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On Aristotle's Metaphysics 2 and 3.

Alexander of Aphrodisias, who began his career as a professor of philosophy in Athens under the reign of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, ranks among the most influential of the Greek Aristotle commentators. The works attributed to him, part of the vast collection of ancient commentaries on Aristotle that have come down to us from the period between 200 and 600 A.D., constitute a crucial link in the transmission of Aristotelian thought through Hellenism, late antiquity, and the Islamic world, to the Middle Ages. On a smaller scale, the Alexandrian corpus is an invaluable source for our knowledge of the vicissitudes of third-century Aristotelianism. It represents, in fact, the last and finest stage of a strictly Aristotle-oriented Peripatetic tradition, in a time immediately before the Neoplatonists were to merge Peripatetic, Platonic, and Stoic thought in an all-embracing synthesis.

The Quaestiones freely discuss various topics ranging from central issues in Aristotle's philosophy, such as the definition of soul and the relation between form and matter, to problems of a more scholastic kind, such as the question, How is it possible for the same person to be pleased and distressed at the same time, as happens to those who are thirsty and are drinking? (p.55). The latter is an example of the "problems and solutions" (in Greek, aporiai kai luseis) in the strict sense, while the other sections may be roughly divided into summaries of Aristotelian doctrine, and comments on particular texts or phrases from the Aristotelian corpus. Somewhat apart stands the "discussion in dialogue form" on fate and contingency (sec. 1.4) in which the author, with remarkable logical dexterity, criticizes Stoic determinism in a format that reminds one of the Stoic diatribe. The Quaestiones, Sharples maintains, are likely to reflect actual debates between Alexander and his pupils, and may therefore shed light "on the functioning of a philosophical 'school' in the early years of the third century A.D." (p. 1).

By contrast, the treaties On Aristotle's Metaphysics belongs to the group of large-scale commentaries in which Alexander systematically elaborates on the philosophical problems raised in the Aristotelian original. In his introduction to On Metaphysics 2, Dooley (who already published a translation of On Metaphysics 1 in the same series) briefly treats of Alexander's opinions on authorship and on the status of the text marked by Aristotle's ancient editors as "little alpha." Alexander is in no doubt about the authenticity of this Aristotelian work; yet with respect to its place within the Aristotelian corpus he prefigures modern scholarly controversy, conceiving of it either as a supplement to the first book of the Metaphysics, or as a separate book, or even as an independent introduction to theoretical philosophy. In his commentary on Metaphysics 2, Alexander focuses on the apparent contradiction between Aristotle's conception of the universe and his conception of the history of mankind as having no beginning in time on the one hand, and his rejection of an infinite chain of causes on the other. It is not, Alexander explains, an infinite regress of origins as such which Aristotle's theory of causes precludes, but rather an infinite succession of causes that are all of a different nature (p. 29).

The third book of Aristotle's Metaphysics addresses, in a dialectical style, some fifteen basic problems concerning the division and scope of philosophy as a science of the first principles. As Madigan points out, Alexander's treatment of Metaphysics 3 reveals a difference between the commentator and his source in the appreciation of dialectical argumentation. "Whereas Aristotle stresses the tentative and probing character of dialectic, Alexander stresses the fact that dialectical argumentation on both sides of a question involves the presence of false premises" (p. 78). One might, however, want to argue about whether the translator is justified in having Alexander refer to certain Aristotelian arguments as "verbal" (logikos; but cf. Madigan's note on p. 96). From a historical point of view, On Metaphysics 3 is of particular interest to students of Neoplatonism. The work was perhaps known not only to Neoplatonists such as Syrianus (fifth century) and Asclepius (sixth century), who both wrote their own commentaries on the third book of the Metaphysics: "If Porphyry is right in saying that Aristotle's Metaphysics is concentrated in the writings of Plotinus, perhaps research may show that Alexander's commentary on Metaphysics 3 has left its traces in Plotinus as well" (p. 80). Indeed, one need only refer to the section on "whether Being and One are substances of beings" (Aporia 11, pp. 174ff.) to see this suggestion confirmed.

The translations will be welcomed by students of Aristotle and of later Greek philosophy who do not want to rely upon secondary literature, yet lack sufficient knowledge of Greek to read the original texts. Rather than presenting an interpretive paraphrase of Alexander's text, the translators have sought to follow the Greek as closely and accurately as possible. In notes to the translations they amply discuss textual difficulties and variant readings, and clarify allusions to Aristotle and other classical sources. The translations are followed by English-Greek and Greek-English glossaries (Greek is transliterated throughout). Moreover, in the case of On Metaphysics 2 and 3, where ambiguities with respect to the rendering of Greek philosophical vocabulary are particularly prone to arise, the Greek equivalents of many technical terms are given in parentheses in the translations.
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Author:Oosthout, Henri
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:887
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