Transcript: 99 - Richard Sorabji on the Commentators

Sir Richard Sorabji, founder of the Ancient Commentators Project, joins Peter to discuss the history of ancient commentary on Aristotle.
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You're a particularly appropriate person, maybe the most appropriate person I could have to talk about the ancient commentators, because for many years you've been running a translation series, the Ancient Commentators Project, at King's, which I think is just about to produce its hundredth volume, is that right?

That's right.

Can you start maybe by telling us how you got the idea for this very ambitious project and how it came to fruition?

Well, when I was a very young lecturer in my first job in America at Cornell University, I said to an older colleague, Norman Kretzman, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have a translation of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle? I was very ignorant in those days, I merely thought it would be so useful for understanding Aristotle, which was true. I didn't realize how interesting they were in their own right. And twenty years later, Kretzman was chairman of the committee which was deciding on grants for translation projects for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the main American government federal fund for funding humanities. And he asked his committee, when they'd done their years work and selections, what would be the ideal application we'd like to see? And every member of the committee suggested something, he suggested the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, and they all voted for that as the number one choice. So it came about that I was asked whether I would do that, although I'd have to apply, and I said no.

Why did you say no?

Well, I said, look, I want to write my own books on various subjects in the history of philosophy, and how would I ever have time to do anything except this? And then I said, look, I'll show you that it's impossible, and I wrote to fifty colleagues and said, this would be impossible, wouldn't it, all over the world. Well, I got back forty-nine out of fifty saying, no, you must do it. And thirteen of them said, furthermore, I've actually drafted a translation of something, only I thought nobody would be interested, would you like to see it?

So you were stuck.

Well, I was almost stuck. I wasn't quite stuck yet, because I said, yes, but look, even so, I said, I wouldn't do it without having research assistants, because I still worried that I wanted to write other things as well. So that was worked out. But even after that, I had to write the proposal, and it had to be checked by fifty-eight referees, because that was their rules in those days. And there was one more snag before it finished.

Well, what was the snag then?

Just before the final deadline, the NEH contacted me and said, there's been a difficulty. The most distinguished scholar of ancient philosophy at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton has expressed his very strong disapproval of your project. He has said, it is quite impossible to get this fellow, Zerabji, to translate or organize translating the commentators before the text has been improved, and you refuse to grant to my very best pupil for editing just one volume, or rather two volumes, a two-volume work in this series. Well, if you're not going to improve the Greek text first by re-editing it, you shouldn't be paying anybody to translate it. So I said, oh, that's fine. And I was nearby in Princeton at the time, so I went round to the Institute of Advanced Studies and knocked on the door of this great man, and I said, you don't know me, but I'd like to talk, because I think we've got a great opportunity. It seems to me this is a chance to say to the National Endowment for the Humanities that both of our projects should be funded, the re-editing and the translating, on the condition that both parties exchange all their information. Don't you think that would be a good idea? And happily, this great man was delighted with the proposal and wrote to the National Endowment to back it.

And so that's how we got to where we are today.

That's right.

And you said that one of your original motivations for this whole project and for reading the commentators more generally is that they can help us to understand Aristotle. And I guess that that has also come to fruition. So can you give us a few examples of where they've helped you to understand Aristotle better?

Yes. Well, I've got a paper just published this week about five lines of Aristotle and what the commentator said about those lines, lines which they took to be giving Aristotle's view of the meaning of nouns and verbs. It relates to modern questions about whether we have representations in ourselves when we mean something. And if so, whether those representations are likenesses or symbols. Aristotle mentions both likenesses and symbols in these five lines. And you realize when you read the commentators, you have to be very, very careful if you want to see what Aristotle meant. He starts by saying names and verbs are symbols of thoughts, except that he doesn't put it quite so simply because he uses a roundabout phrase, what is in names and verbs. And instead of thoughts, he says experiences. But that's how the commentators take it. Names and verbs are symbols of thoughts. And he says equally, sounds are symbols of thoughts. Not of things. You might have thought they were symbols of things. No, they're symbols of thoughts. And then he says that these thoughts are likenesses of things. So likenesses have now come in. Now, it's very interesting to figure out why he switched from symbols to likenesses. Symbols of thoughts, likenesses of things, but it's the thoughts that are likenesses of things, why the commentators asks. And so many other questions are raised. Aristotle goes on to say that thoughts and things are the same for all, although languages differ from each other. Are thoughts and things the same for all? Or what if people have different concepts or imperfect concepts? All these things have to be discussed by the commentators. And finally, one very interesting thing that happened was that one of the commentators, Paul Ferry, says that there are three types of names and verbs that are being discussed in this passage. There are written names and verbs, there are spoken names and verbs, and then there's a special mentalese, in other words, a mental language, which isn't the same as a spoken sound at all, and isn't the same as a written mark at all. There's a special mental name, mental verb, an idea that's been reinvented by Jerry Fodor in modern philosophy. Now, you see how much they get just out of five lines and how much they make us think about what Aristotle meant.

So would that be, for example, someone talking silently in their minds in Greek, or is the idea that mentalese would be the same for anybody no matter what language they're speaking? Or can we not tell?

It would be the same for everybody no matter what language they would speak in.

And it would have a linguistic structure, but it wouldn't be any particular language then.

That's right. That's right. Well, most of these commentators, including Porfiry, who you just mentioned, are, of course, Neoplatonists. And I suppose that that might lead us to expect that their interpretations of Aristotle would in some ways be quite distorted.

Or are their interpretations of Aristotle just more interesting because they're reading him from a Neoplatonic point of view? That they are more interesting for that reason.

One thing is that they wanted to make Aristotle agree with Plato. Eventually, that was in order to get Christians off their back who were saying, you pagans all contradict each other. They were saying, no, no, no, all pagan philosophers agree with each other. Consequently, they had to change Aristotle, transform Aristotle to make him more like Plato. And they interpreted him as believing in a creator god, which I don't think is true in any straightforward way, and as believing in an immortal individual human soul. You find the creator god idea in Ammonius. You find the immortal individual human soul in Themistius, at least as Thomas Aquinas interpreted Themistius. So Aristotle's being assimilated to Plato, but Plato is also being reinterpreted to assimilate him to Aristotle. Because Aristotle complained about Plato. Look here, Plato, you believe in transcendent forms, which explain things and cause things in the universe. It's the form of justice, which causes examples of justice in the physical world. What Aristotle complained is, look, your form of justice is a universal. It's not a particular instance of justice. It's justice taken universally. Now universals aren't the sort of thing that can be causes. Well, under pressure, these neoplatonists reinterpreted Plato and they said, oh, well, Plato never meant, perhaps they were right or perhaps they were wrong, Plato never meant the forms to be universals. That was just a mistake to think that. He only meant that they were causes and they're perfectly good causes. So Aristotle got Platonized and Plato got Aristotleized. And that was very important.

In that case, I would actually say that they've got a better reading of Plato as a result, because at least I would say that it's wrong to conceive of platonic forms as universals. I don't know if you agree with me about that. It seems to me that the universal particular contrast is something that comes in with Aristotle and not something that we would necessarily want to foist on Plato.

Well, I absolutely agree with you that it's Aristotle who insists on this interpretation of Plato. I'm agnostic about what Plato actually thought, but yours is a perfectly reasonable interpretation.

You've just been talking about the fact that they're very keen to show the harmony between Plato and Aristotle, I guess, especially beginning with Porphyry. But something else that they're keen to do is show the harmony of Aristotle with Aristotle because they don't think that he ever changes his mind. And so within a given work and also across the entire Aristotelian writings, they want Aristotle to be consistent. And that means, I guess, that they need to, for example, try to relate works on logic to works in physics or metaphysics. So could you say something about how they do that? So how they read Aristotle through Aristotle, so to speak?

Yes, I could take an example from the greatest of the commentators in the Aristotelian school before the Neoplatonists started up, Alexander of Aphrodisias. He was defending Aristotle against his rivals, the Stoics. He tended to say either the Stoics are completely wrong or else, well, the Stoics are right, but they're just repeating what Aristotle had already said. One thing the Stoics believed in was that history would repeat itself exactly and that you and I would return in the next cycle of the universe and we'd be giving this podcast with no memory of having done it an infinite number of times before.

There's something to look forward to.

I agree, except we'd have no memory. And what Alexander did was, in order to attack this theory, which is something we classify, I think, as metaphysics, using a term taken from Aristotle himself, about what constitutes the same person. That's the area in which this subject arises. But he takes a remark from Aristotle's physics. Aristotle is talking about motions and he takes the example of walking and he says in the physics that you don't have one of the same walk unless it's the same walker and it's uninterrupted. So it's all happening in one continuous bit of time. And then Alexander applies that to this metaphysical question. He says the Stoics must be wrong that it could be you and me, exactly the same people who recur in the next cycle of the universe. Because just as with walking after an interruption it's going to be a different walk, so also with you and me it's going to be a different pair of people doing the podcast in the next cycle of the universe because there's been an interruption. Here he's applying something that Aristotle said within the context of physics and the idea of motion or change to a metaphysical question in order to attack the rivals of the Aristotelians, the Stoics.

So what Alexander is responding to then is that even if the same events seem to be occurring in another cycle of the universe, at best we'd only have two people who look very like Richard and Peter sitting here in a place that looks very alike this room doing this interview, is that right?

That's right. There might be even exact similarity, but exact similarity does not amount to numerical identity to use Aristotle's term.

That example seems to me to illustrate something that's really interesting about the commentators, which is that not only are they trying to explain what Aristotle is saying, but they're also using Aristotelian materials to say new things. So in this case, something that Aristotle would never have had a reason to say, because of course he was before the Stoics, so he didn't need to respond to the Stoic idea of eternal recurrence. How common is that? Are there other cases where the commentators basically just have ideas that they've developed of their own and they smuggle them into the context of writing a commentary on Aristotle?

Yes, yes they do. Now a very good example is the idea of qualities moving discontinuously. By and large, Aristotle thought that the physical universe was continuous. Motion is continuous, all change is continuous, space is continuous, time is continuous, but he allowed occasional exceptions. For example, light can fill the whole of visible space in an instant without having to travel bit by bit. It does it in a single leap, or a pond can freeze over all at one instant, not a little bit at a time. So he allows these exceptional leaps, that's in his work on sense perception. Not very widely read necessarily. Now this was taken up by a later Greek, the sceptical philosopher Sextus, and he uses the idea of leaps in a different context to answer the paradox raised by a very early Greek philosopher, the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea. Zeno had said that wherever you're sitting listening to this, you won't be able to leave the place you're in, because if you're sitting in a room, well then to get to the door you'd first have to go halfway, then half the remaining distance, then half the remaining distance, an infinite number of half distances. How could you complete going right through an infinite number of half distances? What Sextus suggested, or pointed out, was that this would be solved if motion could occur discontinuously in little leaps by your disappearing from one spot and reappearing microscopically further along in exactly the way that happens on a cinema screen. If motion was cinematographic in that way, and discontinuous, then we could complete the journey to the door in a finite number of steps, the last step being one of these disappearances and re-abidances further on a leap. And now, finally, the last of our Athenian commentators, Damascus, says this would also solve another of Aristotle's problems, because Aristotle raised a paradox and didn't tell us exactly how to answer it. Perhaps time is unreal because none of its parts exist. The past is gone, it doesn't exist any longer, the future hasn't yet come, so it doesn't exist yet. The present, you might say? Yes, but how big is the present? The present must be sizeless, because if you say it lasts for five minutes, no, some of that five minutes will belong to the future and some will belong to the past without remainder. The present is merely a sizeless point, a sizeless instant, a mere demarcation point between the past and the future. Alexander actually called it an imaginary point. Well, in that case, if it's only a sizeless point, it's not going to be a part of time, because adding up sizeless points doesn't build up even five minutes' worth of time. Now, this would be answered, says Damascus, if we imagine that not only motion but also time goes forward in leaps, and he thought it would be quite plausible that it did so, because if motion goes into its continuous leaps, and the motions of a clock, especially the celestial clock of the stars that go around us, if that progresses in leaps, isn't it quite plausible that time might progress in leaps, and that would solve Aristotle's problem about none of the parts of time being in existence.

At around the same time as Damascus, there's something else I think that's really fascinating about the history of commentaries on Aristotle, which is that suddenly you start to get commentators who are Christians, not only Philoponus, but also the less known Elias and David, for example, and then the tradition of commentary on Aristotle continues on into the Byzantine tradition, also into the Syriac tradition. So, if we stay with late antiquity, or the very end of late antiquity for a moment, to what extent is everything you're describing still the case with these Christian commentators? Does it make a difference when the commentators start to be Christians rather than pagans?

Well, in the case of Philoponus in the sixth century, it did make a very big difference, but for a special reason, which didn't apply to other Christians at that time. Philoponus started off as the primary editor of the seminars of the pagan philosopher Ammonius. Ammonius was head of the School of Philosophy in Alexandria for a very long period at the end of the fifth century and beginning of the sixth. He taught Philoponus and he was a very brilliant commentator on Aristotle, and the Christian fathers wanted him to do that teaching. Now, Philoponus not only attended his seminars, but also edited at least four of them in the form of commentaries and wrote a total of seven commentaries, all of them in the style of Ammonius. So these were very, very precise commentaries, going word by word, looking at the meaning of the doctrine and looking at the exact wording of the text. But he was all along a Christian and he all along, in my view, was hinting from time to time that he didn't entirely agree with Ammonius, but his main job, just as Ammonius' main job, was to explain what Aristotle meant. Now, in 529, there was a sudden turnabout and Philoponus started outright attacks on the pagan philosophers. And these attacks were the first attacks that could really worry the pagan philosophers because he had such an insightful and exact knowledge of what they thought. He'd gained it from all those years he spent with Ammonius, studying under Ammonius, and then editing Ammonius, so he knew what the Neoplatonists thought and he knew what Aristotle thought incredibly well. And that meant that he was far better than any other Christians of that age at attacking them because he was extremely clever. And so in that one case, it made a huge difference when a Christian was a commentator on Aristotle. In other ways, when they stopped having pagan lecturers in Alexandria, and they'd long since from 529 onwards stopped having them in Athens because the Christian emperor closed the Athenian school then, it had bad results. No further teaching in Athens, so far as we know, and teaching in Alexandria, but over a much more limited curriculum. And we have to wait quite a long time till the end of the 12th century before we get the Latin medieval thinkers beginning to write their own commentaries on Aristotle or Latin translations being made of the Greek commentators. Well, there is a rather curious thing, and that is that at a much earlier date, the Christian whom I regard as perhaps the most brilliant of all the Christians who studied Greek philosophy before Philoponus, a Christian called Origen, had a wonderful knowledge of Greek philosophy, including of Aristotle. He drew attention to a passage which even now not many scholars have paid much attention to in a work of Aristotle on generation and corruption. A passage where Aristotle uses the idea of the form of an individual organism, for example a plant, and says something very unusual about it. This form is not something universal, like the defining characteristics of that sort of plant, but it's not the ordinary perceptual form, which is a particular form that you receive when you're perceiving the plant. No, it's a form which he compares with an elastic tube. It's an elastic tube which preserves the structure of the plant or other organism, despite the fact that there's different matter flowing through it all the time, and it may be growing or it may be shrinking. And so what Aristotle is saying is that what gives identity to an individual organism is form in this very unusual sense of something like an elastic tube which gives it its unique numerical identity over time, even though the matter doesn't remain identical, but is changing numerically as well as in size and so on. Now, Origen takes this up in order to explain how it could be for a Christian the very same body that we get back in the resurrection, even though all the matter may have been devoured by other beings in the food chain, including other humans. That's how the resurrection could work. It's impossible to ask for the same matter to be there. All that we need is the same form in this special sense. Now, he knew Aristotle very well, but the point I want to make is that as well as knowing Aristotle, he also wrote commentaries on the Bible. And he devised these commentaries in very much the same style as several centuries later would be used by Proclus, by Ammonius, and by members later on in Ammonius's school in Alexandria. He started off by asking a set of questions, very like the questions with which Proclus and Ammonius and members of Ammonius's school preface their commentaries. How come that commentaries on the Bible by this earlier Christian from the third century, Origen, were so like much later Greek pagan commentaries on Aristotle?  Well, all I can say is that Origen and Plotinus, it's thought by many people, had the same teacher in Alexandria, a man called Ammonius Saccas, of whom we know very little, but who certainly inspired Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and may have inspired Origen. That is one possible source from which the idea of how to write commentaries passed down both tracks. 


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