Category: Persons

Christian Neoplatonic Commentators

A series of commentaries on logical works of Aristotle and Porphyry, which are part of the Alexandrian Neoplatonic tradition and were intended for school use as an introduction to the study of Platonic philosophy, has been preserved and is dated from the mid sixth and to early seventh century A.D. These texts are written by Christian teachers of philosophy and attributed to Stefanus of Alexandria and to otherwise unknown writers bearing the names of Elias and David.

The last generation of Alexandrian commentators

A number of commentaries on logical works of Aristotle and Porphyry are dated from the end of the late Platonism and were written in the philosophical atmosphere of the School of Alexandria. They are preserved entirely or partially, and they complete a series of a commentary tradition that includes Ammonius of Hermeias, Asclepius, Philoponos, Simplicius and Olympiodorus.

Little is known about their authors and the question of their authorship is thorny and practically almost unsolvable: the only certified historical person is Stephanus. The often controversial manuscript tradition or modern scholars attach the other texts to Elias and David, who usually considered Christians and disciples of Olympiodorus. These texts follow the structure of the Alexandrian commentaries, are written for didactic use, some are like notes taken from what master has said (apo phones) in the form of courses (praxeis), with dual structure: quoting the text and, more or less extensive, explanation containing comments on the text, linguistic clarifications, exegetical paraphrases, references to alternative interpretations.

The Christian identity of the authors can be inferred by certain reports in their texts but does not seem, with few exceptions, to impose a different (i.e. Christian) approach of Aristotle whose study is preparatory. In that perspective, as occurred with Ammonius and Olympiodorus, the lack of reference to Neoplatonic metaphysics and practice (e.g. theurgy) is explicable, in so far as it does not concern the interpretation of Aristotle in question –and additionally it was welcomed by the powerful Christians of Alexandria. Similarly, the texts of the Christian commentators are limited to the presentation and the explanation of the Aristotelian texts without any religious nuance nor apologetic defense or attack (something common in contemporary Patristic literature). Moreover, the works commented upon (with the exception of Stephanus) are logical treatises that are not offered for an ideological controversy –to the extent that they do not develop e.g. the most interesting question about the application of logical categories to God. Their dependence on Neoplatonic metaphysics is minimal –a fact that perhaps explains why Alexandrian Neoplatonic School was considered as a bridge between Greek philosophy and Christian thought (different than that attested in the writings of Dionysius Areopagite).

The texts preserved have been attributed, convincingly or not, to Elias and David, and are written by Christian teachers of philosophy, probably after the mid sixth century. Together with short introductory logical texts of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Philosophical Chapters (Dialectica) of John of Damascus, some Questions from Photius’ Amphilochia and the extensive commentary of Arethas in Categories (tenth cent.), show that the preoccupation with the Aristotelian logic started as an integrated part of a Neoplatonic harmonizing framework and as an essential introduction to philosophy and especially to the study of Plato's philosophy; and it continued for two centuries although not in the same systematic way). Gradually its character changed and became independent from its Neoplatonic origin, as a necessary component of the basic education. Photios already stated his preference to Aristotle versus Plato.

Elias

Elias is a Christian philosopher of the second half of the sixth century. He is considered a student of Olympiodorus because in his writings there are numerous parallel passages. He taught philosophy in Alexandria, namely Aristotle as propaedeutic to Plato. The written courses Prolegomena to Philosophy and On Porphyry’s Introduction have been attributed to Elias, as well as some scholia on Aristotle’s On interpretation (that manuscripts attach to David). Under his name have been preserved the Prolegomena to Aristotle, a Commentary on Categories (published as a work of David) and the beginning of a commentary On Prior Analytics .

Elias’ commentaries do not differ from their Pagan counterparts although his Christian identity is rather certain. In any case it can be discerned only a few times in the interpretation of Aristotelian logic, e.g. when he accepts the possibility of miracles as direct actions of Divine Providence or he (or a copyist?) uses the expression ‘according to the false opinions of the Pagans (Hellenes) perhaps to avoid possible categories from other Christians.

3. David

We have the minimum of information about the author of at least three commentaries in the line of the Neoplatonic Alexandrian School (see Bibliography). At their titles David is called mostly beloved by God and Godly mind philosopher but his identity remains unknown. (a) The dominant interpretation based on textual evidence places him in the second half of the fifth century as a student of Olympiodorus. (b) A much later Armenian tradition (from the eleventh century onwards) presents him to be born in Armenia; and certain scholars date him between 470-550/60 with studies in Alexandria, Athens and Constantinople. When he returned to Armenia it is said that he translated his own commentaries and other Greek philosophical and scientific works. However, sources are unclear and inconsistent and there is no evidence for (or against) his Armenian origin.

(c) There is no testimony about a philosopher David in the Greek source to the tenth century. The first relevant testimony concerns a Niketas David. The two oldest Greek codices (from 1223 and 1348) that contain the Prolegomena and the comments on the Introduction ascribed them to Niketas the philosopher who was renamed David. Thus, it has been suggested that David is in fact Niketas David Paphlagon, a hagiographer, theologian and philosopher of the tenth century, for whom we know that he was called also with only his middle name.

It is possible, finally, that manuscripts circulated anonymously and were only later attributed to a Christian author. The texts of David and Elias, or the like, were used by John of Damascus and Arethas (whose text is closer to Elias’) and were known by Michael Psellus and Ioannes Italos. Nicephoros Blemmydes (1197-1272) made extensive use of them in his Compendium of Logic. In Byzantine manuscripts (until sixteenth century) comments of David are collected or served as basis for other comments.

4. Stephanus of Alexandria

Stephanus was a pupil of Ioannes Philoponus, philosopher and astronomer, and a prolific writer: he wrote astronomical treatise, commentaries on logical works of Aristotle and Porphyry, on Hippocrates and Galen, even on alchemy works; and the composition of commentary on the third book of On the Soul is assigned to him. Emperor Heraclius himself invited him shortly after 610 in Constantinople, where he received the title of ecumenical teacher becoming a professor at the so-called imperial academy. He taught philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), geometry, arithmetic, music, astronomy; and this is the most late testimony for teaching Plato in the seventh century.

In his commentary in Aristotle’s On Interpretation Stephanus makes neutral references to unacceptable by Christianity philosophical views (for the eternity of matter, the divinity of the heavenly bodies, the non rational spirits and the nymphs of the Neoplatonic demonology) without any effort to refute or restate them from a Christian perspective. However, he consciously contrasts Platonic and pious doctrines, while adding quotes from the Bible to explain certain points of the Aristotelian text. Stephanus was one of the last Greek philosophers of Alexandria before the Arab conquest, and carried Alexandrian Platonism in Constantinople; a Platonism without its initial metaphysical background and with special interest to sciences, mainly mathematics.

Textual sources

The interpreter must be both interpreter and scientist. The work of the interpreter is to develop clearly what is written in a vague manner, while of the scientist to express his judgment on the true and false, i.e. to distinguish between empty and fruitful thoughts. He must not change depending on what he explains, like those who play on stage and impersonate different personae, imitating different characters; when he explains Aristotle he must not to become an Aristotelian while claiming that he did not change, nor become a Platonist when he explains Plato maintaining that he has not turned into a Platonist. Should the interpreter not forced in any way to assert that the ancient philosopher he explains is indisputably infallible. In any case he should choose the principle 'both man and truth are friends but from both friends more friendly is the truth’. (David [Elias], Explanation of the ten categories, 122.25-123.1)

Author: George Zografidis
  • Barnes, J., Calzolari, V. eds. L’œuvre de David l’Invincible et la transmission de la pensée grecque dans la tradition arménienne et syriaque . Leiden, 2009.
  • Wildberg, C. "Three Neoplatonic Introductions to Philosophy: Ammonius, David and Elias." Hermathena (1990)
  • Westerink, L. G. "The Alexandrian commentators and the introductions to their commentaries." Sorabji, R. ed. Aristotle Transformed. 1990.
  • Wolska-Conus, W. "Stéphanos d'Athènes et Stéphanos d'Alexandrie. Essai d'identitification et de biographie." Revue des Études Byzantines 47 (1989)
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