Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
H. Baltussen, Philosophy and Exegesis in Simplicius: The Methodology of a Commentator. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. xii, 292. ISBN 9780715635001. £50.00.
Reviewed by Ian Mueller, University of Chicago

[Table of contents provided at the end of the review.]

In this stimulating book Han Baltussen provides an account of important specific features of the extant Aristotelian commentaries of the Neoplatonist Simplicius. Baltussen focuses on the commentary on Aristotle's Physics (in Ph.), but he also considers Simplicius's polemic against the miaphysite Christian John Philoponus, the bulk of which is found in the commentary on De Caelo (in Cael.). He does not make much use of the commentaries on the Categories (in Cat.) or on Epictetus' Enchiridion, a commentary which does not fit so well with some of Baltussen's characterization of Simplicius's work. More surprisingly, he does not mention, even in his brief discussion of Simplicius's oeuvre (pp. 12-14),1 the commentary on the De Anima, ascribed to Simplicius in the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca but the authenticity of which is under dispute, mainly because it is different in character from Simplicius's other Aristotelian commentaries.2 Nevertheless, in Cael., in Ph., and in Cat. do constitute a set of works which are both quite similar and quite distinct from the other extant ancient commentaries on Aristotle.

What evidence we have suggests that Simplicius was born somewhere in Cilicia, studied with Ammonius in Alexandria (as did Philoponus, who apparently never left Alexandria), moved to Athens, where the so-called Platonic Academy was led by Damascius, a vigorous anti-Christian, and then departed with Damascius and other "philosophers" for the court of Chosroes I (Persian emperor from 531 CE) in Ctesiphon, a departure standardly associated with the 529 decree of Justinian I banning the teaching of philosophy in Athens. Agathias, our source for the story of this departure, mentions as motivation only the philosophers' rejection of Christianity and their belief that they would be moving to an ideal society governed by a philosopher-king. In Agathias' representation they found a corrupt society and a king who was no philosopher. Unable to bear the situation, they returned home (ἐπανῄσαν; οἴκαδε ἀπενόστησαν) as quickly as possible. Their return was made comfortable for them by the inclusion in the "Eternal Peace" signed by Constantine and Chosroes in 532 of a clause stating τὸ δεῖν ἐκείνους τοὺς ἄνδρας ἐς τὰ σφέτερα ἤθη κατιόντας βιοτεύειν ἀδεῶς τὸ λοιπόν ἐφ' ἑαυτοῖς, οὐδὲν ὁτιοῦν πέρα τῶν δοκούντων φρονεῖν ἢ μεταβάλλειν τὴν πατρῴαν δόξαν ἀναγκαζομένους.

This is basically all we know about the life of Simplicius. Understandably a great deal of ink has been spilled over the treaty clause and what it might mean for the final stage of Greek philosophy. For most of the twentieth century it was assumed that Simplicius returned to either Alexandria, where some Aristotelian philosophy continued to be taught in the later sixth century, or to Athens, for which there is no evidence that philosophy continued to be taught after 529. In 1986 Michel Tardieu argued that the philosophers went from the court of Chosroes to Carrhae (Harran) at the Persian edge of the Byzantine empire where they joined an already flourishing Platonic "Academy", an Academy which became the key link in the transmission of Greek philosophical ideas to the Islamic world. Although initially important scholars embraced Tardieu's hypotheses about the whereabouts of Simplicius and his companions and the role of Harran in the history of philosophy, subsequent discussions3 have been quite skeptical, with the result that the question where Simplicius and the others went must be considered open. Baltussen appears to incline to the hypothesis of a return to Athens (p. 204), but his more important suggestion is that Simplicius's commentaries should not be thought of as the basis for teaching actual students (as most of the extant ancient philosophical commentaries clearly were), but that Simplicius was writing for "an imaginary student body" (p.51), "a potential rather than a real audience" (p. 201). To the latter characterization Baltussen adds the proviso that the commentaries are written for teachers rather than "for individual use by the students themselves." This proviso seems to me to undermine the suggestion it qualifies. We do not know what kind of instruction was offered to advanced students in late antiquity, and, if we are going to hold that Simplicius's commentaries were not teaching texts, we might just as well rely on another suggestion made by Baltussen, namely that they were written as explanatory repositories of the wisdom of the ancients, which was so important to Simplicius and which he thought was being destroyed by the new religion.

Internal references suggest that the three commentaries were written in the order in which they are listed at the end of the first paragraph of this review. In in Cael. Simplicius refers to Philoponus' Contra Proclum, which is firmly dated to 529; and a reference to a personal observation involving the Aboras River makes it seem likely that Simplicius wrote in Cael. after his departure from Athens. Simplicius refers several times to that commentary in in Ph., and once to in Ph. in in Cat.. Simplicius refers to Damascius as deceased in in Ph., and Damascius is standardly taken to have still been alive in 538. This information, which Baltussen presents in a somewhat jumbled and incomplete way (p. 12), suggests that the death date he assigns to Simplicius (ca. 540) should be moved forward, perhaps to 550 or even later. Precise dating is impossible in these matters, but it would not seem unreasonable to suppose that Simplicius was in Alexandria for some period between 505 and 520 and in Athens for some period between 515 and 532.

The three commentaries are distinguished from other Aristotelian commentaries in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is length. To make a simple comparison using the TLG Canon word counts, Philoponus' in Cat. is less than one half the length of Simplicius's, and his in Ph. is less than 60% of Simplicius's. Baltussen focuses on a number of sources of this greater length. One is Simplicius's inclusion of lengthy quotations from earlier authors, the most important of which are undoubtedly his quotations of the Presocratics. Baltussen's attempt to connect this use of quotation with Plato's disparagement of writing (pp. 47-48) seems weak; Simplicius's major concern is interpretation, and he wants to make his case as strong as possible. Another distinctive mark of Simplicius's commentaries is his discussion of alternative interpretations, including his polemic with Philoponus on the eternity of the world. Baltussen discusses this polemic in his last chapter and the concluding epilogue and quite rightly emphasizes the religious content of Simplicius's outlook,4 but I think more stress could have been laid on the fact that for Simplicius and other Neoplatonists religion in any ordinary sense is just one part of a whole cultural, social, and intellectual tradition which gave Simplicius his identity and which he saw as facing imminent destruction. A third mark, which Baltussen does not treat in much detail is Simplicius's digressions on various subjects, including the so-called "corollaries" in the in Ph., corollaries which have less circumstantial analogues in Philoponus' in Ph..5 Probably the most striking feature of Simplicius's commentaries is his frequent insistence on the harmony of Greek philosophers from the Presocratics to Aristotle in general, and of Plato and Aristotle in particular. Baltussen (see, e.g. pp. 8-9) quite rightly associates this with Christian insistence on the disagreements among the pagans, e.g. on the question of the eternity of the world. Although Baltussen stresses harmonization as a feature of Simplicius's commentaries, I think he understates the difference between Simplicius and other Neoplatonists whose works have come down to us. There is certainly no doubt that Neoplatonists, like most philosophers, read the work of their predecessors in terms of their own ideas and saw more in common between Plato and Aristotle than most contemporary scholars do. But Simplicius is extreme in his treatment of, e.g., Empedocles and Anaxagoras as believers in a Platonic intelligible world and of even Aristotle's most direct attacks on Plato as arguments against readings of Plato which Aristotle knows to be superficial and wants to prevent others from adopting as Platonic truth.

The largest segment of the book (chs. 2 to 5) is a chronologically organized survey of Simplicius's use of earlier philosophers (excluding Plato and Aristotle) from Parmenides to Damascius (chs. 2-5). This survey, which includes independent discussions of the philosophers used by Simplicius, are undoubtedly valuable and can be recommended to anyone wishing to undertake the study of Simplicius's voluminous works. A number of the positions Baltussen takes seem to me debatable, but it would not be reasonable for me to debate any of them here.

In explaining his purposes Baltussen emphasizes that until fairly recently scholars and philosophers, particularly English-speaking ones, have not been very kind to Simplicius or to late Neoplatonism in general. It seems fair to say that for much of the twentieth century Simplicius was a quite obscure figure, cited most frequently as a source for the doctrines of the Presocratics, early attempts to square the circle, and the astronomical work of Eudoxus. Baltussen's attempt to resuscitate (or perhaps establish) Simplicius's reputation as an intellectual is entirely laudable, but it may be that the best that can be done along these lines is to establish that Simplicius is worth reading even if the distinctive features of his interpretations are far-fetched and unacceptable as interpretations. As Baltussen puts it in his discussion of Simplicius and the Presocratics, even if Simplicius's approach is forced and faces fundamental objections it still "deserves consideration." I do not know whether Baltussen has established that Simplicius's work as a whole deserves consideration or even whether this is something that can be established in any simple sense, but I sincerely hope that Baltussen's book will attract younger scholars to try to answer the question for themselves.

I conclude by noting three perplexing lapses in the book:

On p. 78 παράδειγμα is translated as 'proof ', but Simplicius is saying only that the next lines he quotes, in which Empedocles describes the way painters represent many things using only a few colors, offer an example of the way different things come to be from the same things.

On the next page ἐνεργείᾳ is translated as 'potentially', thus reversing Plotinus' interpretation of Anaxagoras.

On p. 158 Syrianus is described as a teacher of Simplicius, a chronological impossibility.

Table of contents

Introduction. Simplicius of Cilicia and Philosophy in Late Antiquity
1. The Scholar and His Books
2. Rethinking Early Greek Philosophy? Origins of Ancient Wisdom
3. Towards a Canon: the Early Peripatetics
4. Ghost in the Machine? The Role of Alexander of Aphrodisias
5. Platonist Commentators: Sources and Inspiration
6. Polemic and Exegesis in Simplicius: Defending Pagan Theology
Epilogue. Simplicius and Greek Philosophy: The Last Pagan Gospel?
Appendix I. The 'Library' of Simplicius
Appendix II
A. New Evidence on Alexander
B. Distribution of Alexander References in in Phys.
Appendix III. Sumphônia in Simplicius.


1.   For a fuller discussion of Simplicius' oeuvre see Ilsetraut Hadot, "The life and work of Simplicius in Greek and Arabic sources," in Richard Sorabji (ed.), Aristotle Transformed, London: Duckworth, 1990, pp. 289-303.
2.   See most recently (?) Matthias Perkams, "Priscian of Lydia, commentator on the 'de Anima' in the tradition of Iamblichus," Mnemosyne 4.58 (2005), 510-530, with bibliography.
3.   See, for example, Robin Lane Fox, "Harran, the Sabians, and the late Platonist 'movers', " in Andrew Smith (ed.), The Philosopher and Society in Late Antiquity, Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2005, pp. 231-244, with bibliography.
4.   Here Baltussen follows Philippe Hoffmann; see, e.g., "Simplicius' polemics," in Richard Sorabji (ed.), Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science, London: Duckworth, 1987, pp. 57-83.
5.   On this topic see Pantelis Golitsis, Les Commentaires de Simplicius et de Jean Philopon à la Physique d'Aristote, Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 83-280.

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