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Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient…

Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence

by Richard Sorabji (Editor)

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Aristotle & Plato: Harmonization, Transformation, and Transmission, June 3, 2006

This is a first rate collection of essays dating from 1990. It was edited by Richard Sorabji, who has worked tirelessly to bring the English-speaking world ancient philosophical texts. His work as founder and director of the international 'Ancient Commentators on Aristotle' project has been outstanding. This project is devoted to the publication of translations of philosophical texts from the period 200-600 AD, and besides being of great philosophical importance in their own right, these texts formed the necessary bridge between ancient philosophy and later thought both in Medieval Islam and in the Latin-speaking West. ...We are all in Professor Sorabji's debt.

I now list the Table of Contents both because it isn't listed here on Amazon (except inside the 'Search Inside this Book' feature which doesn't always work) but also because it really is an exceptional collection of essays and scholars.

Preface vii
Acknowledgments ix
List of contributors x
The ancient commentators on Aristotle 1 (30) Richard Sorabji;
Review of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca 31 (24) Karl Praechter;
The earliest Aristotelian commentators 55 (28) Hans B. Gottschalk;
The school of Alexander? 83 (30) Robert W. Sharples;
Themistius: the last Peripatetic commentator on Aristotle? 113 (12) Henry J. Blumenthal;
The harmony of Plotinus and Aristotle according to Porphyry 125 (16) Pierre Hadot;
Porphyry's legacy to logic: a reconstruction 141 (32) Sten Ebbesen;
How did Syrianus regard Aristotle? 173 (8) H.D. Saffrey;
Infinite power impressed: the transformation of Aristotle's physics and theology 181 (18) Richard Sorabji;
The metaphysics of Ammonius son of Hermeias 199 (34) Koenraad Verrycke;
The development of Philoponus' thought and its chronology 233 (42) Koenraad Verrycken;
The life and work of Simplicius in Greek and Arabic sources 275 (30) Ilsetraut Hadot;
Neoplatonic elements in the de Anima commentaries 305 (20) Henry J. Blumenthal;
The Alexandrian commentators and the introductions to their commentaries 325 (24) L.G. Westerink;
Boethius' commentaries on Aristotle 349 (24) James Shiel;
Boethius as an Aristotelian commentator 373 (20) Sten Ebbesen;
An unpublished funeral oration on Anna Comnena 393 (14) Robert Browning;
The Greek commentators on Aristotle's Ethics 407 (38) H.P.F. Mercken;
Philoponus, `Alexander' and the origins of medieval logic 445 (18) Sten Ebbesen;
Aristotle's doctrine of abstraction in the commentators 463 (18) Ian Mueller;
Note on the frontispiece: `Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias' by Ulocrino 481(4) Donald R. Morrison;
Select bibliography 485 (40)
Index locorum 525 (10)
General index 535

All of these articles are good, indeed, most are outstanding. Of course, the first essay by Sorabji gets the ball rolling and must not be missed. Much, if not all, of the period covered here can perhaps best be characterized as the attempt to harmonize the works of Plato and Aristotle. Of this Harmonization Sorabji justly, in my opinion, remarks that, "[n]ot for the only time in the history of philosophy (the condemnation of the 219 propositions in 1277 provides another example), a perfectly crazy position (harmony) proves philosophically fruitful. To establish the harmony of Plato and Aristotle, philosophers had to think up new ideas, and the result was an amalgam different from either of the two original philosophies."

Thus harmonization entails transformation. We must keep in mind, btw, that what we read of Aristotle today is not what was read in the classical period. Indeed, as informed a reader as Cicero (in his Topics, ch. 3) could remark that while he was familiar with Aristotle's dialogues(!), his knowledge did not extend much beyond that. Of course, for us, the situation is exactly the reverse. We do not today possess the dialogues of Aristotle but we do posses the so-called pragmateiai or school-treatises. Andronicus of Rhodes began his great edition of Aristotle (mid 1st century BC) in either Athens or Rome, and it is on this edition that all modern editions are based. Andronicus, for whatever reasons, elected not to include the (then well-known) dialogues of Aristotle in his edition.

One wonders if this fact, which Sorabji, of course, is perfectly aware, explains why harmonization was a living possibility for the ancients but not for us. They possessed dialogues of Aristotle and, most probably, 'school-treatises' (perhaps pseudo-treatises) from Plato's Academy of which we today know nothing. In other words, since both Plato & Aristotle would have had both cautiously-written dialogues and 'incautious' school-treatises harmonization might have seemed obvious to the ancients. But this possibility, even if true, seems to be largely irrelevant because the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic commentaries we have today were (virtually all) written on texts we possess today.

But even in antiquity there were problems with any attempted harmonization. For instance Plotinus, who for us is the originator of what we call neoplatonism (Plotinus thought of himself as a Platonist), was very critical of Aristotle's Categories. But his great student, Porphyry, argued that the 'Categories' was not about things, it was about words! And since words, of course, refer primarily to things (not Platonic Ideas) the interaction of the two schools of thought (Aristotelian and neo-Platonic) could fruitfully continue.

The essays in this volume cover not only neoplatonists like Porphyry but also Aristotelians like Alexander of Aphrodisias. Indeed, his contribution was so strong that he was to the later empire what Averroes was to the later medieval period - the Aristotelian Commentator par excellence. Unfortunately, he seems to have left no school, so the 'harmonization', in effect, became (in the Period covered in this book) a mostly neo-platonic affair. But we should keep in mind that the Aristotelians will make quite a comeback in the Middle Ages with the likes of Averroes, Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas.

But that is for another book review. I want to now briefly mention an article that was extremely important to me; I. Hadot's essay on Simplicius. What I especially found fascinating in this article is the summarization of Michel Tardieu's supposition that the closing of the Athenian (Neoplatonic) School (in 529) and subsequent exile of Simplicius, Damascius and the rest inaugurated a school-tradition that ends with al-Farabi.

Tardieu, as summarized by I. Hadot, argues that after a stay in Persia, in which they enjoyed the protection of the Persian King, our exiled philosophers indeed returned to Byzantium, but only to a town, Harran, that was then very near the border. Thus if the Emperor handed down another edict the philosophers could skedaddle back across the border. Harran, of course, is famous as the home of one of the 'peoples of the book' (referred to in the Koran) - the Sabians.

Unfortunately, there isn't space (here at Amazon) to summarize I. Hadot's summary (p. 280 - 289) of Tardieu. But if you are interested in the transmission of philosophy through the ages you really must read this article.

This is superior collection of essays with a bibliography of 40 pages. It is shameful that there is no paperback edition. ( )
  pomonomo2003 | Nov 30, 2006 |
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