Saturday, January 24, 2009


Cristina D'Ancona Costa (ed.), The Libraries of the Neoplatonists. Proceedings of the Meeting of the European Science Foundation Network "Late Antiquity and Arabic Thought: Patterns in the Constitution of European Culture", Strasbourg, March 12-14, 2004. Philosophia antiqua, v. 107. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. xxxvi, 531. ISBN 9789004156418. $199.00.
Reviewed by Christophe F. Erismann, University of Cambridge (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Neoplatonists held a central role in the transmission and survival of philosophical texts from Greek Antiquity. As interestingly established by Richard Goulet in one of the articles in this book, the texts which are conserved to the present day in direct tradition are those which were read and commented upon in the Neoplatonic school from the fourth to the sixth century, or which set out its doctrine, to the quasi systematic exclusion of other schools of thought. Plato, Aristotle and their commentators constitute almost the entire corpus of philosophical texts which is extant from Antiquity in direct tradition. The French scholar estimates at 4% the proportion of philosophical texts which are extant and do not belong to this Platonic-Peripatetic mainstream. Philosophical currents such as Stoicism or Epicureanism are almost all completely lost in direct tradition, despite the large number of their texts (for example, according to Diogenes Laertius (VII, 180), Chrysippus wrote more than 705 books, yet none are extant), let alone the writings of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. This fact amply justifies the interest which can be taken in the role of Neoplatonic scholars in the circulation and conservation of the written heritage of Greek philosophy, which the present volume proposes to study.

This book, which comprises 27 contributions previously presented as conference papers, has two purported aims, which correspond to the two main parts of the volume. The first is to study the "late ancient version of Greek classical thought" through the study of the conditions of circulation of the written heritage of Greek philosophy. The second is to analyse "the influence of Greek philosophy on the culture issuing from the Qur'an" (Introduction, p. xiii), by highlighting that the Greek heritage became available to Arab readers mostly in the form it was given by the schools of late Antiquity. The result is a disparate collection of detail studies, some of which are excellent, that provide useful information on the history of texts and their transmission. In this volume, an approach based on the history of texts and of manuscripts is favoured over the history and analysis of concepts, arguments and problems.

Exegesis is an essential feature of Neoplatonic thought in late Antiquity and the explanation of texts was central to the course of study of the Neoplatonic schools. Philippe Hoffmann highlights well in his article how the exegetical practice of the Neoplatonists is articulated with a certain conception of philosophy. Exegesis itself produces doctrines and involves constant recourse to the physical objects that are books, the written support of doctrines. Philosophical activity, as understood by the Neoplatonists, implies the conservation of collections of books, and notably of authorities.

One of the strengths of the book is that it highlights the importance of the so-called Philosophical collection, a set of Byzantine manuscripts containing philosophical texts, mostly related to the Neoplatonic tradition. It is an essential intermediary in the process of transmission of philosophical texts from Antiquity, so essential that, according to Richard Goulet, without it "we would only have kept from ancient philosophy a very small corpus of texts, maybe Aristotle's Organon, as is the case in several eastern traditions" (p. 54, translation is mine). This set of 17 Greek manuscripts which present similar codicological and palaeographical characteristics, comes from a copying centre which is considered to have been situated in Constantinople around 850. It comprises nothing less than: Plato's dialogues, the De anima, the De fato and Quaestiones of Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Didaskalikos of Alkinoos, the Dissertations of Maximus of Tyre, the treatises of Plotinus, the commentaries on the Republic and the Timaeus of Proclus, the commentary on the Parmenides and the treatise De primis principiis of Damascius, the commentaries on the Physics and the Categories by Simplicius, the commentaries on the Gorgias, the Phaedrus, and the Alcibiades by Olympiodorus, the treatise Contra Proclum de aeternitate mundi by John Philoponus, the commentary on the De interpretatione by Ammonius, the De caelo, the De generatione et corruptione, the History of animals, the Metaphysics, the Meteorology and the Physics of Aristotle, as well as Patristic texts and geographical and astrological writings. The "Platonic" nucleus of the Philosophical collection is probably made up of copies of remnants of the library of the philosophical school of Alexandria which had been brought from Alexandria to Constantinople at a date impossible to state precisely, but probably falling between the beginning of the seventh century and the beginning of the ninth century, as has been suggested by L. G. Westerink.

Henri Dominique Saffrey proposes, in an insightful essay, a study of one of the manuscripts of the Philosophical collection, the Parisinus graecus 1807 which contains among other things tetralogies VIII (Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias) and IX (Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Letters) of Plato, with the Definitions and the Spuria. It is the manuscript A for Plato, made around 850, the model of which went from Alexandria to Byzantium, and which travelled from Byzantium to Armenia, and then to the library of Francesco Petrarca.

Guglielmo Cavallo, Philippe Hoffman and Didier Marcotte provide remarks which complete this study of the Philosophical collection. The textual tradition of Syrianus' commentary on the Metaphysics and the influence of Neoplatonists on Byzantine thought are also studied. The second part of the book contains studies on the dissemination of Neoplatonic texts in the Syriac-speaking and Arabic-speaking areas. Henri Hugonnard-Roche provides a useful synthesis article on Syriac philosophical literature in the sixth and seventh centuries. As to the Arabic tradition, the influence of Neoplatonism during the Abbasid period, in particular on al-Kindi (P. Adamson, G. Endress), the presence of Proclus, and the proximity between sixth-century Alexandrian commentators and the Baghdad Aristotelian Ibn al-Tayyib are considered.

It is not possible in the limits of this review to consider each contribution. We may however express an observation, a regret and a criticism.

This may be inevitable, given the nature of the subject, but a reader hungry for philosophy may feel a little frustrated. The pre-eminence of the historical and material aspects of the transmission of texts over their content, as well as the priority given to common textual formulae over shared philosophical theses, leads unavoidably to a lack of doctrinal considerations. While separating the study of the transmission of texts from the history of concepts has the advantage of highlighting the often neglected material aspect of the history of texts, it has the disadvantage that it offers quite an un-philosophical history of Neoplatonism.

The relative lack of questioning regarding the Neoplatonic intellectual project is regrettable. The transmission of texts, their arrangement into a course of study with a precise order, and the constitution of an exegesis were part of an intellectual project. It is unfortunate that the connection between the work of collection, conservation and transmission of texts by the Neoplatonists -- of which some aspects are well studied in this volume -- and the study of the curriculum and the philosophy of exegesis developed in the Neoplatonic school, and even the project of harmonisation of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, is not better highlighted. The phenomenon of the transmission of texts would then be illuminated by some of the reasons which motivated it.

The part of the book dedicated to the non-Greek traditions raises a methodological question. Even if we must assess a book on what is contains (in this case, the welcome study of the Arabic and, more briefly, of the Syriac, Armenian and Hebrew traditions) more than on what it should contain, I would like to note the absence of any consideration of the Latin world. This gives an unbalanced view of the transmission of Greek philosophical texts in late Antiquity, because a notable part of the Latin history of this transmission is contemporary to the authors discussed in the book. Did Boethius or Marius Victorinus not play any role in the transmission of classical Greek philosophy during late Antiquity? At least an explanation for the highly debatable choice of excluding the Latin tradition while taking into consideration almost all the others should have been included.

Cristina d'Ancona, "The Libraries of the Neoplatonists. An Introduction"

Part One
Plato, Aristotle and their Neoplatonic Readings: the Greek Tradition

Henri Dominique Saffrey, "Retour sur le Parisinus graecus 1807, le manuscrit A de Platon"
Richard Goulet, "La conservation et la transmission des textes philosophiques grecs"
Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, "Deux traités plotiniens chez Eusèbe de Césarée"
Burkhard Reis, "Curricula vix mutantur. Zur Vorgeschichte der neuplatonischen Lektüreprogramme"
Concetta Luna, "Mise en page et transmission textuelle du commentaire de Syrianus sur la Métaphysique"
Philippe Hoffmann, "Les bibliothèques philosophiques d'après le témoignage de la littérature néoplatonicienne des Ve et VIe siècles"
Guglielmo Cavallo, "Qualche riflessione sulla 'collezione filosofica'"
Didier Marcotte, "Le corpus géographique de Heidelberg (Palat. Heidelb. gr. 398) et les origines de la 'collection philosophique'"
Michel Cacouros, "Survie culturelle et rémanence textuelle du néoplatonisme à Byzance. Éléments généraux, éléments portant sur la logique"
Eudoxie Delli, "Entre compilation et originalité. Le corps pneumatique dans l'oeuvre de Michel Psellos"
Aris Papamanolakis, "L'échelle néoplatonicienne des vertus chez Psellus et chez Eustrate de Nicée"
Pantélis Golitsis, "Nicéphore Blemmyde lecteur du commentaire de Simplicius à la Physique d'Aristote"

Part Two
The Transmission of Texts and the Creation of the Philosophical Corpus in Armenian, Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew

Valentina Calzolari, "Aux origines de la formation du corpus philosophique en Arménie: quelques remarques sur les versions arméniennes des commentaires grecs de David"
Henri Hugonnard-Roche, "Le corpus philosophique syriaque aux VI-VIIe siècles"
Sebastian P. Brock, "A Syriac Intermediary for the Arabic Theology of Aristotle? In Search of a Chimera"
Vittorio Berti, "Libri e biblioteche cristiane nell'Iraq dell'VIII secolo. Una testimonianza dell'epistolario del patriarca siro-orientale Timoteo I (727-823)"
Gehrard Endress, "Building the Library of Arabic Philosophy. Platonism and Aristotelianism in the Sources of al-Kindi"
Peter Adamson, "The Kindian Tradition. The Structure of Philosophy in Arabic Neoplatonism"
Dimitri Gutas, "The Text of the Arabic Plotinus. Prolegomena to a Critical Edition"
Hinrich Biesterfeldt, "Palladius on the Hippocratic Aphorisms"
Meryem Sebti, "Une copie inconnue d'une paraphrase anonyme conservée en arabe du De anima d'Aristote: le MS Ayasofia 4156"
Emily Cottrell, "L'Anonyme d'Oxford (Bodleian Or. Marsh 539): bibliothèque ou commentaire?"
James E. Montgomery, "Al-Gahiz and Hellenizing Philosophy"
Elvira Wakelnig, "Al-'Amiri's Paraphrase of the Proclean Elements of Theology. A Search for Possible Sources and Parallel Texts"
Cleopha Ferrari, "Die Kategorie der Relation in der griechischen und arabischen Aristoteles-Kommentierung"
Daniel De Smet, "Les Bibliothèques ismaéliennes et la question du néoplatonisme ismaélien"
Stephen Harvey, "The Greek Library of the Medieval Jewish Philosophers"

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