Sunday, September 9, 2012


Béatrice Bakhouche (ed.), Calcidius: Commentaire au Timée de Platon. 2 vols. Histoire des doctrines de l'antiquité classique 42. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2011. Pp. 934. ISBN 9782711622641. €75.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Clifford Ando, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site

In the volumes under review, Béatrice Bakhouche offers a thoroughly welcome two-volume edition and translation of, and commentary on, Calcidius's translation of and commentary on Plato's Timaeus. This is only the second translation of Calcidius into a modern language, following Claudio Moreschini's Italian translation for Bompiani, itself an heroic labor with elegant results; an English translation by John Magee is in preparation.1 The text of Calcidius is on any estimation a monument of late ancient Latinate intellectual culture, and Bakhouche should be thanked for her efforts in making the text more accessible and more intelligible than it has been hitherto.

Both Moreschini and Bakhouche rely, to differing degrees, upon the critical edition prepared by Jan Hendrik Waszink, of which the second edition appeared in 1975.2 Waszink's is one of the great editions of the twentieth century, the indifference of the community of classical scholarship to its appearance notwithstanding. Beyond considerable advances on Wrobel in locating and collating mss and establishing a stemma, Waszink provided a massive apparatus of sources and parallels, a list of Greek-to-Latin correspondences employed by Calcidius in his translation, together with a similar list running Latin-to-Greek that embraces the commentary as well, and a comprehensive lexicon and concordance of scientific and philosophical terms employed in the commentary, glossed with Greek equivalents and remarks on Calcidius's usage. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the foundation that Waszink laid for future scholarship in this work.

This is not to say that Waszink's work was altogether ignored, but the reception granted his edition is telling in regards to the shape of scholarship thereafter, including that of Bakhouche. Waszink naturally assessed earlier work regarding the date and place of the text's composition and the identity of its author. This is not the place to review the details. Suffice it to say that the arguments had two forms. First, scholars have sought to identify the addressee of the dedicatory epistle with which the text begins: the name supplied is Osius, and scholars have sought to identify this Osius with one of the small number of homonymous individuals attested in the late fourth century. (The premises of such efforts, that there must be overlap among literary and political cultures, as among genres of document and across types of evidence, strike me as fragile in the extreme.) Second, Waszink attempted to identify not simply texts that Calcidius had used or which preserved traditions on which he drew, but also those of the late fourth and early fifth century that are likely to have used his work. His efforts in this regard received a partial affirmation, but also a rebuke, from Pierre Paul Courcelle, published in Festschrift dedicated to Waszink in 1973.3 They more or less agreed in situating Calcidius in North Italy, even in Milan, in the last decades of the fourth century: but Courcelle remained unwilling to countenance either that Calcidius had used Porphyry or that Augustine had used Calcidius, positions that he staked out already in Les lettres grecques en Occident de Macrobe à Cassiodore and which he was unwilling to revise.4

This impasse had the effect of relegating Calcidius to limbo. Unable to situate the writing of his text in space and time with precision, scholars have signally failed to address to it literary or intellectual-historical questions, nor adduced it in any larger program of study of intellectual or translation cultures of the late fourth century. Calcidius thus looms large in histories of Platonism in the medieval west, where his text played a role second only to Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (Bakhouche pp. 56-67), and work in that field has resulted in the discovery of still further mss beyond the 148 considered by Waszink (Bakhouche pp. 68-71). But the study of Calcidius's text as an intellectual achievement, and the product of an intellectual culture, remains stillborn.

This is true even of Bakhouche's very honorable work, whose introduction treats nearly exactly the same questions as those raised by Waszink, in the same order, within the same evidentiary and epistemological parameters: she analyzes the structure of the commentary, its language (briefly), sources, reception and influence. The exception are a half-dozen stunted pages (41-47) that study his method, religious affiliation, and Platonism. Vastly more space is devoted to a schematic comparison of Cicero and Calcidius as translators. But even here, bracketing a half page indebted to J. N. Adams on calques and loan-shift (p. 115), Bakhouche operates at the level of grammatical description and some remarks on "style." Thus, although Bakhouche discusses elsewhere hapakes in Calcidius and words apparently coined in his age (pp. 47-48 and 51-52, following Waszink pp. xiv-xv), the opportunity to reflect on the culture of translation in North Italy at the close of the fourth century is not seized, nor are reflections offered on what these patterns in diction and coinage can tell us about the on-going fluidity of Latin philosophical vocabulary or the cognitive gaps between Greek and Latinate cultures that non-correspondence between lexemes at the level of temporality, ontology or metonymic reach might reveal.

This is a pity, because problems of language difference were understandably an interest of Calcidius himself. It is not simply that he occasionally cites Greek terms (always in transliteration, I believe, which marks a distinct change from Cicero's practice) to signal the elevation of some Latin term to specialized usage. He also observes the inability of Latin to capture distinctions made in Greek. A notable instance occurs late in the chapters on matter, when Calcidius considers the metaphorical nature of Plato's vocabulary concerning matter and the receptacle, contrasting his language and arguments with the different vocabularies and positions of his successors. The paragraph closes:

Nobis autem nequaquam placet eandem silvam esse et qualitatem, quippe quarum altera sit quasi quaedam subiecta materia, alter accidens quid eidem materiae. Quae causa est cur silva patibilis esse probetur, quippe quae suscipiat diversas qualitates ex immutatione. (§308)

Bakhouche translates as follows:

Quant à nous, nous ne pensons pas que matière et qualité ce soit la même chose, car l'une est un substrat matériel, et l'autre est accident de cette même matière. C'est par là que l'on prouve que la matière est passive, puisqu'à la suite de son changement, elle reçoit des qualités différentes.

Here as elsewhere, Bakhouche provides an elegant and clear translation, which is in very many respects a faultless guide to the text. That said, she has chosen to use the terminology of contemporary Platonists, and in so doing, she has avoided taking a position on just what gap of clarity, expression, translation or intellectual Calcidius's quasi was intended to flag—indeed, the term goes wholly untranslated.

Sticking with this theme, let us how Bakhouche handles two further sentences on matter:

Necessitatem porro nunc appellat ὕλην, quam nos Latine « silvam » possumus nominare, ex qua est rerum universitas eademque patibilis natura, quippe subiecta corpori principaliter, in qua qualitates et quantitates et omnia quae accidunt proveniunt... (§268)

Or il appelle maintenant la nécessité ὕλη, ce que nous, en latin, nous pouvons dénommer silva, origine de l'ensemble des choses et qui est aussi une substance sensible, car c'est la substrat premier du corps, dans lequel se manifestent les qualités, les quantités et tous les autres accidents...

Recta est igitur nostra opinio neque ignem neque terram nec aquam nec spiritum esse silvam, sed materiam principalem et corporis primam subiectionem, in qua non qualitas, non forma, non quantitas, non figura sit ex natura propria, sed virtute opificis haec ei cuncta conexa sint, ut ex his universo corpori et singillatim perfectio et communiter varietas comparetur. (§316)

Nous avons donc raison de penser qua la matière n'est ni feu, ni terre, ni eau, ni air, mais un matériau primordial et le premier substrat du corps, qui par sa nature propre n'a ni qualité, ni forme, ni quantité, ni figure, mais qui s'en trouve pourvu par le pouvoir de l'artisan, pour que ces éléments procurent au corps de l'univers perfection dans chacune de ses parties et variété dans leur ensemble.

I confine myself to two remarks. First, Bakhouche prints ὕλην for hylen of the mss, but I believe the word was "restored" to Greek letters only in the printed editions of 1520 and 1718. (Bakhouche prints hylen at §123, without any note.) Second, Bakhouche does not comment on silva as a translation for ὕλη except to say that (i) it is "the literal translation of Greek ὕλη" (p. 725 n. 21) and (ii) it is not unique to Calcidius, having been used in this sense by Tertullian, De anima 2 (p. 832 n. 841). This seems to me insufficient. As it happens, De anima was also edited by Waszink, who glosses silva on this occasion with multitudo, and something of the sort must be correct.5 What is more, the semantic affinity of ὕλη and silva to one side, materia was used in late fourth-century Latin to mean precisely "matter" or perhaps "raw material" or "material basis." The choice of silva over materia within philosophical discourse therefore invites comment, if it does not demand explanation. To the extent that it was selected for reasons of semantic affinity, Bakhouche's decision to translate silva with "matière" and materia with "matériau" at §316 (again) privileges one form of contemporary reading over the priorities that, according to her, motivated Calcidius himself. And finally, in another Latinate intellectual tradition, a different term in the same domain, namely lignum, had figured for at least a century and a half in a very similar debate: how was one to distinguish lignum from lignum from lignum, which is to say, wood from wood-qua-firewood from wood-qua- materia, which is to say, building supplies--this last being a meaning also carried by ὕλη, as it happens.6 An opportunity to study Calcidius as a figure within a distinctively Latinate intellectual world was here passed up.

Bakhouche and the publisher J. Vrin have done scholarship a real service. For a very reasonable price, they have dramatically enhanced the accessibility of a fascinating and neglected text. The Latin text is reliable and the translation marvelously clear, even if its priorities are not always ones that I share. The scholarly apparatus that surrounds, contextualizes and explains the text, however, strikes me as something of a missed opportunity, too limited in its ambitions and too content in the comments it does make merely to cite a source, indicate a parallel or mark an unsuccessful translation (through quotation of both Latin and Greek with only the symbol ≠ by way of explanation). Let us hope this edition, together with those of Moreschini and Magee, enable readings of the sort this text deserves.


1.   Claudio Moreschini, ed. and trans., Calcidio. Commentario al Timeo di Platone, Milan: I edizione Bompiani, 2003. So far as I know, Moreschini's effort received a single review, by Christophe Erisman in Revue de théologie et de philosophie 135 (2003) 258-9. Magee's translation will be published by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library.
2.   J.H. Waszink, ed., Timaeus a Calcidio translatus commentarioque instructus, prepared with the aid of P. J. Jensen, Plato Latinus 4, ed. R. Klibansky, London: Warburg Institute and Leiden: Brill, 1975. The first edition appeared in 1962. The second edition includes updated bibliography, new notices regarding two complete and two partial manuscripts as well as textual and exegetical addenda (see esp. pp. clxxxiv-cxciv). Where the text is concerned, Moreschini prints that of Waszink; Bakhouche strikes a more conservative stance, resulting in some 30 differences, relying on a collation of 9 mss. She appears otherwise to rely on the reports contained in the apparatus of Wrobel and Waszink (pp. 103, 129).
3.   P.P. Courcelle, "Ambroise de Milan et Calcidius," in W. den Boer, P. G. van der Nat, C. M. H. Sicking and J. C. M. van Winden, eds., Studia I. H. Waszink (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1973), 45-53.
4.   See P.P. Courcelle, Late Latin writers and their Greek sources, translated by Harry E. Wedeck from the second French edition of 1948 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 169-170.
5.   J. H. Waszink, ed., Quinti Septimi Florentis Tertulliani De Anima, Amsterdam: J. M. Muelenhoff, 1947, ad 2.6.
6.   Ulpian ad Sabinum bk. 25 fr. 2679 Lenel = Dig. 32.55.

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