Friday, February 3, 2012


Aram Topchyan (ed.), David the Invincible, Commentary on Aristotle's Prior Analytics: Critical Old Armenian Text with an English Translation, Introduction and Notes. Philosophia antiqua, 122. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. x, 221. ISBN 9789004187191. $138.00.

Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University (

Version at BMCR home site

The history of philosophy in late antiquity has been wonderfully served in recent years by an explosion of translations and studies of the great commentators on Aristotle and Plato from the Athenian and Alexandrian schools. But the form of the tradition that emerged from the fifth century onwards within the scholastic communities of the Armenian, Syriac, and later Arabic borderlands of the empire remains a field of enquiry darkened by a chronic lack of basic editions, a problem that bedevils even such an apparently well-covered topic as classical Arabic philosophy. What appears to many as an intellectual dark age, somewhere between Philoponus and Avicenna, remains dark only to the extent that western eyes have not fallen on the pertinent manuscripts or bothered to grapple with the barriers of learning the languages. Indeed the whole field suffers from being labelled as 'reception' - this is unfortunate, for late antique philosophy conducted through the medium of Armenian or Syriac was still late antique philosophy and should be treated as an equal and contemporary partner to the work of Philoponus et al. Topchyan's edition and translation of this commentary on the Prior Analytics thus makes those 'dark' regions just that little bit less gloomy. The philological work is excellently done; the translation eminently readable and illuminating; the general discussion solid without, however, fulfilling all it might have.

This volume is part of a larger research project that aims at eventually producing re-editions and translations of all the works ascribed in antiquity to the philosopher known to posterity as 'David the Invincible Philosopher (!)'. David's oeuvre includes commentaries on the Isagoge and Categories , David's general Prolegomena to philosophy, and the current text (though, as we shall see, there is considerable controversy about the authorship of our text). An introductory volume of essays relating both to David and the background to his work and influence was published in the series already in 2009, although unfortunately not reviewed in BMCR.1 It would be worth here quoting the five aims of the series as they are here laid out; they are:

a) To identify the relation between the Armenian texts and the original Greek versions of David's works;
b) To assess the value of the Armenian translations for the constitution of the Greek text;
c) To analyze the differences between the Armenian versions and the Greek, and to examine the ways in which the Armenian translators adapted the texts to suit their new readership;
d) To give a close examination of the language of the Armenian versions and of their techniques of translation;
e) To consider, more generally, the ways in which Greek thought was transmitted to Armenia, and the circulation of ideas and the cultural exchanges between East and West in late antiquity.

Aims a) and d) are in fact the truly fundamental ones as they are prerequisite for the successful accomplishment of b) and c). I shall return to e) presently since this is clearly the most important point for many classicists who may come across this volume.

To begin with a more general consideration of the achievements of the edition: The first of the aims of the series is the subject of the majority of Topchyan's introduction, which reproduces material published in the introductory volume. On the thorny question of authorship (David or Elias, which takes on rather more significance than might otherwise have been the case given that the series is meant to be a collection specifically of David's works), Topchyan presents four passages which he believes confirms that the present text is not merely an adaptation or abbreviation of Elias' Commentary on the Prior Analytics (edited by Westerink in 1967). This debate was the subject of three separate chapters within the aforementioned edited volume, each arguing along rather different lines. Uncertainty still hangs over this question even after the present edition. The very close parallels adduced by Sweeting cannot be ignored, and the ascription to David should be held only loosely. In any case, the amount of original material seems to fade away as one follows the line of succession within the Alexandrian school and the problem of authorship seems less pointed.

On the subject of the interrelationship of the commentators, Topchyan 's first appendix is a mine of useful parallels to every part of the Armenian text from other sources. By far the most frequently cited are Philoponus and Elias, as might be expected. Themistius' paraphrase also crops up a handful of times. The opportunity seems to have been missed, however, to elucidate more exactly the relationship between David's work and that of these other commentators, to assess how much is derivative and how much novel. Instead the reader is presented with a glut of parallels and left to draw his/her own conclusions, which would in any case require a decent grasp of Armenian. This reviewer, at least, felt that the best placed scholar to summarise the material is the editor himself and it is to be hoped that in the future we might be presented with a more systematic analysis of the significance and contribution of this text to late antique logic.

This is symptomatic of the overall impression with which the reader comes away from the volume as a whole, for it seems not quite to meet the aims of the series, at least for the general reader interested in the reception history of ancient philosophy. The amount of interesting material encased within the text and appendices is more than sufficient, one would have thought, for some general conclusions to be drawn. What was the translator trying to achieve by translating the text the way he did? How might the text have been received and understood by an Armenian audience in late antiquity? What does the text, and indeed the corpus, add to our knowledge about Armenian philosophy and ideas in the period? I am sure that the author could supply fascinating answers to some of these questions.

To take some specific points that could have been raised and perhaps still will be at a later stage of research: it appears that there is no known translation into Armenian of the Prior Analytics itself (in contradistinction to the Categories and Isagoge, for which there are also translations of David's commentaries). So were readers of the text meant to read the commentary in the absence of a version of Aristotle's text, or in place of it, or were they expected to be able to read Greek and not need a translation? Furthermore, as Topchyan points out, the level of hellenisation of the Armenian lexicon and grammar means that the text is hardly comprehensible save as a crib against the original – so one wonders how was this meant to work and for whom was such a text written. For students who could understand some Greek but not enough to read Aristotle or David without the help of the crib? In what sort of cultural or social setting might such people have been studying? It reminds one of the law students in Beirut who made Greek versions of the Justinianic law books because their Latin was not quite good enough to deal with them independently at the required level of precision.

This question of social or scholastic milieu raises the further question of the commentary genre itself, its literary or pedagogical function, its role within transmitted notions of authority and canon, and so forth. Is this text, in fact, a commentary at all, as stated on the cover? After all, in terms of dealing with Aristotle's text, it never progresses beyond the second chapter, albeit that it discusses in extenso the so-called prolegomena issues (as an aside the discussion of the prefatory material could have benefited from the recent literature on this subject by, among others, I. Hadot, Westerink, and Mansfeld). Although the editor starts out (p.1) by asserting that "it is composed in compliance with certain rules established by earlier commentators of Aristotle and according to a generally accepted pattern referred to in a number of texts," this is not actually particularly obvious when one looks through the text for the usual lemmata that characterise the commentaries of Philoponus and Ammonius, or for the pattern of theoria and lexis that was used so extensively by Olympiodorus. Is this text itself in fact just the first part of something much longer? Is this a commentary (like Philoponus'), a paraphrase (like Themistius') or something else, perhaps for a different sort of audience? Barnes offered a few thoughts about David's works in the first chapter of the introduction to the series (see footnote below), but these are insufficiently taken up here.

Finally, to highlight a few areas of particular interest:

1. With reference to aim d) of the series as a whole (to give a close examination of the language of the Armenian versions and of their techniques of translation), great praise should be directed to Topchyan's appendices, in which he provides the data that underpins his translation of the very difficult and unnatural 'hellenised' Armenian text, viz. a list of parallel texts from the Armenian translations of David's other works, for which Greek Vorlagen are extant; examples of 'grecisms' at both the morphological and syntactic levels; and a list of lexical grecisms. The study of 'loan translation' has tended to focus exclusively on the lexical level, and so it is very much to be welcomed that we have here a good study at the syntactical level, which truly enables one to see the workings of a translator and how a text has been re-presented in a new guise. The upshot of this work should be a thorough and very interesting discussion corresponding to aim c) of the series. Such a discussion, however, has not been made in the present volume, though snippets may be gained from certain comments in footnotes etc.

2. It is interesting to note the different attempts to translate sullogismos into Armenian encountered both within the current text and across David's other works; here we see an instance of a translator struggling both to understand the technical meaning of a Greek term and exploring how to go about coining an equivalent in the target language, e.g. whether or not to break up the Greek term into its component morphemes first. This procedure is directly paralleled in both the Syriac and the Arabic experiences of translating Aristotle and the commentators.

3. The discussion and reassessment of the ms tradition (p.17-27) is obviously crucial for the grounding of the text and for future critical scholarship. The most interesting point of more general concern is the spread of the extant mss. None predate the fourteenth century and yet in total 28 are known. This contrasts noticeably with the Syriac tradition of comparable material, in which the oldest mss are often half a millennium and more older (the oldest being from the seventh century and containing translations and commentaries on Aristotle), but whose transmission dies out in the middle ages, resulting in far fewer extant copies today. The Armenians appear to have maintained their interest in this type of material throughout their rich cultural history.

All in all this is an excellent achievement well executed. In view, however, of the sorts of general issues mentioned earlier and the questions that have not been discussed within the volume, one feels ultimately a bit short-changed in respect of aim e) above, general consideration of Greek thought in Armenia, which would naturally be of most interest to the non-specialist or to historians of philosophy. Barnes has already asserted that David is of real significance only because he stands at the genesis of Armenian philosophy. It seems that this should be the focus for the remaining volumes of the series. The required data is here effectively laid out before us. It is to be hoped that the broader conclusions will follow.

Table of Contents

The Commentaria in Aristotelem Armeniaca Project
Armenian text and translation
Appendix I : parallels from relevant texts
Appendix II : a concise description and typical examples of morphological and syntactical Grecisms
Appendix III : lexical Grecisms having Greek equivalents in David's other treatises
Greek-Armenian-English glossary
English-Armenian-Greek glossary
Armenian-Greek-English glossary
Abbreviations and Literature
Index of Personal Names


1.   Valentina Calzolari and Jonathan Barnes, L'œuvre de David l'Invincible et la transmission de la pensée grecque dans la tradition arménienne et syriaque (Philosophia Antiqua 116; Leiden, 2009). See also the review by John Watt.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.