Simplicius of Cilicia (in Asia Minor) tells us that he studied Platonic philosophy in Alexandria under Ammonius the son of Hermias (fl. c. 550). Afterward, he attended the lectures of Damascius, probably in Athens at the original and still flourishing school founded by Plato himself, the Academy. (An earlier scholarly opinion that there were doctrinal differences between the teachings on Plato in Alexandria and Athens is no longer held.)
All these figures were active neoplatonists, and Hermias and Damascius did in fact publish commentaries on various dialogues of Plato. But Ammonius and Simplicius (and to a lesser extent Damascius as well) devoted most of their writings to the explication of Aristotle’s works.
Simplicius, in addition to a commentary on Epictetus’s Handbook (Enchiridion), wrote extensive commentaries on five of those works of Aristotle that most challenge philosophers: Metaphysics (no longer extant, although fragments are known), Physics, Categories, De Anima, and De Caelo, with the four extant commentaries totaling over 2,800 sizable pages in the series Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca. (References in some modern books to a commentary by Simplicius on Sophistici Elenchi are mistaken.)
In addition to the time obviously needed to complete these commentaries, a brief examination of Simplicus’s learned exegeses shows that he also was in need of an extensive philosophical library, one that included not only Plato and Aristotle, their predecessors (the pre-Socratics) but also everything (it seems) ever written by an Academician or Peripatetic, as well as some Stoic texts.
Where could this library have been? An obvious answer is Athens, but one of the few hard facts concerning these philosophers is that, owing to increasing Christian hostility to pagan philosophizing, the emperor Justinian in 529 forbade teaching by non-Christians, which gave Simplicius time to write his commentary of Epictetus, who as a philosopher struggling under tyranny could serve as a model for Simplicius and his colleagues.
Agathias (c. 536–c. 582), the Christian historian (and epigrammatist), states that “Damascius of Syria, Simplicius of Cilicia, Eulamius of Phrygia, Prisican of Lydia, Hermias and Diogenes of Phoenicia, and Isidore of Gaza ... concluded that, since Christianity was not to their liking [a euphemism], Persia was a better place for them.” Unfortunately, the stories about King Chosroes I (reigned 531–579) that made him sound like a Platonic philosopher-king were greatly exaggerated.
In time, even Greece, with all its dangers, seemed preferable; “and so all returned home,” trusting in a treaty between Justinian I (483–565) and Chosroes that, among other things, stipulated that the philosophers could return to their homes and live there as long as they wished “on their own,” this last vague phrase probably meaning that the treaty guaranteed them the freedom to congregate as philosophers and conduct themselves (mostly) as before (Agathias Historiae 2.30.3–31.4 Keydell).
Thus, although some scholars still believe that Simplicius chose to stay somewhere safe in the Persian Empire, probably in Haran, the explicit evidence of Agathias, who refers to these Academics as his (younger) contemporaries, strongly suggests that Simplicius returned to Athens. There, still denied the right to teach, he dedicated himself to scholarship.
For the most part, Simplicius’s writings are straightforward analyses, lemma by lemma, of Aristotelian passages, a form of commentary designed for readers rather than for the students to whom he no longer could lecture.
Here Simplicius not only dispassionately and at great length explains the meaning of selected passages he also attempts to harmonize or minimize the differences between Plato and Aristotle.
Indeed, Simplicius often turns Aristotle into a neoplatonist, as when, for example, he argues that Aristotle’s causes were six in number. The lemmas both explicate the meaning and summarize other scholars’ views of the passage in question.
In both aspects Simplicius is of immeasurable importance for the history of earlier Greek philosophy, for he, far more than any other commentator on Plato or Aristotle, took the trouble to go back both to the texts Aristotle quotes or alludes to as well as to the texts that comment on Aristotle.
|Eulamius of Phrygia|
Simplicius is thus the most important source for verbatim quotations of the pre-Socratics, Academics, Peripatetics, Stoics, and others. Time after time, where others comment on Aristotle’s allusion to (say) Parmenides merely by elaborating on Aristotle’s words, inferring from them what Parmenides meant, Simplicius, explicitly referring to the rarity of Parmenides’ book, says that he will quote from it in extenso. By far the vast majority of the fragments of Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno, Melissus, Anaxagoras, and Diogenes of Apollonia is known thanks to Simplicius alone.
Earlier attempts to argue that he found these passages in Theophrastus’s lost doxographical treatise on earlier thought falter when one looks at the extant Metaphysics and De Sensibus of Theophrastus, whose verbatim quotations of pre-Socratics are infrequent and not of great length, unlike many in Simplicius.
In short, present-day knowledge of the actual words of the pre-Socratics would be halved or worse without him. It would doubtless be increased were a copy of his In Metaphysica found.
Similarly, Simplicius is now the only source for many of the earlier but now lost Aristotelian commentaries. Much of what is known of Theophrastus’s Physics comes from Simplicius’s commentary, and his quotations from John Philoponus’s lost Against Aristotle, on the Eternity of the World are so extensive that they have been excerpted and published separately.
Although Simplicius is strictly neutral toward the pre-Socratics, he is capable of criticizing Aristotelian commentators of several centuries earlier, such as Alexander of Aphrodisias, whom he accuses, sometimes ironically, of not having considered all available sources, a virtue he explicitly declares necessary for the serious commentator in the beginning of In Cat, along with an ability to make dispassionate judgments.
He is naturally more deferential to his teachers Ammonius and Damascius. He reserves his most critical if not contemptuous statements for Philoponus, who was also a student of Ammonius, but whose Christian interpretations, such as that the cosmos had a fixed beginning, he finds most abhorrent.
|Diogenes of Phoenicia|
Since all of Simplicius’s works are in the form of commentaries on two philosophers not of his own school, it is not easy to isolate beliefs and preoccupations that would distinguish him from other neoplatonists.
Apart from his almost religious adoration of the Platonic Demiurge (reminiscent of Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus), Simplicius writes very much in the tradition of Alexandrian and Athenian commentators on Aristotle who in place of sustained argument are more likely merely to state their interpretation of his text.
Simplicius, then, a scholar like few before him, read every relevant text that would illuminate Aristotle, who he argued should be seen as a complement to Plato’s noble philosophy.
|Isidore of Gaza|