Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Sarah Broadie (trans.), Philoponus: On Aristotle Physics 4.10-14. Ancient commentators on Aristotle. Bristol: Bristol Classical, 2011. Pp. xiii, 128. ISBN 9780715640883. $90.00.

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (dillonj@tcd.ie)

Version at BMCR home site

This is the latest addition to the ACA series on John Philoponus' commentary on Aristotle's Physics, of which four volumes have already appeared, covering Book 1, Book 3 and most recently Books 5-8. This excellent contribution by Sarah Broadie, herself a major authority on Aristotle, concerns the latter section of Book 4 (chs. 10- 14), comprising Aristotle's discussion of time.

This section of Philoponus' commentary, as Richard Sorabji aptly remarks in his Preface, is remarkable for its non- critical nature. We are used to Philoponus, especially since the researches of Sorabji himself, as a doughty and innovative opponent of Aristotle on such subjects as place, vacuum and motion, but here on the subject of time he is like a lamb, to a large extent merely expounding the meaning of the text. There has been some speculation, which Sorabji recounts, as to why this should be so, with suggestions (by Konrad Verrycken, countered by Pantelis Golitsis) that this section represents an earlier stage of Philoponus' thought, before he became controversial, but the reasonable alternative, it seems to me, is that he just did not find much to object to in Aristotle's theory of time.

Broadie herself, though she provides excellent notes, does not contribute any general reflections on the structure or content of the commentary, such as would have been welcome. For one thing, it seems that Philoponus is, at least loosely, observing the Neoplatonic exegetical distinction between theoria and lexis. He thus discusses the doctrines contained in a segment of commentary prior to entering into details of the interpretation of the text in a series of short lemmata, e.g. 708, 18 - 711, 34, on 218a30ff. (critique of earlier accounts of the nature of Time), or 745, 16 – 749, 14, on 220b32ff. (on time as a measure of movement and being moved). In the latter of the two passages mentioned, we find an instance of a second feature of commentaries, which Philoponus actually indulges in rather sparingly in this part of his commentary, the criticism of one's predecessors. In this case, Philoponus sets out the position of Alexander, then that of 'others' (probably Themistius, whom Philoponus refers to frequently in the commentary as a whole, though without ever identifying him by name), and then produces a solution of his own which combines the two previous ones.

Occasionally, Philoponus is found to concern himself with troublesome problems in the transmitted text of Aristotle. One notable instance occurs at 737, 4ff., where he is commenting on 220a19. Here the text reads oude morion ho khronos tês kinêseôs, "neither is time part of movement", where Bekker (and subsequent editors in general) prefer, as according with what Aristotle should be saying, oude morion to nun tou khronou, "neither is the 'now' part of time". Philoponus is in fact faced with the former text, which is that of all the manuscripts, but he protests against it:

"Where he should have said "and further it is obvious that neither are the nows part of time", his words are "neither is time part of movement", meaning by 'time' the nows. The nows cannot be parts either of the movement of which time is the number or of time itself, for the reasons stated."

Philoponus sees the problem with the text, but, unlike Bekker, he does not feel free to emend it; he simply reinterprets it to accord with what Aristotle should have said. Again, at 756, 6-9, he notes that "many texts of Aristotle do not include kata sumbebekos, 'incidentally', at 221b8, and Alexander does not mention it either" – though his own text plainly includes it.

Another interesting detail, highlighted by Broadie herself (n. 194), concerns Philoponus' observations on the relative speeds of people, or horses, running round a curved track, as opposed to a straight one. Aristotle, at 222b33-223a4, talks of two movements being equal to one another, or faster or slower, either going round a circular track or on a straight one, and it occurs to Philoponus here (771, 20-8) to mention that speed round a bend may be faster than along a straight line, and yet take more time to cover the same distance through being impeded by the bend – an acute observation that shows the quality of his mind.

While there are a number of other interesting passages of this sort, it must be said that the bulk of the text consists of fairly pedestrian exposition of the text. Sarah Broadie, however, does a fine job of bringing it to a wider public. It may not be exactly bedtime reading, but it, and the corresponding text of Aristotle, are actually quite good to read on a train, as I have discovered. One can brood, as one goes along past a succession of landmarks, or alternatively stops at stations, on the nature of time as both continuous and a succession of nows, and of time as a measure of both motion and rest – which in turn helps to pass the time!

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