The Archimedes Palimpsest

The New Commentary on Aristotle's Categories
in the Archimedes Palimpsest
by R.W. Sharples

We have a more or less speculative substantially continuous text for about 55% of the seven two-sided leaves. A rather lesser amount has so far been worked over by several members of the group in such a way that the decipherment can be regarded as reasonably certain. Having a more or less continuous text is not the same as fully understanding the structure of the argument at every point, which is made more difficult by the way in which a commentary will cite a range of interpretations and arguments for them; distinguishing between what the author of the commentary is reporting, what represents his objections to a particular view, and what is an expression of his own view is not always easy, and this is an area where work is on-going.

The text is part of a formal commentary on Aristotle's Categories, covering 1a20-1b24. This work was a focus of philosophical debate from the first century BC onwards; the arguments which it prompted are most accessible to us now in the massive commentary by Simplicius, but even that is necessarily selective, and Simplicius does not always name the participants in the debates he echoes. Not surprisingly, there are numerous parallels between the new text and the debates in Simplicius; it contains named references, not all in Simplicius, to Andronicus and Boethus, the leading Peripatetics of the first century BC, and to Herminus, the second-century AD teacher of Alexander of Aphrodisias. It also includes a reference to Strato, the third head of Aristotle's school, parallel to others in the doxographical tradition.

Reviel Netz has suggested that the structure of the commentary indicates that the author took 1b10-15 with what preceded it rather than with what follows, i.e. that he did not regard the start of the modern chapter 3 as a significant division in the argument.

A terminus post quem is given by the reference to Herminus. Marwan Rashed has argued, and I am convinced, that the way in which Plato's view on the origin of the world is referred to shows that the author of the commentary is not himself a Platonist, as he does not himself take sides on the question of Plato's view as a Platonist surely would. That the text is later than Herminus and not by a Platonist suggests strongly that it is a part of Alexander of Aphrodisias' lost commentary on the Categories, though we don't as yet have anything that would show this decisively. Another theoretical possibility is Galen's lost commentary, but there's nothing particular to suggest this. On the issues in 1b15-24 there are, as Marwan has pointed out, links with a quaestio by Alexander extant in Arabic (Dietrich no.10).

R.W. Sharples
September 2007

Members of the group working on this text: Sophia Kapetanaki, Stephen Menn, Reviel Netz, Marwan Rashed, David Sedley, Bob Sharples, Richard Sorabji, Natalie Tchernetska, Nigel Wilson.