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Scholars and Scribes: Remarks on the Influence of Asclepius’s Commentary on the Transmission of Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Mirjam E. Kotwick

Did ancient commentaries on philosophical texts influence the ancient transmission of those texts? Specifically, were paraphrases and explanations of commentators in the course of the transmission incorporated into the philosophical texts? In this paper, I explore an intriguing case in which we can see that the words of the commentator Asclepius of Tralles (sixth century AD) found their way into what is now our text of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

            The Metaphysics came down to us in direct transmission through at least 53 Greek manuscripts. These manuscripts go back to two different versions of the text, the α- and the β-version (for a complete stemma codicum, see Harlfinger 1979). Our manuscript tradition starts in the ninth century AD, whereas the separation of the two textual traditions very likely took place before AD 400 (Primavesi 2012). In between, the α- and the β-version were exposed to various influences. On the one hand, as Primavesi suggests, the β-version of Metaphysics A appears to have been revised by someone who smoothed out some of Aristotle’s sparse or rough expressions and occasionally worked in phrases from Alexander of Aphrodisias’s commentary (ca. AD 200). The α-version, on the other hand, is free of such a revision, but contains later supplements the origins of which remain by and large unknown.

            In lines A 4, 985a18–21 of the Metaphysics, Aristotle likens the role that Anaxagoras assigns to Mind in his cosmogony to a deus ex machina in tragedy. In these lines, the α-version and the β-version diverge: in a19–20, the α-version reads ὅταν ἀπορήσῃ γὰρ δι τίν’ ατίαν ξ νάγκης στί, τότε ἕλκει αὐτόν (“for whenever he [Anaxagoras] is at a loss to say through what cause it [the world] of necessity exists, then he drags in Mind”), while the β-version reads καὶ ὅταν ἀπορήσῃ παρέλκει αὐτόν (“and whenever he is at a loss he drags in Mind”). Whereas previous editors of the Metaphysics (cf. Bekker, Bonitz, Christ, Ross, Jaeger) print the words δι τίν’ ατίαν ξ νάγκης στί, τότε, Primavesi 2012 identifies them as a supplement not written by Aristotle: the supplement is contained neither in Alexander’s text nor in the β-version, and its content is clearly dispensable.

            The puzzle I solve is whence and how the addition came into the α-version.  Alexander (In Metaph. 35,1–4 Hayduck) compares Aristotle’s statement about Anaxagoras with Socrates’ critique of Anaxagoras in the Phaedo.  Socrates, expecting to find in Anaxagoras an explanation of why the world must be the way it is (τὴν αἰτίαν καὶ τὴν ἀνάγκην, 97e), is rather disappointed by what Anaxagoras says: although Anaxagoras calls Mind a cause of all things, his cosmological explanations appeal only to mindless things like air and water.  Alexander’s Neoplatonic successor Asclepius (In Metaph. 31,26–32,7 Hayduck) followed Alexander’s lead and worked Socrates’ critique into his own elucidation of Aristotle’s words.  Not only does Asclepius’s summary of the Aristotelian passage strongly suggest that his copy of the Metaphysics, like Alexander’s, did not contain the α-supplement, but Asclepius himself formulates, in an extended paraphrase of Aristotle, the very phrase found in the α-text.  Moreover, while the phrase seems superfluous in Aristotle, it fits Asclepius’s elucidation perfectly.  Finally, the anonymous commentary known as ‘recensio altera of Alexander’ (sixth or seventh century AD) quotes both Aristotle’s text and Asclepius’s commentary; our supplement is found only in the paraphrase quoted from Asclepius.

            From all the pieces of evidence considered together we can draw the following picture of the transmission process.  Asclepius based his commentary on that of Alexander, who sent him to Plato.  Asclepius then built Socrates’ criticism of Anaxagoras into his paraphrase.  A later scribe who copied the Metaphysics most likely inserted the paraphrase into the α-tradition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, taking it from either Asclepius or the anonymous commentary.  Since Bekker’s edition in 1831, these words have been held to be Aristotle’s own.

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Greek Philosophy

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