Wednesday, April 26, 2017


James Wilberding, Forms, Souls and Embryos: Neoplatonists on Human Reproduction. Issues in ancient philosophy. London; New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp. ix, 232. ISBN 9781138955271. $140.00.

Reviewed by Sophia M. Connell, Selwyn College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


'Leave the starry heavens alone', Plato exhorts (Republic 530c), forever after associating Platonism and its descendants with a lack of interest in natural science. One of the least dignified parts of natural science is that to do with reproduction or embryology. Surely those that promote a vision of a world as a reflection of a supreme godlike reality would not bother themselves with what occurs in the wombs of lowly female animals? But they did, as is revealed by this astonishing and fascinating study of Neoplatonist embryology. There are these caveats to be made, of course. Neoplatonist embryology, as ingenious and intricate as it is, shows no engagement with data collection or experimentation (p. 5). As with astronomy, it was driven 'entirely by higher order concerns' (p. 7) and so is very much on the theoretical side of science. The effort is focused on explaining this phenomenon in terms of how the sensible world reflects and is causally connected to the intelligible. Thus Wilberding's study is one of the most philosophical books one could ever imagine on embryology.

Wilberding's eye-opening book maps embryology onto Neoplatonic ontology more generally. This is done by undertaking a meticulous examination of a series of difficult-to-decipher texts ranging from classical antiquity to the 12th century CE, whose styles of writing and points of reference differ dramatically. Wilberding manages to order this material by establishing what the core Neoplatonic theory of embryology is. This then acts as a 'yardstick' by which to sort other texts that either focus on or mention embryological themes. Wilberding brings to light two key things. First, the importance of this moment in the history of embryology, and second the unusual, one might say radical, position on the female role. The female (or woman) is the active agent in generation or the 'actualiser'.

The book is organised in a helpful manner. Chapter 1 gives us Plato's own references to embryology, focusing on how Neoplatonists interpreted and tried to stay true to his view. It is also structured by general stances in ancient embryology, such as the contributions of male and female and the origin of semen in the body (whether from blood, marrow or the whole body). The second chapter focuses on Neoplatonist ontology, particularly from Plotinus and the way he compares cosmogony to sexual generation. Chapter 3 then turns to Neoplatonic embryology and the 'core theory'. An Appendix to Chapter 3 provides interpretations of a series of other texts that focus on or include embryology and which have elements of the core theory. None of these are entirely in line with the 'core theory' and so are deemed 'eclectic'. Chapter 4 is on the formation and animation of the embryo and the final chapter discusses the problem of monstrous births and the degeneration of kinds. There is also an Epilogue on the possible impact of the 'female actualisation thesis' and an exhortation to future research.

Chapters 2 and 3 are the central focus of the book; it is here that Neoplatonist metaphysics and causal principles are elucidated and then mapped onto embryological theory. As Wilberding explains, the Intellect is generated from the One because 'production necessarily follows from perfection' (PNP). Another principle that cannot be violated is that the product is always an inferior likeness of the producer (PIP). And finally there is the priority of the actual to the potential (PAP). All three fundamental principles are in place in explaining the creation of the visible world from the One and the Indefinite Dyad. The One creates the Intellect and the Dyad (which is 'procession'); these two must then work together to create the forms (which is 'reversion'). Procession is associated explicitly with the male and reversion with the female. Thus the female is playing an active role here.

Turning then to Neoplatonic embryology, Chapter 3 begins with a captivating account of the treatise entitled To Gaurus on How Embryos Are Formed (Ad Gaurum) by the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, who studied with Plotinus; this text was only discovered in the last century in a dusty monastery. Wilberding explains clearly how his embryology reflects the philosophical principles explained in Chapter 2. The One has to produce something (PNP) and something inferior to it but like it (PIP)—the Pre-Intellect or Dyad. This is equivalent to the seed that the male produces that is inferior to him because it exists in potentiality. This seed carries in it immaterial form-principles that are actualised by two external agents—the mother and the heavenly bodies. These main tenets of Neoplatonic embryology are then traced in other core theorists including Proclus, Themistius, Ammonius Hermeiou, Asclepius, Simplicius, and John Philoponus.

The Appendix to Chapter 3 covers many treatises that do not have enough about them to count as Neoplatonic embryology but have elements of it or hint at a knowledge particularly of the idea that the mother is active and has formative powers (p. 102). Chapter 4 then moves on to discuss the formation and animation of the embryo about which there seems to have been less consensus. Thinkers either opted for the seminal or the pneumatic-body theory. The seminal theory posits that the soul and its parts exist in potentiality in the semen, whereas the pneumatic-body theory has it that all the parts of the soul enter at birth. (The rational soul, which is immaterial, picks up the non-rational parts as its pneumatic body during its descent into the body.) The chapter includes an illuminating discussion of how Philoponus manages to find ingenious ways to make the seminal theory accord with PIP and PAP (pp. 142-50). The final chapter details worries about the degeneration of the human kind, showing how Neoplatonists were able to bypass this problem. Since the product is worse than the producer (PIP) one might worry that offspring would always end up worse than parents. This can be avoided because the form principles that shape offspring are not made by parents but are from a universal source.

This is a fascinating book, well worth reading if you have any interest in Platonic philosophy or ancient philosophy more generally. However, it is not an easy read and on top of this quite a lot of knowledge is assumed. At times it was not clear what counts as Neoplatonist—the criteria might have been set out more clearly at the outset, as well as the chronology of the thinkers and texts discussed.

The idea that there is a core embryological theory provides a very pleasing structure to the book and gives it a tight coherence. Wilberding makes a strong case that the core theory, and especially the theory found in Ad Gaurum, fits with key parts of Neoplatonism. However, we have less information about his other 'core theorists', and the line between a core theorist an eclectic theorist is not always that clear. Wilberding attempts to sort through some pretty difficult and confusing texts, looking for features of the core account. One might worry that this distracts from treating these as sources of information in their own right about views on embryology at the time. Rather than being confused, some of the works may not be theoretical but rather more like compilations or compendia. So, for instance, pseudo- Galen's De Spermate, rather than being thought to combine all three origins for semen, could be presenting them as possibilities or alternatives (p. 105).

One theme that is briefly touched on in the book is the effect of upgrading the female role in reproduction. For the Neoplatonists the mother is the active agent, actualising the form principles that are merely potential in the male seed. At several points Wilberding labels this 'a quiet revolution in embryology' (p. 1). The possible positive implications of the doctrine are brought out most forcefully toward the end of Chapter 3 where the following remark is made:

"This [embryological theory] is historically significant insofar as the proponent of the maternal actualisation thesis no longer gives the male the pride of place he receives in Aristotelian embryology, rather both the male and female nature are more or less accorded equal weight. This may be seen as an important corrective to much of the androcentric embryology that the Neoplatonists inherited."

This remark invites comment. First of all, it seems that the contrast with Aristotelian theory is exaggerated both in its contents and its implications. Although Aristotle holds that the female is not the active agent in generation, she does contribute semen of a sort that is able to aid in forming parts of the offspring. The idea that for Aristotle, male seed already possesses soul in actuality is also questionable. Furthermore, this is no evidence that Aristotle's views were used at the time to undermine women. Second, it is not at all clear that this would have been seen as a 'corrective' to its proponents. As Wilberding himself notes, the metaphysics of Neoplatonism seems to require the maternal actualisation thesis; the theory was motivated by higher order concerns of that kind. It is improbable in any case that this either reflected or led to more respect for actual women. Wilberding is of two minds about the connections between the maternal actualisation thesis and female equality. He is inclined to think that theory has little to do with practice, writing that his own understanding 'is that this more commensurate understanding of women was not accompanied by a more commensurate social and political view of women.' After all, Porphyry denigrates his own wife's femininity (p. 171). On the other hand, he wants to leave it open that future research might link the two—and find it to be the case that women were better treated by Neoplatonists. 'If Aristotle's biology is often cited as evidence of a rather misogynistic world- view then why should the embryology of Neoplatonism not be seen as evidence of their distancing themselves from such a worldview?' Of course it is unlikely that this could be evidence of this. Whether a theory accords an active or positive role to the female in generation does not tend to make any difference to whether the culture views women as equal to men. Even at present, where our science posits equivalent genetic contributions from both sexes, women are often still seen to be inferior.

The evidence we have is actually open to various interpretations. Perhaps Neoplatonists did not 'refrain from stressing the novelty of their theory' (p. 171) out of modesty but out of the desire to keep quiet about something that might have helped actual women. We could see them as misogynistic. It is also possible to find sympathy to feminism of the Platonic variety. As Wilberding says in a footnote, Porphyry also tells his wife not to be overly concerned whether she has a male or female body, and given what Plato says in Republic V this is unsurprising (p. 173 n. 2). It certainly seems worth exploring more documents like Porphyry's letter to his wife in this context (she, by the way, was known to be a keen philosopher as well as the mother of seven children).

Wilberding makes a strong case for including Neoplatonist embryology in the history of the subject (p. 172). There is a recognition here that this was a continuous field of research amongst philosophers, who puzzled over the deep metaphysical problems of the generation of animals. It is time that we took more notice of philosophical engagement with embryological theory from the earliest thinkers to the early modern period. Wilberding's book is a major advance in scholarship in this area and will surely open up substantial avenues for further research.

The typescript is immaculate; there are comprehensive notes, an excellent bibliography and index locorum. In short, this book in outstanding in content, style and presentation.

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