John Philoponus

John Philoponus

John Philoponus ("ca." 490–"ca." 570), also known as John Grammarian of Alexandria, was a Christian and Aristotelian commentator and the author of a considerable number of philosophical treaties and theological works. Although chronologically John Philoponus belongs to the era when the late antiquity shifts to early Middle Ages, he was the most cited author in the works of the young Galileo Galilee (See more: B. Mitrovic: Leon Batista Alberti and the Homogenity of Space,in" The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol 63, No 4,(2004),p.424-439)."


Philoponus' life is closely associated to the birth of a distinctive Byzantine civilization. That culture represented a direct continuation of the old Roman Empire. The sixth century was a time when Rome’s survival relied on the preservation of significant elements of both classical Hellenic texts which are eventually translated into Latin, and patristic learning which generally reflected inferior spiritual direction. It was a time when emperor Justinian claimed his right to play a major role as a leader of the Christian religious establishment which surpassed a Byzantium culture to the separation of a Christian community from the rest of Christendom(7).In such circumstances, when the learning and knowledge was given a strong emphasis, John Philoponus has lived and worked, primarily as a teacher of natural sciences. However, in the second part of his life, John Philoponus has given up from his strictly philosophical and scientific activity and devoted himself to the Christian theology. While the first part of Philophonus’ life was marked by the critique of Aristotle and was closely linked to the Alexandrian Neoplatonic School, the second part was devoted to the development of his major theological argument according to which all material objects were brought into being by God ("Arbiter", 52A-B). Philophonus’ 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.


John Philoponus wrote at least 40 items on diverse subjects such as grammar, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and theological works . The authorship of the portion of his work, particularly the third book of the work entitled "De Anima" causes disputes.

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 (1). 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 (2). 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 on the space, Philoponus’ claim that from every point in space is possible to draw identical figures, made him to be perceived as an innovative thinker who influenced later Renaissance scholars, for instance, Gianfranceso Pico della Mirandola and Galileo Galilee.Thus, Philoponus' idea of perspective signifies the concept of space as immaterial three-dimensional medium in which objects are located (2).

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 (3).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 (6).

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 criterions. 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 posses a quality essential to it except to a superlative extent” (De Haas, in Wood & Weisberg, 2004) (4).

Theological Treaties

Philoponus’ major Christological work is "Arbiter". The work is written shortly before the Second Council of Constantinople (533 AD)and it was translated and edited by A. Sandra in 1930.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 (5).

Historiographical Contribution

Relation to Contemporaries

John Philophonus’ Christological “opus magnum” stands in the line with St. Cyril of Alexandre and Severus of Antioh (5). Philophonus asserted the understanding of Christ as a divine and a human, in opposition to Chalcedonian authors who strived to reach a middle ground (See more on miaphysite school and its scholars in Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Influence on Later History Writing

Philoponus’ view of space as homogeneity is influenced by the Hellenic teaching of Aristotle. However, Philoponus developed this concept further together with his contemporaries, Simplicius and Strato (2). This concept iguided the Reneissance theory of perspective, particularly the one highlighted by Leon Batista Alberti, and other architectural masters.


Editions and Translations

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. Trans. A.R. Lacey, Philoponus, On Aristotle's Physics 2, London: Duckworth, 1993. M. Edwards, Philoponus, On Aristotle's Physics 3, London: Duckworth, 1994.

D. Furley, Philoponus, Corollaries on Place and Void, London: Duckworth, 1991.

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

Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, London: Duckworth, 1987. 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 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.

Secondary Sources

1 Pearson, C. , John Philoponus, "On Aristotle’s One Coming to Be and Perishing 1.1-5 and 1.6-2.4". (book review). Early Science and Medicine vol. 4 (2004),p. 424-439.

3 Lautner, P. De Anima III:Quest for an author."The Classical Quaterly, New Series", vol. 42,Number 2 (1992),p. 510-512.

2. Mitrovic, B. Leon Batista Alberti and the Homogenity of Space. "The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians" ,vol. 63, Number 4 (2004),p. 424-439.

4 Wood, R. & Weisberg, M. Interpreting Aristotle on mixture: problems about elemental composition from Philoponus to Cooper. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol.35 (2004), p. 681-706. 5 Chonietes, N. A Neglected Witness to the Greek Text of John Philoponus’ Arbiter. "The Journal of Theological Studies", vol. 48, Number 2(1997),p. 540-548.

6 Hubler, N. The Perils of Self-Perception:Explanations of Appreciation in the Greek Commentaries on Aristotle. "The Review of Metaphysics",vol. 59, Number 2,p. 287-311.

7 Sullivan, R. E, Sherman & D.A & Harrison J. B. (ed.) "Short History of Western Civilization". (1994). New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 153-222.



Further reading

* Richard Sorabji "John Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian science" Cornell University Press 1993

See also

External links

* [ Biography in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

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