The mid-6th century was an interesting period in the history of philosophy. By this time, the triumph of Christianity was pretty well complete in the Roman Empire, where it had been the official religion, if not since the time of Constantine I, then certainly since 380 under Theodosius I. In 529, the emperor Justinian sealed the fate of pagan philosophical education by ordering the closure of the Platonic Academy at Athens, forbidding pagans to teach anywhere within the Empire.12
By the sixth century, philosophy in the Roman Empire had acquired a fixed set of characteristics. The reigning philosophical tendency, since the time of Plotinus, who died in 270 AD, and his successors Porphyry and Iamblichus, was Neoplatonism. The members of this school considered themselves to be faithfully carrying on the teachings of Plato, but their teachings were in fact the result of a long process of combining Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, and perhaps even some Gnostic elements and elements from the Hellenistic Mystery religions. Neoplatonism had grown increasingly more refined and complicated in the course of the 250 years since Plotinus, who had come up with an emanative system in which the ineffable supreme principle, the One, gave rise to two other hypostases, the Intellect and the Soul. The lower part of the hypostasis soul, otherwise known as Nature, then gave existence to the sensible world in which we all live. Following certain tendencies already present in Plato, this sensible or phenomenal world was considered less real and less valuable than the world of intelligible Platonic forms that constituted the Intellect (nous). The human soul, intelligible in its origin, was considered to have fallen into the body as the result of some pagan equivalent of Original Sin, and the goal of human life was held to be the reversal of the process of emanation: we are to separate our souls and our intellects from our material body, and make them rise back up to the intelligible world whence they came.13 By the time of Simplicius and Philoponus in the early sixth century AD, many more levels of reality had been inserted between the sensible world and the ultimate principle, which was variously known as God, the One, or even simply the Ineffable. The First Principle became utterly unapproachable and distant from the material world, while the intermediate levels of reality – intelligible, intellective-and-intelligible, intellective, and so on – became associated with a host of strange divinities taken from such Orientalizing sources as the Orphic Poems and the Chaldaean Oracles.
As far as the nature of philosophy itself was concerned, it had changed since the time of Plato and Aristotle, as Pierre and Ilsetraut Hadot have shown.14 No longer the direct transmission from master to disciple of a philosophy conceived as a way of life, it had become primarily a matter of the meticulous commentary on a canonical series of texts by the Founding Fathers of the school. In the case of Neoplatonism, these founding Fathers were primarily Plato and Aristotle.
Most historians of philosophy consider that Plato and Aristotle, the Founding Fathers of Western thought, were about as opposed as it’s possible to be. After all, Plato believed in separate intelligible Forms or Ideas; Aristotle did not, but believed that forms are inherent in and inseparable from the bodies they inhabit. Plato believed in reincarnation: the human soul had contemplated the Intelligible Forms before being incarnated in a body, and had thereby obtained a direct vision or intuition of absolute Truth or Reality, a vision which has become obscured by life in the body and which it is philosophy's task to reawaken via anamnêsis or recollection. For Aristotle, the soul is the actuality or entelechy of a physical body endowed with organs, and it probably doesn’t survive after death (Aristotle doesn’t really seem to much concerned about this point). For Plato, as mentioned, all learning is recollection: we possessed all knowledge before our souls became incarnated in our material body, and learning and study are simply the gradual recovery of that lost knowledge. For Aristotle, our minds are a clean slate when we are born, and we acquire knowledge by means of sensation, perception, memory, and experience. Things get a bit more complicated when it comes to the questions that concerned Simplicius and Philoponus in the writings under consideration here, that is, the question of whether time, motion, and the world are created or eternal. Aristotle clearly maintained that both time and motion were not created but eternal, as was the world: no matter what moment in time, or what motion in physical space you choose, there will always have been a moment or motion before it, and there will always be one after it. In this sense, because there is no first or last moment of the world’s existence, the world is eternal15 (Greek aidios: we will see below that this term takes on a different meaning in Neoplatonism). Plato’s position was harder to pin down. In his most famous and influential dialogue, the Timaeus, he talks as though a creative divinity, which calls the Demiurge or craftsman, created the world, time, and the human soul at a specific moment, fashioning them out of a chaotic hodgepodge of wildly moving elements, or rather proto-elements.16 Yet Plato had presented this account in the form of a myth, and there was considerable debate in Antiquity over whether it should be understood literally, or merely in some kind of a symbolic or allegorical way.17
Probably as early as the end of the third century AD, the Neoplatonic philosophical curriculum had become systematized, if not by Porphyry,18 then certainly by Iamblichus, his student. Beginning philosophy students started off with Aristotle, reading, in order, first Porphyry’s Introduction or Isagoge, and then Aristotle’s works on logic (in the order Categories, De interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, and Sophistici elenchi), physics, and psychology, culminating with the Metaphysics. They then read a selection of Plato’s dialogues, culminating in the Timaeus and especially the Parmenides, considered to be the summa of all metaphysical speculation.19 This partly explains how the Neoplatonists could reconcile Plato and Aristotle: the study of Aristotle was considered as an introduction to the study of Plato. Aristotle was considered as a fairly reliable guide to the sensible world and to the disciplines that enable us to understand it ; but one had to turn to Plato to understand intelligible reality, the world of the Forms or Ideas, and then, if possible, God or the First Principle. Thus, if one wondered why Aristotle did not discuss the Forms or Ideas that play such an important part in Plato’s thought, the answer lay ready to hand: Aristotle was writing for beginners, who lived on the level of sense-impressions and appearances. Such beginners had no reason to clutter their minds with metaphysical or theological notions, which they would, at any rate, be unable to understand.
By the mid-sixth century, two main centers of the teaching of pagan philosophy had developed: one in Alexandria and the other in Athens. Modern scholars are divided over whether there were important doctrinal differences between these schools. What is certain is that in the Greek writings that happen to have come down to us, those by authors from Alexandria (Ammonius, Philoponus, Olympiodorus and so on) tend to be commentaries on Aristotle’s treatises on logic and natural philosophy, while those from the Athenian school (Syrianus, Proclus, Damascius, and so on) tend to be metaphysical treatises and/or commentaries on the works of Plato. As early as Antiquity, it had been claimed that the Alexandrian school under Ammonius had reached an agreement with the local Christian authorities to abstain from metaphysical speculation,20 and/or topics that might be contrary to Christian orthodoxy, which would explain the relatively “sober” character of the Alexandrian philosophical works. For instance, to judge by their extant works, the Alexandrian commentators seem to have considered that the highest metaphysical principle was not the One or the Ineffable, but the Demiurge. Other modern scholars, led by Ilsetraut Hadot, have claimed that the Alexandrian emphasis on Aristotle, and the Athenian preference for Plato, are merely the result of historical accidents of transmission. It just so happens that what has come down to us of the Alexandrian writings are those from the earlier stages of the philosophical curriculum, where professors abstained from metaphysical speculation simply because their students were not yet prepared to understand them.21 Likewise, the Aristotelian commentaries of the Athenian philosophers have been lost, but some of their Platonic commentaries and metaphysical treatises have survived, thanks to historical accidents.22
Pagan education at Athens thus effectively ended in 529, when, as we saw, Justinian closed the Platonic Academy, ordering that no pagan philosopher could teach within the Empire. As a result, Simplicius, Damascius, and five other Neoplatonic philosophers fled to the court of the Persian king Chosroes I, who, they had heard, was interested in philosophy. But the exiles were soon disillusioned with their Persian hosts. Once again, scholars disagree about what happened next. For Michel Tardieu, followed by I. Hadot, Simplicius and Damascius continued to Mesopotamia and settled in Harran, near the current border between Turkey and Syria. Here they founded a Neoplatonic school, or rather joined one that already existed in that location, a school that was to play a part in the transmission of Greek philosophical and scientific thought to Islam.23 Other scholars find this scenario unlikely, and suppose that Simplicius and his colleagues returned to either Athens or Alexandria.24 According to Ilsetraut Hadot, at any rate, it was at Harran that Simplicius wrote his Commentary on the Physics, some time after 538.25
2.2. Simplicius and Philoponus
Although they seem never to have met, Simplicius and John Philoponus both began their philosophical studies at Alexandria under Ammonius, who taught there between 475 and 526 AD.26 But while Simplicius soon left for Athens, Philoponus remained at Alexandria, first writing fairly standard commentaries on Aristotle, based on the notes he took at Ammonius’ classes.27 It was precisely in 529, however, the year of Justinian's edict, that Philoponus suddenly began to publish treatises in which he defended an aggressively Christian view, criticizing the doctrines of pagan philosophers.28 He began with a work entitled On the Eternity of the World against Proclus, in which he refuted the arguments in favor of the world's eternity by Proclus, the great Athens-based teacher of Ammonius.29 It seems likely that Philoponus' choice was not unconnected with what was happening at Athens: perhaps, as some Arabic sources state, Philoponus felt the need to distance his Neoplatonism from pagan philosophy, and point out that its doctrines could, after all, be reconciled with Christianity. Philoponus' treatise, entitled Against Aristotle on the eternity of the world, which Simplicius sets out to refute in his commentaries on Aristotle's De Caelo and Physics,is somewhat later, and was probably written in the 530s.30 As far as Philoponus' motives are concerned, it is perhaps worth citing the view of the Islamic philosopher al-Fārābī (ca. 870-950), who wrote at least one refutation of Philoponus’ arguments31:
One may suspect that his intention from what he does in refuting Aristotle is either to defend the opinions laid down in his own religion about the world, or to remove from himself the suspicion that he disagrees with the position held by the people of his religion and approved by their rulers, so as not to suffer the same fate as Socrates.
Thus, Fārābī has two explanations, complementary rather than alternative, concerning Philoponus’ decision to turn against Aristotle. Both could be characterized as socio-ideological. Philoponus felt pressure to conform to Christian beliefs,32 and so he set out to refute Aristotle's pagan world-view, either because he sincerely believed his Christian views were correct and Aristotle was wrong, or because he was afraid for his own safety unless he was perceived to support the Christian rather than the pagan view.33 The first view is more likely, given that we now know that Philoponus was indeed a convinced Monophysite Christian, spending the last part of his life composing Christian theological treatises, some of which, ironically enough, served only to get him condemned for the heresy of tritheism on January 3, 568.34
2.3. Philoponus, Contra Aristotelem
In the Contra Aristotelem, Philoponus set about refuting Aristotle’s views on the eternity or perpetuity of the world. As a Christian, Philoponus felt obliged to defend the Biblical account, according to which God created the world from nothing in six days, some six thousand years previously. Philoponus’ treatise is lost, but the fragments that remain, preserved mainly by Simplicius, show that it consisted in 8 books. In the first five, Philoponus attacks Aristotle’s views on the nature and existence of an fifth element, the so-called ether, eternally moving in a circle, as set forth in his De Caelo, book I, 2-4, with a digression on Meteorology 1.3. In the sixth book, which is the one we’ll be interested in here, Philoponus attacked Aristotle’s arguments in Physics 8.1 in favor of the eternity, or rather the perpetuity, of motion, time, and therefore the world. According to Philoponus, the world as a whole was created at a specific moment in time and will also be destroyed at a subsequent moment. Such doctrines are anathema to Simplicius, as we'll see shortly.
2.4. Simplicius on Philoponus
When we start to read that part of Simplicius' commentary on Physics 8 in which he reports Philoponus' objections against Aristotle,35 it is immediately clear that Simplicius does not like Philoponus very much. He never refers to him by name, but usually as houtos (this guy), or as the Grammarian. He also calls him a Telchine, one of the mythological blacksmiths and magicians of Rhodes who, by Late Antiquity, had become synonymous with backbiters or slanderers; he also calls Philoponus a jaybird, or a barking dog. Philoponus' arguments are “ heaps of garbage ”, or filth, and Simplicius calls upon Heracles to divert the river Alpheus to clean out the excrement that his arguments have caused to accumulate in the minds of his readers. By constantly emphasizing that Philoponus is a Grammarian (Greek grammatikos), Simplicius is able to emphasize that his opponent is not even a professional philosopher, but a mere teacher of literature, a greenhorn who has a superficial acquaintance with some notions of philosophy. For Simplicius, Philoponus is an opsimathês36, someone who comes to learning late in life, which implies that he was probably somewhat younger than Simplicius.37 The vast length of his writings, claims Simplicius, is intended to dazzle the layman, even though much of his material is copied from Alexander of Aphrodisias and Themistius.38 His intended audience is, moreover, made up of dim-witted students and morons in general.39 In short, according to Simplicius, Philoponus is uneducated, superficial, thick-witted, and he writes like someone who is insane, drunk, and maniacal.
For Simplicius, then, these upstart Christians, the worst of whom is the sophist Philoponus, blaspheme against the heavens, eliminating the different in substance between the celestial and sublunar worlds.40 In so doing, they ignore the passages in their own holy Scriptures, which teach that “The heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the firmament announces the work of his hands” (Psalm 18). Incomprehensibly, they consider filthy, corruptible matter, such as that of corpses (i.e., the relics of martyrs), to be more worthy of honor than the heavens. As for Philoponus, he dares to proclaim that the light emanating from the heavens is no different from the light emitted by glow-worms and fish-scales. For Simplicius, in contrast, to denigrate the heavens is to blaspheme against the Demiurge, who brought them into being, he whom the late Neoplatonists identified with Zeus or the Intellect.41
Above all, Simplicius despises Philoponus and his correligionaries because of their anthropomorphic conception of God. Since Philoponus thinks God is like a human being, it is only natural that he thinks God's production, the heavens and the world as a whole, will perish as the works of human beings do. But as Philippe Hoffmann emphasizes42, taking God to be an individual is
a radical inversion of the philosophical attitude, which consists in rising above individual humanity.
Hoffmann goes on to quote the great Dominican historian of philosophy H.-D. Saffrey, who writes that in Neoplatonism
…man is nothing; particular, individual man is nothing but the degradation of Man with a capital H. …Man's misfortune is to be an individual, and the entire effort of philosophy is directed to raising oneself back up to the universal and the All.
By anthropomorphizing their God, moreover, the Christians are guilty of making Him arbitrary and capricious. When Philoponus (fr. 120 Wildberg) suggests that God may have created the elements in the beginning, then handed over their subsequent administration to Nature (rather like the Newtonian concept of a God who winds up the celestial clockwork, and then leaves it to run on its own), Simplicius is, as usual, scandalized:43
Who in his right mind could conceive of such a change in God, such that not having created earlier, in the briefest moment of time he should become the creator of the elements alone, and then cease from creating once again, handing over to Nature the generation of the elements out of one another, and of the other things from the elements?
What shocks Simplicius here is the arbitrariness attributed to God. He is said to create the world: fine, says Simplicius, although it would require a long argument to agree on the sense of “create” that is appropriate here. But why on earth, or rather in Heaven, should He have decided to create at one moment rather than another44? And why should he then stop creating, like some factory worker clocking in and out of the plant? Like Leibniz some 1200 years later, Simplicius cannot tolerate the idea that God's behavior might be arbitrary or capricious, that is, that He might act without having a sufficient reason for acting in the time, place, and way he did. Simplicius' own Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation escapes this particular problem (although it is less successful in avoiding others): emanation, he argues, can be considered as a continuous creation,45 one that has no beginning or end, so that there is no room for asking: why did God create six thousand years ago, rather than seven thousand?
2.5. Pagans vs. Christians at the end of Antiquity
As Hoffmann has shown, Simplicius' attitude toward Philoponus and his correligionaries is symptomatic of the general attitude of educated pagans at the end of Antiquity toward Christians. The Christians are an impious group of atheists and revolutionaries, whose only redeeming virtue is that they will not be around for long: their doctrines will soon wither away, like the gardens of Adonis. In their desire for glory, they are like Herostratus of Ephesus, who burned down the temple of Artemis in 356 BC, just because he wanted to be famous. Motivated by the search for glory rather than the pursuit of truth, they have failed to purify their rational soul, with the result that they allow themselves to be motivated by their passions and imagination rather than reason.
2.6. Aristotle, Physics 8.1
So much, then, for the historical background. Before we turn to some examples of the actual debates between Simplicius and Philoponus, let's refresh our memories of the text they're both commenting on: the first chapter of book 8 of Aristotle's Physics (Text 5).
We recall that the 8th book of Aristotle's Physics, which some interpreters like al-Fārābī considered the culmination of the entire book,46 sets out to prove the existence of an unmoved Prime Mover, responsible for all the motion in the universe. To accomplish this, Aristotle starts out in Physics 8.1 by trying to prove that motion is eternal, time is eternal, and therefore the entire world as a whole is eternal.
To prove that motion is eternal, Aristotle starts out from the definiton of motion he had already given in Physics 3, 1, 210a10 ff. (Text 7): Motion is the actuality (energeia or entelekheia) of what is movable insofar as it is movable. This, Aristotle claims, implies that before motion can take place, the things that are capable of motion must already exist. But these things are either generated, or eternal. If generated, their existence must be preceded by the motion or change that generated them; if they are eternal, but were not always in motion, then they must have begun to move at a specific point in time, prior to which they were at rest. But if so, since rest is the privation in motion, then while they were at rest there must have been some cause that kept them at rest. Before these things begin their motion, therefore, there must have been another change or motion that overcame the cause that was maintaining them at rest. Aristotle's conclusion is that no matter whether the things capable of motion are generated or eternal, there is always a change or motion previous to any change or motion one chooses to consider. In this sense, then, motion is eternal. There is no such thing as a first motion.
Aristotle's second argument is based on his definition of time as the number of motion according to the before and after (Physics 4, 10-12). Since time is the number of motion, if there is always time, there is always motion as well. Aristotle therefore (Physics, 8, 1, 251b10 ff.) goes on to give a series of arguments for the eternity of time.47
Aristotle's first argument for the eternity of time is from authority: all natural philosophers except Plato, he says, have agreed that time is eternal. The key point here, and we will return to it shortly, is that Aristotle takes the account of creation in Plato's Timaeus quite literally.
Aristotle's second argument for the eternity of time is based on the nature of the present instant or the now (Greek to nun). By Aristotle's definition, the now is the end of one period (viz., the past), and the beginning of another one (the future). Since every now thus implies time before and after it, it follows that there can be no first or last now, and hence that time is eternal. Finally, Aristotle goes on to show that these arguments prove that time, and therefore motion, not only had no beginning but will also have no end, for whichever instant or nun you consider, there will always be one after it. Time is thus beginningless and endless, infinite a parte ante and a parte post, as the Latins would say, and as the Arabs would say, boh azalī and abadī.48
3. Simplicius vs. Philoponus: the gloves come off
All kinds interesting issues are raised in the debate between Simplicius and Philoponus over the interpretation of Physics 8.1.
Among the most interesting aspects of the debate, from a purely philosophical viewpoint, is Philoponus' attempt to refute Aristotle by arguments based on the nature of inifinity; these arguments are the subject of section 9 (a), p. 175-80 of the second volume of Richard Sorabji's Philosophy of the Commentators. In order to rule out the possibility of beginningless time, Philoponus adduces the fact that, according to Aristotle, there can be no actual infinite; that no infinite series can be traversed or increased; that no one infinite series can be larger than another; and that no infinite quantity can be a multiple of another infinite quantity. I'm going to ignore these arguments here, partly because they've been extensively discussed elsewhere,49 and partly because I want to concentrate here on what's more directly relevant to the theme of the conflict between pagans and Christians at the end of Antiquity.
3.1. Simplicius on the created nature of Christ
The first example I'd like to discuss occurs when Simplicius is answering Philoponus' attempt to overturn what he calls the “famous axiom of the philosophers”, to the effect that nothing can be generated (Greek verb genesthai, adjective genêton) out of nothing, an axiom Philoponus rightly considers essential for the pagan proof that motion is eternal (Simpl. In Phys. 1143, 20 ff.). Philoponus contends that contrary to what Aristotle says, what is generated can indeed come into being out of nothing, or more precisely out of what does not exist in any way (ek tou medamêi mêdamôs ontos). He argues that God creates matter, from which he thinks it follows that, contrary to what the Pagans claim, not everything that comes into being originates out of what exists (to on). Not only matter, moreover, but all forms within matter, and, in short, everything except the First is created, according to Philoponus, with only the First being ungenerated and uncaused.
Simplicius takes advantage of this opportunity to question Philoponus' Christian orthodoxy. He first cites Aristotle at Physics, I, 8, 191a24 ff., who argues that nothing can be generated out of nothing, but that whatever comes into being must do so out of its own privation. This allows Simplicius to make fun of Philoponus for not understanding what the philosophers mean by “generation” (Greek genesis): it is not, as the Grammarian thinks, what depends on just any kind of cause, but “what has been assigned its passage to being within a part of time” (these, as we'll see shortly, being the two meanings Aristotle attaches to the term ‘generated’). But now Simplicius administers the coup de grâce:
Simplicius, In Phys., p. 1144, 28-32 Diels
says that only the First is ungenerated and without a cause, joining ‘without a cause’ to ‘ungenerated’, he also says, not even showing respect for those who share his views, that what comes after the First is also generated and is created. For he too says that what is generated is created (...)
It seems to me that this is a jab by Simplicius at Philoponus' Christian orthodoxy. For if Philoponus affirms that everything after the First – that is, presumably, God the Father – is created, then that includes Christ the Son. But to say that Christ is created is heretical, and goes against the Nicene Creed:
(ed. Ph. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a history and critical notes. 2, The Greek and Latin creeds, with translations, 1878, p. 57)
English Language Liturgical Commission translation
…light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.
Thus, Nicene Orthodoxy held that Christ was “begotten, not made”.50 In contrast, the doctrine that Christ was made or created (Greek poiêthen) is, of course, nothing other than Arianism.51 There were heterodox Christian sects known more specifically for their belief that God's body was created. As we saw, Philoponus, who fought so hard to defend Christianity against the pagans, was himself a Monophysite, although he was later judged guilty of heresy. I find it quite surprising – and I'm not aware that it's been noticed before – that the resolute pagan Simplicius should be so apparently up to date on the niceties of theoretical Christology.
3.2. Simplicius and Philoponus on perpetuity (aidiotês)
Another example of Simplicus' attacks on Philoponus' Christian faith comes in the context of Aristotle's “proof” that time is everlasting, based on the fact that all his predecessors, except for Plato, said it is:
But so far as time is concerned we see that all with one exception are in agreement in saying that it is uncreated (...) Plato alone asserts the creation of time, saying that it is simultaneous with the world, and that the world came into being (Aristotle, Physics, 8, 1, 251b14-19).
Philoponus provides three counter-arguments.
First, just because five or ten men say time was generated, this is no reason to prefer their testimony to that of Plato. We cannot judge the validity of opinions on the basis of how many people support them; if we did, Aristotle, who was the only one to introduce a fifth element (ether) alongside the four traditional ones of earth, air, fire, and water, would be out of luck.
Second, Aristotle's claim that we should follow the majority is hard to square with his statement in the De Caelo (1, 10, 29b12 ff.) that even though all the other natural philosophers say the world is generated, he shows it to be ungenerated.
Third, since Plato said in the Timaeus that “time came into being with the heavens”, he is more consistent than the others, who claim that the world is generated but that time is ungenerated, although neither can exist without the other.
Philoponus goes on to argue that we should not accept the testimony of the natural philosophers that time is ungenerated, since Aristotle says they were wrong in every other respect. Besides, Philoponus says, he could point out many illustrious ancient philosophers who claim that time is generated.
Simplicius begins his refutation of Philoponus' argments by claiming that Aristotle does not claim that the testimony of other philosophers is demonstrative proof, but he only quotes them to back up his own demonstrations; such testimony helps to persuade beginners.
Second, Simplicius claims that when Plato and Aristotle call the world and time ‘generated’ (Greek genêton), they do not mean the same thing (Text 6). When Aristotle seems to argue against Plato, he is in fact “ ...arguing not against Plato, but against those who understand the term ‘generated’ according to its surface meaning” (1165, 4-5). Simplicius has already explained, at 1154, 4 ff., that by ‘generated’ Aristotle means what exists subsequently after having been non-existent, and what exists in a part of time. Plato, in contrast, means by it all that is not true, viz. intelligible, being, and not simultaneously entire: ‘generated’, according to Plato, means whatever has an external cause of its being. Simplicius continues by claiming that Philoponus is showing his ignorance when he attributes to Plato his own understanding of the term ‘generated’, viz. that it refers to what comes into existence after having previously been non-existent. Philoponus was, as usual, too dumb to understand Plato when, in the Timaeus, he says that the Demiurge wished to make the world as similar as possible to its intelligible model. The model (Greek paradeigma), according to Plato, was characterized by eternal everlastingness (tên aiônion aidiotêta), and so the Demiurge provided the world with temporal everlastingness (tên khronikên aidiotêta) by bestowing upon it time, as an image of eternity.
A few remarks are in order on this theory of the division of everlastingness or perpetuity (aidiotês) into eternal (aiônios) and temporal (khronikê). It was foreshadowed by Plotinus in his treatise on Time and Eternity (Ennead III 7, 3) and developed by Porphyry (In Tim., book 2, fr. 46 Sodano), but it reached its full development in Proclus (Elements of Theology, proposition 55). Here is Proclus' corollary to that proposition, in Dodds' translation:
…the perpetuity (aidiotês) we spoke of was of two kinds: the one eternal (aiônios), the other in time (khronikê) ; the one a perpetual steadfastness, the other a perpetual process; the one having its existence concentrated in a simultaneous whole, the other diffused and unfolded in temporal extension; the one whole in itself, the other composed of parts each of which exists separately in an order of succession.
Roughly, what this boils down to is the following. When Aristotle used the words aidios and aidiotês, modern translators are quite correct to render them as “eternal” and “eternity”. For Aristotle, as we have seen, something is eternal which has no beginning or end to its existence, which pretty much the way we use the terms today. By the time of Late Neoplatonism, however, owing to the process of increasing ontological complexity I mentioned earlier, Eternity (aiôn) became reserved for the world of intelligible forms, and it came to designate not infinite duration, but complete timelessness. The things that are aiônia are ontologically higher than and prior to time; as Proclus puts it, they are “concentrated in a simultaneous whole”. At the other extreme of the ontological hierarchy, there are the objects of the world of sensible reality in which we live. This world and everything in it is khronikos or temporal, that is, subject to time, or as Proclus likes to put it “having its existence in a part of time”. But the Neoplatonists soon realized that these two classes, temporality and eternity, were not enough, for they left no room for that which had its existence in time, like the sensible world, but lasted for an indeterminate duration, like the elements and the celestial bodies. The word they chose to designate this intermediate realm was aidiotês, which the Medieval Latins were to translate as aevum, and we can translate as perpetuity or everlastingness.
Thus, when Simplicius, following Proclus, says that the Intelligible Model used by the Demiurge is “eternally perpetual”, he means that it always exists, because it transcends time. When he says the world is “temporally perpetual”, he means that it exists for ever, but within time.
In general, when Simplicius discusses the questions of whether or not time, motion, and the world are aidioi, he means not “are they eternal ?”, but “are they perpetual or everlasting?”, that is, do these things, or do they not, possess a temporal limit to their existence? The distinction is important in Neoplatonism, but Philoponus tries to ignore it in his criticism of Aristotle.
Philoponus, as we saw, questions Aristotle's assertion that his definition of motion requires the previous existence of things that are capable of motion. Aristotle says this is true of motion that has a beginning in time, but Philoponus retorts it must be true of all motion, including beginningless motion. If this is so, then the substance of the heavens must pre-exist its circular motion. But in this case, argues Philoponus, this heavenly circular motion is not perpetual (aidios), because nothing that is preexisted in time by something else is perpetual. It follows either that Aristotle's definition of motion does not apply to beginningless motion, and is therefore inadequate, or else that contrary to Aristotle's claims, it is not true that motion requires the previous existence of what is capable of motion.
The key to Philoponus' argument is obviously his claim that nothing that is perpetual (aidion) can have anything preceding it in time. But this argument seems to be based on an understanding of aidion as meaning ‘eternal’ as it does in Aristotle: as applying to that which has neither a beginning nor an end. Philoponus' argument fails if one adopts the Neoplatonic understanding of aidion as simply designating that which has a perpetual duration in time, whether or not it has a beginning in time, that is, regardless of whether its perpetuity is a parte ante or a parte post,abadi or azali. On this understanding of aidion it does *not* follow that if there is some x that precedes y is time, then y cannot be aidion. On the contrary, y can perfectly well have a beginning in time (in which case there will be things preceding it in time) and also have an existence that is of limitless duration, i.e. it can stll be aidion.
3.3. Simplicius on the Egyptian origins of Genesis
But let us return to our sheep, as the French say. Continuing his refutation of Philoponus, Simplicius denies that Aristotle differs from Plato when, in the De Caelo, he introduces a fifth element as characteristic of the heavens. This is a good example of the pagan Neoplatonist concern, more or less universal since the time of Porphyry, if not already of Antiochus of Ascalon, to reconcile Plato and Aristotle.52 The two great founders of philosophy cannot be allowed to contradict one another. If they sometimes appear to do so – as even the Neoplatonists were obliged to concede – then the reason is, as Simplicius states of the apparent contradiction between Plato's and Aristotle's use of the term ‘generated’ (genêton):
…it was the ancient usage to argue against the surface meaning out of consideration for more superficial understandings. Since, then, ‘generated’ was said of things that having previously not existed, later existed, therefore, arguing against this meaning of the term, Aristotle seems to censure Plato for having said ‘generated’, but in fact he is censuring not Plato, but those who have attached ‘generated’ in this sense to time and to the world.
Whereas Aristotle appears to say, expressis verbis, that Plato was the only one to say that time is generated, and that he was wrong to do so, in fact, on the Neoplatonist explanation that Simplicius adopts, Aristotle was criticizing not Plato, but those who understood only the superficial or apparent meaning of ‘generated’, viz. that something begins to exist after having been non-existent. Plato's ‘real’ meaning, which professors like Simplicius explained to their students, is that to say that a thing is ‘generated’ actually means that it depends on an external cause for its existence, is not intelligible, and is not a simultaneous whole but has its being in becoming.
This principle of the exception-free harmony between Plato and Aristotle thus often obliged the Neoplatonists to perform painful feats of exegetical contortion. Simplicius claims that Plato, like Aristotle, says the heavens consist of fire, earth and what is in between, because they are visible and tangible. But Plato, he argues, also agrees that the substance of the heavens is different from the four sublunar elements, since when in the Timaeus he attributes a geometrical figure to each element (the tetrahedron or pyramid to fire, the octohedron to air, the eikosahedron to water, the cube to earth), he assigns the dodecahedron to the ether.
This is all very well, except that Plato never mentions the dodecahedron in the Timaeus passage in question (55c), but merely a “fifth figure”. It is the pseudonymous work entitled De natura anima et mundi that first mentions it (ch. 35, p. 136, 20 Marg). Obviously hard put for testimonies in favor of his view, Simplicius next has recourse to Plato's student Xenocrates, who, in his work On Plato's life (fr. 53 Heinze) did indeed mention five Platonic elements, one of which is ether. Yet from these two meager (non-Platonic) testimonies to the affirmation that Plato and Aristotle mean the same thing by the fifth element, is a bit of a stretch, to say the least.
Undaunted, Simplicius continues, defending the view that it is quite coherent to claim both (a) that the world is generated (either hypothetically or in the sense that it has a cause) and (b) that time is ungenerated. He expends a great deal of sarcasm on Philoponus' claim that he can point to many philosophers who held time to be generated: he begs Philoponus to enlighten him with regard to these illustrious philosophers of whom even Aristotle was unaware, his real belief being, of course, that Philoponus did not name them for the excellent reason that they did not exist.
Finally (p. 1166, 20 ff.), Simplicius concludes his refutation of Philoponus on this point with a final argument. I'm not aware of any modern scholarship dealing with this passage from Simplicius. But one notable scholar who did called attention to this passage was Ralph Cudworth, in his True Intellectual System of the Universe (I quote from his tranlation in chapter 4, p. 313 of the 1678 edition):
Ralph Cudworth, True Intellectual System of the Universe, London 1678, ch. 4, p. 313
Simplicius, In Phys., p. 1166, 20 ff. Diels
(...) Simplicius a zealous Contender for the Worlds Eternity, affirms the Mosaick History of its Creation by God, to have been nothing elle but *muthoi Aiguptioi*, Egyptian Fables.
The Place is so confiderable, that I shall here set it down in the Authors own Language,
If Grammaticus here mean the Lawgiver of the Jews, writing thus, [In the beginning God made Heaven and Earth, and the Earth was invisible and unadorned, and Darknefs was upon the Deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the Water:] and then afterward when he had made Light, and feparated the Light from the Darkness, adding [And God called the Light Day, and the Darknefs Night, and the Evening and the Morning were the Firft Day] I say, if Grammaticus thinks this to have been the First Generation and Beginning of Time, I would have him to know that all this is but a Fabulous Tradition, and wholly drawn from Egyptian Fables.
When copying this passage in the manuscript later known as Marcianus Graecus 227, the 13th-century scribe Georgios could not restrain his indignation, writing in the margin: “Behold this dog Simplicius, saying that the words of Moses are myths!”53
Unfortunately, Simplicius does not tell us where he got his information from. I am neither an Egyptologist nor an Old Testament scholar, and so I'm not capable to evaluating Simplicius's claim. I do know, however, that some modern scholarship has taken up the hypothesis that Egyptian influence can be discerned in the opening chapters of Genesis.54 This is particularly the case with the so-called Cosmogony of Hermopolis.
To characterize Simplicius' views of Philoponus in a nutshell, I can do no better than to cite a passage from Simplicius' commentary on the Categories (p. 7, 23-32 Kalbfleisch), in which the pagan commentator sums up the qualities that a good commentator on Aristotle should possess:
The worthy exegete of Aristotle's writings must not fall wholly short of the latter's greatness of intellect (megalonoia). He must also have experience of everything the Philosopher has written, and must be a connoisseur (epistêmôn) of Aristotle's stylistic habits. His judgment must be impartial (adekaston), so that he may neither, out of misplaced zeal, seek to prove something well said to be unsatisfactory, nor, if some point should require attention, should he obstinately persist in trying to demonstrate that [Aristotle] is always and everywhere infallible, as if he had enrolled himself in the Philosopher's school. [The good exegete] must, I believe, not convict the philosophers of discordance by looking only at the letter (lexis) of what [Aristotle] says against Plato; but he must look towards the spirit (nous), and track down (anikhneuein) the harmony which reigns between them on the majority of points.
I think it's safe to say that in Simplicius' view, Philoponus fails to make the grade on all these points: he does not know Aristotle well, he lacks impartiality (although in his case it is not because he strives to prove that Aristotle is always right, but to prove that he is very often wrong), and above all he insists on the disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, remaining at the level of the surface meaning of their texts and failing to discern the underlying harmony between the two great philosophers. I suspect Simplicius would also apply to Philoponus what he says, shortly afterwards in his Commentary on the Categories, about the qualities required of a good philosophy student:
He must, however, guard against disputatious twaddle (eristikê phluaria), into which many of those who frequent Aristotle tend to fall. Whereas the Philosopher endeavors to demonstrate everything by means of the irrefutable definitions of science, these smart-alecks (hoi perittôs sophoi) have the habit of contradicting even what is obvious, blinding the eye of their souls. Against such people, it is enough to speak Aristotle's words: to wit, they need either sensation (aisthêsis), or punishment.55 If they are being argumentative without having paid attention, it is perception they need. If, however, they have paid attention to the text, but are trying to show off their discursive power, it is punishment they need.
Philoponus, for his part, never mentions Simplicius, but if he had, his evaluation of the Pagan philosopher would no doubt have been equally unflattering.