Publication - "Philosophy and Commentary: Evaluating Simplicius on the Presocratics"

My paper about the role played by Simplicius and the late antique commentary tradition in Presocratic studies has been published in 'Platonic Pathways'.


Parsons, B (2018). ‘Philosophy and Commentary: Evaluating Simplicius on the Presocratics’, in: Finamore and Layne (eds). Platonic Pathways: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. Gloucestershire: The Prometheus Press. pp 227-242.



No fully extant text of Presocratic philosophy has survived antiquity. Occasionally, there are significant new discoveries such as the Strasbourg papyrus of Empedocles, but, as Runia commented in 2008, “even the students of early Hellenistic philosophy are better off” when it comes to source material. The modern scholar of early Greek philosophy is reliant on source books published in the shadow of the Diels-Kranz that collect together fragments and testimonia from later sources. Much of what we know about the Presocratics comes from Plato and Aristotle, but also from the Neoplatonic tradition, in the form of the explicit influences that the Presocratics had on particular Neoplatonic thinkers, and the wealth of verbatim fragments preserved in Neoplatonic texts.

This paper discusses the reception and transmission of early Greek philosophy through the lens of Neoplatonism, focusing on Simplicius’ commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Many of the fragments and testimonia that we have today come from Simplicius. However, there are issues surrounding our reliance on Simplicius’ commentaries. Why does Simplicius include extended references to Aristotle’s predecessors in his commentaries on Aristotle? Does the tendency to harmonize the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle in Neoplatonic works, known as the harmonization hypothesis, extend to Simplicius’ reportage of the Presocratics? The paper evaluates Simplicius’ contribution to Presocratic scholarship and asks what implications there are for our reading of the Presocratic fragments we receive from Simplicius.

Old Books and Digital Humanities: Finding the 19th Century Textbooks of Nietzsche's Basel Lectures

Whilst Friedrich Nietzsche is most well-known for his published works, such as The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1891), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886), he started his career as a professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of Basel. During his tenure at the university, he lectured on topics such as Plato, Hesiod's Works and Days, and the early Greek philosophers, or, as he called them, the 'Pre-Platonic philosophers [vorplatonischen Philosophen]'.

Early Greek philosophy is generally taken to have started with Thales in the 7th century BC, and to finish with the paradigm shifting influence of Socrates. However, unlike ancient authors like Plato, for whom we have many surviving texts, the remains of early Greek philosophy are fragmentary, found scattered across antique commentary, biography, and doxography.

Philosophy and Classical studies collide in the study of these philosophers: not only must their reader have a keen philosophical eye, but an awareness of source criticism and history. This leads to the following question for the reader of Nietzsche's lectures on the early Greek philosophers: Were there any set texts or assigned reading for the course? What were Nietzsche's sources for the fragments? 

The key to answering this question lies in the 18th lecture of the 1871 summer semester lecture course, ‘Encyclopedia of Classical Philologie [Encycloaedie der klass. Philologie]’, entitled ‘On the Study of the Antique Philosophers [über das Studium der antiken Philosophen]’ Nietzsche advises his student thus: 

The fragments must be studied in the original: in Mullach fragm. philos. (poor esp. Democritus), the personal-notes in Laert. Diogenes. Numerous historical writings are lost. Valuable compendium with excerpts of sources Ritter a. Preller. Comprehensive account from Zeller, now 3 ed.

– Nietzsche (1992) 407 [1]

Whilst this advice does not appear in print in the text of the early Greek philosophy lecture course, we may assume that Nietzsche would recommend these sources as the set texts, as the ‘Encyclopedia’ course was ‘intended as a general guide to the study of philology’ (Porter 2000, 167), a concrete account of his recommendations. [2] The collections of fragments, ancient texts, and scholarly works recommended to his students are, then, as follows:

1.    Mullach, (1860), Fragmenta philosophorum graecorum

2.    Diogenes Laertius, ed. Hübner (1831), Lives of Eminent Philosophers

3.    Ritter and Preller, (1869), Historia philosophiae Graecae et Romanae [3]

4.    Zeller, (1844-52), Die Philosophie der Griechen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung

Though Nietzsche references other 19th century works in the lectures, such as Schleiermacher's edition of the fragments of Heraclitus (1838), these books provide a first port of call in the search for Nietzsche’s own sources and textbooks. There are two modes of access for the modern reader: in print and online. 

First, here's an example of one of Nietzsche's sources in print: my personal copy of the 1864 edition of Ritter and Preller's fragments, clocking in at 154 years old. Going philosopher by philosopher through antiquity, it reproduces the fragments in the original Greek and offers some commentary in Latin, not unlike a modern textbook for early Greek philosophy such as McKirahan's (1994). 

There's a certain aesthetic joy in using original print materials for research. Flicking through the old pages to follow that reference and to check that rendering of the Greek evokes the past 150 years of students doing the very same. 

Many university libraries have copies of these books, though you won't always find them on the library shelf. For example, if you wanted to check a copy of Ritter and Preller's Historia Philosophiae out of the University of Edinburgh Library, you would have to request it out of storage. And Mullach's Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum can't be taken out of the building: it's part of the Centre for Research Collections' Special Collection. However, some old books don't feature in the library's catalogue at all, and would have to be ordered via Inter-Library Loan.

This isn't conducive to research: when reading Nietzsche's lectures, I may need to check a reference to Schleiermacher's Herakleitos der dunkle von Ephesos (1838) one minute, and Ritter's Geschichte der Ionischen philosophie (1821) the next, a process slowed by having to find a physical copy of the text. 

Mullach's Fragmenta, 1860

This is where modern technology and digital humanities come to save the day. Many old books - including the 19th century collections of fragments and scholarly works I need - have been digitised and made available online on websites like

The advantages here are obvious: these books can be accessed anywhere, any time, as long as I have my computer with me, introducing flexibility into research and the reference of old books. 

The work being done by digitisation projects and centres such as the University of Toronto (where most of my digital editions seem to come from!) are invaluable to today's research in the humanities and social sciences, opening up access to old books on an unprecedented scale. These digitisations are invaluable to my own work on Nietzsche's lectures on early Greek philosophy.

Fragments of Anaxagoras from Mullach's  Fragmenta, 1860

Fragments of Anaxagoras from Mullach's Fragmenta, 1860


[1] Translation from Heit (2014) pp 222.

[2] Porter devotes an entire chapter to the ‘Encyclopedia’ lectures; this is an entire genre of philological lectures and publications, and Nietzsche’s ‘Encyclopedia’ lectures may have been structured in imitation of Ritschl’s, which Nietzsche would have attended as a student. See Porter (2000).

[3] Specifically this 1869 edition and not the 1838 first edition; see Brobjer (2008) 240.


Brobjer, Thomas. 2008. Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Heit, Helmut. 2014. Nietzsche's Genealogy of Early Greek Philosophy. In:Jensen & Heit (eds.) Nietzsche as a Scholar of Antiquity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hübner, Heinrich Gustav, ed. 1831. Diogenis, Laertii De Vitis: dogmatis et apophthegmatis clarorum philosophorum Carolus Franciscus Koehlerus.

McKirahan. 1994. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis.

Mullach. 1860. Fragmenta Philosophorum Graecorum. Paris: Didot.

Nietzsche. 1992. Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Vol. Zweite Abteilung, Dritter Band. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Nietzsche. 1995. Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Vol. Zweite Abteilung, Vierter Band. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Nietzsche. 2001. The Pre Platonic Philosophers. Translated by Greg Whitlock. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Porter, James. 2000. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ritter, Heinrich. 1821. Geschichte der Ionischen philosophie. Berlin: T. Trautwein.

Ritter, Heinrich, and Ludwig Preller. 1869. Historia Philosophiae Graecae. Gotha: Perthes.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1838. "Herakleitos der dunkle von Ephesos: dargestellt aus den Trümmern seines Werkes und den Zeugnissen der Alten."  Sammtliche Werke Zweiter band, Dritte Abtheilung.

Zeller. 1844-1852. Die Philosophie der Greichen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung. Tübingen: Ludwig Friedrich Fues Verlag.

This week in Tutorials: Aristotle on Substance and Pericles' Funeral Oration

The philosophers finished Plato last week, and this time we started our tutorials on Aristotle, with a look at Aristotle's metaphysics - specifically, Metaphysics VII 13. The question at hand is, what is there? This is ontology: the science of being, from the Greek οὐσία [ousia]: ‘being, substance, essence’.

To understand what Aristotle means by substance and what is at stake in his theory as presented in the Metaphysics, I put the students into groups to evaluate different conceptions of substance prior to Aristotle.  I provided them with fragments from four different Presocratic philosophers, that I hoped would provide a 'shallow' understanding of each of these philosophers' conception of substance. The philosophers I provided were Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Democritus (ft. Leucippus). Some examples:

Thales of Miletus declared that the principle of all things was water. For he says from water come all things and into water do all things decompose.
— Thales (Aëtius p 1.3.1, S 1.10.12)
Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, was an associate of Anaximander, who says, like him, that the underlying nature is single and boundless, but not indeterminate as he says, but determinate, calling it air. It differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while when it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, when still more condensed, water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these. And he too makes motion everlasting, as a result of which change occurs.
— Anaximenes (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 24.26-25.1)
This world-order, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.
— Heraclitus (Clement, Miscellanies, 5. 103. 6)
Democritus considers the nature of everlasting things to be tiny substances infinite in number. He posits a distinct place for them which is infinite in size. He calls place by the names the void, not-thing, and the boundless, and each of the substances by the names thing, the compact, and what-is. He believes the substances are so small as to escape our senses. They have all kinds of forms, all kinds of figures, and differences of size.
— Democritus (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, 294.33-295.22)

The point of the comparison is to show that, generally speaking, previous philosophers attempted to define substance in terms of matter - particular kinds of 'stuff': water, air, fire, or atoms. Aristotle thinks these explanations for what there is are insufficient. He moves beyond a single material explanation for substance, analysing it in terms of 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' refers to what kind of thing the object of enquiry is; 'matter', that which the object of enquiry is constituted. The composite of these forms individuals, or primary substances. 

Contrasting the Presocratic philosophers on substance with Aristotle on substance helped the students understand the motivation behind the formulation of Aristotle's theory. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to understand why Aristotle approaches substances and universals the way he does. With the context of the theories of his predecessors, the theory of substance becomes clearer.


The classicists looked at Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides 2.34-46, and the controversy around the Athenian acropolis. The funeral oration was delivered at the burial of the fallen Athenians in the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Much of it focuses on the glory and virtue of Athenian democracy and civic life; in this way, Pericles tries to justify the loss of life in its defence. The Parthenon metopes and frieze were constructed as part of Pericles' building programme. Plutarch records the controversy in antiquity around this building programme in Pericles 12.1-2; the complaint is that the funds for it were pillaged from the Delian League:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions for the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.
— Plutarch, Pericles 12.1-2

Through this comparison of Pericles' funeral oration with the question of the controversy over the Periclean building programme, we explored different perspectives on Periclean Athens, and practiced using different evidence for the ancient world – rhetorical, material, and historical. The key question in the discussion was about the concept of democracy and its representation in Pericles’ speech, as well as the the political context of the construction of the Parthenon and the purpose of its sculptures.

Next time, the philosophers are focussing in on Aristotle's four causes from the Physics. The next tutorial for the classicists is on citizen and non-citizen women in Athens.