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Part Two: Philoponus, Simplicius, and the theory

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Part Two:

Philoponus, Simplicius, and the theory

of instantaneous change

1. Introduction

As we saw in the first part of this article, one of Aristotle's key arguments in Physics 8, 1 for the eternity or everlastingness of the world was that whatever motion one chooses to examine, one will always find a motion that precedes it. There is therefore no such thing as a first motion. Aristotle based this argument on his own definition of motion in Physics III, which seemed to him to imply that the preexistence of an object or objects capable of motion is a necessary condition for the occurrence of motion. But the ability to always identify one more portion of a thing's temporal existence – one more moment before the one that seemed to be first, one more moment after the one that seemed to be last – is precisely what Aristotle means by temporal infinity56 in the sense of unlimited duration. Therefore, if one can always identify one more moment in the series of moments that constitute the world's existence a parte ante and a parte post, the world is, at least in Aristotle's sense, infinite. In his Against Aristotle, Philoponus, whose goal is to overturn Aristotle's arguments against the eternity of the world, therefore has to use all the resources at his disposal to refute this particular argument.

1.1. Aristotle on motion

Motion, as Aristotle claims in Physics 3, 1, 201a10-11 (Text 7), is the actualization of the movable qua movable, and this, he claims, implies that before there can be motion, there must first exist a movable object.

Aristotle's theory of motion is at the same time one of the most familiar and most difficult aspects of his thought.57 According to the definition in Text 7, motion seems to be the incomplete actualization of a potentiality (Greek dunamis), while the complete actualization (Greek energeia or entelekheia) of that potentiality is the state of being that occurs once the kinêsis has reached its goal. To take the example of a house, the wood and stones out of which it is to be built possess the potentiality (Greek dunamis) of becoming a house: they are what is buildable (Greek oikodomêton). The incomplete actualization of this potentiality is the process of being built (Greek oikodomêsis), while its complete actualization is the existence of the house. Likewise, if I walk across the room, my walking is a kinêsis as long as it is incomplete, that is, as long as I have not yet reached my goal. Once I've reached the place I was walking to, my process of walking is complete: in Greek, it can no longer be described as a kinêsis, but it's now a kinêma or completed motion.

Aristotle mentions the difference between complete and incomplete motion and actuality in a number of places (Texts 8a ff.). Text 8a, from Physics III, 1, explains why it's hard to figure out what motion is: motion is neither a potentiality (dunamis) nor an actuality (energeia). Instead, it's an incomplete actuality, because that of which it is the actuality  – the house while it's being built, me while I'm walking to the other side of the room – is not yet complete as such, that is, with regard to its true nature or what it is meant to be.

Our next text (8b = Metaph. Θ 6, 1048b18-36) is much more difficult, but I've included it because it brings up a key aspect of Aristotelian doctrine. Here, Aristotle begins by distinguishing between actions (praxeis) that have a limit (peras) and those that do not. Actions with limits are not ends in themselves: examples include losing weight (which is not done for its own sake, Aristotle believes, but for the sake of health). They are therefore not real activities (energeiai), but motions (kinêseis). Actions properly so called are motions that have their end within themselves: examples include such process verbs as seeing (Greek horan), understanding (Greek phronein), thinking (Greek noein). In the case of these verbs, we can make true statements using both the present and the perfect tenses simultaneously : the fact that I'm seeing now is not incompatible with the fact that I have seen an instant ago; the fact that I'm thinking at this instant doesn't rule out that I was thinking an instant ago. This is not true, Aristotle believes, in the case of verbs describing processes that do not have their end in themselves: I cannot truthfully or relevantly say that I am learning and have learned, that I am recovering my health and have recovered my health, for in these cases the use of the perfect tense (‘have learned’, ‘have recovered’) means that the process indicated by the verb is at an end, so that is is henceforth false to say “I am learning” or “I am recovering my health”. Aristotle ends the passage by summarizing his results: processes such as seeing and thinking are activities or actualities (energeiai), whereas walking, building, coming-into-being and moving are merely motions (kinêsis).

The key point to this distinction seems to be that kinêseis are processes that are necessarily incomplete because their goal lies outside themselves, and once they reach their goal they cease to exist. Energeiai, in contrast, since they contain their goal within themelves, are complete at each instant of their existence. Note that two of Aristotle's paradigmatic actuality verbs are “to be happy” and “to live well”. We find a similar idea in Aristotle's discussion of the nature of pleasure in Book 10, chapter 4 of the Nicomachean Ethics (Text 8c). Like seeing, Aristotle explains here, pleasure is complete at every moment, and its intensity is therefore not increased if it lasts longer. This means it is not a motion (kinêsis), for all motion takes time. Nor is there any coming-into-being (genesis) of pleasure, any more than there is of a point or a numerical unit.

The notion that processes like happiness, pleasure, and living well are complete at every instant was to be extremely important in later Hellenistic ethics. If they are fully realized in each instant, so much so that they are not subject to any possible increase, then all possible happiness and well-being are contained in the present instant. This is no doubt the origin of the Hellenistic doctrine that “only the present is our happiness”, a theme taken up in Goethe's Faust and so brilliantly studied by Pie­r­re Hadot.

Text 8d is a brief extract from De anima 3, 7, which serves to highlight once again the distinction between motion as imperfect activity or the motion of that which is still imperfect, whereas true or absolute (haplôs) activity or actuality pertains to what's perfect: this is, as we've seen, the kind of activity like seeing and hearing that's perfect at every instant.

Its seems apposite here to quote the commentary on this passage by John Philoponus (= Text 8e). Here Philoponus reminds us that when any of our five sense-organs is activated by the presence of a sensible object, this doesn't take place through motion (kinêsis). Instead, such a case is an example of something brought from the second kind of potentiality (tou deuterou dunamei) to the second kind of actuality, and this process does not involve being affected (Greek paskhein) or altered (alloiôsis). It therefore cannot be a motion at all, since Aristotle's definition of motion involves the element of incompleteness. Yet things that are characterized by this second sense of potential are already complete: therefore, the process by which such things are actualized cannot be motion, but may be called change (metabolê).

In order to make sense of this argument we must, I am afraid, take another detour, this time back to Book II, chapter 5 of Aristotle's De anima (Text 8f). Here, Aristotle distinguishes various meanings of potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (entelekheia). These meanings are as follows (Cf. Table 3):

1. A person is potentially knowledgeable simply qua human being, i.e. because he or she belongs to a genus to which the predicate “knowledgeable” can be meaningfully applied, in that she is capable of becoming knowledgeable.

2. A person can be called knowledgeable because she has acquired some knowledge, such as grammar, whether or not she is actually exercising or making use of this knowledge. This is the state described as hexis.

3. Finally, a person who is actually exercizing her knowledge — i.e. by actually reading and writing – is in actuality (entelekheiai) and possesses that knowledge in the proper sense of that term (kuriôs).

Now, Aristotle continues, whereas the transition from state (1) to state (2) is a case of alteration or qualitative change (alloiôsis), the transition from state (2) to state (3) is either not alteration at all, or else is another kind of alteration. The idea seems to be that when we exercize a skill, faculty, or habit that we already possess, we are not undergoing alteration – are not becoming other than or different from (Greek alloios) from what we are – but are rather developing into what we truly are.58

These notions were systematized by the Aristotelian commentators. It was noted (cf. Table 3) that the hexis (step 2 above) can be considered as being in actuality when compared to pure potentiality (stage 1), but in potency when compared to pure entelechy (stage 3). Likewise, stage 1 can be called the first potentiality, stage 2 can be called the first (or lowest) actuality and the second (or highest) potentiality, while stage 3 is often referred to as the second (or highest) actuality.

1.2. A tale of two entelechies

When, therefore, in his definition of motion in Physics 3 Aristotle speaks of motion as the entelechy of the movable qua movable, the commentators distinguished between two meanings of the word ‘entelechy’. This term, they wrote, can refer

1. to something that's in possession of its complete or perfect form, having rid itself of all its potentiality (dunamis). This is the entelechy that characterizes the state of affairs resulting from motion. Grammatically, it's what's designated by the perfective aspect (kekinêtai): “it has moved (and completed its motion)”. To quote Michael J. White,59

the completion or telos of a kinêsis is connoted by a stative-perfective verbal form, which entails the possession of the property or the obtaining of the state of affairs that supervenes on the completion of the kinêsis (...) at the limit point temporally marking the terminus ad quem of a continuous kinêsis, the body that has undergone the kinêsis in question must be said to possess the property or be in the state supervening on the completion of the kinêsis.

2. The second meaning of ‘entelechy’ is that which characterizes an object in motion; that is, an object that has begun its motion and is progressing toward its goal, which is form, but has not yet reached it and therefore retains its potentiality. It's in this sense that the Commentators often characterize motion as “the path from potentiality to actuality”.

We should bear in mind here that for Aristotle, the concept of motion or kinêsis is much broader than our modern-day intuitive idea of motion. When we think of motion we usually think first and foremost of motion in space or local motion. For Aristotle, by contrast, there is motion or change in all of the categories of being, and particularly in the first four of them.60 Thus, for Aristotle, there are the following kinds of motion or change (Table 4):

1. Substantial motion, which manifests itself as coming-into-being (genesis) and perishing (phthora),

2. Qualitative motion, or alteration (Greek alloiôsis);

3. Quantitative motion, or growth (auxêsis) and diminution (phthisis);

and finally:

4. Local motion, or transportation (phora).

We will see below how the Islamic philosopher al-Kindi added another motion to these four: the motion of creation (al-ḥaraka-l-ibdā’).

The various kinds of change can be illustrated by our Text 9, from the Paraphrase of the Physics by the fourth-century Platonist/Aristotelian Themistius. Themistius emphasizes that motion exists in all the categories that are characterized by potentiality and entelechy or actuality (entelekheia). The latter term has two meanings, one designating the process by which bronze, for instance, is becoming a statue, the other the state in which it has become a statue. The former actuality – let's call it actuality 1 – is indicated by the present and imperfect tense of verbs (kineitai), and is characterized by the continuing presence of potentiality. It can be termed motion and the perfection of potentiality. Actuality 2, by contrast, is the complete realization or perfecting, not of the potentiality itself (which it destroys), but of the thing that had been previously characterized by potentiality.

The actualization of the buildable (to oikodomêton) qua buildable — that is, in so far as it remains buildable, as opposed to already being built – is thus the process of building ( oikodomêsis), which is a motion (kinêsis). It follows, Themistius tells us, that motion is the first actuality of what is potential, in much the same way, one presumes, as the acquisition of the knowledge of reading and writing is the first actuality of the human being qua potentially literate. The second actuality, corresponding to a person's actually reading and writing, is the change into form. As the journey toward form, motion is not an actualization in the proper sense, since this title is reserved for the Aristotelian enmattered form (eidos), which is a type 2 entelechy or actuality. Instead, motion is an imperfect actualization.

As Ahmad Hasnawi has pointed out (1994), this passage from Themistius was highly influential. John Philoponus copied it out almost word for word in his Commentary on the Physics 3, 1.61 This latter work was translated into Arabic, and many of the scholia to Iṣḥāq ibn Ḥunain's Arabic translation of the Physics are taken from Philoponus' commentary.62 On example will suffice to show this. In Text 9b we once again find the doctrine of two actualizations or entelechies, which the author refers to as perfections (Arabic al-kamāl). The first one, motion, is incomplete and maintains its potentiality: it can be considered as a journey toward the last actualization. This latter actualization, complete, is characterized by the elimination of all potentiality.

2.1. Aristotle and the commentators on instantaneous change

For Aristotle in the Physics, all motion is continuous and takes place in time. This, at any rate, is what might be called the “standard” Aristotelian position. As he proves in Physics VI, space, time, and motion are isomorphic: they are all continuous and infinitely divisible. It follows that all motion is infinitely divisible, has extension, and takes time.

Yet there is another trend in Aristotelian thought that seems to conflict with this doctrine: in some circumstances, Aristotle allows that some kinds of change may take place instantaneously. In Physics I, 3, for instance (Text 10a), Aristotle reproaches the Presocratic philosopher Melissus for not having considered the possibility that change can take place all at once (athroas); while in Physics 8, 3 (Text 10b) and in the De sensibus (Text 10c), Aristotle mentions the freezing of water as an alteration that takes place all at once (hama, athroon). Aristotle also states in the Metaphysics, particularly book Ζ, that substantial change or the generation of form is instantaneous,63 while in Metaphysics Β64 he argues that points and the limits of bodies come into being without generation.65 In short, in various passages of his works, Aristotle appears to entertain the possibility that of the kinds of motion or change, only locomotion must unequivocally take place in time, while alteration, substantial change, energeia and relational change may all occur instantaneously.66

In his Quaestiones,67 the great Periptateic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias (late 2nd-early third century AD) picked up on the Aristotelian distinction between an activity (energeia) that is perfect or complete (teleia), and an activity that is imperfect or incomplete. For Alexander, incomplete activity is an affect or accident (pathos) and a quality (poiotês), while perfect activity, also know as its entelechy, is a form. This is obviously the same basic theory as we found in Themistius.

Like many of Alexander's minor texts,68 this one was was translated into Arabic, in at least two versions. One of these, entitled “On form and the fact that it is the perfection and accomplishment of motion according to Aristotle”,69 renders the passage from Quaestio 1. 21 with some interesting modifications and additions. I've provided an English translation of the Arabic in Text 11. Here we find the now-familiar distinction between imperfect and perfect motion, with the former being a accident (Arabic al-aṯaru, Greek pathos) of the thing and the latter being equated with its actualization, perfection or completion (Greek entelekheia = Arabic anṭālāšyā, obviously a mere transliteration). Note that this translation renders Alexander's term ‘activity’ (energeia) by a term meaning ‘motion’ (al-ḥarakatu), so that Alexander's distinction between perfect and imperfect activity becomes a distinction between perfect and imperfect motion. The Arabic also contains an explanation of the term entelechy that is lacking from Alexander's Greek text.

In a very important article, Ahmad Hasnawi (1994) has discussed this text and adduced a number of parallels from the later Greek commentators on Aristotle, including the passage from Themistius we examined earlier (Text 9). He also discussed another text that circulated in Medieval Arabic under the name of Alexander, under the title Fī anna-l-fi‘la a‘ammu mina-l-ḥarakati ‘alā ra’yi Arisṭū, “On the fact that action (fi‘l = Greek energeia) is more general that motion in the view of Aristotle”. Despite the fact that the Arabic manuscript tradition unequivocally attributes this text to Alexander, Hasnawi has shown that this text is nothing other than a translation of a part of book IV of Philoponus' work Against Proclus on the eternity of the world. Here, Philoponus confronts the fourth argument in favor of the world's eternity, which Proclus had set forth in a lost work.

2.2. Philoponus against Proclus

In the fourth of his arguments in favor of the eternity of the world (Text 12), Proclus argued that if the Demiurge or Maker of the cosmos is to be unmoved, then he must create perpetually. He adduces two reasons, both using reductio, why the Maker must be unmoved. If he were moved, then since motion is imperfect actuality, the Maker would be imperfect at one point and subsequently imperfect: an unacceptable conclusion. Second, if the Maker were moved, he, who is the creator of time, would require time, presumably as a result of the unstated premise (which Philoponus renders explicit) that all motion requires time.

In Book four, chapter four of his Against Proclus on the eternity of the world (Text 13), Philoponus tries to refute this argument. He does not deny the Aristotelian premises that all change is a kind of motion, that motion is imperfect actuality, and that all motion takes place in time. What he does deny is that God's creative action can correctly be called motion.70 It is not right, Philoponus claims, to call God's creative activity (energeia), which produces all things through the divine will alone, with no need for time or spatial intervals, a ‘motion’. Activity or actuality is, as we have seen, a category with broader extension than motion: while all motion is necessarily an activity, not all activity is motion.

This affirmation is backed up by the now-familar distinction between imperfect and perfect activity or actuality (energeia). Imperfect actuality is motion, which can also be defined as the transition from the first potentiality to the acquisition of a hexis. Perfect actuality, in contrast, is an instantaneous projection (probolê) from a hexis, where ‘instantaneous’ (Greek athroos) means that it is not a process that takes place in time, but it takes place in the now (Greek to nun), that indivisible limit which, according to Aristotle, is not time, precisely because it is the limit of time.

To illustrate this phenomenon of instantaneous projection, Philoponus uses the same examples he had already used in his commentary on the De Anima (Text 14), and which had long been traditional among the commentators71: the projection of light from a illuminating source (the sun, fire, or lightning); the faculties of sense-perception, particularly sight; and intellectual perception. In all these cases, the activity in question is timeless, therefore complete at every instant, and therefore, not a motion. But these are precisely, according to Philoponus, the features that characterize God's creative activity. It follows that Proclus is wrong: since God's creative activity is not motion, but analogous to the instantaneous activation of or projection from a hexis, then it implies neither imperfection nor a requirement for time on God's part. QED.

2.3. Back to Philoponus vs. Simplicius

After this long detour, let's return to the debate between Philoponus and Simplicius on the eternity of the world. We recall, I hope, that in Physics 8.1 Aristotle atempted to prove the eternity of the world by showing that in order for there to be motion at all, the objects capable of motion must already exist.

Philoponus disagrees. This is not true, he claims in the case of eternal motion, for what's eternal cannot have anything preceding it. If, then, some movable object preceded a motion, that motion could not be eternal. Nor is it true in the case of non-eternal motion: the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), he argues, each have their own characteristic motion (upward in the case of air and fire, down in the case of earth and water), but these characteristic motions pertain to each element as soon as that element comes into existence, so that once again it is false that what is movable must always preexist motion. In addition, since all four elements transform into one another, each motion would become a natural characteristic of each element, which is a contradiction.

Philoponus spends a long time on these arguments, and Simplicius even longer refuting them, but they may seem to a modern reader to consist in rather tedious nitpicking and logic-chopping. More interesting for our present purposes is Philoponus' claim (apud Simplicium, In Phys., 1140, 13) that the beginninglessness of the world could only be proved if it were true that ex nihilo nihil fit; nothing can come into being out of nothing. In his work Against Aristotle, Philoponus (Text 15)72 believes he can refute this ‘famous axiom’ by trotting out some arguments he had already used in books 9 and 11 of his work Against Proclus on the Eternity of the world. Interestingly, part of one of these texts (Philoponus, aet. mundi 9, 11) corresponds precisely to the third of the three texts discussed by Ahmad Hasnawi. Like aet. mundi 4, 4, this text was translated into Arabic and attributed to Alexander of Aphrodisias, under the title Maqālatu al-Iskanadari al-Afrūdīsī fī ibṭāli qawli man qāla innahu lā yakūnu šay’un illā min šay’in wa iṯbāti anna kulla šayïn innamā yakūnu lā min šay’in, that is: “Treatise by Alexander of Aphrodisias, refuting the doctrine that affirms that nothing comes about from nothing, and establishing that everything only comes about from nothing”. Philoponus repeats some of the arguments from this work in fragment 115 of his Against Aristotle on the eternity of the world (Text 15). Nature, he claims, requires a substrate both to exist and to act, and this entails that it must create out things that already exist (ex ontôn). Yet this is not true of God, who transcends all beings. If He is superior to nature, it is precisely because He creates not only the form but also the matter of all he creates. Nature may require time and the process of development to create the beings it creates : but not so God, who creates timelessly and without a process of generation, through his will alone.

Finally, just as Aristotle tries prove in Physics 8, 1 that the world is eternal a parte ante – i. e. that it had no beginning – from the fact that it had no first moment of existence, so he argues (Physics VIII, 1, 251b29-252a6) that the world is eternal a parte post – that is, that it will have no end – from the fact that whatever moment one tries to identify as the last one of its existence turns out to imply the existence of another moment after it. What is movable (Greek kinêton), Aristotle claims, continues to be movable even after it has moved, and what can cause motion (kinêtikon) still retains this ability after it has stopped exercising it. Likewise, even if a destructive agent has destroyed everything capable of destruction, that agent still retains its ability to destroy, and so it will destroy again, and will itself be destroyed at some point in the future. But destruction is a motion, so there is no end to motion.

Philoponus is not buying this argument, of course. He retorts that there are many things that cease to exist when they cease to move, such the heart, the lungs, and fire. In addition, some things are not destroyed by an external agent, but simply run out of the power necessary for their survival. Finally, he argues (Text 16), it is wrong to assume that what is destroyed is destroyed by motion. Aristotle admits that there are some things that come into being instantaneously or all at once (athroon), without motion or temporal extension: and Philoponus cites the now-familiar examples of the presence and absence of forms (cf. Metaphysics Z), the uniting of geometrical points (Metaphysics 1002A32-1002b2), physical contacts (De Caelo, 1, 11, 280b6-9), lightning (probably taken from Porphyry), and sense-perception (Metaphysics 9, Nicomachean Ethics 10), in this case visual.

In this fragment from his Against Aristotle, Philoponus again stresses that God's act of creation, like Aristotle's examples of instantaneous change, is not a motion, precisely because it takes no time. Simplicius seems to recognize that the existence of phenomena of instantaneous is a dangerous counter-objection to Aristotle's doctrine of the eternity of the world: thus, he replies that when Aristotle speaks of phenomena that take place all at once (athroon), he does not mean that they take place without time and change, but that in their case extension, change and time are “concentrated” (sunêirêmenê). In the case of such phenomena as lightning, contact, the curdling of milk and the freezing of water, he argues — all examples sometimes adduced to illustrate instantaneous change — the word ‘athroos’ does not mean that they take place instantaneously or outside of time, but that they occur all at once as opposed to part by part. Yet by admitting that change and time in such cases are sunêirêmena, Simplicius comes very close to admitting they are timeless, or even eternal, for according to post-Plotinian Neoplatonic theory, time unfolds (anellitein) the multiplicity that is concentrated on the level of eternity (sunêirêmenon en tois aiôsi).73

3 Excursus: creatio ex nihilo and instantaneous change in Islamic thought

We saw that Ahmad Hasnawi has proved that several of the texts circulating in Arabic translation under the name of Alexander of Aphrodisias were in fact translations of passages from works by Philoponus. It seems to me that the themes with which these texts deal – the doctrine of the double entelechy, the theory that not every energeia is motion, the possibility of a creatio ex nihilo, the doctrine that perfect motion is form – are not accidental. They were all, as we have seen, themes mobilized by Philoponus to prove the possibility of the Christian doctrines of creatio ex nihilo, and the world's finite existence in time. It seem likely that by extracting these doctrines and attributing them to the respected Exegete Alexander, rather than the suspect Christian Philoponus, the Islamic translators and adapters wished to make these Philoponan arguments available for use in advancing their own philosophical and religious agenda. I'd like to briefly examine a couple of examples of this process.

The affinities between the thought of Philoponus and the Islamic philosopher al-Kindi (c. 801-873) have long been recognized: aspects of their doctrine of the intelligence are similar, as is their acceptance of some version of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.74 As has recently been noted,75 one of Kindi's characteristic doctrines was that of the possiiblity of instantaneous change or motion. Indeed, Kindi went so far as to add to the standard Aristotelian list of types of motion (transportation, generation, corruption, augmentation, diminution, alteration; cf. Table 4) a new type: the motion of creation (al-ḥarakatu al-ibdā‘), which differs from generation in that the motion of creation does not take place out of a preexistent substrate.76 In his Epistle on definitions (p. 190 al-A‘sam), Kindi defines creation as “ the manifestation of the thing out of non-being’’ (al-ibdā‘u huwa iẓhāru al-šay’i ‘an laysa). Finally, in his Epistle on the quantity of Aristotle's books (Text 17)77, Kindi emphasizes that God’s first creative act happened all at once in no time: indeed, it is only the unbelievers who maintain the contrary. Note that this text is strongly reminiscent of Philoponus (Text 15): just as Philoponus had argued that since nature creates out of a preexistent substrate, i.e. matter, then if God is to be superior to nature he must create out of no substrate, so Kindi argues that is God is powerful enough to create ex nihilo and without matter, then He – unlike man, who needs both matter and time in order to create – has no need of time for his creative act.

In contrast, as Marwan Rashed has shown, Kindi's successor al-Fārābī (c. 870-950) probably devoted his lost work On changing beings to proving the impossibility of instantaneous change and the necessity that all change be continuous. Just as Kindi defended the possibility of instantaneous change in order to pave the way for a doctrine of creation ex nihilo taking place outside of time, Fārābī wished to eliminate this possibility in order to confirm Aristotle's proofs of the eternity of the world.

It seems highly likely that, whatever the precise details of the process of transmission from Greek into Arabic may have been, Kindi was adopting the ideas of Philoponus on this point, while Fārābī defended the viewpoint of Simplicius. This would seem to provide confrmation for the view expressed by the eminent Islamic scholar Josep Puig: “ Al-Fārābī y Juan Filopón son los pilares en que se sustentan la filosofía helenizante y el Kalām, respectivamente”.78

It was in the circle of al-Kindi, as recent scholarship has shown, that such aprocrypha as the Theology of Aristotle were composed, a work that was hugely influential on Islamic philosophy, and ascribed to Aristotle a Plotinian-style emanationist system (the work consists largely of re-worked extracts from the Enneads).

As in the philosophy of Kindi, a key concept of the Theology of Aristotle is that of what is duf‘atan wāḥida bi lā-zamān, “instantaneous / all at once and outside of time”79, which seems to correspond to the Greek athroos/aneu khronikês parataseôs. As recent scholars have argued80, this doctrine is closely related to another key notion appearing in the Theology : that the Creator is situated beyond eternity, and is in fact the cause of eternity. In the words of Marwan Rashed, “the Creator’s being beyond time prevents His act of creation from needing some period of time in order to be fulfilled”.81 Thus, we read that the first maker makes whatever He makes without intermediary, together and all at once (ma‘an wa fī duf‘atan wāḥidatan)82. In our Text 18, we find several echoes of themes we have encountered in late Greek philosophy: the world was not created in time, and if some ancient texts seem to say so (the author almost certainly has Plato's Timaeus in mind), then this was merely for the sake of instruction (as the Greeks said, it was didaskalias heneken). Similarly, it is probably no accident, but an echo of Philoponus' arguments, when the author of the Theology streses that the creative activity of the luminous power emanates from it without motion.83 The idea that some actions are not performed in time, and that some effects are simultaneous with their causes, looks very much like an echo of Philoponus' use of the doctrine of instantaneous change to refute Aristotle and clear the way for the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Interestingly, the passage comes from one of the few in the Theology that do not derive from Plotinus. As Fritz Zimmermann (1986, 204) has remarked, the author of the Theology “gives much greater prominence to the Plotinian ‘all at once’ than does Plotinus himself”. But the ‘all at once’ (to athroon/ fī duf‘atan wāḥidatan) is perhaps not necessarily Plotinian: there seems to be good reason to believe the concept is more Porphyrian/Philoponan than Plotinian.84

As a final illustration of the influence of this cluster of themes on Islamic thought, I've included (Text 20) a passage from the Harmony of Plato and Aristotle, a work that has almost always been attributed to al-Fārābī. Here, the author attempts to explain Aristotle's doctrine of the eternity of the world, which would be impious if understood literally. All Aristotle meant, it is explained, is that the Creator did not create the world bit-by-bit or gradually, but all at once and outside of time (duf‘ata bi-lā zamān). This is, of course, precisely the doctrine of Philoponus, who, as we have seen, took it over from the Aristotelian theory, as developed by subsequent Peripatetics, of the kind of instantaneous change that occurs in such phenomena as the diffusion of light, the curdling of milk, the freezing of water, sense perception and intellectual intuition. Yet since Fārābī opposed Philoponus on this topic – he wrote at least two works refuting Philoponus' attacks on the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the world – I think Marwan Rashed is very probably correct in declaring the Harmony to be a work not by Fārābī, but by one of his Christian students.

4. Conclusion

We have seen, I hope, how Philoponus makes use of a wide variety of Aristotelian doctrines to combat Aristotle's own doctrine of the eternity of the world. In particular, he uses Aristotle's admission of the possibility of instantaneous change to respond to pagan objections against the Christian doctrine of God's creation of the world within time. Contrary to what Proclus believes, such creation is not motion, so it does not imply, since motion is imperfect actualization, that God was ever imperfect. Nor, since all motion is in time, does it imply that God, the creator of time, required time in order to act. The doctrine of instantaneous change also allows Philoponus to present serious objections to Aristotle's doctrine that the world is eternal because for every moment of its existence one identifies as first, one can always identify an earlier one, and for every moment identified as last, one can also identify a later one. The possibility of instantaneous change implies that creation need not be a motion that takes time, but may be more like the actualization of a hexis, which is instantaneous and leaves the possessor of the hexis – in this case, God – unchanged.

As far as the origins of these ideas are concerned, they clearly derive ultimately from Aristotelian physics, and from the tension it contains between two notions: on the one hand, that all change and motion are continuous, infinitely divisible, and take place in time; and yet, on the other, that some kinds of motion and change may occur instantaneously. There is evidence that some Stoics adopted a doctrine of instantaneous motion,85 and this needs to be explored further. But as we have seen from our Text 4, it seems possible that it was the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry of Tyre who first applied the theory of instantaneous change to the theme of the creation of the world. It may seem unlikely that a Neoplatonist like Porphyry, notoriously hostile to Christianity, could have defended a theory so compatible with Christianity that it was enthusiastically taken up by the Christian John Philoponus.

Yet this impression may be misleadng. As Willy Theiler showed long ago (1966, 177-180), and as we can see from our Text 20, Porphyry appears to have adopted the Chaldaean doctrine the demiurge creates matter, just as Philoponus believed. Indeed, the Demiurge creates by his very being. Human craftsmen need tools because they lack complete mastery over the matter they use: one they have used these tools to remove the obstacles in their material, the logos or form appears atemporally in the product of their work. If there were no such obstacles, they would be able to impose form on their matter instantaneously (athroôs). From the examples of human emotions and demonic activity, which can achieve material effects on material bodies, Porphyry derives an argument a fortiori: since the Demiurge is so far superior to humans or to demons, he is much more able to bring the universe into existence by mere thought (αὐτῷ τῷ νοεῖν), since unlike his inferior imitators he has no need of a preexistent matter, but produces all things out of himself while remaining at rest. Now, the doctrine that God or the Demiurge creates ἅμα γὰρ νοήματι was precisely the one we saw attributed to Porphyry in our Text 4, so once again it seems that this latter passage, and the doctrine it contains, is authentically Porphyrian.

Finally, I think Theiler is correct to assume that resemblances of doctrine and vocabulary between our texts 20 and 2186 allow us to attribute another passage from Proclus' Commentary on the Timaeus to Porphyry, even if the latter's name does not appear in it (Text 21). Here it's explicitly affirmed that God's creation of the cosmos takes place instantaneously (athroôs), even more so than the traditional example of the sun's illumination.

When examining our Text 4, we saw that there was some doubt as to whether the key section of that fragment was really by Porpyhyry, or whether it could have been some kind of editorial intervention by Philoponus. This key passage, we recall, ran as follows:

In addition, Porphyry says that things which derive their existence from [a process of] generation and coming to be, for example a house or a ship or a plant or an animal, are also said to be generated. For this reason we do not describe a flash of lightning or a snapping of the fingers or anything else that exists and ceases to exist in an instant as generated: as Aristotle also says, all such things come to be without a [process of] generation and switch to non-existence without [a process of] decay. It is clear that nobody would hold that the world is generated in the sense of having to come to be through a process of generation, for God brought all things into substantification simultaneously with

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