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  • Neoplatonism and the Philosophy of Nature ed. by James Wilberding and Christoph Horn
  • Marije Martijn
James Wilberding and Christoph Horn, editors. Neoplatonism and the Philosophy of Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. ix + 257. Cloth, $75.00.

The philosophy of late antiquity was long considered nothing but metaphysics and ethics. The ten papers in this fascinating volume both rectify and reinforce that image: they display the diversity and sophistication of Neoplatonic theorizing on the natural world, but also reveal that it almost always somehow connects to metaphysics and ethics—without rendering it “otherworldly.”

Lloyd P. Gerson discusses the important concept of logos in Plotinus, introducing the technical term ‘virtuality.’ This is an ontological notion, expressing a non-transitive relation between two entities, the lower being the logos of the higher, or the intelligible content of its external activity. The One is virtually all things, because they are its logos. Soul is a logos of Intellect, and virtually nature. Since nature is the lowest logos, one cannot present an adequate logos, in the sense of explanation, of nature.

Andrew Smith shows that Porphyry’s physics is spiritually motivated metaphysics, and that his notion of matter is primarily a refutation of dualism. Porphyry rejects a pre-cosmic matter containing traces and disorderly motion, and instead derives matter from higher causes in two stages: cosmic matter from the demiurge, and individual bodies from the cosmos. Matter is an occasion for evil only to human souls.

Stephen Menn uses the Arabic concepts tashbîh (assimilation), tanzîh (purification), and ta’tîl (nullification) to show how Neoplatonists tried to explain away Aristotle’s “highminded” criticism of Plato. Hermias’s and Proclus’s discussions of immortality illustrate this: they reinterpret ‘soul’ as ‘self-thinking soul.’ They thereby “purify” Plato’s descriptions of the [End Page 543] immortal soul from “assimilation,” that is, applying predicates to too high or low a layer of reality, while preventing “nullification,” that is, lack of positive predicates.

Alain Lernould presents Proclus’s interesting notion of nature. He convincingly shows how Proclus improves upon Aristotle and the Stoa and makes nature contribute to reconciling immanence and transcendence, or to linking soul and the corporeal, by turning soul into a proximate efficient cause of the natural. Proclus distinguishes between Universal Nature, which is distinct from bodies and undivided, and Nature as the life and multiplicity of immanent forms, which is divided.

Christia Mercer nicely shows how Leibniz and Conway developed Platonizing accounts to counter problems of pure “first wave” mechanism: the passivity of matter and its incompatibility with plenitude cannot do justice to divine goodness. Starting from Platonist theses, Leibniz assumes a world full of sources of activity, each of which contains all others in its own way; Conway assumes a world full of vitality, of which individuals are different modes.

Ian Mueller discusses exegetical and argumentative strategies adopted by Simplicius in defending Plato’s theory of elements. He shows that Simplicius’s agreeing or disagreeing with Proclus is often inspired by his wish to harmonize Aristotle with Plato, rather than by the content of the arguments. Simplicius’s primary instrument of harmonization is understanding Plato’s theory of elements in terms of hylomorphism.

Jan Opsomer’s rich paper then sorts out the details of Simplicius’s and Proclus’s understanding of the elements. Opsomer’s main thesis is that, in their understanding of Plato, the properties of earth, water, air, and fire supervene on those of the elementary polyhedra. More concretely, they counter Aristotle’s objections by maintaining that the triangles of the polyhedra are hylomorphic, three-dimensional, plastic, and impurely shaped bodies.

Carlos Steel presents Proclus’s and Damascius’s charming literal interpretation of the beginning of the Phaedo myth, as science, rather than as (ethical) metaphor. They see it as an advance in common geographical questions about size, shape, stability, and position of the earth, anticipating views later held by Aristotle. As true Neoplatonists they present metaphysical and analogical, rather than mathematical, arguments. Moreover, they take true geography to concern not our “middle” earth, but the “higher” earth, which reaches to the heavens.

Wilberding’s paper is an interesting overview of late ancient dealings with the...


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pp. 543-544
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