too appears in Volume 18.2 of the CAG, edited by Busse in 1904. Finally, Gertz translates Olympiodorus’ Introduction to Logic, which appears as the first part of the latter’s Categories Commentary (CAG 12.1, again edited by Busse, in 1902).

Gertz’s fourteen-page introduction quickly summarises just how little we know about Elias and David. While their names suggest Christian authors, Gertz is properly agnostic on this question. The evidence from the text itself is hardly conclusive. It is true that there is a reference in Elias’ Introduction to Bishop Synesius, but this occurs as a somewhat gratuitous example at the end of a section and could easily have been the insertion of a later scribe. The situation with David is complicated by the presence of Armenian texts attributed to ‘David the Invincible’ that strongly resemble the Introduction of our Greek David. With Olympiodorus, we are at least on somewhat firmer biographical ground. He was clearly a pagan professor who flourished ca. 500-570 and it may be possible that much of the content of his now lost Isagoge Commentary is reflected in the Introductions attributed to Elias and David. Olympiodorus’ surviving text is much more narrowly circumscribed and focuses specifically on Aristotle’s logic rather than attempting to introduce philosophy as a whole. At the end of the introduction, Gertz provides a useful breakdown of topics by chapter in all three works.

Notes on the text are limited by the size that Bloomsbury now imposes on the Ancient Commentators series and the goal of presenting these three closely related works in one volume. As is usual with the series, we have endnotes, but these follow the translation of each text. There are 29 pages of notes in the 257-page book. Each work also receives its own English to Greek glossary and Greek word index. While this makes it easy to track usage in individual authors, it makes it harder to identify parallel passages in Elias and David. I found myself more interested in the latter than the former, but I suspect that there was no single, right decision to make about indexing this volume. More questionable perhaps is the decision to provide separate subject and name indexes for each work (even though all three indexes are placed at the end of the volume).

Gertz’s translation is largely plain and unadorned, but the texts of Elias, David and Olympiodorus is largely plain and unadorned too. There are some striking turns of phrase here and there, but the works are dominated by their introductory teaching purpose. Where our authors do strive to honour the Muses, Gertz similarly rises to the occasion. David’s opening exhortation to philosophy is one such spot. For εἰς τὸν ἀγῶνα, Gertz has wise love ‘driving us into this arena’ rather than a more literal alternative. He follows this in the next line with ‘the divine strife of philosophy’ for τὸν τῆς φιλοσοφίας θεῖον ἀγῶνα, showing that he is not committed to slavish consistency and can capture the feeling of the thing in ordinary English. A few lines later we have ‘a kind of sober madness’ for σωφρονί τινι μανία, which is certainly fine, but rather misses the connection to the Phaedrus and conceals the radical nature of the juxtaposition in ways that ‘sane madness’ or ‘healthy insanity’ might not. Gertz also misses a few other allusions to Plato’s texts. Hence Elias ranks the sixth, etymological definition of philosophy (as love of wisdom) last since it concerns merely words and not reality. Philosophy, by contrast, is περὶ τὰ ὄντα ἐπτοημένης — ‘excited by reality’ in Gertz’s translation. But the middle/passive of πτοέω finds only three occurrences in Plato and in all of them it is the soul that is concerned with the body that suffers this unwholesome obsession ( Phd. 68c, 108b and Rep. 439d). So there is a contrast being drawn here between what ‘turns on’ philosophers and what turns ordinary people on. Perhaps his could have been highlighted by more careful word choice. If not the colloquial ‘turned on’, then perhaps ‘aroused’. The commentators know the texts of Plato and Aristotle backwards and forwards. (Note Olympiodorus’ similar echo of Phd. 108b at In Alc. 5.5.) Their works are suffused with such allusions and to try to gauge their impact in the teaching context in which they originated, it is necessary to mark the verbal echoes, especially to Plato.

Textual emendations are generally conservative and often take up suggestions offered by Busse himself in the critical apparatus or have been suggested in the secondary literature on these works. I did not survey them all, but the few I selected at random seem to me to be well motivated.

Anyone who is working on late-antique Platonism will certainly want to possess this valuable addition to the Ancient Commentators series. While parts of each introduction have been highlighted in discussions of the nature and purpose of studying Plato and Aristotle in the Neoplatonic schools, there is no substitute for consuming these works in their entirety. Taken collectively, they should prompt us to consider what we ourselves take philosophy to be and how this self-conception is reflected in the way in which we introduce students to it. In particular, these works should make us reflect on the extent to which we take philosophy to be an intellectual pursuit that is transformative (as opposed to merely informative). If you find yourself becoming exasperated by the gymnastics our authors undertake in order to make everything fit neatly, then this should lead you to reflect upon the difference between the magpie-like character of late antique paideia and the contemporary practice of teaching the way in which the advance of knowledge makes the authority of the past tentative. Gertz’s clear translation now makes this reflective task an easy matter. There is far more that could be said about these works, and if Gertz’s introduction fails to say as much as one would like, this is likely to be a limitation of the publisher’s guidelines, not the author’s capability. I suspect he has said as much to illuminate these texts as he can, given the length of the books in this series. I hope that we will hear more on the subject from this talented young scholar in the future.