Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 25 April 2017

The Reception of Aristotle in Antiquity

Abstract and Keywords

This essay offers an overview of the fortune of Aristotle’s philosophy in antiquity. It argues that the reception of Aristotle can be divided into a Hellenistic and a post-Hellenistic period. It also argues that the post-Hellenistic period, which begins in the first century BC, is characterized by a critical engagement with the text of Aristotle’s writings. This engagement took different forms, including that of the philosophical commentary. And yet even after the so-called return to Aristotle, certain aspects of his philosophy (most notably, his biology) remained at the margins of the philosophical tradition. For a full appreciation of these aspects, we have to go beyond antiquity.

Keywords: Aristotle, Aristotelian, Peripatetic, Hellenistic, post-Hellenistic, physics, biology


The relative lack of direct, explicit engagement with Aristotle’s ideas and writings is a conspicuous feature of Hellenistic philosophy. The situation changed in the first century bc. The so-called return to Aristotle marks a new beginning in the reception of Aristotle, which is clearly divided into a Hellenistic and a post-Hellenistic period. The post-Hellenistic period can be further divided into two phases. The reason for this additional division is the rise, after about ad 250, of exegetical work on the Aristotelian corpus by authors who described themselves as followers of Plato. Hence a study of the reception of Aristotle in antiquity can be usefully organized into three sections:

  1. I. The Early Reception of Aristotle

  2. II. The Post-Hellenistic Return to Aristotle

  3. III. Aristotle in Late Antiquity

This essay will not be treating all of the aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy that persevered and were transformed throughout antiquity (though there were several of those in science, ethics, psychology, and logic). Rather its primary goal is to provide a historical and theoretical framework that brings out the overall attitudes toward Aristotle’s philosophy, and in particular the selective use of his ideas.

I. The Early Reception of Aristotle

By “early reception” we mean the presence or influence of Aristotle in Hellenistic times.

Let us begin with the Epicurean school. A fragment of a letter from a first-generation Epicurean, maybe Epicurus himself, is preserved in a Herculaneum papyrus (PHerc. 1005, fr. 111 Angeli). It mentions Aristotle’s Analytics and his writings on nature (<ta peri> physeôs). The restored words need not be a reference to the eight books of the Physics. They could refer to a part of it (the part that is known as a work on nature, peri physeôs), or they could refer collectively to the Physics, the treatise On the Heavens, and some of the other works pertaining to Aristotle’s study of nature. We cannot determine which of these possibilities is the correct one. What matters is that the first-generation Epicureans had access to some of Aristotle’s school treatises.

And yet when we turn to Epicurus’s extant writings, we discover that he never mentions Aristotle and never engages directly with his works. At most we can say that some of his distinctive doctrines may presuppose acquaintance with Aristotle’s ideas and arguments. The doctrine of minima is a case in point. This doctrine, which states that the atom contains minimal parts, represents a major development of atomism from Democritus to Epicurus and a development that seems to take into account the criticism implicit in the arguments that Aristotle offers in Physics VI 1–2. The link between these arguments and the theory of minima was already noted in antiquity: “Epicurus, coming afterwards but sympathetic to the view of Leucippus and Democritus concerning the primary bodies, kept them impassive but took away their partlessness, since it was on this account that they were challenged by Aristotle” (Simplicius, On Aristotle’s Physics 925.19–22, trans. D. Konstan).

It is not difficult to find further evidence of a possible Aristotelian influence on Epicurus. According to ancient atomism, atoms are always in motion, and their motion is the result of an infinite number of collisions. More precisely, any given collision is preceded by an earlier one, and so there is no first motion of any atom. Aristotle’s objection to this thesis is that there must be a motion that is not only temporally but also logically prior to the motion the atom performs now as a result of an infinite number of collisions. Without clarity about this motion, Aristotle continues, atomism fails to offer an adequate explanation of motion in general.1 Interestingly enough, Epicurus argued that the first motion of an atom is downward and that this motion is caused by the weight of the atom. Our ancient sources take this to be a major innovation of Epicurus: “Democritus specified two basic properties of atoms, magnitude and shape; Epicurus added a third one, weight” (Aëtius I 3 18). Admittedly this doxographical information does not establish a connection between the innovation of Epicurus and Aristotle’s criticism of ancient atomism. But since it is an innovation that is most easily explained in light of this criticism, it is open to us to see in it a response to Aristotle.

There is no need to multiply examples. The overall impression is that Epicurus took upon himself the task of updating ancient atomism by responding to Aristotle. But this was done without engaging directly with his criticism. This is an important fact whose significance is amplified by the evidence that the first-generation Epicureans had some knowledge of his school treatises. The absence of any explicit reference to Aristotle may be due to at least two factors. First, we should not forget that we have access to mere abbreviations of Epicurus’s physical theory. It is possible that Epicurus was not only more expansive but also more explicit in dealing with Aristotle in the thirty-seven books of his now lost On Nature. Second, we cannot rule out that the lack of direct engagement with Aristotle was an intentional strategy on the part of Epicurus, who wanted to present his philosophy as something new, without antecedents.2

The lack of direct, explicit engagement with Aristotle can be observed also for the early Stoics. F. H. Sandbach famously uses this observation to challenge the thesis that there is Aristotelian influence on Stoic philosophy. His conclusion in Aristotle and the Stoics (1985) is largely negative: the Aristotelian influence on Stoic philosophy was probably not significant, and we should not approach the extant evidence on the assumption that the early Stoics knew and responded to Aristotle. A full review of the evidence for this conclusion would go beyond the scope of this essay.3 Suffice it to say that it is one thing to argue that the influence of Aristotle on the early Stoics is significantly less important than is often thought, and another to deny that Aristotle is a source of influence at all. Sandbach offers an argument for the former, and not the latter, conclusion. He does not rule out the possibility of an Aristotelian influence on the Stoics. On the contrary, he is quite forthcoming in accepting Aristotle as a possible source for certain aspects of the Stoic physical theory.4

Both the scarcity and the fragmentary nature of our sources pose severe limits to what can be said on the early reception of Aristotle. At most we can say that there is no positive evidence of direct, explicit engagement with his ideas, let alone with his writings, in the extant sources for the early Stoic and Epicurean traditions. But what we have seen in the case of Epicurus should alert us to the fact that there might be a number of reasons for this silence. The bottom line is that it is possible to have knowledge of someone’s ideas or writings and decide not to discuss them.

The lack of direct, explicit engagement with Aristotle was not complete in the Hellenistic period. There is an exception to the rule, which is also a counterexample to the thesis that Aristotle’s writings did not circulate and were not used in the Hellenistic period. Aristophanes of Byzantium, the head of the library of Alexandria at the end of the third century bc, wrote a summary (epitomê) of Aristotle’s biology. This summary was originally in four books. Excerpts from the first and second book are preserved in an anthology prepared under the patronage (and for the use) of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (first half of the tenth century).5 As Aristophanes himself tells us, his summary was written to make available in one place what Aristotle said about each animal: “I tried to do this so that you need not go through Aristotle’s study of animals (pragmateia peri zôiôn) which is divided into many books, but you could have the whole investigation (historia) for each animal together in one place.”6

Since we have a few excerpts from the first and the second book, we are able to say how Aristophanes proceeded in the selection, arrangement, and exposition of the Aristotelian materials. For each species of animal, he collected all the information he could find in Aristotle. Under the name of the animal, he gathered all the information about the parts of the animal, about its mating, gestation, and birth, as well as everything else relevant to its mode of life and character. This project was clearly inspired by what Aristotle says at the outset of the Historia Animalium, where we are promised a collection of data about the mode of life (bios), activities (praxeis), traits of character (êthê), and parts (moria) of animals.7 And yet there is an important difference that should not be overlooked. Aristotle does not organize his data by animal species. A key explanatory requirement, central to Aristotle’s study of animals, is that explanations are to be given at the right level of generality. This requirement militates against the organization of the data by animal species. In Aristotle’s study of animals, particular species are singled out only when they exhibit unique differentiations or anomalous features. The information about these species is usually collected at the end, as a coda to the main discussion. We can safely say that the project conducted by Aristophanes entailed removing the data about the different animal species from their original explanatory context and placing them in a new context. The new context was emphatically not that of the explanation of the data. We do not know anything about the intended use of Aristophanes’s summary; we do know, however, that the summary was not informed by Aristotle’s concerns for explanation. In fact it disregarded those concerns.8

Even if the summary was an outright violation of the Aristotelian explanatory principles governing the collection and explanation of the biological data, it remains a significant document for at least two reasons. First, it is evidence of direct, explicit engagement not just with Aristotle’s ideas but also with the text of his writings.9 Second, it is evidence of engagement with a relatively large and discrete corpus of writings, the so-called biological corpus. The significance of both points will become fully apparent in due course. Suffice it to note for now that Aristophanes was working outside the philosophical tradition. He was a scholar (grammatikos) based in Alexandria, part of a tradition that goes back to Callimachus and Zenotodus.10

It is time to return to the philosophical tradition in Athens. We still have to establish what happened to Aristotle’s writings in the Hellenistic Peripatos. According to a story in Strabo, these writings became inaccessible right after the death of Theophrastus. They were given to Neleus, who transported them along with the rest of the library of the Peripatos to Scepsis in the Troad, where they remained locked away until the first century bc.11 This story is the ancient explanation for the decline of the Peripatos after Theophrastus. Without the books of the founder of the school, the heirs of Aristotle and Theophrastus could not keep up with the other philosophical schools. When these books were rediscovered in the first century, the Peripatetic tradition could flourish again. Few believe that this story, which need not be pure fiction, can adequately explain either the decline of the Hellenistic Peripatos or the limited fortune that Aristotle’s philosophy enjoyed in the Hellenistic period. For one thing, we have seen that at least some of Aristotle’s school treatises were available in Alexandria. They were used by Aristophanes to produce his summary of Aristotle’s biology. For another, we cannot exclude that some of his treatises were available in Hellenistic centers such as Rhodes.12

The little we know about the Hellenistic Peripatos after Theophrastus confirms that textual engagement with Aristotle was the exception to the rule in the Hellenistic period. There is nothing in the school founded by Aristotle that is equivalent to what was done in the Academy of the late fourth century by Crantor of Soli, who is traditionally recalled as the first interpreter of Plato’s Timaeus,13 or to what was done in the late third century Garden by Demetrius of Laconia, who seems to have discussed difficult passages in the work of Epicurus.14 What we observe in the Peripatetic tradition after Theophrastus is a progressive tendency to converge toward certain doctrines that define allegiance to Aristotle’s philosophy. This is clearly illustrated by Critolaus, the champion of the Peripatetic tradition in the late Hellenistic period (second half of the second century bc). In ethics Critolaus defended the view that happiness requires virtue, bodily goods, and external goods. In physics he endorsed the thesis that the world is eternal. The remaining evidence for Critolaus is scarce, but it suggests that the activity of debating these positions (as well as others) was essential to his identity as a Peripatetic philosopher. Nothing suggests that his defense of these positions involved a critical engagement with Aristotle’s writings.15

All in all, it seems that text-based philosophy is a post-Hellenistic development. Arguably the so-called return to Aristotle is the most obvious example of this relatively new development in philosophy. It is therefore time to turn to the historical and philosophical significance of this phenomenon.

II. The Post-Hellenistic Return to Aristotle

The so-called return to Aristotle started in the first half of the first century bc, if not earlier. It cannot be tied to one event (the rediscovery of Aristotle’s books) or to one person (Andronicus and his “edition” of Aristotle). It is a fairly complex phenomenon, unfolding over more than a century. Consider the following evidence:

  • Panaetius of Rhodes, the leading Stoic philosopher in the second half of the second century bc, is known as a lover of Aristotle (philaristotelês).16

  • Tyrannion of Amisus, a scholar (grammatikos) who gained distinction and wealth in Rome in the time of Pompey, is also described as a lover of Aristotle (philaristotelês).17

  • Nicolaus of Damascus, adviser and friend of King Herod of Judea and Emperor Augustus, describes himself as an admirer of Aristotle (zelôtês Aristotelou).18

  • Strabo tells us that he studied Aristotle’s philosophy (ta aristoteleia) with Boethus of Sidon, the leading Peripatetic philosopher of his time.19 We do not know what Strabo studied with Boethus, but it is telling that he describes what he studied as Aristotle’s philosophy (as opposed to Peripatetic philosophy).20

Last but not least, it is worth mentioning the use of the verb aristotelizein by Strabo. He employs it twice, in connection with:

  • Posidonius, the leading Stoic philosopher of the first century bc; we are told, in particular, that there is much inquiry into the causes in the manner of Aristotle (polu … to aitiologikon … kai to aristotelizon) in Posidonius.21

  • The new generation of Peripatetics, which is collectively described as better able to engage in philosophy in the manner of Aristotle (philosophein kai aristotelizein).22

This evidence suggests that the return to Aristotle that began in the late Hellenistic period coincided with the rise of Aristotle as a philosophical authority. As the testimonies concerning Panaetius and Posidonius show, the appeal of Aristotle reached far beyond the boundaries of his school. In the rest of this section I will concentrate on this development within the Peripatetic tradition.

In the case of Aristotle, to be a philosophical authority did not mean to be beyond criticism. It only meant that his writings were to be taken as a model for serious philosophizing. As the late Bob Sharples has aptly noted, beginning in the first century bc, those who engaged with Aristotle’s philosophy did not hesitate to describe the views they set out as Aristotle’s views, for they regarded themselves as spelling out the implications of what Aristotle himself had said.23 A clear instance of this phenomenon is found in a chapter heading of what is known as the Supplement to Alexander’s of Aphrodisas’s On the Soul: “Selections from Aristotle concerning the first appropriate thing (prôton oikeion).”24 We would hesitate to attribute a doctrine of the first appropriate thing to Aristotle. And yet when we look at the information preserved in this chapter, we realize that the discussion is wholly internal to the Peripatetic tradition. In fact the philosophers working within the Peripatetic tradition whose views are recalled in this chapter found in Aristotle the resources to respond to an essentially post-Aristotelian concern. Evidently their intention was to contribute to a post-Aristotelian debate from a distinctively Aristotelian point of view.25

The philosophers who adopted a style of philosophy that goes back to Aristotle continued to be called Peripatetics (Peripatêtikoi). Occasionally they could be described as Aristotelians (Aristotelikoi). For example, Galen (second century ad) blames “the Aristotelians” and “the Peripatetics” for defending Aristotle’s views without having full knowledge of his work.26 In this case the two epithets seem to be interchangeable. In all probability Galen uses the first to convey the idea that it is incumbent on someone who describes himself (or is described) as an Aristotelian philosopher to have full mastery of Aristotle’s writings.27

The post-Hellenistic return to Aristotle is often presented as a straightforward reinstatement of Aristotle’s philosophy starting with Andronicus of Rhodes in the first century bc and culminating in Alexander of Aphrodisias in the second half of the second century and beginning of the third century ad.28 This presentation gives us a suggestive narrative to explain how the interpretation of Aristotle developed over a span of three centuries, but it also obscures the fact that the engagement with Aristotle took different forms and gave rise to competing interpretations of his philosophy. The point is not to deny the role that Alexander of Aphrodisias played in the reception of Aristotle. Quite the opposite: Alexander was able to offer a comprehensive and compelling reading of Aristotle, a reading that was first transmitted to late antiquity, and then from late antiquity to the Arabic world (and beyond). But this reading was also a reaction to previous interpretations of Aristotle. These interpretations did not merely prepare the ground for what Alexander accomplished. Rather Alexander had to remove them in order to establish his own reading of Aristotle. By and large his attempt was successful—so successful that the alternative interpretations of Aristotle have not survived except in a fragmentary form and, moreover, filtered through his criticism.

The most recent research has illustrated this phenomenon very well.29 To understand the philosophical position defended by Alexander, we have to go all the way back to the first century bc, and in particular back to the interpretation of Aristotle’s hylomorphism elaborated by Boethus of Sidon. The latter was not only the teacher of Strabo but also the leading Peripatetic philosopher of the second half of the first century bc. In his lost commentary on the Categories, he argued that of the three candidates for substance—form, matter, and the composite of form and matter—only the last two meet the criteria for being a substance by Aristotle in the Categories. Alexander had a coherent exegetical project that evolved out of a reaction to this position.30 The originality and philosophical significance of his position become fully apparent only when placed next to the alternative interpretation of Aristotle offered by Boethus.

It is not difficult to find further evidence that Alexander’s engagement with Aristotle presupposed a discussion of and involved a departure from competing readings of the text of his writings. In his commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, which is now lost, Alexander attacked an alternative interpretation of Aristotle’s physics. This interpretation was defended by another Peripatetic philosopher who was active in the second half of the first century bc, Xenarchus of Seleucia. The latter offered a creative reading of Aristotle’s physics that made the fifth substance expendable.31 Like the reading of Aristotle’s hylomorphism defended by Boethus, the interpretation of Aristotle’s physics developed by Xenarchus was no longer a philosophical option after Alexander. There could be no better evidence of how successful and influential Alexander was in shaping the subsequent reception of Aristotle.

In sum, the post-Hellenistic return to Aristotle gave rise to competing interpretations of Aristotle. All these interpretations were based on a close study of Aristotle’s writings. It just so happened that those who defined themselves (or were defined) as Peripatetic (or Aristotelian) philosophers defended competing readings of Aristotle’s text. In light of this, we should not imagine that Alexander of Aphrodisias provides the exegetical standard, so that all other readings of Aristotle are either advances toward or deviations from his “orthodox” position. Rather it is preferable to think (and to speak) of different forms of Aristotelianism. What the Peripatetic philosophers active in this period had in common was not a set of doctrines but a starting point for philosophizing: the text of Aristotle’s writings.

III. Aristotle in Late Antiquity

Aristotle remained a fundamental part of the philosophical curriculum until the very end of antiquity. By then, however, the study of Aristotle was motivated by a new set of exegetical principles. For one thing, the philosophers of late antiquity were followers of Plato, and they were convinced that Aristotle could be integrated into a Platonist framework. This section introduces the reader to this fascinating period of the reception of Aristotle.

The exegetical project attempted in late antiquity can be illustrated with the help of the prolegomena to the study of the Categories. Since the Categories was regarded as the first book to read in the study of Aristotle, the prolegomena became an introduction not only to this book but to the whole philosophy of Aristotle. Five prolegomena are extant.32 They all share the same philosophical outlook and indeed the same pedagogical approach to Aristotle. There are ten questions, they agree, to be answered before engaging with an author. A detailed discussion of these questions, and how they were answered by our five commentators, would go beyond the scope of this essay.33 What matters is that our five commentators promoted not only a distinctive reading of Aristotle but also a selective use of his works. They read and taught selected parts of Aristotle’s philosophy. Their selection included his logic, some of his physics, and some of his metaphysics. One prominent feature of their engagement with Aristotle was its theological orientation. It is telling that the culmination of their curriculum of Aristotelian studies was Metaphysics XII (Lambda). As for Aristotle’s physics, these commentators read and taught the following works (in this order): Physics, On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, Meteorology.34 Of course they knew, and occasionally referred to, other Aristotelian writings. But they confined their teaching, and consequently their exegetical work on Aristotle’s text, to these four main works on natural philosophy.

Let us pause to reflect on the theoretical motives for this selective reading of Aristotle’s physics, roughly physics without biology. First of all we should keep in mind that the philosophers of late antiquity found a complete explanation of the natural world in the Timaeus. For them Plato was the only philosophers to have given a full treatment of all the causes of the natural world. In the prologue to his commentary to the Timaeus, Proclus sketches a history of ancient natural philosophy.35 Three major stages, marking three steps in the progression from an incomplete to a complete study of nature, are outlined: a study of material cause (pre-Socratics); a study of formal cause (Aristotle); a study of the productive, exemplary, final cause (Plato and the Pythagoreans). According to Proclus, Plato is the only philosopher to have followed the lead of the Pythagoreans and to have developed a complete physical theory, that is, a theory that deals not only with matter and form but also with the productive, exemplary, and final causes of the natural world. This reconstruction of the ancient study of nature goes some way toward illustrating how Aristotle’s physics could be integrated into the Platonic framework. For the philosophers of late antiquity, Aristotle left us an incomplete physical theory because he did not deal with all the relevant causes. Though incomplete this theory is compatible with the one advanced in the Timaeus; indeed it can be studied in preparation for a close reading of the Timaeus. But in order to understand why a selective reading of Aristotle’s physics was promoted in late antiquity we also need to recall how the philosophers of late antiquity approached the Timaeus. In particular they took the Timaeus to be a study of the natural world insofar as the latter derives its existence and order from a divine cause. This approach does not necessarily make the Timaeus a work of theology, but it certainly makes it a treatise with a pronounced theological orientation. Such a theological orientation shaped the entire study of nature in late antiquity. It controlled the selection of what is and is not relevant in Aristotle’s physics. More directly, and more precisely, if the study of physics is meant to be just an introduction to the study of theology, there is a great deal in Aristotle’s physics that is not directly relevant to the goal. In fact a full immersion in his physics can become an unnecessary or unwanted distraction from what really matters. A remark by Proclus illustrates the way that many, if not most, philosophers felt about Aristotle’s study of nature in late antiquity: “Aristotle has extended the teaching [of physics] beyond what was called for.”36

It is important to stress that the selective reading of Aristotle’s physics, namely physics without biology, is permitted by how Aristotle conceived of his explanatory project. This reading exploits what we can call the scientific autonomy of physics from biology. We can illustrate this autonomy with the help of an example. Consider Physics II. This book was written with the intention of preparing students for the study of animals, if not of introducing them to it. For one thing, this book contains a defense of final causality and its application to the study of animals (Physics II 8–9). And yet Physics II does not presuppose any of the doctrines defended in the actual study of animals, for the latter follows in the order of explanation (and therefore also in the order of teaching). The philosophers of late antiquity took advantage of the explanatory structure of Aristotle’s physics when they promoted a selective reading of his writings. Still we may wonder whether their reading does justice to Aristotle’s intentions and, in particular, to the importance that the study of animals played in his research project. Aristotle is adamantly clear on the philosophical nature of his biology (most notably in his exhortation to the study of animals and plants in Parts of Animals I 5, where we are told that “nature provides extraordinary pleasures to those who can know the causes and are by nature philosophers”).37

There is no doubt that the attempt at the integration of Aristotle and Plato is the most important aspect of the reception of Aristotle in late antiquity. A full discussion of the implications of this approach to Aristotle would go beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that, while certainly fruitful and interesting in its own right, this approach is not a reliable guide to Aristotle. Not only does it promote a selective reading of Aristotle; it also gives us a “domesticated” Aristotle. His most controversial doctrines (e.g., his thesis that the heavens are made of a special body unique to them) and his most important innovations (e.g., his approach to the study of life through a systematic study of animals and plants) are lost in the reading promoted in late antiquity. We can say this without taking anything away from what is philosophically rich and historically important about the reading of Aristotle promoted in late antiquity. Quite the opposite: the latter is a creative interpretation that deserves careful study in its own right rather than as an exegetical aid in the study of Aristotle.

With this in mind we can turn to the next question: When did this attempt at the integration of Aristotle and Plato into a single philosophical system start? Proclus may have played some role in shaping the exegetical approach to Aristotle in late antiquity.38 But the approach that Proclus helped to codify was already in place when he was a young man. From Marinus’s Life of Proclus we know that there was already a philosophical curriculum of the sort we sketched above when Proclus arrived in Athens.39

For the origins of this exegetical approach we have to go back to the third century ad. Until this time most Platonists demonstrated their positive attitude toward Aristotle primarily by appropriating his ideas. This appropriation entailed adopting Aristotle’s ideas and incorporating them into a theoretical framework that develops out of a certain reading of Plato. This incorporation was done mostly implicitly, without acknowledging any source.40 Everything changed with Plotinus, who is rightly considered the founding father of Neoplatonism. Plotinus regarded himself as an expounder of a philosophical project that goes back to Plato. However, he also had extensive, firsthand knowledge of Aristotle as well as the Peripatetic tradition of commentaries on his writings. Studying Aristotle in light of the exegetical work done on his writings was an essential part of his philosophical project. And yet it is far from obvious that his goal was the integration of Aristotle and Plato into a single position. For one thing, Plotinus often raises serious criticisms against Aristotle; indeed his overall approach to Aristotle’s philosophy is best described as critical. For the integration of Aristotle and Plato into a single position we have to wait for Porphyry. He seems to have been the first Platonist to accept Aristotle as a philosophical authority alongside Plato. Tellingly he seems to have been the first Platonist to write commentaries on Aristotle. Writing commentaries on Aristotle was a common practice in the Peripatetic tradition, but it was far from being an obvious, let alone neutral, exegetical choice for someone writing within the Platonic tradition. How do we explain this development? It really looks like Plotinus, with his criticism of Aristotle, set new exegetical standards to which, as a student of Plotinus and as a Platonist, Porphyry responded by launching a major exegetical project.

When put in context, Porphyry’s critical engagement with Aristotle is truly remarkable. Porphyry wrote not one but two commentaries on the Categories. While the longer one, in seven books, is lost, the shorter one, written in the form of a dialogue between a teacher and a pupil, is extant. His commentary on the treatise On Interpretation is lost, but his immensely influential introduction to Aristotle’s philosophy, the Isagoge, has reached us. Clearly the Organon was at the heart of his critical engagement with Aristotle.41 But his interest in Aristotle was emphatically not confined to logic. Porphyry also wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Apparently he limited himself to commenting on the first four books (Physics I–IV). From Simplicius we learn that Porphyry also wrote a synopsis of Physics V. It is not clear whether this synopsis was part of a larger attempt to provide an overview of the whole Physics or of the part of the Physics that his commentary did not cover (Physics V–VIII).42

IV. Conclusion

In studying the reception of Aristotle in antiquity we tend to focus on the commentary tradition and the information that it has preserved. Given that the commentary tradition is a conspicuous part of the ancient philosophical tradition, this concentration is justified. But there are other traditions to be taken into account. We have already insisted on the importance of Aristophanes of Byzantium and his summary of Aristotle’s study of animals for our understanding of the Hellenistic reception of Aristotle. This summary exercised an important influence in what is called, for lack of a better word, the paradoxographical tradition. For as complete a picture as possible of the fortune of Aristotle in antiquity, we should consider, in addition to the paradoxographical tradition, the doxographical tradition, the medical tradition, and the biographical tradition.

We conclude by drawing attention to a testimony preserved not in the commentary tradition but in the tenth-century dictionary known as the Suda: “Aristotle was a scribe of nature (tês physeôs grammateus), steeping his pen in intellect, from whom perhaps it was not necessary to seek anything useful, even if it is quite technical and exceptionally worked out.”43 We do not know who compared Aristotle to “a scribe of nature.” This comparison was already used by the Platonist Atticus in the second century ad: “the scribe, as they say, of nature.”44 From the way Atticus recalled the comparison, it is clear that he was already relying on a well-established tradition.

What matters is not who made the comparison or when it was made. What matters is that this comparison gives voice to the mixed feelings that many, if not most, had in antiquity toward Aristotle’s achievements in the study of nature. More directly, given the polemical context in which the comparison is used by Atticus, grammateus must be taken as a term of contempt. It means something like “clerk.” From the information preserved in the Suda, it is also clear that there was no difficulty recognizing that Aristotle wrote more than anyone else on natural philosophy and recognizing that his writings were exceptionally well worked out. In other words, the technical accomplishment of Aristotle’s study of nature was not in question. What was in question was the usefulness, and presumably the philosophical significance, of what was accomplished by him.

The testimony transmitted by the Suda is an indirect confirmation of the selective approach to Aristotle’s physics that was adopted in the commentary tradition. While Aristotle’s logic eventually became a tool of philosophy, and as such the cornerstone of any serious philosophizing, Aristotle’s physics enjoyed at best a mixed fortune in antiquity. Aristotle’s attempt to make the study of animals (and at least in principle of plants) a study that contributed to the highest form of knowledge, namely wisdom or philosophia, was not successful. Among philosophers the vast majority felt that the study of animals (and plants) did not pertain to philosophy. It is telling that even Alexander of Aphrodisias, the ancient commentator of Aristotle par excellence, did not critically engage with Aristotle’s biology, either by means of philosophical commentary or by means of short exegetical essay.45 We have to go beyond antiquity to find a full appreciation of what was achieved by Aristotle in this field of study. It was only after antiquity, first in the Arabic and then in the Latin world, that Aristotle’s biology became the object of exegetical work in the form of translations and philosophical commentaries. It is telling that it was only in the Renaissance that the comparison of Aristotle to a grammateus of nature came to be understood in a positive sense: Aristotle is a secretary, and not just a clerk, of nature.46

V. Bibliography

Barnes, J. (1997). “Roman Aristotle.” In Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome, edited by J. Barnes and M. Griffin, 1–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

    Blumenthal, H. J. (1996). Aristotle and Neoplatonism in Late Antiquity. Interpretations of the De anima. London: Duckworth.Find this resource:

      Bodnár I., and W. W. Fortenbaugh (2002). Eudemus of Rhodes. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities XI.Find this resource:

        Brink, C. O. (1940). “Peripatos.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumwissenschaft, suppl. vol. 7, revised by G. Wissowa, 899–949. Stuttgart.Find this resource:

          Chiaradonna, R. (2011). “Interpretazione filosofica e ricezione del corpus: Il caso di Aristotele.” Quaestio 11: 83–114.Find this resource:

            Chiaradonna, R. (2012). “Commento filosofico.” In Forme letterarie della filosofia, edited by P. D’Angelo, 71–103. Rome: Carocci.Find this resource:

              Chiaradonna, R., and M. Rashed. (2010). “Before and after the Commentators. An Exercise in Periodization.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 38: 251–297.Find this resource:

                Chiesara, M. L. (2001). Aristocles of Messene: Testimonies and Fragments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                  Desclos, M. L., and W. W. Fortenbaugh. (2011). Strato of Lampsacus: Text, Translation, and Discussion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities XVI.Find this resource:

                    Dorandi, T. (2007). “Diogènes Laërce ‘lecteur’ d’Aristote.” Elenchos 28: 435–446.Find this resource:

                      Düring, I. (1950). “Notes on the History of the Transmission of Aristotle’s Writings.” Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift 55: 35–70.Find this resource:

                        Düring, I. (1956). “Ariston or Hermippus? A Note on the Catalogue of Aristotle’s Writings, Diogenes Laertius V 22.” Classica et Medievalia 17: 11–21.Find this resource:

                          Düring, I. (1957). Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition. Göteborg: Almqvist and Wiksell.Find this resource:

                            Falcon, A. (2011). Xenarchus of Seleucia and Aristotelianism in the First Century bce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                              Falcon, A. (2005). “Aristotle, Commentators.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. this resource:

                                Falcon, A. (2016). Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aristotle in Antiquity. Leiden.Find this resource:

                                  Fortenbaugh, W. W. (1983), On Stoic and Peripatetic Ethics: The Work of Arius Didymus. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities I.Find this resource:

                                    Fortenbaugh, W. W., and S. A. White. (2006). Aristo of Ceos: Text, Translation, and Discussion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities XIII.Find this resource:

                                      Gottschalk, H. B. (1987). “Aristotelian Philosophy in the Roman World from the Time of Cicero to the End of the Second Century ad.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II, edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase, 36.2: 1079–1174. Berlin: W. De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                        Gottschalk, H. B. (1997). “Change and Continuity in Aristotelianism.” In Aristotle and After, edited by R. Sorabji. London: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, suppl. vol. 68: 109–115.Find this resource:

                                          Hadot, I. (1987). “La division néoplatonicienne des écrits d’Aristote.” In Aristoteles: Werk und Wirkung. Vol. 2: Kommentierung, Überlieferung, Nachleben, edited by J. Wiesner, 249–285. Berlin: W. De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                            Hadot, I. (1991). “The Role of the Commentaries on Aristotle in the Teaching of Philosophy according to the Prefaces of the Neoplatonic Commentaries on the Categories.” In Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, suppl. Vol., edited by H. Blumenthal and R. Robinson, 175–189.Find this resource:

                                              Hadot, I. (1992). “Aristote dans l’enseignement philosophieque néoplatonicien: Les préfaces des commentaires sur les Catégories.” Revue de théologie et de philosophie 124: 407–425.Find this resource:

                                                Hahm, D. H. (1991). “Aristotle and the Stoics: A Methodological Crux.” Geschichte der Philosophie 73: 297–311.Find this resource:

                                                  Hahm, D. H. (2007). “Critolaus and Late Hellenistic Peripatetic Philosophy.” In Pyrrhonists, Patricians, Platonizers. Hellenistic Philosophy in the Period 155–86 bc, edited by A. M. Ioppolo and D. Sedley, 47–101. Naples: Bibliopolis.Find this resource:

                                                    Karamanolis, G. (2006). Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle from Antiochus to Porphyry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                      Keaney, J. J. (1963). “Two Notes on the Tradition of Aristotle’s Writings.” American Journal of Philology 84: 52–63.Find this resource:

                                                        Lehmann, Y. (2013). Aristoteles Romanus: La réception de la science aristotélicienne dans l’Empire gréco-romain. Turnhout: Brepols.Find this resource:

                                                          Lynch, J. P. (1972). Aristotle’s School: A Study of a Greek Educational Institution. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                            Moraux, P. (1951). Les listes anciennes des ouvrages d’Aristote. Louvain: Institut supérieur de Philosophie de l’Université de Louvain.Find this resource:

                                                              Moraux, P. (1973). Der Aristotelismus bei den Griechen. Vol. 1: Die Renaissance des Aristotelismus im I. Jh. v. Chr. Berlin: W. De Gryter.Find this resource:

                                                                Moraux, P. (1984). Der Aristotelismus bei den Griechen. Vol. 2: Der Aristotelismus im I und II Jh. n. Chr. Berlin: W. De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                                                  Moraux, P. (2001). Der Aristotelismus bei den Griechen. Vol. 3: Alexander von Aphrodisias, edited by J. Wiesner. Berlin: W. De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                                                    Payón Leyra, I. (2013). “The Aristotelian Corpus and the Rhodian Tradition: New Light from Posidonius on the Transmission of Aristotle’s Works.” Classical Quarterly 63: 723–733.Find this resource:

                                                                      Primavesi, O. (2007). “Ein Blick in der Stollen von Skepsis: Vier Kapitel zur früheren Überlieferung des Corpus Aristotelicum.” Philologus 151: 51–77.Find this resource:

                                                                        Rashed, M. (2007a). L’héritage aristotélicien: Textes inédits de l’antiquité. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.Find this resource:

                                                                          Rashed, M. (2007b). Essentialisme: Alexandre d’Aphrodise entre logique, physique et cosmologie. Berlin: W. De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                                                            Sandbach, F. H. (1985). Aristotle and the Stoics. Cambridge Philological Society. Suppl. vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                              Schmitz, Ph. (2014). Cato Peripateticus—Stoische und peripatetische Ethik im Dialog: Cic. Fin. 3 und der Aristotelismus der ersten Jh. V. Chr. (Xenarchos, Boethos, und “Areios Didymos”). Berlin: W. De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                                                                Schofield, M. (2013). Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras in the First Century bc. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Sharples, R. W. (2010). Peripatetic Philosophy 200 bc–200 ad: An Introduction and Collection of Sources in Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Sorabji, R. (1990). Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence. London: Duckworth.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Sorabji, R. (2004). The Philosophy of the Commentators, 200–600 ad. 3 vols. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Tarán, L. (1981). “Aristotelianism in the 1st Century bc.” Gnomon 57: 721–750. Reprinted in Collected Papers. Leiden, Brill: 2001, 479–524.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Tuominen, T. (2009). The Ancient Commentators on Plato and Aristotle. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Wehrli, F. (1967–1978). Die Schule des Aristoteles. 2nd ed. Basel: Schwabe.Find this resource:


                                                                                              (1) On the Heavens III 2, 300b8–16. Cf. Metaphysics I 4, 985b19–20, and Metaphysics XII 6, 1071b32–34. See also Physics VIII 1, 252a32–b5, and Generation of Animals II 6, 742b17–34.

                                                                                              (2) For this suggestion, see D. Furley, “Aristotle and the Atomists on Motion in a Void,” in Cosmic Problems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 77–90.

                                                                                              (3) For a critical discussion of the methodology adopted by Sandbach, I refer the reader to Hahm 1991.

                                                                                              (4) On Aristotle and the Stoic use of the term hylê, see Sandbach (1985, 37). On the Stoic doctrine of connate pneuma and its possible connection with Aristotle, see 48. On the Stoics and their theory of concept formation and its possible link with APost II 19, see 51–52.

                                                                                              (5) See CAG suppl. vol. I.1, Berlin 1895 (Lambros). The extant remains from the summary by Aristophanes are reprinted in O. Gigon, Aristotelis opera III (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1987), 442–464.

                                                                                              (6) Aristophanes II (1), p. 36.3–5 Lambros.

                                                                                              (7) Aristotle, HA I 1, 487a11–14.

                                                                                              (8) For further discussion of this aspect of Aristophanes’s summary, see O. Hellman, “Peripatetic Biology and the Epitome of Aristophanes of Byzantium,” in Aristo of Ceos: Text, Translation, and Discussion, edited by W. W. Fortenbaugh and S. A. White (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 329–359.

                                                                                              (9) The production of summaries of Aristotle’s biology is a phenomenon for which there is clear evidence before Aristophanes of Byzantium. For instance, a summary of Aristotle’s biology in six books is already listed in the catalogue of Theophrastus’s writings (Diogenes Laertius V 49). Hence the question arises as to whether Aristophanes engaged with the text of Aristotle’s writings or was content with using a later Peripatetic compilation. In all probability, Aristophanes both engaged with Aristotle’s text and availed himself of one or more intermediate sources. For an authoritative introduction to this complex question, I refer the reader to W. Kullmann, “Zoologische Sammelwerke in der Antike,” in Gattungen wissenschaftlicher Literatur in der Antike, edited by W. Kullmann, J. Althoff, and M. Asper (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1988), 122–139, in particular, 128–129.

                                                                                              (10) Suda, alpha 3933 Adler, s.v. “Aristophanes.”

                                                                                              (11) Strabo, Geo. XIII.1.54. Cf. Plutarch, Sulla 26.

                                                                                              (12) For a recent discussion of the extant evidence concerning the presence of the Aristotelian corpus, or a part of it, in Rhodes, see Payón Leyra 2013.

                                                                                              (13) Proclus, In Tim. II 277.8 Diehl. Admittedly we cannot rule out that Proclus is projecting back to the fourth century bc what was common practice in the fifth century ad. Still there is no doubt that Crantor was critically engaged with the Timaeus. Cf. Plutarch, On the Generation of the Soul, 1012 D.

                                                                                              (14) His work is preserved in fragmentary form in a Herculaneum papyrus (PHerc 1012). For a critical edition of the fragments, see E. Puglia, Demetrio Lacone: Aporie esegetiche e testuali in Epicuro (Naples: Bibliopolis 1988).

                                                                                              (16) Philodemus, Stoicorum historia (PHerc. 1018, col. xl I Dorandi). Sandbach argues that philaristotelês does not entail direct knowledge of Aristotle, let alone textual engagement with his writings (Aristotle and the Stoics, 58–59). Note, however, that Panaetius is described not only as philaristotelês but also as philoplatôn. Moreover we do have independent evidence suggesting his textual engagement with Plato. See Galen, De indolentia 13, where a “Plato of Panaetius” is mentioned. Unfortunately the precise form of Panaetius’s engagement with Plato remains disputed. See J.-B. Gourinat, “Panétius de Rhode,” in Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, vol. 5a: de Paccius à Plotin, edited by R. Goulet (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012), 135–137.

                                                                                              (17) Strabo, Geo. XIII.I.54. Tyrannion had access to Apellicon’s library in Rome. This library included Aristotle’s books.

                                                                                              (18) Suda, nu 393 Adler, s.v. “Nicolaus.” What Nicolaus admired in Aristotle was his learning and variety of interests.

                                                                                              (19) Strabo, Geo. XVI.2.24.

                                                                                              (20) Contrast our testimony with the one that goes back to Posidonius and describes Apellicon of Teos as someone who studied Peripatetic philosophy (ta peripatêtika). The latter is preserved in Atheneus, Deipnosoph. 5.214 D (= Posidonius 253.150–151 Edelstein-Kidd).

                                                                                              (21) Strabo Geo. II.3.8. Sandbach argues that aristotelizein means “conscious imitation” (Aristotle and the Stoics, 59). But we cannot exclude that it entails appropriation of some Aristotelian materials and ideas in fields such as meteorology.

                                                                                              (22) Strabo Geo. XIII.1.54. Strabo takes aristotelizein to be that which discriminates between the Hellenistic and the post-Hellenistic generation of Peripatetic philosophers. For Strabo the rediscovery and publication of Aristotle’s books is what accounts for this key difference. While the previous generation is unable to do philosophy in the style of Aristotle, the later generation is able to engage in aristotelizein. The philosophers who belong to the latter generation, not to the former one, are true Aristotelians.

                                                                                              (23) Sharples (2010, viii).

                                                                                              (24) Alexander of Aphrodisias, Supplement to On the Soul, 150.19.

                                                                                              (25) A similar case can be made for two other discussions introduced by the same chapter heading: “Selections from Aristotle on what depends on us.” See Alexander of Aphrodisias, Supplement to On the Soul, 169.33–172.15, 172.16–175.32.

                                                                                              (26) Galen, De semine IV 516–519, trans. De Lacy CMG V.3.1, 68.3–70.14. The work in question is Aristotle’s Generation of Animals.

                                                                                              (27) There are nevertheless cases where “Aristotelians” has a narrower meaning than “Peripatetics.” In Arius Didymus (Stobaeus, Eclogae I 8 103.18–104.5 Wachsmuth = Doxographi graeci, Epitome phys. fr. 7), “Aristotelians” is used to single out those who accepted Aristotle’s definition of time. Since this definition was not universally accepted within the Peripatos (Strabo rejected it), “Aristotelians” is here employed to refer to a specific group of philosophers within the Peripatetic tradition to the exclusion of others.

                                                                                              (28) This narrative is adopted by Moraux in Der Aristotelismus bei den Griechen (3 vols.). Cf. also Gottschalk 1987.

                                                                                              (29) Rashed 2007b. For a discussion of the interpretation advanced in this book, I refer the reader to I. Kupreeva, “Alexander of Aphrodisias on Form: A Discussion of Marwan Rashed, Essentialism,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 2010 (38), 211–249.

                                                                                              (30) Rashed calls this project “essentialism.”

                                                                                              (31) For a reconstruction of Xenarchus’s interpretation, I refer to Falcon 2011.

                                                                                              (32) The prolegomena are by Ammonius, Philoponus, Simplicius, Olympiodorus, and David. (But the ascription to David of the commentary on Aristotle’s Categories is disputed. For a convenient summary of this scholarly debate, see s.v. “Elias,” in Dictionnaire des philosophes anciennes, vol. 3, edited by R. Goulet [Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2000], 57–66.)

                                                                                              (33) Ilsetraut Hadot is the authority in this field. The English reader will find a summary of the results of her research in Hadot 1991.

                                                                                              (34) The following commentaries on Aristotle’s writings on natural philosophy are extant: Physics: Simplicius and Philoponus (books I–IV, fragments of books V–VIII); On the Heavens: Simplicius; On Generation and Corruption: Philoponus (ex phonês Ammonius); Meteorology: Olympiodorus and Philoponus (book 1). The On the Soul is the exception to the rule. For students in late antiquity, this work played a double role. It contributed to physics by dealing with the principle of life, but it also had a significance that went beyond physics. Hence it was an indispensable part of their curriculum of study. The Neoplatonists engaged with this work. For a good introduction to the interpretations of the De anima in late antiquity, see Blumenthal 1996.

                                                                                              (35) Proclus, In Tim. Proemium 1–14.3 Diehl.

                                                                                              (36) Proclus, In Tim. Proemium 7.8–10 Diehl.

                                                                                              (37) Aristotle, Parts of Animals I 5, 649a9–10. The word philosophoi is to be read in connection with the claim that the study of the heavens is a divine philosophia (645a4). Aristotle’s use the words philosophia and philosophoi is deliberate. While it was common to identify philosophy with the study of the heavens, it was not obvious to associate it with the study of plants and animals. In his exhortation Aristotle is telling us the study of plants and animals is no less philosophical than the study of heavens.

                                                                                              (38) The ten questions to be answered before engaging with an author seem to go back to him. Cf. J. Mansfeld, Prolegomena: Questions to Be Settled before the Study of an Ancient Author (Leiden: Brill, 1998).

                                                                                              (39) Marinus, Life of Proclus 13: “In less than two whole years, [Proclus] read with [Syrianus] the entire works of Aristotle, logical, ethical, political, physical, and the science of theology which transcends these” (trans. M. Edwards). Note, in particular, the order in which Aristotle’s works were read, beginning with logic and ending with theology.

                                                                                              (40) The Handbook of Platonism (Didaskalikos) by Alcinous is a case in point.

                                                                                              (41) Porphyry also engaged critically with the Prior Analytics and the Sophistical Refutations. For a detailed discussion of the extant evidence, see M. Chase, “Porphyre de Tyr, Commentaries à Platon et Aristote,” in Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, vol. 5b: de Plotina à Rutilius Rufus, edited by R. Goulet (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012), 1350–1357.

                                                                                              (42) For a full discussion of Porphyry’s critical engagement with Aristotle, I refer the reader to Karamanolis (2006, 243–330).

                                                                                              (43) Suda, alpha 3930 Adler, s.v. “Aristotle” (trans. C. Roth, Suda On Line, April 2012,

                                                                                              (44) Atticus, fr. 7.47 Des Places.

                                                                                              (45) Alexander appears to have written a commentary on the following writings on natural philosophy: Physics (lost), On the Heavens (lost), On Generation and Corruption (lost), Meteorology (extant), On the Soul (lost), On Sense-Perception (extant), and On Memory (lost). Of course Alexander had knowledge of the biological corpus and could mobilize it when it was necessary. For an illustration of how Alexander uses this corpus of writings, I refer the reader to the end of his own De anima, where he presents a series of arguments for the thesis that “the regent part” of the soul, the so-called hêgemonikon, resides in the heart and not in the brain (94.7–100.17). The thesis as such is not found in Aristotle, as the very idea of a regent part of the soul is essentially post-Aristotelian. And yet it is an idea that a Peripatetic philosopher can appropriate with the help of a number of passages from the biological corpus.

                                                                                              (46) For a discussion of this interesting development and what it may teach us about the reception of Aristotle, I refer the reader to J. Monfasani, “Aristotle as the Scribe of Nature: The Title-Page of MS Vat. Lat. 2094 and the Plato-Aristotle Controversy of the Fifteenth Century,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 2006 (69), 193–205.