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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2012

Benjamin Gleede*
Universität Zürich, Theologisches Seminar Kirchgasse 9, CH-8001 Zürich


The article aims at demonstrating that in attributing the creatio ex nihilo to both Plato and Aristotle as their unanimous philosophical conviction the Treatise on the Harmony between the Two Sages deeply depends upon the Neoplatonic reading of those two philosophers. The main obstacles for such a view in the works of the two sages are Plato's assumption of a precosmic chaos in the Timaeus and Aristotle's denial of any efficient causality to the unmoved mover in the Metaphysics. Both of these points had been, however, done away with by the Neoplatonist commentators already, especially by Ammonius in his lost treatise on efficient and final causality in Aristotle the use of which in the Harmony is shown by a comparison with Simplicius. Christian and Muslim readers just had to transfer those arguments and hermeneutical techniques into an anti-eternalist context in order to make the two philosophers agree with one of the basic tenents of their face, a hermeneutical technique considerably different from the one employed by al-Fārābī in his exposition of Plato's and Aristotle's philosophy which is compared to the Harmony in a briefly sketched concluding section.


L'article vise à montrer que le Traité sur l'harmonie des deux sages, en attribuant la creatio ex nihilo à Platon et Aristote comme conviction philosophique commune, dépend profondément de la lecture néoplatonicienne de ces deux philosophes. Les obstacles principaux à une telle attribution dans les œuvres des deux sages sont, dans le Timée de Platon, l'affirmation d'un chaos précosmique et, dans la Métaphysique d'Aristote, la négation d'une causalité efficiente du premier moteur immobile. L'interprétation néoplatonicienne avait toutefois éliminé chacune de ces affirmations de la doctrine des deux maîtres, comme le montre en particulier le traité d'Ammonius sur la causalité finale et efficiente chez Aristote. Or, on peut montrer, par une comparaison avec Simplicius, que l’Harmonie faisait usage de ce traité. Les philosophes chrétiens et musulmans avaient ainsi la possibilité d'employer les mêmes arguments et méthodes herméneutiques pour établir une concordance entre les deux principales autorités philosophiques d'une part et une de leurs plus importantes convictions religieuses d'autre part – une herméneutique qui diffère considérablement de la méthode appliquée par al-Fārābī dans sa propre exposition des philosophies de Platon et d'Aristote, comme le montre, dans la conclusion de l'article, la brève comparaison avec l’Harmonie.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 Cf. Fladerer, L., Antiochus v. Askalon: Hellenist und Humanist (Graz, 1996), pp. 43–8Google Scholar.

2 On the topic in Arabic philosophy as a whole cf. Endress, G., ‘La concordance entre Platon et Aristote, l'Aristote arabe et l’émancipation de la philosophie en Islam médiéval’, in Mojsisch, B. and Pluta, O. (eds.), Historia philosophiae medii aevi. Studien zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 237–57Google Scholar and D'Ancona, C., “The topic of ‘Harmony between Plato and Aristotle’: Some examples in early Arabic philosophy’, in Speer, A. and Wegener, L. (eds.), Wissen über Grenzen. Arabisches Wissen und lateinisches Mittelalter (Berlin/New York, 2006), pp. 379405Google Scholar.

3 The best edition is the most recent one: al-Fārābī, , L'armonia delle opinioni dei due sapienti, il divino Platone e Aristotele, ed. Bonadeo, C. Martini (Pisa, 2008)Google Scholar. As this edition is far less widespread yet than the earlier one by Mallet, D. and Najjar, F. (L'harmonie entre les opinions de Platon et d'Aristote [Damascus, 1999])Google Scholar the text will be quoted here in referring to Najjar's paragraph- and Bonadeo's page-numbering. As to the issue of the authenticity of the text, its most recent editor can, however, not be said to have resolved all the considerable doubts raised by Lameer, J., Al-Fārābī and Aristotelian Syllogistics: Greek Theory and Islamic Practice (Leiden 1994), pp. 30–9Google Scholar; Rashed, M., “Al-Fārābī's lost treatise On Changing Beings and the possibility of demonstration of the eternity of the world”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 18 (2008): 1958CrossRefGoogle Scholar; On the authorship of the treatise On the harmonization of the opinions of the two sages attributed to al-Fārābī”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 19 (2009): 4382CrossRefGoogle Scholar (cf. esp. his reply to Endress and Bonadeo ibid., pp. 75–82) and Janos, D., “Al-Fārābī, creation ex nihilo, and the cosmological doctrine of jam‛ and jawābāt”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 129 (2009): 117Google Scholar.

4 Harmony § 1 (36,5–37,2 B.).

5 Harmony § 4 (39,1–40,3 B.).

6 Cf. however his warnings regarding the difficulty and unavoidable ambiguity of religious language (Harmony §§ 66f; 69,15–70,16 B.).

7 Harmony § 1 (36,5–8 B.): “As most people of our time are stimulated to argue about the creation of the world and its uncreatedness and affirm that there is a difference between the two preceding and outstanding sages regarding their affirmation of a first beginning…”.

8 Harmony § 58 (66,1–67,3 B.).

9 The classical reference is 2 Maccabees 7:28: “I want you, child, to look at heaven and earth and then, seeing all this, know that God created it out of nothing”.

10 Cf. May, G., Schöpfung aus dem Nichts. Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo (Berlin, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Harmony § 61 (68,5–10).

12 The possibility that all things might be made “from nothing” is also rejected as evident non-sense in the most prominent passage of the Metaphysics (XII,7 1072a20; XII,10 1075b14f).

13 Cf. De aeternitate mundi contra Proclum IX,8–17 (ed. H. Rabe [Leipzig, 1899; repr. Hildesheim, 1984], pp. 338–80). For the influence of this treatise, which was translated into Arabic in its entirety, on the Arabic discussion of the creation problem cf. Davidson, H.A., “John Philoponus as a source of medieval Islamic and Jewish proofs of creation”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 89 (1969): 357–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Cf. Mahdi, M., “AlFarabi against Philoponus”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 26 (1967): 233–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Cf. e.g. Athanasius, De incarnatione II,3. On the Christian attempts of reading the creatio ex nihilo into Plato cf. my Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos. Ein Kommentar zu den 18 Argumenten für die Ewigkeit der Welt bei Johannes Philoponos (Tübingen, 2009) (STAC 54), pp. 56–8.

16 Cf. Endress, G., “Die wissenschaftliche Literatur”, in Fischer, W. (ed.), Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, vol. III: Supplement (Wiesbaden, 1992), pp. 261Google Scholar, on p. 29.

17 Cf. Galeni compendium Timaei Platonis, ed. Kraus, P. and Walzer, R. (London, 1951)Google Scholar (Arabic text and Latin translation). The passages corresponding to the aforementioned chaos-descriptions would be Compendium IIde, VIIIb-IXd (which in its present state suffers of several crucial lacunae) and XVIIa.

18 On this tradition of Timaeus-interpretation cf. Baltes, M., Die Weltentstehung des platonischen Timaios nach den antiken Interpreten, vol. I (Leiden, 1976), pp. 3869CrossRefGoogle Scholar and his Der Platonismus in der Antike, vol. 5 (Stuttgart, 1998), Bst. 136f.

19 Cf. esp. Compendium IVab.

20 The reference to the teleogical expositions in the books on anatomy and “on the usefulness of body-parts” (De usu partium) (Harmony § 59) clearly has in mind works of Galen, and the reports on the Timaeus elsewhere (e.g. Harmony § 71) do not witness to a closer acquaintance with the dialogue.

21 In Platonis Timaeum commentaria, ed. Diehl, E., vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1903), 382,1220Google Scholar (French translation in Proclus, Commentaire sur le Timée, trans. A.-J. Festugière, 5 vols. [Paris 1966–68]). The gist of this argument appears – in an ethical context – already in Plotinus, Ennead III 2, 4,26–36.

22 Cf. De caelo II,3 286a17–19: “Nothing unnatural is eternal. For the unnnatural is later than the natural, and the natural is a deviation from the natural in any kind of process.”

23 De caelo I, 10 (279a33–280a11) = Baltes, Platonismus V, Bst. 136.0b (German translation and commentary).

24 The fact that Timaeus-description cannot be interpreted as a temporal process, is also acknowledged by modern research: Baltes, M., “Γέγονεν (Platon, Tim 28b7). Ist die Welt real entstanden oder nicht?”, in Algra, K.A. (ed.), Polyhistor. Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy: Presented to Jaap Mansfeld on his Sixtieth Birthday (Leiden, 1996), pp. 7696CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Cf. Baltes, Weltentstehung I, 170f.

26 Cf. my Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, pp. 404–7.

27 Philoponus, De aeternitate XVIII (ed. Rabe, 607,6–20). Cf. my commentary on the text in Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, pp. 457–64.

28 In the text quoted above, Proclus calls God's absence (and following presence) whithout “correspondence in reality” or “inexistent” (anhypostatos; 607,13) and thus of course also the precosmic chaos caused by it.

29 Cf. e.g. Davidson, “John Philoponus”.

30 “The topic of ‘Harmony’”, pp. 391–8.

31 De aeternitate mundi VI,8 (ed. Rabe, 144,16–149,26).

32 Cf. e.g. Festugière, A.J., La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, vol. 2: Le Dieu cosmique (Paris, 1949), pp. 145–9Google Scholar.

33 Cf. Effe, B., Studien zur Kosmologie und Theologie der Aristotelischen Schrift “Über die Philosophie”, Zetemata 50 (München, 1970), pp. 2331Google Scholar (mainly on the famous frg. 22 Rose [= Cicero, Lucullus 119] and some parallels).

34 Cf. my Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, pp. 262–73.

35 Harmony § 58 (66,1–67,3 B.).

36 Cf. In Aristotelis de caelo commentaria, ed. Heiberg, J.L. (Berlin, 1894) (CAG VII), 271,1321CrossRefGoogle Scholar and In Aristotelis Physicorum libros VIII commentaria, ed. Diels, H., vol. 2 (Berlin, 1895) (CAG X), 1360,24–1363,24Google Scholar. On the background cf. the comments of Verrycken, K., “The metaphysics of Ammonius son of Hermeias”, in Sorabji, R. (ed.), Aristotle Transformed. The Ancient Commentators and their Influence (Ithaca, 1990), pp. 199231Google Scholar, on pp. 216–25.

37 CAG X, 1360,31–1361,11.

38 Aristotle's famous teleological principle: Politics I,1,9 1253a9; De caelo II,11 291b13f; De generatione animalium 741b4f; De incessu animalium 711a18; De partibus animalium 658a8f and 695b19; De respiratione 486a12f.

39 CAG X, 1361,11–1362,10.

40 De caelo I,9 cannot really count as an exception, as this passage merely explains the meaning of the term “Aeon” as “lifetime”, and the dependence of someone's being on his lifetime can of course not really be called an efficient-causal one.

41 CAG X, 1363,2–8. On the importance of the principle that no limited body can have unlimited power (proved by Aristotle in the beginning of Physics VIII,10) cf. my Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, pp. 203–28.

42 CAG X, 1363,12–24.

43 How those ideas were developed at first to defend Plato against Aristotle's criticisms and then to harmonize the two philosophers completely, I tried to show in my Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, esp. pp. 27–30 and 214–19.

44 Harmony § 66 (70,5f B.).

45 For “creation” in the theology of Aristotle cf. Adamson, P., The Arabic Plotinus. A Philosophical Study of the Theology of Aristotle (London, 2002), pp. 137–55Google Scholar.

46 The – next to the De caelo-passage – most important texts from the Physics (esp. book VIII) and the Metaphysics (esp. book XII) are referred to only in the positive section, whereas many other passages form De generatione and corruptione or the Meteorology are not mentioned at all (on those cf. Solmsen, F., Aristotle's System of the Physical World. A Comparison with his Predecessors [Ithaca, 1960], pp. 420–39)Google Scholar.

47 Harmony § 54 (63,1–15 B.). For al-Fārābī's treatment of this passage cf. Rashed, “Al-Fārābī's lost treatise On Changing Beings”, pp. 25–9.

48 Cf. esp. De caelo I,10–II,1 (cf. Ps-Aristotle, De mundo 4; 396a30–32).

49 Harmony § 55 (63,18 B.: “in this book [i.e. De caelo] and others of his physical and metaphysical books”) refers more exactly to De caelo I,9 (279a14f), Physics IV,11 (219b1f a.e.), De generatione II,10 337a24f, and possibly to Metaphysics XII,5 (1071b9f).

50 Cf. e.g. Proclus’ fifth argument in Philoponus and my extensive commentary in Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, pp. 160–80.

51 Cf. De aeternitate mundi V,3 (ed. Rabe, 109,27–111,18) (for an English translation cf. John Philoponus, Against Proclus on the Eternity of the World 1–5, trans. by J.M. Share [London, 2004]); Contra Aristotelem frg. 121 Wildberg (Against Aristotle: On the Eternity of the World, trans. by C. Wildberg [London / Ithaca 1987]).

52 Cf. the anti-stoic argument in Philo of Alexandria, De aeternitate mundi, ed. R. Arnaldez, J. Pouilloux (Paris, 1969), §§ 52f.

53 Cf. e.g. the titles of the Proclus-translation in the manuscripts, which all explain uthūlūjiyā as rubūbiyya (Endress, G., Proclus Arabus. Zwanzig Abschnitte aus der Institutio theologica in arabischer Übersetzung [Wiesbaden, 1973], p. 3Google Scholar).

54 Harmony § 56 (64,7–65,17).

55 In 63,11ff our author adds a reference to the De caelo et mundo which much better fits the Ps-Aristotelian De mundo, where the harmony (and imperishability) of the cosmos as a whole (in contrast to the possibly chaotic and perishable state of its parts) is emphasized in ch. 5 and its origin in divine providence described in the very theistic ch. 6. In the De caelo, the cosmic order figures only as a proof for the eternity of the world, not for its dependence on a first cause or creator (cf. esp. III,2 301a4–20 and I,10 280a12–24).

56 Cf. ab. n. 41.

57 In Phys., CAG X, 1359,14–38. For the Demiurge as a “noeric god” cf. my Platon und Aristoteles in der Kosmologie des Proklos, pp. 102–12.

58 In his treatise on the scope of the Metaphysics, al-Fārābī complains that there is no all-encompassing commentary on the work available, only an incomplete one of Alexander and one of Themistius on the entire book XII (Alfarabis philosophische Abhandlungen aus Londoner, Leidener und Berliner Handschriften, ed. F. Dieterici, [Leiden, 1890], p. 34).

59 Harmony § 56 (64,7–65,17 B.).

60 Proclus arabus, p. 246, where the claim of verbal agreement of the entire first three propositions goes, however, a little too far. Dieterici refers to the Theology of Aristotle X,92–99, where (on the basis of Plotinus, Ennead VI 7, 8,16–32) the different degrees of oneness in the creator, the intellect and the soul are described. Although this passage displays quite a few similarities with the five aforementioned “propositions”, it clearly neither contains all of them (especially the first one, the only one which is accompanied by its proof in the Harmony, is entirely absent) nor does it present the relevant thoughts in the form of propositions.

61 Cf. Proclus, The Elements of Theology, A revised text with translation, introduction and commentary by E.R. Dodds, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1963).

62 Endress, Proclus Arabus, p. 3: inna fī kulli kathratin al-wāḥida mawjūdun; cf. Harmony § 56 (64,16–65,1 B.): al-wāḥidu mawjūdun fī kulli kathratin.

63 Cf. the Arabic wording (Endress, p. 9): inna kulla kathratin hiya ba‘da al-wāḥidi, and Harmony § 56 (65,8f): al-kathratu ba‘da al-wāḥidi lā maḥālata.

64 Endress, Proclus arabus, p. 23. The opposition of quantity and power is, just as in the Harmony, missing here, but probably because of a lacuna in the text.

65 Proclus arabus, p. 23,10–13 (Elements of Theology, p. 58,30–32).

66 Harmony § 57 (65,10–14 B.).

67 His quotation in Harmony § 75 (74,6–15 B.), however, stems from Theology I, 21–27 resp. Ennead IV 8, 1,1–12 (ed. Badawi, 22f).

68 Also the Proclus-manuscript published by Endress introduces the Proclean text as excerpts of Alexander from the theology of Aristotle (cf. Proclus arabus, pp. 52–8). On the entire corpus of Arabic Procliana cf. now Wakelnig, E., Feder, Tafel, Mensch. Al-ʿĀmirī's Kitāb al-Fuṣūl fī l-maʿālim al-ilāhiya und die arabische Proklos-rezeption im 10. Jh. (Leiden/Boston 2006), pp. 4873Google Scholar.

69 According to Adamson, Arabic Plotinus, p. 145, n. 59 the only hint towards a creatio ex nihilo in the Theology would be VIII,180, which at a closer look turns out to be just an analysis of the eternal generation of the intellect.

70 Cf. Endress, Proclus arabus, pp. 229–33.

71 Harmony § 57 (65,14–17 B.).

72 L'armonia, 204f.

73 Arabic text: Taḥṣīl al-saʿāda (Hyderabad, 1968)Google Scholar; De Platonis philosophia, ed. Rosenthal, F., Walzer, R. (London, 1943; repr. Nendeln, 1973)Google Scholar; Falsafat Arisṭūṭālis, ed. Mahdi, M. (Beirut, 1961)Google Scholar. English translation: Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Mahdi, M., 2nd edn (Ithaca, 1969)Google Scholar.

74 “On the authorship”, p. 51, n. 21.

75 Philosophy of Aristotle § 1 (tr. Mahdi, 59).

76 Philosophy of Plato § 35 (tr. Mahdi, 66).

77 Pace Rashed, “On the authorship”, 53,80 e.a. al-Fārābī's debt to the Neoplatonists is comprehensively argued for (yet in considering the Harmony as authentic) by Vallat, P., Fārābī et l’école d'Alexandrie. Des prémisses de la connaissance à la philosophie politique (Paris, 2004)Google Scholar.

78 Philosophy of Aristotle § 34 (tr. Mahdi, 103).

79 Philosophy of Aristotle § 74 (tr. Mahdi, 115f).

80 Philosophy of Aristotle § 87 (tr. Mahdi, 121) cf. ibid. 34 (tr. Mahdi, 103).

81 At this point, al-Fārābī obviously neglects the sequence of Aristotle's psychological writings, which of course treat human psychology from the very beginning, for the sake of his scheme of presentation.

82 Philosophy of Aristotle § 90 (ed. Mahdi, 122,8f). The motive of Aristotle “being forced” (cf. also e.g. § 61) by the phenomena underlines the “quasi-biographical” or inductive character of al-Fārābī's presentation, just as the repeated labelling of some of Aristotle's findings as merely provisional (cf. §§ 20, 66, 68, 78, 97).

83 Mahdi, Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, p. 128.

84 This probably amounts to the ‘deductive Physics’ al-Fārābī misses in Aristotle (cf. Rashed, “Al-Fārābī's lost treatise On Changing Beings”, pp. 37–44).

85 Philosophy of Aristotle § 4 (tr. Mahdi, 82f) cf. §§ 17f (tr. Mahdi, 93–6).

86 Cf. esp. ibid., 129 (following a tradition finally going back to Plotinus, Ennead VI 3, on which text cf. R. Thiel, Aristoteles’ Kategorienschrift in ihrer antiken Kommentierung [Tübingen, 2004]).

87 Harmony § 45 (58,3f B.).

* This article is the revised version of a paper to be presented at the University of Isfahan in April 2010. For many valuable comments regarding its improvement I would like to thank the reviewer of ASP.

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