BMCR 2020.06.19

Themistius’ paraphrase of Aristotle’s Metaphysics 12: a critical Hebrew-Arabic edition of the surviving textual evidence

Meyrav Yoav, Themistius' paraphrase of Aristotle's Metaphysics 12: a critical Hebrew-Arabic edition of the surviving textual evidence, with an introduction, preliminary studies, and a commentary. Aristoteles semitico-latinus, volume 25. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xvii, 650 p.. ISBN 9789004400436 €129,00.

Themistius’ paraphrase of Aristotle’s Metaphysics 12 is, as Meyrav aptly puts it, a book about a book that survives in a translation of a translation. The Greek original is lost, some fragments of the Arabic translation exist, but the complete text is found only in a Hebrew translation made from the Arabic. The Hebrew was then translated into Latin, affording us another version removed one more step from the original. Themistius was an important philosopher, and his choice to produce a paraphrasis indicates that he had an agenda of his own that he wished to get across while assuming the voice of Aristotle. The Hebrew and Latin versions have been accessible for over a century, having been edited by Samuel Landauer in 1903. Oddly enough, the attention that this text has received has been largely limited to its possible use for alleviating textual problems in the Metaphysics—despite the surviving version’s being removed by two languages, many centuries, and several cataclysmic cultural shifts from the original.

Yoav Meyrav’s publication is a stunningly impressive work of scholarship. He has produced a meticulous edition of the text, scrutinizing the available Hebrew and Arabic sources, and sorting them out according to their distance from the original—translation, revised translation, abridgment. However, there is much more here than philology—Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek—as well as a significant contribution to translation studies. Meyrav takes responsibility for advancing the appreciation of the philosophical content of the paraphrase. Moreover, given that the Greek original is lost, he senses and meets an obligation to classicists to squeeze what he can from the text that is relevant to their discipline, notably regarding the genre of the paraphrase.

The paraphrase was at first an exercise used to train future rhetoricians. Themistius played the key role in transforming the paraphrase into a literary genre. In a funeral oration for his father and teacher, Themistius notes that Aristotle, after discovering and cultivating wisdom, then “concealed [it] in darkness and wrapped [it] in abstruseness” (p. 119). The paraphrase served to illuminate what Aristotle had obscured, but along the way, the paraphrast would intervene with insights, additions, and other tweaks of his own, producing a work that was as much an interpretation as a study of Aristotle and significantly longer; the paraphrase of Book XII is about three times longer than Aristotle’s text (p. 124 n. 36). The alterations introduced by the paraphrase are the modes of syntax, addition, subtraction, and substitution, listed by Theon (see pp. 120-2), to which Meyrav adds several more. Some twenty pages are given over to detailed examples of these procedures.

Shlomo Pines, in a paper published in 1987, was responsible for the first breakthrough in appreciating the significance of Themistius’ paraphrase for the history of philosophy.[1] Expanding upon Aristotle’s laconic remarks about the deity’s self-intelligizing, Themistius devises “an ontological link between God and the rest of existents” and “an epistemic link” which transforms “God’s self-intelligizing into the intelligizing of all the existents” (p. 11). I think it fair to say that Themistius was responsible for pushing discussion of the supreme being from metaphysics into theology, or the “divine science” of the medieval Muslims and Jews. Themistius impacted upon major thinkers such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198), Maimonides (1134-1204), and especially Levi ben Gerson (Gersonides, 1288-1344), who expanded upon Themistius’s idea that the deity is in some sense the “nomos” of the universe. That idea carried on for centuries within Jewish thought, notably in the writings of Maharal of Prague (1520-1609).

Theology, or at least, philosophical stances that bear heavily on theology, intervene particularly in the third chapter of Metaphysics XII. Aristotle merely suggests that the intellect may endure without a material substrate; Themistius is “emphatic about the soul and intellect existing apart” (p. 364). In an appendix to this chapter Themistius scrutinizes Aristotle’s critique of the Platonic Ideas. While he does not endorse a return to Plato, Themistius does argue “that Aristotle’s biology cannot account for coming to be without appealing to a superior active agent, hence constituting formal continuity between the realm of nature and the metaphysical realm” (p. 366). The influence of this posture on Gersonides (1288-1344) is taken up earlier (pp. 103-5). Despite the overwhelming dominance of Aristotelianism, the Platonic ideas were never fully removed from the agenda of medieval philosophers; Meyrav’s study should prove helpful in the study of the relevant texts.[2]

Meyrav has not simply updated Landauer’s “semi-critical” edition of the Hebrew. He has utilized vestiges of the Arabic translation that have since come to light. The most important of these are: (1) a fragment of the beginning of the full and direct Arabic translation, preserved in a manuscript at Damascus; (2) substantial borrowings found in a work on metaphysics by ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (1162-1231); (3) an abridgement of three chapters found in a Cairo manuscript. Meyrav has studied all of these, sniffing out their individual agendas. For example, the abridger shows considerable skill in producing “a condensed text almost free from passing comments, examples, or repetition … also self-sufficient, as all the references to earlier discussions are removed” (p. 54). The same abridgement displays a specific philosophical agenda, focusing on God’s being an immovable, eternal substance, the primary object of desire, the efficient cause of the world, and more in this vein. On a case-by-case basis, Meyrav applies these insights in order to evaluate the value of these remnants for his edition, as well, of course, as their importance for assessing Themistius’ footprint on the medieval philosophical tradition.

Like the other sections of this masterful work, the commentary is specially designed for the unique features of this work, meticulously planned and expertly carried out. It is organized by the chapters in Aristotle. Each chapter is provided with a succinct and, to the extent that this is possible, non-controversial summation of what Aristotle says, a systematic account of Themistius’ presentation, including his use of addition, subtraction, and other paraphrastic tools; Themistius’ account is analyzed both in its relation to Aristotle’s text and to Themistius’ own philosophical agenda. Next come notes on the available sources in Hebrew and Arabic, and, where appropriate, all modern translations: Remy Brague’s French version of the entire text, and a variety of selected passages that are translated in the secondary literature. Finally, there is a running commentary on specific passages where Meyrav addresses “anything within the range of explaining transmission difficulties to reflecting on arguments and sources” (p. 325).

In the notes on translation Meyrav truly displays his proficiency, which is not limited to the languages (no mean accomplishment in itself), but extends to specific usages on the part of the writers that he is studying. For example, he will suggest the likely Greek term in the paraphrase of the Metaphysics on the basis of extant writings by Themistius, or remark upon Ibn Tibbon’s translation strategy of distinguishing in Hebrew between the identical Arabic forms for the comparative and the superlative.

I have only a few criticisms to offer. Perhaps the most serious concerns the way Meyrav marks the text for reference. The Bekker numbers are provided to the left of the text, but they are not all that helpful in locating passages when Themistius expands on the text. The paraphrase is not divided into chapters; Meyrav conveniently makes such a division in his commentary; it would have been helpful to mark them in the text as well. The indexing using a combination of numbers and Hebrew letters is simply not user-friendly, especially in the very thorough and helpful lexicons. I believe that in the projected English translation and perhaps a second printing of the edition, Meyrav should simply refer to page and line numbers in his edition, which will certainly become the academic standard, if it is not already.

Occasionally the English that is placed beneath the Greek text does not adhere to the original, notably on p. 85, where the word “God” appears three times in the English but not once in the Greek, nor for that matter in the Arabic and Hebrew comparanda. Given Meyrav’s telling point about the paraphrase edging the Metaphysics into theology, this point should not have gone unnoticed. Finally, the treatise of Ibn Waqar, which preserves part of yet another indirect source of Themistius (p. 18) has been published by Paul Fenton, “R. Joseph Ibn Waqar Sefer Shoreshei ha-Qabbalah: A Kabbalistic Lexicon,” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 4 (1999): 141-254.

I have also one suggestion to offer. In the substitution displayed on p. 143, Aristotle’s “For none of the elements can be the same as that which is composed of elements, e.g., b or a cannot be the same as ba” is replaced by “but the elements are prior to and more simple than the things that are composed of them, just as the letters are prior to the word”. I wonder if this substitution may be in part due the Semitic translators, for whom “ba” is not usually the combination of two letters but rather a single vocalized consonant. Hence, they chose to translate stoikheios first as “element” and then as “letter”.

To sum up, this is a masterful piece of work; it is daunting to think that it is a revision of a doctoral thesis submitted in 2017. Already at the beginning of his career, Meyrav has set an academic standard.


[1] “Some Distinctive Metaphysical Conceptions in Themistius’ Commentary on Book Lambda and Their Place in the History of Philosophy,” in J. Wiesner (ed.), Aristoteles, Werk und Wirkung (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 177-204.

[2] The Arabic texts have been closely studied by Rudiger Arnzen in Platonische Ideen in der arabischen Philosophie (Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 2011); Themistius is mentioned there only once. Interest in the Platonic Ideas extended to the kalam as well; there is an as yet unstudied disquisition in the Mulakhkhas of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi that I have been looking at.