A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

Smith, William

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. William Smith, LLD, ed. 1890

(Ἀλέξανδρος Ἀφροδισιεύς), a native of Aphrodisias in Caria, who lived at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century after Christ, the most celebrated of the commentators on Aristotle. He was the disciple of Herminus and Aristocles the Messenian, and like them endeavoured to free the Peripatetic philosophy from the syncretism of Ammonius and others, and to restore the genuine interpretation of the writings of Aristotle. The title ὁ ἐξηγητὴς was the testimony to the extent or the excellence of his commentaries. About half his voluminous works were edited and translated into Latin at the revival of literature; there are a few more extant in the original Greek, which have never been printed, and an Arabie version is preserved of several others, whose titles may be seen in the Bibliotheca of Casiri. (Vol. i. p. 243.)

If we view him as a philosopher, his merit cannot be rated highly. His excellencies and defects are all on the model of his great master; there is the same perspicuity and power of analysis, united with almost more than Aristotelian plainness of style; everywhere "a flat surface," with nothing to interrupt or strike the attention. In a mind so thoroughly imbued with Aristotle, it cannot be expected there should be much place for original thought. His only endeavour is to adapt the works of his master to the spirit and language of his own age; but in doing so he is constantly recalled to the earlier philosophy, and attacks bygone opinions, as though they had the same living power as when the writings of Aristotle were directed against them. (Ritter, Geschichte der Philosophie, vol. iv. p. 255.)

The Platonists and earlier Stoics are his chief opponents, for he regarded the Epicureans as too sensual and unphilosophical to be worth a serious answer. Against the notion of the first, that the world, although created, might yet by the will of God be made imperishable, he urged that God could not alter the nature of things, and quoted the Platonist doctrine of the necessary coexistence of evil in all corruptible things. (Ritter, p. 262.) God himself, he said, was the very form of things. Yet, however difficult it may be to enter into this abstract notion of God, it would be unjust, as some have done, to charge him with atheism, as in many passages he attributes mind and intelligence to the divine Being. This is one of the points in which he has brought out the views of Aristotle more clearly, from his living in the light of a later age. God, he says (in Metaphys. ix. p. 320), is "properly and simply one, the self-existent substance, the author of motion himself unmoved, the great and good Deity, without beginning and without end:" and again (in Metaph. xii. p. 381) he asserts, that to deprive God of providence is the same thing as depriving honey of sweetness, fire of warmth, snow of whiteness and coolness, or the soul of motion. The providence of God, however, is not directed in the same way to the sublunary world and the rest of the universe : the latter is committed not indeed to fate, but to general laws, while the concerns of men are the immediate care of God, although he find not in the government of them the full perfection of his being. (Quaest. Nat. 1.25, 2.21.) He saw no inconsistency, as perhaps there was none, between these high notions of God and the materialism with which they were connected. As God was the form of all things, so the human soul was likewise a form of matter, which it was impossible to conceive as existing in an independent state. He seems however to have made a distinction between the powers of reflection and sensation, for he says (de Anima i. p. 138), that the soul needed not the body as an instrument to take in objects of thought, but was sufficient of itself; unless the latter is to be looked upon as an inconsistency into which he has been led by the desire to harmonize the early Peripateticism with the purer principle of a later philosophy. (Brücker, vol. ii. p. 481.)