Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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Alexander of Aphrodisias and Arabic Aristotelianism

  • Charles GenequandEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_23-2


Alexander of Aphrodisias, commentator par excellence of Aristotle, lived about 200 AD. A fairly important part of his works was translated into Arabic during the ninth century and greatly influenced the reception and interpretation of the Stagirite’s thought in the East. Important fragments of his commentary on the Metaphysics have been preserved in Ibn Rušd’s own Great Commentary on that work. Among the independent treatises preserved in Arabic, the most important are On the Principles of the Universe, On Providence and On the Intellect.


Aphrodisias Arabic Aristotelianism Green Approach Short Epistle Arabic Philosophy 
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The longest (about 25 pages) of Alexander of Aphrodisias’ works preserved in Arabic is the treatise known as On the Principles of the Universe. As it happens, it is also a text which is totally unknown in the Greek sources, although its main theses can be found in the author’s other works, the commentaries and above all the collection of short dissertations transmitted under the general name of Questions. It lays down that the heavenly bodies are moved by souls and that their motions arise in consequence of the desire that they feel for the First Cause of the universe (God). Their circular motion expresses their desire or their will (the two notions are not always clearly distinguished) to imitate or to become similar to the immutability of the self-thinking divine mind which moves them as object of thought and love. As the motions of the fixed stars and of the different planets are diverse, they are the cause of the diversity and variety of the physical phenomena which they originate in the world of generation and decay, situated below the sphere of the moon. This influence occurs through a “spiritual power,” identified with nature, which penetrates all parts of the world, thus ensuring its cohesion and permanence. The condition of the universe is thus similar to that of the city or the household in which the authority of the leader is the cause of order at all levels. Although these theses have their origin in Aristotle, in particular in the twelfth book (Λ) of the Metaphysics, they are developed by Alexander in the sense of working out the connection between the heavenly and terrestrial realms and laying much more emphasis on it.

The treatise On Providence begins in truly Aristotelian fashion with a doxographical introduction which sets out briefly and rejects two antagonistic conceptions of divine providence. The first is that of Epicurus and his school, building on the old atomistic doctrine of Leucippus and Democritus, according to which the gods do not play any role in the governance of the universe which is the product of pure chance and of the haphazard collision of atoms in the void. The second is that of the Stoics (Zeno of Citium is cited by name). For them providence rules all worldly processes and nothing escapes the benevolent care of the gods. According to Alexander, both positions are unacceptable. The harmony of the cosmos and the regularity of the natural processes make it totally unlikely that they should be entirely devoid of design. On the other hand, it would be unworthy of the gods’ majesty to care for every individual being in itself. Such a conduct would degrade them to a position inferior to that of the creatures since the end, in any natural or moral process, is always above the entity acting towards it. Alexander’s aim is to develop a theory of providence which should avoid the opposite excesses of the other schools while conforming to the principles of the Aristotelian system. His solution is based for the most part on astronomical considerations deriving from the Metaphysics and the treatises On the Heavens and On Generation and Corruption. The physical processes taking place in the world of generation and decay depend on the regular motions of the heavenly bodies and are themselves subject to unchanging laws. Just as the king does not personally look after each and every one of his subjects, but establishes general rules and ensures that they are observed and followed, in the same way God or the gods provide for the general welfare of the world as a whole, but it would be absurd to assume that they know each individual being as such. The annual motion of the sun causes the alternation of the seasons and thus creates the conditions appropriate for human life. As the annual motions of the stars are themselves dependent on the gods, that is, on the heavenly intellects which move them as objects of love, the beings of the physical world and man himself depend on them. Alexander however goes one step further by explaining that the gods have knowledge of what happens in the natural world, a thesis which is surely difficult to reconcile with the Aristotelian notion of the self-thinking divine intellect. His doctrine is summed up in the idea that providence is not exerted by the gods “according to the first intention,” but is the secondary and concomitant effect of their existence.

These two treatises, then, cover in part the same ground. They sketch a grand cosmological and metaphysical scheme in which the heavenly bodies constitute a level of reality intermediate between the purely immaterial intellects which govern them as final causes and the world of generation and decay situated below the sphere of the moon. The connection between the opposite realms of immutability, regular motion, and change is twofold: by desiring and imitating their immaterial and unmoved movers, the stars regulate the seasonal and regular alternation of physical conditions down on earth. The eternity of the species, contrasting with the constant coming-to-be and disappearing of individuals, reflects in its way this celestial unchangeability. The particular appeal of this system resided for the Arab philosophers in that it allowed to establish, between God and the world, the close and logical link which was missing in the original Aristotelian texts. By restricting God’s knowledge of the particulars to the species, however, it paved the way for the antiphilosophical controversies of al-Ghazālī and others.

These two concepts, the downward influence of the heavens on the world of nature through the divine power emanating from them and the upward motion of assimilation, form the basic components of the “cosmometaphysics,” as it has sometimes been dubbed, of the great Arab philosophers. These elements are found more or less scattered in the main works of al-Fārābī, the Mabādi’ Arā’ Ahl al-Madīna al-Fāaila, and Al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya, also known under the title of Mabādi’ al-Mawjūdāt. The parallelism between the structure of the universe and that of the state which governs the plan of these two treatises also derives from the analogical conception which is particularly evident in Alexander’s work. But it is Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) who first built up these elements into a coherent and systematic whole. To be sure, he went beyond the Alexandrian scheme, particularly in the distinction he established between the souls and the intellects of the heavenly spheres, as well as between necessary and contingent being. The fact remains that Alexander’s exegesis provided the general framework and the main components of his theory as expounded in greatest detail in the ninth book of the Metaphysics (al-Ilāhiyyāt) of the K. al-Šifā’, the sixth chapter of which is devoted to the question of providence.

Although he opposed Ibn Sīnā’s views on many topics, Ibn Rušd (Averroes) is equally under the sway of Alexander with regard to the problems sketched above. The impact of the latter’s interpretation of Aristotle is felt in the Paraphrase of the Metaphysics as well as in the Great Commentary (tafsīr) on the same, although the source in that case is Alexander’s own commentary rather than the short epistles. Other works of Ibn Rushd’s are also indebted to the Principles of the Universe, notably the De Substantia Orbis preserved in Hebrew and the Tahāfut al-Tahāfut for the conception of nature as a divine power emanating from the heavenly bodies.

Many lesser works bear witness to the deep and lasting influence of Alexander in the islamic world, though in many cases it may derive from the two great philosophers just mentioned rather than to the direct use of his epistles. Suffice it to name here the Jewish Arab philosopher of Spain Maimonides and the late compiler ‘Abd al-Laṭbf al-Baghdādī.

In the field of psychology, and more specifically with regard to the theory of intellect, the influence of Alexander’s exegesis of Aristotle was also decisive through the Arabic translation of his short epistle On the Intellect. The re-interpretation of the active intellect postulated by Aristotle in the third book of the De Anima as an entity completely separate from matter and situated outside the human soul is the most outstanding feature of this short but hugely influential work. It is on this basis that the Arab philosophers, particularly al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, evolved their own view of the Active Intellect as the last of the celestial intellects emanated from the First Cause and governing not only human intellection but the natural phenomena and the generation of forms in their entirety. The translator of this text misunderstood it on several important points and thus unwittingly gave rise to new entities, in particular the so-called acquired intellect. These were then taken up by the Arab philosophers as genuine elements of Aristotle’s system and incorporated in their increasingly complicated attempts at explaining the modus operandi of the human intellect and the way in which it abstracts intelligible forms from the sensibles. Al-Fārābī thus wrote a short Epistle on the Intellect which is heavily indebted to Alexander’s noetics and exerted in turn a profound influence on his successors, culminating in Ibn Rushd’s Great Commentary on the De Anima and initiating through it endless debates among the Western schoolmen.



Primary Sources

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculté des LettresUniversite de GenèveGenevaSwitzerland