John Philoponus

John Philoponus

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John Philoponus also known as John the Grammarian or John of Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

, was a Christian and Aristotelian commentator
Commentaries on Aristotle
Commentaries on Aristotle refers to the great mass of literature produced, especially in the ancient and medieval world, to explain and clarify the works of Aristotle. The pupils of Aristotle were the first to comment on his writings, a tradition which was continued by the Peripatetic school...

 and the author of a considerable number of philosophical treatises and theological works. A rigorous, sometimes polemical writer and an original thinker who was controversial in his own time, John Philoponus broke from the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic tradition, questioning methodology and eventually leading to empiricism in the natural sciences.

He was posthumously condemned as a heretic
Heresy
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

 by the Orthodox Church in 680-81 because of what was perceived of as a tritheistic interpretation of the Trinity
Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons : the Father, the Son , and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct yet coexist in unity, and are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial . Put another way, the three persons of the Trinity are of one being...

.

His works were widely printed in Latin translations in Europe from the 15th century onwards. His critique of Aristotle in the Physics
Physics (Aristotle)
The Physics of Aristotle is one of the foundational books of Western science and philosophy...

 commentary was a major influence on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was an Italian Renaissance philosopher. He is famed for the events of 1486, when at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of...

 and Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei , was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations and support for Copernicanism...

, who cited Philoponus substantially in his works.

Life


Possibly born into a Christian family, nothing is known of his early life. Philoponus studied at the school of Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

 and began publishing from about 510
510
Year 510 was a common year starting on Friday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Severinus without colleague...

. He was a pupil and sometime amanuensis
Amanuensis
Amanuensis is a Latin word adopted in various languages, including English, for certain persons performing a function by hand, either writing down the words of another or performing manual labour...

 to the Neoplatonic philosopher Ammonius Hermiae
Ammonius Hermiae
Ammonius Hermiae was a Greek philosopher, and the son of the Neoplatonist philosophers Hermias and Aedesia. He was a pupil of Proclus in Athens, and taught at Alexandria for most of his life, writing commentaries on Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers....

, who had studied at Athens under Proclus
Proclus
Proclus Lycaeus , called "The Successor" or "Diadochos" , was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, one of the last major Classical philosophers . He set forth one of the most elaborate and fully developed systems of Neoplatonism...

.

Philoponus’ early writings are based on lectures given by Ammonius, but gradually he established his own independent thinking in his commentaries and critiques of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

’s On the Soul
On the Soul
On the Soul is a major treatise by Aristotle on the nature of living things. His discussion centres on the kinds of souls possessed by different kinds of living things, distinguished by their different operations...

and Physics
Physics (Aristotle)
The Physics of Aristotle is one of the foundational books of Western science and philosophy...

. In the latter work Philoponus became one of the earliest thinkers to reject Aristotle’s dynamics and propose the ‘theory of impetus
Theory of impetus
The theory of impetus was an auxiliary or secondary theory of Aristotelian dynamics, put forth initially to explain projectile motion against gravity...

’: i.e. an object moves and continues to move because of an energy imparted in it by the mover, and ceases movement when that energy is exhausted. In this erroneous but insightful theory can be found the first step towards the concept of inertia
Inertia
Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion. It is proportional to an object's mass. The principle of inertia is one of the fundamental principles of classical physics which are used to...

 in modern physics, although Philoponus’ theory was largely ignored at the time because he was too radical in his rejection of Aristotle.
"But this [view of Aristotle] is completely erroneous, and our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights, one many times heavier than the other you will see that the ratio of the times required for the motion does not depende [solely] on the weights, but that the difference in time is very small. ..." —John Philoponus' refutation of the Aristotelian claim that the elapsed time for a falling body is inversely proportional to its weight

In 529 Philoponus wrote his critique Against Proclus in which he systematically defeats every argument put forward for the eternity of the world
Eternity of the world
The question of the eternity of the world was a concern of the philosophers of the classical period and particularly the medieval theologians and philosophers of the 13th century. The problem is whether the world has a beginning in time, or whether it has existed from eternity...

, a theory which formed the basis of pagan attack of the Christian doctrine of Creation. The intellectual battle against eternalism became one of Philoponus’ major preoccupations and dominated several of his publications (some now lost) over the following decade.

The style of his commentaries and his conclusions made Philoponus unpopular with his colleagues and fellow philosophers, and he appears to have ceased his study of philosophy around 530, devoting himself to theology instead. Around 550 he wrote a theological work On the Creation of the World as a commentary on the Bible
Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

’s story of creation using the insights of Greek philosophers and Basil the Great. In this work he transfers his theory of impetus to the motion of the planets, whereas Aristotle had proposed different explanations for the motion of heavenly bodies and for earthly projectiles. Thus Philoponus’ theological work is recognized in the history of science as the first attempt at a unified theory of dynamics. Another of his is major theological concerns was to argue that all material objects were brought into being by God (Arbiter, 52A-B).
Around 553 Philoponus made some theological contributions to the Council of Constantinople
Second Council of Constantinople
The Second Council of Constantinople is recognized as the Fifth Ecumenical Council by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, and a number of other Western Christian groups. It was held from May 5 to June 2, 553, having been called by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian...

 concerning Christology
Christology
Christology is the field of study within Christian theology which is primarily concerned with the nature and person of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament. Primary considerations include the relationship of Jesus' nature and person with the nature...

. His doctrine on Christ’s duality, according to which in Christ remain two united substances, united but divided, is analogous to the union of the soul and body in human beings and coincides with the miaphysite school of thought. He also produced writings on the Trinity around this time.

After his death, John Philoponus was declared to have held heretical views of the Trinity and was made anathema in 680-1. This limited the spread of his ideas in the following centuries, but in his own time and afterwards he was translated into Syriac and Arabic and many of his works continued to persevere and be studied by the Arabs. Some of his works continued to circulate in Europe in Greek or Latin versions, and influenced Bonaventure
Bonaventure
Saint Bonaventure, O.F.M., , born John of Fidanza , was an Italian medieval scholastic theologian and philosopher. The seventh Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, he was also a Cardinal Bishop of Albano. He was canonized on 14 April 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV and declared a Doctor of the...

. The theory of impetus was taken up by Buridan in the 14th century.

Writings


John Philoponus wrote at least 40 works on a wide array of subjects including grammar, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and theology.
  • On words with different meanings in virtue of a difference of accent (De vocabulis quae diversum significatum exhibent secundum differentiam accentus)
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘On Generation and Corruption
  • Commentary on Aristotle's De Anima’
  • Commentary on Aristotle's Categories’
  • Commentary on Aristotle's Prior Analytics’
  • Commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics’
  • Commentary on Aristotle's Physics Philoponus' most important commentary, in which he challenges Aristotle on time, space, void, matter and dynamics.
  • On the Eternity of the World against Proclus (De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum)
  • On the Eternity of the World against Aristotle (De aeternitate mundi contra Aristotelem) A refutation of Aristotle's doctrines of the fifth element and the eternity of motion and time, consisting of at least eight books.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘Meteorology’
  • On the Contingency of the World (De contingentia mundi)
  • On the Use and Construction of the Astrolabe The oldest extant Greek treatise on the astrolabe
    Astrolabe
    An astrolabe is an elaborate inclinometer, historically used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. Its many uses include locating and predicting the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, determining local time given local latitude and longitude, surveying, triangulation, and to...

    .
  • Commentary on Nicomachus' Introduction to Arithmetic
  • On the Creation of the World (De opificio mundi) A theological-philosophical commentary on the Creation story in the Book of Genesis.
  • Arbiter (Diaitêtês) A philosophical justification of monophysitism. Not extant in Greek; Syriac text with Latin trans.
  • On the Trinity (De trinitate) The main source for a reconstruction of Philoponus' trinitarian doctrine.

Philosophical Commentaries


The commentaries of the late antiquity and early Middle Ages aimed to teach audience. In that regard, the repetitive nature of Philoponus’ commentaries demonstrates his pedagogical awareness. Although in the abstract manner, Philoponus is chiefly focused on the concept in question.

Most of Philoponus’ early philosophical works strive to define the distinction between matter, extension, place and various kinds of change.
For example, the commentary Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World represents a standardized description of Aristotelian natural philosophy. Both Aristotle and Philoponus argue that in kinds of change there are differences, in their form and matter.

In Physics, Aristotle operates with the idea of places, but dismisses the existence of space. The idea that came from Plato and was developed by Aristotle has been evolved by Philoponus. Philoponus attempts to combine the idea of homogeneous space with the Aristotelian system. The argument made by Philoponus is that substances by themselves require some determinate quantity for their being. Similarly to Aristotle, who rejected the immaterial things,and in contrast to Plato whose metaphysics accepted immaterial substances, Philoponus’ concept of substance refers to the material objects.

Concerning the discussion of space, Philoponus’ claim that from every point in space is possible to draw identical figures, made him be perceived as an innovative thinker who influenced later Renaissance scholars, for instance, Gianfranceso Pico della Mirandola and Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei , was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations and support for Copernicanism...

. Thus, Philoponus' idea of perspective signifies the concept of space as immaterial three-dimensional medium in which objects are located.

In the third book of De Anima, entitled De Intellectu, Philoponus analyzes the doctrine of the intellect. The author (Philoponus or pseudo-Philoponus?) sets the theory on the role and functioning of the active intellect. On one hand, there is the active intellect, and on the other, the idea of perception awareness or how we are aware that we are perceiving. In other words, in this reflective philosophy, there is a rationalist conclusion which emphasizes a relation between self and truth which leads to the discussion of the nature of knowledge.
According to this view, the knowledge is identical to its object, since the self-awareness of perception is divorced from the irrational soul.Therefore, the understanding arises through the identification of the intellect and its object. More specifically, perception deals only with material things.

Philoponus has raised the central question of the scientific and philosophical Aristotle’s work on chemistry. The work called On Generation and Corruption examines the question of how is the mixture (chemical combination) possible? Philoponus’ contribution to the topic is in his new definition of potential, the third of the seven elements criteria. There are various interpretations of the theory of mixture, but it seems that Philoponus is rather refining Aristotle’s approach than rejecting it. One of interpreters of Philophonus’ work on the theory of mixture, De Haas, implies that “no element can possess a quality essential to it except to a superlative extent”.

Theological Treaties


Philoponus’ major Christological work is Arbiter. The work was written shortly before the Second Council of Constantinople
Second Council of Constantinople
The Second Council of Constantinople is recognized as the Fifth Ecumenical Council by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, and a number of other Western Christian groups. It was held from May 5 to June 2, 553, having been called by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian...

 of 553. It became famous in regard to its doctrine on resurrection. Similarly to ideas presented in Physics, Philoponus in the work titled Arbiter states that our corrupted bodies (material things) will be eventually brought into being (matter and form) by God.

Historiographical Contribution


Relation to Contemporaries

John Philoponus’ Christological “opus magnum” stands in the line with St. Cyril of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch
Severus of Antioch
Severus, Patriarch of Antioch , born approximately 465 in Sozopolis in Pisidia, was by birth and education a pagan, who was baptized in the "precinct of the divine martyr Leontius" at Tripoli, Lebanon.- Life :...

. Philoponus asserted the understanding of Christ as a divine and a human, in opposition to Chalcedonian
Chalcedonian
Chalcedonian describes churches and theologians which accept the definition given at the Council of Chalcedon of how the divine and human relate in the person of Jesus Christ...

 authors who strove to reach a middle ground.

Influence on Later History Writing

Philoponus’ view of space as homogeneity is influenced by the Hellenic teaching of Aristotle. However, Philoponus and his contemporaries, Simplicius of Cilicia
Simplicius of Cilicia
Simplicius of Cilicia, was a disciple of Ammonius Hermiae and Damascius, and was one of the last of the Neoplatonists. He was among the pagan philosophers persecuted by Justinian in the early 6th century, and was forced for a time to seek refuge in the Persian court, before being allowed back into...

 and Strato developed this concept further. This concept guided the Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 theory of perspective, particularly the one highlighted by Leon Battista Alberti, and other architectural masters.

Works

  • On words with different meanings in virtue of a difference of accent (De vocabulis quae diversum significatum exhibent secundum differentiam accentus), ed. L.W. Daly, American Philosophical Society Memoirs 151, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘On Generation and Corruption’, ed. H. Vitelli, Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (henceforward CAG) XIV 2, Berlin: Reimer, 1897.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘De Anima’ ed. M. Hayduck, CAG XV, Berlin: Reimer, 1897.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘Categories’, ed. A. Busse, CAG XIII 1, Berlin: Reimer, 1898.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘Prior Analytics’, ed. M. Wallies, CAG XIII 2, Berlin: Reimer, 1905.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘Posterior Analytics’, ed. M. Wallies, CAG XIII 3, Berlin: Reimer, 1909.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘Physics’, ed. H. Vitelli, CAG XVI-XVII, Berlin: Reimer, 1887?88.
  • Commentary on Aristotle's ‘Meteorology’, ed. M. Hayduck, CAG XIV 1, Berlin: Reimer, 1901.
  • Commentary on Nicomachus' Introduction to Arithmetic, ed. R. Hoche, Part I/II Wesel: A. Bagel, 1864/65, Part III Berlin: Calvary, 1867.
  • On the Eternity of the World against Proclus (De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum), ed. H. Rabe, Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1899; repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1984.
  • On the Eternity of the World against Aristotle (De aeternitate mundi contra Aristotelem), not extant; fragments reconstr. and trans. C. Wildberg
  • On the Creation of the World (De opificio mundi), ed. W. Reichardt, Leipzig: Teubner, 1897.
  • Arbiter (Diaitêtês text with Latin trans. A. Sanda, Opuscula monophysitica Ioannis Philoponi, Beirut: Typographia Catholica PP.Soc.Jesu., 1930.

Translations

  • On Aristotle's Physics 2, trans. A.R. Lacey, London: Duckworth, 1993.
  • On Aristotle's Physics 3, trans. M. Edwards, London: Duckworth, 1994.
  • Corollaries on Place and Void, trans. D. Furley, London: Duckworth, 1991.
  • Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, London: Duckworth, 1987.


More translations are listed here

Further reading

  • Grant, E. Much Ado about Nothing: theories of space and vacuum from the Middle Ages to the scientific revolution (Cambridge, 1981).
  • Grant, E. A History of Natural Philosophy: from the ancient world to the nineteenth century (Cambridge, 2007).
  • Jammer, M. Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (Mineola, NY, 1993), 53-94.
  • Scholten, Clemens, "Welche Seele hat der Embryo? Johannes Philoponos und die Antike Embryologie," Vigiliae Christianae, 59,4 (2005), 377-411.
  • MacCoull, Leslie S. B., "Aristophanes in Philoponus: Did he get the joke?" Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 57, 2007,
  • Gleede, Benjamin, Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos. Ein Kommentar zu den 18 Argumenten für die Ewigkeit der Welt bei Johannes Philoponos (Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2009) (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum / Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity, 54).

External links