One of my current projects involves looking at ancient biographies of philosophers – something I did a long time ago in the opening chapter of The Art of Living – as background for understanding biographies of ancient philosophers written during the Renaissance. Along the way I ended up looking at a 19th century edition of Diogenes Laertius (ed. Cobet, first printed 1850; I was looking at a reprint from 1878) which helpfully includes not only all of Diogenes Laertius but also a good many other ancient biographies of philosophers (in an appendix edited by Antonius Westermann). These include Olympiodorus’s Life of Plato, Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras, Porphyry’s Lives of Plotinus and Pythagoras, Damascius’s Life of Isidore, Marinus’s Life of Proclus, and a couple of anonymous Lives of Plato and Aristotle. There was one further biography that stood out: Ammonius’s Life of Aristotle. I’d never before come across a reference to Ammonius writing a biography of Aristotle.
After a bit of digging it turns out that there were earlier printings of this Life of Aristotle by Ammonius. There were two editions, printed in 1666 and 1621, that attribute the same biography to ‘Ammonius sive Philoponus’. (The 1621 edition mentions both on the title page, but in the volume the biography is simply listed as ‘Auctore Ammonio’.)
Philoponus was Ammonius’s pupil, and some of the texts we have under his name are said to be ‘from the voice of’ Ammonius, i.e. Philoponus’s reports of Ammonius’s lectures. So did this double attribution imply something similar: a text written down by Philoponus but ultimately coming from Ammonius?
There didn’t initially seem to be any evidence to suggest that. Instead what there is are two even earlier editions that complicate matters further. There is a 1503 edition of Ammonius’s commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, printed by Aldus Manutius, that includes the same Life of Aristotle, implicitly attributed to Ammonius. (This edition is usually catalogued as Ammonius on the Peri Hermenias; the commentary on the Categories appears later in the volume, and is unannounced on the title page. Aldus reprinted it in 1546, this time more explicitly under Ammonius’s name, in one of three volumes containing Ammonius’s commentaries on Porphyry and Aristotle.)
The text can also be found in Aldus’s monumental edition of Aristotle’s works (1495-8). In the second volume, printed in 1497, we find in the list of contents a Life of Aristotle ‘per ioannem philoponum’. Where the text itself is printed, there is no attribution at the beginning, just the header text ‘kata philoponon’ on the only recto page. The text differs very slightly from the other editions already mentioned, with a line or two of additional text at the end.
So perhaps the ‘Ammonius sive Philoponus’ attribution simply reflects the confusion caused by these two earlier Aldine printings of the text. As to why Aldus printed it in these two different works under two different names, we can only guess. My first guess – and that’s all it was – was that he found more or less the same text in two different manuscripts, prefacing commentaries by Philoponus and Ammonius, and simply attributed the biography to the author of the commentary.
But this still left me with the question as to why I’d never heard of this Life of Aristotle before. It turns out that this text attributed to Ammonius/Philoponus is the same as what is usually called the Vita Aristotelis Vulgata, one of three Latin versions all thought to derive from an earlier and now lost biography by a certain Ptolemy, who has been identified as a 4th century Neoplatonist mentioned in the opening paragraph of Elias/David’s commentary on the Categories. Düring, Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition (1957), suggests that the three later Latin versions, plus two Syriac versions, and four Arabic versions all ultimately derive from this original source. (In the Arabic tradition he’s known as ‘Ptolemy the Stranger’.)
Following Aldus, who was presumably following his manuscript source, this biography of Aristotle was attributed to Ammonius and/or Philoponus up until the 19th century, but since then his name has been dropped. Natali dismisses the attribution to Ammonius in his recent biography of Aristotle (Aristotle: His Life and School (2013), 129), but without giving a reason why.
I wondered whether it might be possible to dig any deeper. We cannot access the manuscripts that Aldus used when preparing his editions. But there are critical editions, in Rose, Aristotelis Fragmenta (1886), 437-41, and Düring, Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition (1957), 120-39. Düring reports that there are 31 manuscripts. It is often found in manuscripts alongside the Categories commentary of either Ammonius or Philoponus, and in some manuscripts it is ‘part of a general introduction to the logical writings of Aristotle’ (1957, 121). Düring dates it to (no later than) the mid-6th century. He describes it as an ‘epitome of Ptolemy’s Vita in the form which it had obtained after having passed through at least three generations of students in the school of Ammonius and Olympiodorus’ (1957, 137).
According to Düring’s apparatus, the rejected ascription of authorship hangs on two pieces of evidence: the Aldine edition(s) and a single manuscript, Paris Grec 1928. Thankfully, that single manuscript has been digitized and so is readily accessible. It gives the title of the work as ‘Iôannou Grammatikou Alexandreôs tou Philoponou ek tôn sunousiôn Ammôniou tou Hermeiou skholikai aposêmeiôseis eis tas Aristotelous Katêgorias’. So, a Life of Aristotle, conceived as part of an introduction to the Categories, written by Philoponus, from the conversations of Ammonius, which other sources suggest draws on an existing Neoplatonic biographical tradition originating with Ptolemy in the 4th century.
So, it looks as if my earlier hunch might have been right after all: the double attribution might indeed reflect a text written by Philoponus ‘from the voice of’ Ammonius. But it’s not clear that the editors of the 1621 or 1666 editions knew this; I think they were simply reflecting the two different ascriptions made by Aldus. It’s possible – and again this is merely a second guess – that Aldus took the text for both his 1497 and 1503 editions from a single source that had a similar title to the one preserved in the Parisian manuscript.
In his recent introduction to Aristotle Re-Interpreted (2016), 48-50, Richard Sorabji notes a total of six different introductions to philosophy used in Ammonius’s school. Perhaps this biography of Aristotle ought to count as a seventh?
As I said at the beginning, all this is merely a tangent from what I was supposed to be doing, namely conducting a brief survey of ancient biographies of philosophers by way of background to looking at Renaissance biographies of ancient philosophers. But resurrecting this forgotten attribution is interesting to the extent that it sheds light on the role that the study of biographies of philosophers played in the late ancient philosophy curriculum. There might be an article in this somewhere, if I can find the time.