Transcript: 314. Katerina Ierodiakonou on Byzantine Commentaries

Katerina Ierodiakonou discusses Byzantine commentators on Aristotle, including Michael of Ephesus.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be focusing on something in particular, which is philosophical commentaries in the Byzantine tradition and in particular commentaries on Aristotle. Maybe you could start out by just saying who the major commentators on Aristotle were in the Byzantine tradition.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Yes, of course. The first time that we have commentaries in Byzantine times, similar to the commentaries that we find in late antiquity, for example, Alexander of Aphrodisius' commentaries or Ammonius or Philoponus, is in the 12th century. And I'm thinking of the commentaries written by Eustratius of Nicaea and Michael of Ephesus. Before that, we don't really have this kind of detailed running commentaries, but we do have scholia. So we need to think of commentaries in Byzantine times not only as long detailed commentaries, but also either scholia in the margins or paraphrases or introductions to Aristotelian philosophy or small essays on specific topics. So if we have this broader notion of a commentary, then we can think of three different periods in Byzantine times during which scholars would comment on Aristotle. And the first period is the period right after Iconoclasm, so the 9th and the 10th century. And we call it usually the 'Byzantine humanism,' the first Byzantine humanism. And authors at this time were the Patriarch of Constantinople Photias and the Archbishop Arethas. They are more concerned in copying texts so that they can have these ancient philosophical texts.

Peter Adamson: So they're really doing more compilations than original commentaries.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. And in fact, they are interested in making sure that all the works of Aristotle survive and the works of Plato. So in the case of Photias, he's known for his Bibliotheca, which is this kind of compilation of different texts from antiquity. But he has also small essays on Aristotle's categories. And the same with Arethas. He's well known for this annotated manuscript, the Urbinas 35, where he has the whole of Aristotle's Organon, but also here scholia on the categories and on Porphyry's Isagoge. So in this way, this period is a period of mainly scholia on Aristotle's logic. 
Now the next period becomes more interesting, and that is the period of the 11th and 12th century. And we have people like Michael Psellos and John Italos, his student. And they are not only focusing on Aristotle's logic, but we have, for example, in the case of Michael Psellos, we have essays on Aristotle's psychology. So the unity of body and soul is going to be one of the topics that he will discuss. And we have, of course, paraphrases on the Prior Analytics and on the Interpretatione, longer texts. And in the case of John Italos, we have his work, which is called Quaestiones quodlibetales, and it's 93 answers to questions that his students asked him. And there are different issues there that are discussed. So he is going to discuss there things apart from logic. He's also interested in questions about the soul. So again, it's not any more only logic, Aristopelian logic, but other areas of Aristotle's works, like, for example, natural philosophy and psychology. 
Now we arrive at the 12th century, and the 12th century is, as I said, quite interesting because we have Eustratus of Nicaea and Michael of Ephesus, who belong to a group of scholars that Anna Komnene is going to gather around her, and she asks them to work on neglected works of Aristotle's and to produce long commentaries, like the commentaries that we know from late antiquity. So Eustratius is someone who has commented on the first and the sixth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, but also on the second book of the Posterior Analytics. Michael of Ephesus also on the Nicomachean Ethics books, if I remember well, it's the fifth, the ninth, and the tenth of the Nicomachean Ethics, but also Sophistikoi Elenchoi, Metaphysics books 6 to 14, but also the zoological works of Aristotle's. And we don't have other commentaries at the time on these works.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that's a really interesting case, right? Because there aren't any late antique commentaries on the zoological works.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. So the other interesting case is the one about Posterior Analytics. I mean, I said that Eustratus is commenting on the Posterior Analytics, and it seems that at the time, apart from Themistius' Paraphrases on the Posterior Analytics, we don't have - I mean, maybe they had some fragments from Alexander of Aphrodisias' commentary on the second book of the Posterior Analytics, and then we have a pseudo-Philoponous work, but from what I understand, it's later than Eustratius. So they realized that there are some works of Aristotle that they would like to comment on, and they don't have other commentaries available at the time. So that's the exceptional work that was done at the time of Anna Komnene. And that continues with Theodor Prodromos. Again, we have a commentary on the Posterior Analytics, the second book of the Posterior Analytics, Leo Magentinos at the same period, on the Prior Analytics and on De Interpretatione. And we go to the third period of Byzantine commentaries, which is the 13th century until the fall of Constantinople. And in this period, we have works on Aristotle by Nikephoros Blemmydes, but at this period, they are more interested not in producing commentaries, but more encyclopedic works, more compendia introductions to Aristotle and his works, mainly for pedagogical reasons. So Nikephoros Blemmydes is going to have an introduction to physics and introduction to logic. And these are works that are going to be translated into Latin soon. And they are very influential. So Pachymeres, who comes right after Blemmydes, is going to be influenced by Blemmydes' work, and Rhakendytes. Both of them are going also to produce these compendia. And these are works on all aspects of Aristotelian philosophy, not anymore only in logic or natural philosophy.

Peter Adamson: In other words, it's not really a commentary, like where they say, 'here's what each sentence means,' it's more like pulling the whole Aristotelian philosophy together into one place.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. So it's some sort of a hybrid thing - paraphrases plus compendium plus introduction. I mean, it's that sort of thing. And for example, in the case of Rhakendytes, most of what he has to say is already found in Blemmydes and Pachymeres. So they are repeating themselves quite a lot.

Peter Adamson: Sounds like they pretty much use every vehicle to tell you an Aristotle other than podcasts. Okay, is that the last group of commentators that we get then before the fall of Constantinople?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: No, there are three more that I would like to mention. We have Sophonias who writes paraphrases and he writes a paraphrase on the De Anima. He writes one on the Categories on the Prior Analytics, the Sophistikoi Elenchoi. Some of them we thought that they - we didn't know that they are by him, but now more scholars would agree that Sophonias must be the author in these cases. Then we have Theodor Metochitis, who is someone who paraphrases all of Aristotle's writings on natural philosophy. And at the end, we have another patriarch of Constantinople, George Gennadius Scholarius. And in his case, what is very interesting is that his commentaries are very much influenced by the Latin works on Aristotle, but also by Avicenna and Averroes. So there is a development in the way commentaries are written.

Peter Adamson: So at this point we have basically transmission backwards and forwards. So Greek philosophy influencing Latin philosophy and Latin philosophy and even Arabic philosophy influencing Greek. Would they have known Avicenna and Averroes by means of a Latin translation?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Yes, most probably that's how it comes to them. I mean, it's not that they know how to read the Arabic.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Well, obviously you've just mentioned a lot of commentators.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Yeah, not household names.

Peter Adamson: Not exactly. But I guess after this podcast series they hopefully will be, at least in some households. And I guess the upshot of that is that we have a lot of commentarie - very few of which have been studied in any detail. Is the sheer number of commentaries even greater than the number of commentaries from antiquity, for example?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: I'll give you an example in the case of the categories, which is a work that they were reading a lot and commented on a lot in Byzantine times. We know that there were 30 ancient commentaries, but there are only eight which are extant. And we have 15 Byzantine commentaries, but we have 200 in the Latin West. So they have produced a lot, but of course it's a much smaller world, the world of Byzantium.

Peter Adamson: And you're talking about surviving commentaries.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly, yes. And of course we probably just don't know how many lost Greek commentaries there were. And also we have a lot of anonymous commentaries. So if these are also studied, then maybe we will have a much better idea of the production of commentaries in Byzantine times. But I think that we can say that it's one-tenth of what we find in the Latin West. I mean, we don't have more than that.

Peter Adamson: Okay. But on the other hand, less studied. Can you say something about the practical context that actually produced these commentaries? I mean, for late antiquity, if we think about the commentaries that were written in Alexandria in the school of Ammonius - something I covered a long time ago on the podcast, we're imagining a teaching situation where a teacher is lecturing and then often the commentaries are even labeled as being from the voice of Ammonius. In other words, it's a record of what he said during the lectures. Is that pretty much the situation with these commentaries as well?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Look, in Byzantium, we don't have the autonomous universities of the Latin West, certainly. So when we talk about higher education in Byzantium, it's not as organized as it is in the West. As I said, the Greek-speaking world was much smaller and it was decreasing. And it was a place where, I mean, the higher education was mainly for officials of the state and the church, not for scholars. So it's a very different environment than what you find in the Latin West or in late antiquity. So there was something that we usually refer to as the Imperial School of Constantinople. We know very little about how it was organized. At the same time, there was a patriarchal school, but that was mainly for the education of the clergy. And then there was private tuition, but all that was not done in a very organized way. And it changes from one period to another, depending on the emperor and depending on the situation in the patriarchate.

Peter Adamson: So depending on how well they're doing at holding off the Muslim armies.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. Yes, yes, of course. But there is some sort of, we can talk about some sort of philosophical curriculum. I mean, it's quite modest. I mean, they would have studied some works on Aristotle logic. And of course, I'm thinking of Porphyry's Isagoge, Aristotle's Categories and the De Interpretatione, Prior Analytics, one to seven, and Sophistical Refutations. And they will add to that, which I think is quite interesting, something about Stoic logic as well at the end, sometimes not distinguishing it from Aristotelian logic, but some sort of an appendix on the hypothetical syllogistic. So they would do some logic, then they would do some Aristotelian physics, and they would read some of the Physics and On Generation and Corruption and Meteorology, and then some mathematics and that's it. And you understand now why we have all these commentaries on logical works. And when they start producing all these other commentaries on the Ethics, for example, it's not to use them in higher education. I mean, it is more for their own use or for a very small group of people who would be interested in Aristotle.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Well, that makes it sound like one point of continuity between the late antique situation and the Byzantine tradition is that Aristotle is used to set a curriculum of study. And this, as I say, is true of late antiquity also, which is kind of ironic because in late antiquity, they're all Neoplatonists. And they think of Aristotle as a more introductory set of texts than Plato. Is that still true in the Byzantine tradition? I mean, to what extent do they see Aristotle as being on a par with Plato or as being a more introductory authoritative source? I mean, obviously he's authoritative or they wouldn't be writing all these commentaries on him. But how would they situate him relative to Plato?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: They will follow the Neoplatonists in this regard. And they will think that Plato and Aristotle are, I mean, Aristotle is equal to Plato. A lot of times we are trying to classify the different Byzantine scholars as Platonists or as Aristotelians. But I think that's very misleading. And it's very misleading because this kind of distinction is going to become clear at the end of the Byzantine era when there is a big debate, a controversy between Plethon, who was a fervent Platonist, and Scholarius, this patriarch of Constantinople, who was an Aristotelian. And that's when it is clear that some of them are Platonists and some of them are Aristotelians. So it is quite anachronistic to talk about the Byzantine scholars as Platonists or as Aristotelians before that period.

Peter Adamson: But there's a temptation to read that conflict back into the early period.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly, yes. And I think it is misleading because in the previous generations of commentators, we have more some sort of eclecticism that we find in Neoplatonism as well, where of course Aristotle is going to be read through neoplatonism, but also other traditions are going to be added. And they will know something about Stoicism, so we will have some references to the Stoics. But the main difference is that of course they will have a lot, I mean, they will try to make their views compatible to the Christian beliefs that they have at the same time. So that's going to be something that will differentiate them quite a bit from the Neoplatonists. And I would like to give one example so that things become a bit clearer. So you have Eustratius of Nicaea, I've mentioned him already twice, 12th century, and he writes this commentary on the Posterior Analytics, the second book on the Posterior Analytics and the last chapter. So the question is about the knowledge of first principles. And what he's going to make clear is that he's not going to accept Plato's view that we have knowledge of the first principles already from our previous lives.

Peter Adamson: That's the theory of recollection.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. And he doesn't agree also with Aristotle, so it is not that we are born with some sort of potential knowledge which becomes actualized because of learning and experience. Also that's not what is the case according to him. But he thinks that we are born, or God creates us, with all the knowledge that we need to have. So the human soul has the knowledge because it is created by God. But then we have all these bodily impulses that are not going to allow us to have the knowledge that we should have. And what we are supposed to do is get rid of these impulses and then we can have the knowledge of first principles that we want to have. So he does come up with a very different view than the Neoplatonists or than Aristotle, because exactly he tries to present a more Christian way of looking at it.

Peter Adamson: Almost like a weird fusion of Augustine and Plato's theory of recollection. So instead of having it from before you were born, God gives it to you, but he doesn't give it to you one bit at a time like in Augustine - he gives it to you all at once and you have to bring it actually to your mental attention. And more generally, can you say something about how the Christian context of these commentaries affects the way that philosophy is seen or the way that they carry out the task of commenting on Aristotle?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: You see, in Byzantine times, philosophy seems to have acquired two different senses. I mean, philosophy is this kind of discipline which is engaged with the questions that the ancient philosophers were engaged with. But at the same time, philosophy is connected with the Christian way of life and thinking or even with asceticism. And sometimes these two senses are going to reinforce each other and these are the cases in which ancient philosophy is going to be used in order to even prove some of the Christian dogmas. But in other cases, it will seem to be the case that we have some sort of conflict between the two. And different Byzantine commentators will have different views. So for example, we have someone from the 14th century, I haven't mentioned him, Nicephorus Gregoras, and he thinks that ancient logic, all this philosophical reasoning is for mediocre minds. I mean, it's not going to help us understand the principles of reality, the essence of God, so there is no point in working on logic. On the other hand, we have people like Pselos in the 11th century, and he will stress that it is an indispensable instrument, logic, in order to find the truth. Now Italos is the most interesting of all these cases because he is the man who in 1082 was anathematized by the Orthodox Church, and we don't have other cases like that. I mean, Eustratius was also anathematized, but they changed their minds after a while, whereas with Italos, you can still, in the Synodikon, you can still hear some of these anathemas in the Orthodox Church.

Peter Adamson: So he stayed anathematized!

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. So, in his case, what is very interesting is that he actually wants to use philosophical reasoning, logical reasoning, systematically, so that he proves some of the Christian beliefs - which have to do, for example, with the two natures of Christ or the resurrection of Christ. Or he discusses miracles using some philosophical arguments. And he does all that because he thinks that theology is a part of philosophy and not the other way around. So it is not that philosophy plays, according to him, some sort of an auxiliary role. It is philosophy which is important, where we can find the truth, and theology is the culmination of philosophy, very much like the way that philosophy and theology are treated by ancient philosophers, because, of course, theology is going to be part of the ancient philosophical traditions. So he's someone who very much thinks that ancient philosophy needs to be studied systematically, and it will help us in our Christian beliefs. But the problem is that he's anathematized.

Peter Adamson: Which of those two views is more representative of the cultural standing of philosophy in the Byzantine era? I mean, is it often being attacked, or are the attacks more selective?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: I think in most cases, they try to keep a stand in between, which is that Aristotle and philosophy is important as some sort of preparation. But we should know that there are limits to how much we can understand and know using ancient philosophical arguments. So I think that what they will stress is that we need ancient philosophy, but up to a point. Then illumination is important, or God's grace is important. So I think that's the view of the majority of these scholars.

Peter Adamson: And there's a high cultural value placed on certain pagan texts anyway, Homer, for example, who's read throughout the Byzantine period, and Plato, presumably, and Aristotle's another pagan author who largely is respected. And the question isn't whether he's worthless. The question is exactly how is it worthwhile?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. How much we can use him without creating problems.

Peter Adamson: Right. Okay, well, I thought we could end by just focusing in on one commentator. You've written about a number of different commentators, but I thought the one I would ask you about is Michael of Ephesus, because he wrote a commentary on the Ethics, which is unusual, as you said already. I mean, we don't have a lot of commentary literature on the Ethics from late antiquity. What does he do with the Ethics that's interesting or worthwhile, would you say?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Yeah, Michael of Ephesus certainly follows the Neoplatonists in many of his interpretations of the Aristotelian Ethics. But from time to time, he comes up with some interesting ideas. Of course, we don't know whether these ideas were already presented by someone else in another commentary that Michael was using when he was writing his. So we don't know whether he's really original. But at least from the evidence that we have, there is nobody else who follows these kinds of interpretations. And I can give you one example, at least from his commentary, which I find quite interesting. And the issue is the connection between eudaimonia, happiness, and pleasure. So whether pleasure is part of eudaimonia or not. And he's going to say, of course, 'pleasure is not part of eudaimonia.' And he feels he follows Aristotle in saying that. And then he realizes that pleasure is inseparable from eudaimonia. So what is exactly the connection between pleasure and eudaimonia?

Peter Adamson: Because Aristotle says so.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly. And he has quite a bit to say about pleasure. And what Michael of Ephesus is going to say is that pleasure should be understood as some kind of a symptom of eudaimonia. So he uses for the first time this kind of metaphor, pleasure as a symptom of eudaimonia, that we don't find in other commentators. So it's some sort of a medical metaphor.

Peter Adamson: It was literally this word they would use for the symptom you get in a disease.

Katerina Ierodiakonou: Exactly, symptom. Yeah. And what is quite interesting is that it's going to be some sort of a symptom that supervenes over eudaimonia. And of course, this talk about supervening is, we find it also in Aristotle, but Aristotle doesn't give us a way to understand what he means by supervening. I mean, he doesn't have some sort of explanation. And what Michael is going to say is that it is some sort of a symptom, like we are talking about tertian fever, and the symptom is to vomit. And the symptom in this case - you don't need to know it in order to know what kind of disease you have. So then supervening in this case means that you don't necessarily need to know what supervenes on something in order to know the essence of this thing. So we can know something about this fever without knowing the symptoms. And that's exactly the case with pleasure and eudaimonia, that we can discuss eudaimonia we know what eudaimonia is all about without necessarily knowing much about pleasure. But still, pleasure is this kind of symptom which supervenes over eudaimonia. So whatever you think about this as a way of thinking about pleasure, certainly it is not in our ancient sources. And it's quite interesting to think whether he's right in understanding pleasure in this way, but also in understanding what it means in this case to supervene.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, yeah, I like that. Because actually, Plato and Aristotle, they both seem to feel under a lot of pressure to say that the best life, which might be the life of philosophy, will be pleasant - because after all, who wants to live a life devoid of pleasure? But on the other hand, they don't want to go so far as to say that pleasure is constitutive of the best life, because that's what the hedonists say. And they don't even want to say that it's partially constitutive of the best life. And this would be a way of avoiding that, because you say that even though it's in no way a part of the best life, it automatically comes along for free the way that certain symptoms just go along with certain diseases, inevitably, I guess, right?

Katerina Ierodiakonou: And the other thing that he does, which I find also quite interesting, is that I'm sure you know and you've discussed it in your podcasts, I mean, these views about eudaimonia, whether it's contemplation that is needed or whether moral virtues are needed or external goods are needed, you know, all this discussion. And in the case of Michael, he's very clear that there are two different kinds of eudaimonia. I mean, there is a political eudaimonia, which has to do with the moral virtues, and there's a theoretical eudaimonia, which has to do with the intellectual virtues. And human beings, as some sort of combination of body and soul, can achieve only the kind of practical eudaimonia, whereas it's only our true self, I mean, this kind of true human being who can achieve this, the intellectual, the theoretical eudaimonia, which is connected with contemplation. And what he says, which I find quite interesting, is that if you manage to achieve this theoretical eudaimonia, then - and then he starts then with his Christian views, that regret and redemption are not needed anymore. So you know, there are these kind of small additions here and there, and you realize that you have a Christian writer and author who is trying to apply what he has learned, what he knows from his - you know, from Christianity, and that makes it somewhat interesting.

Peter Adamson: It's like he works his way through Aristotle and at the end he becomes more Platonist and also Christian at the same time. 


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