Category: Persons

Simplicius

Neoplatonist philosopher who lived in the first half of the 6th century AD. Author of commentaries mainly on Aristotle, he aimed at establishing the agreement of Aristotle with Plato and, moreover, at bringing forth the inner harmony of the entire Hellenic philosophical and religious tradition. His work often gives the impression of a monumental apologetic project, which constantly seeks to magnify Hellenism and to protect spiritually the last pagans.

Life and work

According to the historian Agathias (second half of the 6th century AD), Simplicius was a native of Cilicia. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown but he must have lived from around 480 to 550. He initially studied in Alexandria under Ammonius, son of Hermeias, and later in Athens under the Platonic successor Damascius; while in Athens, he must have also assumed teaching duties. According to Agathias’ testimony, Simplicius was one of the seven philosophers, “the quintessential flower of the philosophers of our age”, who wanting to escape the pressures of the Christians in Athens took refuge at the court of Chosroes II in Ctesiphon. The flight of the seven philosophers to the capital of the Sasanian empire has been reasonably linked to the prohibition of the teaching of philosophy in Athens, ordered by the emperor Justinian in 529 (see Migration of philosophers and decline of the school of Athens). The Athenian philosophers, who had hoped that Chosroes would be Plato’s philosopher king, were quickly disgusted by the Persian manners. They benefited, however, from the diligence of the Persian king, since a clause was inserted in the treaty of peace concluded by Chosroes and Justinian in 532, which specified that the philosophers were free to return to their homelands within the Roman empire, where they could henceforth live without fear, without having to alter the ‘religion of their fathers’. With the exception of Damascius, whose presence is attested in Syria in 538, the place of establishment of the other philosophers remains unknown. It can be reasonably surmised that Simplicius either returned to his native Cilicia, as summoned by the treaty, or followed his master Damascius to Syria.

Simplicius wrote extensive commentaries on Epictetus’ Encheiridion, as well as on Aristotle’s Categories, Physics and On the heavens. The commentary on Aristotle’s On the soul, which is attributed to him in the manuscript tradition, has been shown to be by his fellow philosopher Priscian of Lydia. With the exception of the commentary on the Encheiridion, which is linked through a reference to the "actual tyrannical circumstances” to the difficulties Simplicius was experiencing in Athens immediately after 529, the rest of his commentaries were composed after his leaving Persia. The commentaries on the Physics and on On the heavens contain lengthy refutations of John Philoponus’ On the eternity of the world against Aristotle, which is a sequence to his On the eternity of the world against Proclus published by Philoponus in 529. The commentary on the Physics refers to Damascius as a dead person and should therefore be dated after 538. Finally, cross-references establish that Simplicius’ commentary on the Categories was written after his commentary on the Physics and that the latter was written after his commentary on On the heavens.

Main features and aim of his exegesis

Simplicius’ commentaries differ from most surviving commentaries on Aristotle in that they do not reflect actual conditions of teaching but consist in careful publications, which are addressed to readers. Simplicius often interrupts the fundamental structure of the commentary – that is, the alternating sequence of a lemma and its explication – with digressions (parekbaseis), in which he highlights and resumes his exegetical priorities and philosophical insights. Such are, for instance, the lengthy passages that refute Philoponus’ arguments against Aristotle’s position in favor of the eternity of the world, as well as the various passages that aim to establish the harmony of the Hellenic philosophical tradition. According to Simplicius, when an apparent disagreement emerges between Aristotle and Plato, the good commentator must always strive to bring out their mutual agreement.

Simplicius used as main sources for his exegetical work the commentaries of the Peripatetic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century AD), while he took over from Ammonius the postulate of the harmony between Plato and Aristotle. He expanded his teacher’s view so as to include the entire philosophy of the ‘ancients’ (see primary sources), wishing to demolish thereby any impression of mutual contradiction between ancient philosophers, which was polemically stressed by Christian thinkers. Simplicius wanted to provide his readers with a model of correct understanding of the ancient philosophical discourse, an understanding that he studiously connected with the necessary quality of ‘love of knowledge’ (philomatheia). Simplicius transgresses quite often the mere explication of Aristotle’s text in order to resolve, in the light of the Neoplatonic system and through the systematic quotation of passages from Plato and from Preplatonic philosophers, the apparent criticisms of Aristotle against his predecessors. Simplicius inherited also from Ammonius the theological interpretation of Aristotle’s physics, according to which the ‘first unmoved mover’, identified with nous (intellect, i.e. the second hypostasis of the Neoplatonic system), is to be understood not only as the final cause but also as the efficient cause of the universe. This silently corrects the position of the Platonic successor Proclus, who regarded Aristotelian physics as representing a regression to the theological physics of Plato’s Timaeus.

Simplicius’ focusing on natural philosophy does not mean that he ignored, or was indifferent to, the metaphysical and religious implications of the Neoplatonic doctrine. Simplicius was acquainted with Damascius’ metaphysics and with the Chaldean Oracles, which he quotes frequently. His commentary on Aristotle’s Categories contains lengthy references to Iamblichus’ ‘intelligible theory’ (noera theôria), which tries to show that the ten Aristotelian categories, far from being applicable only to the sensible world (as Plotinus had concluded disapprovingly), equally apply to the realm of the intelligibles. Finally, Simplicius’ intense religious feeling is magnificently illustrated through the prayers that he uses as epilogues to his commentaries.

Simplicius, In Physica , ed. H. Diels, in Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, vol. 9 (Berlin 1882) 28.32-29.5: "When we hear that the difference is so great, we should not think that these differences are real contradictions, as those who merely read the doxographical collections, without even understanding anything of what is said in them, try to show, although they themselves are divided into thousands of schisms, not about the principles of the physics (for, certainly, they do not understand anything about them) but about the best way to dethrone the divine transcendence. It is therefore not a bad idea to make a small digression (parekbasis) in order to show to the lovers of knowledge (philomatheis) how, despite their seeming to differ in their opinions on the first principles, the ancient philosophers are nevertheless in mutual harmony."
Author: Pantelis Golitsis
  • Golitsis, P, Les Commentaires de Simplicius et de Jean Philopon à la Physique d’Aristote. Tradition et innovation. Berlin, 2008.
  • Diels, H. ed. Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, τομ. 7-10. Berlin, 1882-1907.
  • Hoffmann, Ph. "Simplicius’ Polemics." Sorabji, R. ed. Philoponus and the Rejection of the Aristotelian Science. London, 1990.
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