The Libraries of the Neoplatonists. Edited by Cristina d'Ancona


Pp. xxxvi, 531 . Leiden/Boston , Brill , 2007 , $199/£100.75 .

J. J. E. Gracia has insisted that understanding, interpretation, and discernibility of texts and textualities pertain principally to epistemology. This has important implications for individual acts of philosophising, philosophy's history, and histories of that history, as illustrated in studies that continue to refine our understanding of past cross-cultural fertilisations of speculative-genotypes. These confirm that layered eccentricities, so readily attributed to ‘la voie romaine’, were latent as well in varying degrees in the earlier history of Arabic and Jewish philosophies.

This has been supported by researchers such as P. Adamson, H. Blumenthal, S. Brock, J. Dillon, S. Ebbesen, D. Gutas, I. Hadot, A. de Libera, R. Sorabji, and J. Whittaker, who have traced ‘transformations’ of Plato and Aristotle via subsidiary commentator traditions that encoded sources used by medieval Arabic, Jewish, and Christian speculators. While such details should temper unbridled claims for originality attributed to many figures of stature, such as Bonaventure, Aquinas, Avicenna, and Averroes, they ought not diminish the contextualised genius of each, any more than contemporary expanded comprehension of DNA should justify a reductionism of organisms to mere phenotypic manifestations of genomes. Apart from works by the aforementioned scholars, we also have ongoing valuable projects such as the Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, edited by R. Goulet, and now this substantive volume edited and masterfully introduced by C. d'Ancona that refines our comprehension of philosophy's history in that crucial period designated ‘Late Antiquity’.

This collection concentrates on the circulation of philosophical texts and original developments derived from them against the background of the canons of authoritative readings and interpretations prevalent from the third through the eighth centuries CE. The twenty-seven essays include fifteen in French, eight in English, two in Italian, and two in German. Executing explorations of such elusive, speculative encodings encouraged a division of the pieces into two groups: those centered on diverse Neoplatonic readings of Plato and Aristotle, and others concerning texts contributing to dominant Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic philosophical traditions.

The first section contains H. D. Saffrey's meticulous, intriguing detection of the complex migration of the famous Parisinus graecus 1807, a transliteration made in 850 CE from a sixth-century exemplar intended for the imperial library that contains portions of Plato's works. Transported from Byzantium to Armenia, after remaining for a century in a monastery library, it eventually was transferred to Avignon and came to rest in the library of Petrarca. This is followed by R. Goulet's integrative, detailed presentation of the transmission of Greek philosophical texts throughout the transition of textual conservation from papyrus to parchment between the fourth and sixth centuries. Insisting that prior to the eleventh century Byzantium accorded greater importance to certain of Aristotle's writings rather than to Plato's, Goulet confirms that manuscript and commentator traditions of each were of unequal depth and integrity. To indicate which philosophers and commentators were emphasised he provides a valuable graph that proportionally illustrates the numbers of citations of authors prior to the seventh century who are contained in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. The four most prevalent are Proclus, Alexander, Simplicius, and Philoponus, each representing between ten to thirteen-percent of the total. Subsequent investigations approximate the focus of Saffrey or Goulet, with emphasis being placed either on specific texts and personages, or on attainment of more exacting historical syntheses of factors that contributed to recombinations of speculative sources. The latter include B. Reis's research on the prehistory of the Neoplatonic reading program; G. Endreß and P. Adamson on Platonism and Aristotelianism in al-Kindi's sources and on the structure of Arabic Neoplatonism; and S. Harvey on the Greek library of medieval Jewish philosophers.

To merely list the titles of investigations in this volume would not convey their quality, nor is it possible to detail their range and depth in a brief review. Nonetheless, this collection arguably will be of enduring value. While many pieces focus on texts and personages accessible only to specialists, a number offer comprehensive portrayals of past and present research into texts and textualities common to Judaic, Christian, and Arabic philosophies. Read attentively, they suggest further areas of important research for this new century.