On Aristotle Physics 1.5-9, translated by Hans Baltussen, Michael Atkinson, Michael Share and Ian Mueller, with Introduction and Notes; Ancient Commentators on Aristotle (general editor: Richard Sorabji), Bristol Classical Press/ Bloomsbury Academic (London) 2012; pp. 168; ISBN 9780715638576; hbk £63 (online).

At the outset of Physics 1 Aristotle has stated that systematic knowledge of natural things and their changing character derives from a group of ‘principles (arkhai) or causes (aitia) or elements (stoikheiai)’; in book 1 he does not draw any formal distinctions between these three, and his arguments talk in the main about principles—although later commentators were much exercised by formalising distinctions. Books 1 and 2 of Physics are devoted seeking out the principles of change in the world of natural science. He starts from commonly accepted propositions and ‘constantly appeals to what is ordinarily said or thought’ (W. Charlton: Aristotle’s Physics I, II (Oxford) 1970, xi). It is axiomatic in Aristotle’s discussion that the principles of change in natural bodies are inherent in what comes into being from them, that they do not come from each other or from other things, but that all things come from them; so we are looking for the rationally distinguishable factors that inhere in the world of physical change. In chapters 1-4 he has reviewed briefly some earlier theorists such as Parmenides and Melissus, who posited a single principle, denying qualitative change and thereby falling outside the scope of Aristotle’s enquiry. Principles will accordingly be multiple, either finite or infinite in number.

In general the Neoplatonists give precedence to Aristotle in questions of natural science and to Plato in questions of metaphysics. Book 1 of Physics falls somewhere between these two areas, and throughout book 1 Simplicius is anxious to show the harmony between Plato and Aristotle, and he appeals to the testimony of, in particular, Phaedo, Sophist, Philebus, Phaedrus and Timaeus, to suggest that on many of the issues Plato foreshadowed Aristotle. In chapter 5 Aristotle asserts that everyone agrees that the opposites (ta enantia) are principles, although there is a wide divergence of views on just what the opposites as primary principles of physical change are. But Aristotle would have no quarrel with Plato’s so-called Argument from Opposites in Phaedo. In his typically reductionist mode, Aristotle concludes that physical change can best be explained by positing an underlying matter and, rather than a pair of opposites, the presence or absence of an opposite; the absence is then renamed as the ‘privation’ (sterêsis) of a form, with maybe an attack on John Philoponus—although Sorabji denies this (Introduction pp. 4-7). Simplicius gives a detailed analysis of Aristotle’s arguments, teasing out distinctions between primary and secondary principles, substance and contraries, per accidens and per se, and potential and actual—although M. suggests (n. 16) that at least on one occasion ‘Simplicius has no clue’. The Receptacle in Timaeus and the great-and small in Philebus are equated to Aristotelian matter (there is a sideswipe at the Manichean evil principle in chapter 9). (At 230,22 Simplicius ventures his own definition of matter.) Simplicius also finds congruity in the views of Plato and Aristotle on the distinction between the first form which is genuinely separate and a principle, and the natural form immanent in individual compound natural objects, which perishes along with the compound.

Simplicius takes advantage of Aristotle’s lengthy discussion of the nature of privation in chapters 7-9 to show that Plato was not guilty, as some suggested, of giving too much ground to Parmenides’ unitary concept of Being, quoting extensively from Sophist, to show that Plato recognised but didn‘t use privation, preferring to talk rather of the absence or presence of form. If anything he uses the term ‘other’ instead of privation. Simplicius concludes that Plato and Aristotle did not disagree on the question of principles, since the former was seeking per se causes of being that are elemental and inherent, while the latter was looking for causes of change, including privation as a per accidens cause.

Throughout Simplicius appeals to the testimony of other commentators, especially Alexander of Aphrodisias. The work is dense and complex, but gives insight not only into Aristotle’s text, but (more interestingly) into its reception by a Neoplatonist of the 6th century AD.

This edition is the work of four translators, with English-Greek glossaries by Sebastian Gertz, with some editorial assistance from Richard Sorabji in the notes to M.’s translation of chapters 7-9. It would be good to see a more extensive note on logos, which is generally left untranslated. Note 252 on p. 155 is the same as paragraph 3 of the Introduction p. 11. But in general the translation is accurate and fluent, and there are surprisingly few glitches in what is in effect the production of a committee.

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