Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Robert W. Sharples, Alexander Aphrodisiensis, De anima libri mantissa: A New Edition of the Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary. Peripatoi; Bd. 21. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. Pp. vi, 269. ISBN 9783110196443. $98.00, €82.24.
Reviewed by George Karamanolis, University of Crete

Table of Contents

Alexander's work On the Soul, called Mantissa ('makeweight') by Freudenthal, a title accepted by the first editor, Ivo Bruns, in his edition of the work in 1887,1 is a highly interesting work in many respects but it has always been considered to suffer from a certain lack of coherence. The work consists of a series of loosely connected pieces which cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from questions regarding the essence of the soul to questions about vision, virtue, and fate. Apart from the diversity of topics, there is also a remarkable diversity of styles and tones. Bruns suggested that the texts of the Mantissa can be classified into two kinds. The first kind includes texts which consist of lists of arguments against recognizable positions held by rival philosophical schools, such as the Stoics and the Platonists. The sections that in Sharples' edition now make chapters 3, 4, and 6, for instance, appear to fall into this category, as they strongly attack the Stoic corporealist view of the soul. In the same category fall, according to Bruns, also the chapters which argue for a thesis and appear to relate to a discussion of the interpretation of Aristotle among Peripatetics themselves (e.g. chapters 18, 19). Bruns' second category comprises the remaining sections. These consist of comments by Alexander which are autonomous and self-contained. Bruns' division hardly does justice to the diversity of the work's styles and tones. Chapters 1 and 25, for instance, are summaries of longer treatments of the character of the soul and of fate respectively, chapters 5 and 17 argue for particular points of interpretation within Aristotelian doctrine but also contain polemical overtones against the Stoics, while chapter 2, the most famous of all, is an extensive essay on the intellect.

A different classification might be that which divides the sections in three groups: psychology (chs. 1-7), theory of vision (9-16), and ethics (17-25). But as Sharples rightly points out,2 groupings in terms of subject matter cut across divisions of literary form. Besides, even within the texts of the same thematic unit often there is hardly any link, and sometimes there is even tension between the sections (e.g. chapters 2, 25). Such evidence gives rise to the question of the thematic unity of the work and also of its purpose. There has been an ongoing scholarly debate on these issues. Yet a new edition of the text was much needed, since Bruns' edition was marred by mistakes, misreporting of the manuscripts, and has left many questions hanging about the constitution and the construal of many passages of the text. A new edition is now offered by Sharples.

Sharples' edition is a huge improvement on its predecessor. The editor offers a new critical edition of Alexander's work based on a completely fresh collation of all manuscripts, a total of 14, plus the Aldine edition of the text. Sharples' investigation of the manuscripts has led him to confirm but also to correct some of Bruns' conclusions. Sharples confirms, for instance, Bruns' view that Marcianus Graecus 258 (V) is the primary manuscript for Alexander's text, from which all extant Greek manuscripts derive directly or indirectly -the same manuscript contains several other minor works of Alexander. Yet Sharples disputes the view that another important manuscript in the tradition of this text, namely Marcianus Graecus 261 (B), is a mere copy of Marcianus Graecus 258. Sharples rather asserts the value of ms B, which lies both in the conjectural readings in it and in the readings of its corrector, the famous cardinal Bessarion. It turns out that ms B was Bessarion's working copy of V and should be dated around 1450-2, not to the 16th century as Bruns suggested. Further improvements on Bruns' edition include correcting Bruns' reports of the primary manuscript, establishing the right relations between the manuscripts (and the Aldine), and presenting a much fuller apparatus criticus. What is more, Sharples employs the Arabic and Latin traditions. A number of Arabic and Latin versions of the text survive (listed at p. 32), all of them deriving from a tradition dependent on V. The reader is informed about the manuscript tradition and the method of the new edition in a thirty-four-page introduction which precedes the edition of the text.

The new text is considerably better than that of Bruns in many regards. To begin with, Sharples removes a number of typographical mistakes (e.g. 151.27) and misreadings of the mss, which Bruns integrated into the text (e.g. 150.32). Another improvement concerns the punctuation of the text, an issue in which Bruns took liberties (e.g. at 171.21 he disregarded the authority of all mss which punctuate before tauta, to punctuate after instead). Yet the most important step forward in the new edition is that it tries to make good philosophical sense of Alexander's text. Sharples incorporates several scholarly emendations of Bruns' text which yield better or make clearer sense (e.g. 153.13, 165.18, 170.13). Bruns resorted often to conjectures, yet he did not integrate all of them into his text. Sharples shows good editorial judgment in integrating some (e.g. 134.12, 136.29, 138.33, 147.20, 148.7, 154.8) and rejecting others (e.g. 110.20, 113.1, 139.35, 175.22-3). Sharples' taking into account of the Arabic and Latin versions also results in improvements which may be minor (e.g. 175.21) or quite considerable. The latter is the case in chapter 15 on how seeing occurs, where Alexander defends Aristotle's view that seeing takes place in time, yet is not a temporal activity in the sense that it does not take time to be completed. Bruns considers the passage as locus desperatus (143.32-33), and rightly so, since parts of two sentences are missing from the Greek mss. But they are preserved in Arabic, as Accattino first realized.

Editorial choices are discussed in the commentary.3 The comments are brief and sometimes rather elliptical . Sharples could have said more in the commentary about, for instance, the oikeiosis chapter (17) and how and why the Peripatetics accepted the doctrine that the goal of life must be derived from the first object of desire ( 26-7), given that the text mentions the Peripatetics Boethus and Xenarchus (151.8) supporting the same idea as that which Antiochus of Ascalon maintained. Sharples confines himself to pointing out the issue and referring us to the relevant literature. Yet the aim of the commentary is not so much to fully address the philosophical questions which the text raises but rather to explain the preferred readings and to indicate how the text is to be construed. The commentary is quite enlightening about a number of obscure passages, especially those found in the long middle part of the work regarding the theory of vision (see e.g. the comments on ch. 15, at 197-203). Important in that respect is the wealth of reference to parallels both in the apparatus fontium and in the commentary. Sharples succeeds in clarifying the text by taking into account not only the rich literature, but also a number of suggestions by contemporary scholars, with whom the editor had discussed many difficult passages in the text. This is a sign of the wisdom of a noted expert on Alexander which sets an example illustrating the potential and the value of scholarly collaboration.

Both the edition of the text and the discussion in the commentary bring the question of the nature, the unity, and the purpose of the text again to the fore. While some chapters (2, 24, 25) have the form of a continuous essay, most sections of Alexander's work usually consist of a set of arguments or objections introduced mostly with eti (:'further'). The new editor underlines this structure dividing the text accordingly into as many paragraphs as there are arguments. The lack of coherence which this division suggests appears to be a general feature which sometimes threatens the unity of the work. Sharples notes the tension in terms of doctrine in chapters 2 and 25 and also the substantial difference between chapters 22 and 23, both of which profess to present the Aristotelian view concerning what depends on us: yet the former diverges radically from the doctrine of Alexander's De fato, whereas the latter does not. The question is how the same author can take such different views on the same issue in successive sections of the text. Sharples does not discuss the question extensively, which is particularly puzzling given the tendency of many chapters of the Mantissa to overlap with sections from other works of Alexander. Several of the chapters on vision, for instance, overlap with sections from Alexander's De sensu; chapter 14 bears similarities to Alexander as reported in Simplicius' commentary on Physics 530.16ff (p. 196) and to De mixtione; chapter 25 On fate is a summary of Alexander's De fato.

The diversity of topics covered in the work is usually seen as another sign of lack of coherence. Yet a closer reading may lead to the opposite conclusion. The chapters on vision, for instance, make a point about the soul which connects them with the preceding chapters on the soul. The point is that the soul is not a body and yet it exists in the body though not as in a subject (140.4-8) and it consists of faculties (cf. 106.30f), as Aristotle suggests in the De anima. Similarly the ethical chapters also make a point about the soul, which is that eudaimonia is the best state of the soul (162.3b-5), and ethical virtue is considered to be both the virtue of the rational part to the extent that this reasons what virtue is, but also that of the irrational part to the extent that it agrees to act according to reason (155. 32-8).

It seems then that the text is characterized by both unity and disunity, diversity and tension but also some coherence. This complex situation has not been done justice by views such as those of Accattino and Donini4 who have suggested that the work is an abridgement of Alexander's commentary on the De anima, or by Accattino's5 suggestion that the section 'On Intellect' is an early work of Alexander integrated into this later work. As I said above, already this section is characterized by unity and disunity which generally pertain to the whole work.6 Any theory on the nature of the Mantissa should be led by some simple observations. The work appears to be similar to the structure of some of Plotinus' treatises, namely those which contain questions and answers (e.g. Enneads IV.3-5). Even the introduction of many sections is made with similar vocabulary in the relevant works of Alexander and Plotinus. This is not accidental but rather reflects the school practice of philosophy in late antiquity, as we gather from documents such as Porphyry's Life of Plotinus. And as we know, the revision of the notes of the masters could be the job of a student. An alternative practice in late antiquity is to have the teacher's philosophical doctrine transmitted orally (cf. 110.4, 113.3) and recorded by his students who then publish them as the work of their master (cf. the case of Olympiodorus' work).

The Mantissa may well be a similar case, that is, it may be a set of notes reflecting Alexander's teaching, which was prepared by one of his students on the basis either of Alexander's written work, or his lectures, or both. Such a scenario does not render Alexander's authorship questionable. The amount of overlapping views between the Mantissa and the other works of Alexander speaks against that. Yet we should think again what authorship means in the case of philosophical works in late antiquity. The existing evidence, illuminated as it is now by Sharples, suggests a distinction between the author of views and the author of a work. Differences and tensions are natural in the philosopher's output, but much less so in a single treatise.

Sharples does not discuss this question extensively, and perhaps wisely so. The job he undertook was to replace Bruns' edition by offering a text which makes much better sense and to show in the commentary (and in his separately published translation)7 what this is. And in this task Sharples definitely succeeded.


1.   Ivo Bruns, Alexandri De anima Liber cum Mantissa, Supplementum Aristotelicum vol. 2.1, Berlin: Reimer, 1887.
2.   Introduction, p. 2. See also R. Sharples, Alexander of Aphrodisias: What is a Mantissa?, in P. Adamson, H. Balthussen, and M. Stone (eds), Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek Arabic and Latin Commentaries, London: ICS, 2004, p. 55.
3.   The commentary is an expansion of the notes in Sharples' translation of Mantissa, in R. Sharples, Alexander Supplement to On the Soul, London: Duckworth, 2004.
4.   P. Accattino and P. L. Donini, Alessandro di Afrodisia: L'anima, Rome and Bari: Laterza, 1996.
5.   P. Accattino, Alessandro d'Afrodisia: De Intellect, Turin: Thélème, 2001.
6.   The work can be divided in at least three sections, A, B, C. See P. Moraux, Alexandre d'Aphrodise: Exégète de la noétique d'Aristote, Liège and Paris 1942, p. 148; F. M. Schroeder and R. B. Todd, Two Aristotelian Greek Commentators on the Intellect, Toronto 1990, pp. 30-1.
7.   See note 3 above.

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