Thursday, July 5, 2012


Ian Mueller (trans.), Simplicius, On Aristotle On the Heavens 1. 3-4. Ancient Commentators on Aristotle. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 223. ISBN 9780715640630. $90.00.

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume represents the last work of Ian Mueller, sadly taken from us back in August 2010 – a great loss to the world of ancient philosophy, and in particular to the field of ancient mathematics. He had the previous year published Simplicius' commentaries on 1.2-3 of the same work, and in 2009 those on 3.7 - 4 6, so his knowledge of the De Caelo and its commentators had become extensive. This is a slightly odd production, however, as he himself points out in the introduction, since the commentary portion of this has been already translated by R. J. Hankinson in the same series in 2002. But Hankinson omitted a large section of the work (about 60%) which consists of Simplicius' controversy with his Christian contemporary John Philoponus on the eternity or otherwise of the world. Of this, the passages of Philoponus (being portions of his lost work Against Aristotle) have been translated back in 1987 by Christian Wildberg, although Wildberg omitted Simplicius' responses to Philoponus, which exhibit Simplicius in a highly polemical mode, in stark contrast to the commentary proper. Most of this, therefore, exists in previous translations, but it has not been brought together, and that is what Mueller is doing here, together with various improvements.

It is therefore good to have. In these chapters, Aristotle is arguing for the eternity of the world, and in particular, against Plato, that is has no temporal beginning. The nub of the argument involves the proposition that circular motion has no opposite (as up is opposite to down, and forward to back), and thus that entities engaged in eternal circular motion are not subject to generation and destruction, since these take place from opposites into opposites. It is this argument of Aristotle's that Philoponus is concerned to demolish, and Simplicius to defend.

After a most useful introduction, Mueller actually prints the whole text of Aristotle, divided into Simplicius' lemmata, as the text involved is quite short, and this is helpful for an overview of the argument. As alluded to above, only about 30% of Simplicius is actually commentary on the text (a further 10% being non-polemical philosophical discussion, e.g. 91.21 - 109.15, a lengthy excursus on the devolution of the cosmos from the One, in the process reconciling Aristotle's position with that of Plato), and here Simplicius is in a straightforwardly expository mode, spelling out Aristotle's arguments in syllogistic form, with frequent recourse to the commentary of Alexander of Aphrodisias, who is on occasion gently criticized for misrepresentations of Aristotle.

Far different is the case with Philoponus. Simplicius will not even mention him by name, referring to him as 'this person', or 'the grammarian'. There are two vast segments of polemic, from 119.7 to 144.4 (following the exegesis of 270a12-b25), and from 156.25 to 201.10 (following 270b 26 - 271a 33). The former of these begins as follows:

But again this person, who signs himself 'grammarian', proposes the clear goal of persuading those who are like him to accept that the cosmos is perishable and comes to be at some time, and consequently shows scorn for those who demonstrate that heaven does not come to be or perish; and he stirs up a sewerful of arguments against what Aristotle says here. So let us call upon the great Heracles as a co-worker and descend to clean up the crap of his arguments.

(The imagery of the Augean Stables returns at 136.1: 'I have fallen into the dung of Aegeas'.)

In the process of his rebuttal, Simplicius shows some interesting signs (despite an unwillingness to acknowledge it by name) of aspects of Christian doctrine. He can take a dig at Philoponus' (monophysite) doctrine of the relation of the Son to the Father at 137.29-31, quote the 'prophet' David – as author of the Psalms – at 141.26 ff., and jeer at the Christian belief that the world is soon to come to an end at 143.1-2. All this is hardly surprising, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless, as a relatively rare Neoplatonist acknowledgement that the Christians exist.

Mueller does full justice, I think, to the lively tone of this portion of the work, as well as providing a thoroughly reliable rendering of the more sober portions (though here giving due credit to Hankinson). His only regrettable habit, which could cause some confusion, is his use of angled brackets to signal his own supplements to the translation, rather than additions to the Greek text, as would be normal; but one gets used to this. An interesting feature of Simplicius' commentary is his rather loose quotation of the text of Aristotle – sometimes involving a possible variant reading, but more often simple insouciance – and Mueller is meticulous in noting these variations. One wonders on occasion if Simplicius is simply quoting from memory.

The volume is completed, as is usual in the series, by an English-Greek glossary, a Greek-English index, and a succession of other useful indices. There are also four appendices, listing the fragments of Philoponus, Against Aristotle, the fragments of Alexander's commentary on the De Caelo, a note on the purity of the elements, and a chart of the signs of the zodiac (for those of us whose astrology is a little rusty). Altogether, a most useful and lively addition to the ACA collection.

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