Category: Persons

Ioannes Philoponus

Grammarian, philosopher and theologian who was at the peak of his intellectual career in the 6th century BC at Alexandria (c.485/490-c.570/575). He studied philosophy at the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria and he is considered as one of the most significant representatives of the school.

Life and work

Ioannes was born around 485/490 and died around 570/575. It is unknown whether he was born in Alexandria or not but he certainly lived and died there judging by the appearance of the epithet Ἀλεξανδρεύς in the manuscripts of his works. His first name suggests that he was born in a Christian family. Ioannes is also known as the γραμματικός and φιλόπονος. The word γραμματικός (grammarian) denotes Ioannes’ engagement to grammar and it should be taken as the only epithet which he was using for himself. Different interpretations have been introduced regarding the epithet philoponus. The dominant interpretation suggests that Ioannes deserved this epithet because he was a lover of toil.

Ioannes Philoponus’ studies on grammar should be placed before his affiliation to the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria. Philoponus joined the school around 510 perhaps the same period when Simplicius left Alexandria to continue his philosophical studies at the Neoplatonic school of Athens. Ammonius Hermeiou was the teacher of Philoponus. The work of Philoponus is well known for the wide range of the topics with which he occupied such as grammar, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and theology.

The works of Philoponus that survived nowadays are the following. The grammatical treatises On words with different meanings in virtue of a difference of accent and Τονικά παραγγέλματα, the astronomical treatise On the use and construction of the astrolabe and the commentary on the Introduction to Arithmetic of Nicomachus Gerasinus.

Four commentaries on Aristotle’s works under the name of Philoponus are editions of the lectures of his teacher Ammonius Hermeiou (σχολικαὶ ἀποσημειώσεις ἐκ τῶν συνουσιῶν Ἀμμωνίου τοῦ Ἑρμείου), the In Prior Analytics (two books), the In Posterior Analytics (two books), the In On Generation and Corruption (two books) and the In On the Soul (three books, the third book being spurious). It is worth noting that the commentaries on the works Posterior Analytics, On Generation and Corruption and On the Soul contain personal remarks of Philoponus («μετὰ τινων ἰδίων ἐπιστάσεων»). In addition, we possess a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories attributed to Philoponus (which reflects Ammonius’ teachings), the commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology (only the first book) and the commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (the last four books survive in fragments). Finally, Philoponus perhaps wrote a commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge, a commentary on Plato’s Phaedo and a philosophical/mathematical treatise entitled Symmikta theoremata; all of them now lost.

Other philosophical texts which are the first signs of Philoponus’ turn to theological issues are the On the Eternity of the World against Proclus and the On the Eternity of the World against Aristotle. The most significant theological treatises of Philoponus that survive are the On the Creation of the World (also known as De opificio mundi), the Arbiter (it survived in Syrian translation), the On Trinity, the On Resurrection, the On Pascha and a treatise addressed to Sergius Presvyterus on whole and parts.

Ioannes Philoponus and Platonism

Philosophers and theologians from antiquity until today are absorbed in Philoponus’ double intellectual identity, as a scholar of Plato and Aristotle and as an advocate of Christian doctrines. Undoubtedly, Philoponus’ Christian convictions influenced his philosophical positions and vice versa. It has been suggested that Philoponus aggressively turned against the Neoplatonic philosophy supporting Christianism in 529, when the emperor Justinian imposed measures which actually precluded philosophical teachings in the Neoplatonic school of Athens.

It is indeed difficult to glean Philoponus’ Platonic views from his surviving texts. The scholars of Philoponus attempt to trace indications of the Platonism that he supports through his commentaries on Aristotle’s works or from his polemical treatise against Proclus’ arguments on the eternity of the cosmos. The fact that Philoponus was an active member of the school of Alexandria does not prevent him to disagree either with Plato or with Aristotle; disagreements that are legitimate parts of the task of the commentator as established by Ammonius Hermeiou. Under this perspective we observe that Philoponus often sets the truth before the authority of philosophers; hence, despite using Plato and Aristotle as authorities, he often holds a critical position.

Within the framework of formation of true beliefs about the cosmos Philoponus rejects Aristotelian positions (for example, the motion of the projectiles, the nonentity of the void) and he defends some conceptions of the late Platonic tradition (such as the immortality of the soul and its lightened vehicle, and the assumption that place is a three-dimensional extension). The notorious disagreement of Philoponus with the Platonic- and generally philosophical- tradition that the cosmos is not eternal is partially based on a peculiar interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus- perhaps influenced by his Christian background and certainly against Proclus’ interpretation. We characterize Philoponus as a Platonist insofar he endorses Plato’s views, but we may also characterize him as an Aristotelian insofar he follows Aristotle and adopts the Aristotelian methods to approach scientific subjects. Nevertheless, Philoponus’ insistence on the search of truth and his subsequent critical stance on the philosophical tradition are responsible for the significant impact of his theories on the history of philosophy and science.

Author: Ioannis Papachristou
  • Gannagé, E., Giardina, G., Goulet, R., Kopreeva, I. "Jean Philopon." Goulet, R. ed. Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Paris, 2012.
  • Golitsis, P, Les Commentaires de Simplicius et de Jean Philopon à la Physique d’Aristote. Tradition et innovation. Berlin, 2008.
  • Papachristou, I. Philoponus on τόπος: Redefining Place in Late Antiquity. Diss. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2013.
  • Verrycken, KGerson, L.P. ed. . The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity 2. Cambridge, 2010.
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