The Medieval Review 10.11.07

Barber, Charles and David Jenkins, eds. Medieval Greek Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters, 101. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xvi, 228. EUR 93.00 / $149.00 ISBN 978 90 04 17393 4. .

Reviewed by:

Sten Ebbesen
University of Copenhagen

The earliest preserved commentaries on Aristotle are from the second century A.D., and the very earliest are Aspasius' elucidations of Nichomachean Ethics (EN) I-IV, VII (incomplete) and VIII. As far as commentaries on EN are concerned, there is then a vacuum of almost 900 years. We know that Porphyry (3rd c.) wrote one, and we may safely assume that other ancient philosophers did so as well, but their works have not survived. We have to wait until the 1120s, approximately, before we find new commentaries, namely those of Eustratius on books I and VI, and of Michael of Ephesus on books V and IX-X. By the mid-13th c. there were two standard corpora of Greek scholia on EN, the respective composition of which was as follows:

On book Corpus 1 Corpus 2
I Eustratius Eustratius + Aspasius
II-IV Anonymous Aspasius
V (Anonymous) + Michael Michael
VI Eustratius Eustratius + Excerpts from Alexander of Aphrodisias
VII Anonymous (Aspasius) + Anonymous
VIII Aspasius Aspasius
IX-X Michael Michael

Texts in parenthesis are absent from some manuscripts.

There is no previous book about the Byzantine commentaries on EN, so the one under review--acts of a symposium in Notre Dame some years ago--is a welcome addition to scholarly literature, although I have to add that the quality of its essays is very uneven. Several of the better ones share the--not entirely unexpected--conclusion that Neoplatonic sources and ideas pervaded the thought and writings of Eustratius and Michael. Unsurprising as this may be, the fact has now been much better documented than used to be the case, and more nuances have been added.

The volume opens with Anthony Kaldellis' "Classical Scholarship in Twelfth-century Byzantium," which is very helpful in setting the commentators' activities in the context of other work on classical authors done at the time. Kaldellis is overly apologetic in his defence of Byzantine scholars against classicists' traditional lack of respect for their work, but I agree in his conclusion: "In ways both ideological and practical the Byzantines basically invented what we recognize as Classical Studies" (41). He only touches lightly on the EN commentaries, and on p. 39 he gets a passage by Michael wrong. Kaldellis translates: "the friendship of the father for the son or of the son for the father are not simply of the same kind or equal, given that the father is not equal to the son--but consider this in relation to our beliefs--and vice versa," and then wonders whether what Michael wants us to consider is something that he could not have said openly without risking persecution. This is due to a mistranslation. The parenthetical remark means: "but accept this rule [only] in our case [i.e. in the case of ordinary men and not in the case of the divine persons]" and was doubtless meant to shield Michael from being accused of the Eunomian heresy ("The Father is by nature greater than the Son").

Peter Frankopan's "The Literary, Cultural and Political context for the Twelfth-Century Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics" investigates the role of Anna Comnena, the imperial patroness of Eustratius and Michael, and effectively dispels any notion that she became deeply steeped in Aristotelian philosophy. Frankopan plausibly suggests that her support for the commentary project was motivated by her general "Hellenism" rather than by partiality to Aristotle.

A short survey article by Linos Benakis, "Aristotelian Ethics in Byzantium" contains useful bibliographical information, but also some slips. On p. 65 Richard Sorabji is cited for the claim that Eustratius "introduces Platonic, Christian and anti-Arabic elements into his texts," but in the passage referred to Sorabji says nothing about the unexpected "anti-Arabic" elements. On p. 66 it is claimed that Eustratius became known in the West first thanks to James of Venice about 1130, though primarily through Grosseteste's translation more than a century later. I know of no evidence that James did anything to acquaint the West with Eustratius.

Eustratius' views about universals have been discussed before, but the volume's two essays on the topic are welcome additions to the bibliography. Michele Trizio's "Neoplatonic Source-Material in Eustratios of Nicaea's Commentary on book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics" is a fine combination of rock solid philology and philosophical analysis. In this richly documented article, Trizio demonstrates an even more extensive use of Proclus than was hitherto realized, and reaches the conclusion that "Eustratios' position [on universals] is simply Proklean in admitting that later-born concepts [i.e. post rem universals], derived by induction from sense-perception data, only play the role of awakening our innate knowledge, bringing the human soul to the direct apprehension of the separate forms." I am inclined to believe that Trizio is right.

In "Eustratios of Nicaea's 'Definition of Being' Revisited" David Jenkins takes an obscure scholium on John Damascene as his starting point, and then embarks on an ambitious attempt to combine what Eustratius says about being, universals and the divine persons in the scholium and elsewhere. I am not quite convinced that the result is entirely coherent, in particular because the less-than-transparent Neoplatonic notions of participation and return play a central role, but there is good food for thought in this article.

Charles Barber's "Eustratios of Nicaea on the Separation of Art and Theology" is another courageous attempt to make coherent sense of what Eustratius says on different occasions. Barber wants to elicit a theory of art from remarks in the Ethics commentary and in some much earlier polemical writings about the cult of images. In spite of several interesting observations, the article fails to carry conviction, the more so as its translations of passages from Eustratius are sometimes imprecise and insensitive to the use of technical philosophical terms. I mention just two examples. (1) On p. 135 Barber translates "But they [Leo of Chalcedon] then say that we consider it [the icon] worthy of adoration not by isolating its material outlines, but by perceiving the ground of the human per se, which is the divine hypostasis adored in this portrait." The icon in question depicts Christ. I would render the period as follows: "They then say that it is not the case that we abstract (aphairountes) shapes from their matter and consider them worthy of reverence, but rather we form the concept of (epinoountes) man's quiddity (logos) by itself and revere this as a divinely founded outline (theohypostatos character)." (2) On p. 139 a syllogism is turned into a non-syllogism by having the conclusion's ara "ergo, consequently" rendered as "equally."

Little has ever been written about the anonymous commentary on EN VII, and the few who have said anything about it have tended to repeat Schleiermacher, who accused its author of philosophical ignorance, lack of good taste, deficient command of Greek syntax, and lexicographic barbarism. Elizabeth A. Fisher sets out to vindicate the author in "The Anonymous Commentary on Nicomachean Ethics VII: Language, Style and Implications." She successfully demonstrates that there is no reason to think the author was completely unsuited to appear in the company of civilized people, but she neither can nor tries to assign him a place among first-rate interpreters of Aristotle. Without reaching a conclusion, but presenting what now seem to be the relevant arguments, she also discusses whether Anonymous could be a contemporary of Michael (and so, possibly, have been involved in Anna Comnena's project), or whether he should rather be dated a hundred years later. Personally, I find it tempting to think that Corpus I and II are both fundamentally Michael's compilation, but against this militates that Anonymous' style is closer to that of Leo Magentinus from the early 13th c. than it is to Michael's.

George Arabatzis' "Michael of Ephesus on the Empirical Man, the Scientist and the Educated Man" examines Michael's views about the Aristotelian distinction between the experienced person (ho empeiros, Arabatzis' "Empirical Man"), the one who has knowledge in the full sense (ho epistemon, Arabatzis' "Scientist") but perhaps not the experience that allows him to act on his knowledge in particular cases, and, finally, ho pepaideumenos, the one who is educated enough to be capable of learning and able to discard obvious humbug, although he neither has knowledge in the fullest sense nor the knack for how to do things that experience provides. Arabatzis concludes that what Michael offers is such that "We therefore have every right to speak here of a philosophy of sciences." This may be so, but the article fails to substantiate the claim, i.a. because it contains several serious mistranslations of the texts adduced. Two examples: (1) On p. 164 "I call 'empirical men' those scientists and artists who occupy themselves in everything." What Michael actually says is "He [Aristotle] here uses 'experienced [men]' in a wide sense about those who are knowledgeable and master the craft in some field." (2) P. 167: "in terms of geometry, the educated man is not the man who is accustomed to geometrical theorems (such a man is called the chief [kyrios] scientist), but..." What Michael says is "the man who is called 'educated' in geometry, e.g., is not the one who possesses a very detailed grasp of all the theorems of geometry (for such a man is properly (kyrios) called knowledgeable (epistemon), but...". Moreover, in the text quoted on p. 167 three lines of the original have been left out without this being indicated and the reference at the end is wrong (1.2-2.10 should be 1.13-2.10). Also, on p. 166, "606.1-6" should be 610.6-16.

Katerina Ierodiakonou has modest but precise aims in her well-documented "Some Observations on Michael of Ephesus' Comments on Nicomachean Ethics X." First she shows that Michael's medical examples presuppose familiarity with Galen, and she points to an interesting medically inspired interpretation of Aristotle's claim that pleasure is an epiphenomenon of happiness (it is like a symptom of happiness). Next she demonstrates a profound Neoplatonic (and some Christian) influence on Michael's understanding of Aristotelian happiness. To Michael there are two sorts of happiness: (1) the practical or "political" variant, which is the happiness of our self as a soul-body compound and consists in having the necessary external goods and acting virtuously, and (2) the theoretical variant, which presupposes the first, but is the happiness of our more genuine self as intellectual beings and brings us into contact (epaphe) with the Divine. Finally she shows how Michael can adduce Plato as a real authority to support an Aristotelian view. Any simple classification of Michael as a Platonist or an Aristotelian is doomed to failure.

I am sure it has not been easy to edit this volume. In praise of the editors, I can say that there are laudably few misspellings of Greek, and probably only one non-existing word form ((epi)symbainesthai, correct: (epi)symbainein, on p. 189--which compares well with many other recent books, even ones published by famous university presses. On the negative side, I must mention that there is no consistency as to whether passages quoted in English also appear in their original Greek. The editors ought to have demanded that all quotations in English be accompanied by the originals in order to enable readers to check on the translations. I also feel that the editors might have done a little more to help those contributors who are not native speakers of English, so as to avoid turns like "which is meant to arouse in us the knowledge for the higher realities" (87), where one wonders whether the sense is "desire for" or "knowledge of" those realities. On the same page we find a "the dyptic intelligent-intelligible," which must be the pair or duo consisting of "intelligent" and "intelligible," the dyptic presumably being an Italian diptych ("dittico") in disguise. On p. 89 "the more principle beings" should be "the more principal beings." More examples could be adduced. Finally, there are no cross-references between articles, no index rerum, and no index of passages quoted or referred to.

What remains of value to the philosopher with an interest in the history of his trade? I would point to two things, in particular:

(1) Several contributions to the volume underline the tension between the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic sources that both influenced the commentators. Not only did that particular combination of sources play a major role for many philosophers for a couple of millennia, but there has hardly ever been a philosopher worth his name who did not have a similar problem with two or more sources of inspiration. It is instructive to see how the pull of opposing forces can sometimes yield interesting results.

(2) The papers that discuss Eustratius' understanding of what sort of things universals are and how (or whether) they come into being touch on perennial philosophical problems, and the Greek commentators of the 12th century, while not major thinkers, do offer material for thought. Moreover, they had a certain, be it ever so slight, and so far barely investigated, influence on Western philosophers from the late 13th to the 16th century, and perhaps even later. After all, Corpus I was translated into Latin as early as the late 1240s. This corpus, all of which the westerners attributed to Eustratius, came to enjoy considerable esteem among the scholastics. Later, new translations of the Greek commentaries appeared in the Renaissance.

It remains to be seen exactly how much good philosophy there is in the Byzantine commentaries on the Ethics. One can only wish for more research on them, preferably of the sort that combines good philosophical analysis with good history and good philology.