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Philoponus (c. AD 490–c.570)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A086-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

John Philoponus, also known as John the Grammarian or John of Alexandria, was a Christian philosopher, scientist and theologian. Philoponus’ life and work are closely connected to the city of Alexandria and its famous Neoplatonic school. In the sixth century, this traditional centre of pagan Greek learning became increasingly insular, located as it was at the heart of an almost entirely Christian community. The intense philosophical incompatibilities between pagan and Christian beliefs come to the surface in Philoponus’ work.

His œuvre comprised at least forty items on such diverse subjects such as grammar, logic, mathematics, physics, psychology, cosmology, astronomy, theology and church politics; even medical treatises have been attributed to him. A substantial body of his work has come down to us, but some treatises are known only indirectly through quotations or translations. Philoponus’ fame rests predominantly on the fact that he initiated the liberation of natural philosophy from the straitjacket of Aristotelianism, through his non-polemical commentaries on Aristotle as well as his theological treatises deserve to be appreciated in their own right.

Philoponus’ intellectual career began as a pupil of the Neoplatonic philosopher Ammonius, son of Hermeas, who had been taught by Proclus and was head of the school at Alexandria. Some of his commentaries profess to be based on Ammonius’ lectures, but others give more room to Philoponus’ own ideas. Eventually, he transformed the usual format of apologetic commentary into open criticism of fundamental Aristotelian-Neoplatonic doctrines, most prominently the tenet of the eternity of the world. This renegade approach to philosophical tradition, as well as the conclusions of his arguments, antagonized Philoponus’ pagan colleagues; they may have compelled him to abandon his philosophical career. Philoponus devoted the second half of his life to influencing the theological debates of his time; the orthodox clergy condemned him posthumously as a heretic, because of his Aristotelian interpretation of the trinitarian dogma, which led him to enunciate three separate godheads (tritheism).

The style of Philoponus’ writing is often circuitous and rarely entertaining. However, he combines an almost pedantic rigour of argument and exposition with a remarkable freedom of spirit, which allows him to cast off the fetters of authority, be they philosophical or theological. Although his mode of thinking betrays a strong Aristotelian influence, it also displays a certain doctrinal affinity to Plato, stripped of the ballast of Neoplatonic interpretation. His works were translated into Arabic, Latin and Syriac, and he influenced later thinkers such as Bonaventure, Gersonides, Buridan, Oresme and Galileo.

Citing this article:
Wildberg, Christian. Philoponus (c. AD 490–c.570), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A086-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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