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THREE basic notions characterize the physical world, namely space, time and

matter, the first of which is usually held by scientists to be simpler

other two. The history of physics and philosophy has shown, however, that even the concept of space abounds with difficulties, to which the doctrines of the later Neoplatonic philosophers form an impressive witness. It is proposed

to give here a brief survey of the theories of topos, meaning variously “place” or space, from Iamblichus at the beginning of the fourth century to

Simplicius in the middle of the

clad in the modest garb of commentaries on works by Plato or Aristotle, the

ideas of these thinkers undoubtedly represent one of the peaks of sophistication and metaphysical acumen in the whole history of philosophy. The deliberations and inquiries of these philosophers on the concept of topos took place against a long historical background, spanning nearly a thousand years from the Presocratics to Plotinus. A short synopsis, however condensed, of the earlier developments of the concept will serve as a useful introduction, leading up to the period in which Iamblichus and his successors started to elaborate their ideas on topos. This summary will be concerned with merely the conceptual aspects of the subject and thus will not adhere to a strict chronological order. First, the two opposed conceptions of Democritus and Aristotle must be

mentioned. For

making possible the free movement of the atoms of matter and their various collisions. While collisions were characteristic of the very nature of matter as sheer resistance, the void, and thus space, was the embodiment of the sheer lack of resistance.’ Aristotle, on the other hand, who had many weighty reasons for rejecting the existence of a void, regarded the world as the sum total of the places of adjacent bodies, which constitute, in their totality, a three-dimensional material continuum. As a result of their movement, the relative positions of all of these bodies change with time. Since a place and the body occupying that place are intrinsically linked with each other, Aristotle

rejected the definition of place as the volume occupied by a body. For, since


definition would lead to the idea that one material volume could coincide with

another, in other words, that two places could simultaneously be in the same

than the

sixth. Although most of their treatises were

Democritus, space was the infinite extension of the void,






i.e. is three-dimensionally extended, this

*The Neoplatonic

texts discussed

in this paper

form part of a forthcoming

and translations

on this topic.

‘H. Diels, Die Fragmenteder


Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 8 (1977). No. 3. Printed

68A, 40.

in Great Britain.


of texts


174 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science place, an obvious absurdity. This led to


Studies in History and Philosophy

of Science

place, an obvious absurdity. This led to Aristotle’s definition of place as the inner boundary of all the bodies encompassing a body situated in that place.2 An important corollary of this definition, one which follows from the finite extent of Aristotle’s universe, was drawn by Aristotle himself: no place can be assigned to the universe as a whole, since there does not exist a body encompassing it.3

Despite the extreme





of the void and

Aristotle’s theory of place, they have one common feature - the conception of space or place as a merely passive entity. With Democritus this passivity appears when he defines the void as a complete lack of resistance, while Aristotle’s purely geometrical definition of place as the encompassing boundary also has an outspokenly passive character. In contrast, the notion of “encompassing” has a definite tinge of activity in the utterances of some Presocratic philosophers. Anaximenes, who regarded air as the first principle of all things, said: “As our soul, which is air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole universe”.’ Some of Heraclitus’ statements emphasize the superiority of that which “encompasses”, such as: “That which encompasses us is rational and wise”.’ Elsewhere he expressly states that the origin of man’s reason is to be found in the rational nature of what encompasses.G One may also add what Aristotle himself said about the relation between the encompassing and encompassed: “The encompassing is like form, while the encompassed is like matter”.’ In the context of this paper, Plato’s conception of space or room (chore) is obviously of special importance. In spite of the difficulties inherent in his allegorical language,’ the active character of Plato’s space cannot be denied. To be sure, space ranks on a level of reality lower than that of Being, of the realm of Forms, but it ranks on a higher level than Becoming, i.e. the physical world. Inasmuch as space cannot be grasped by the senses, it has an affinity to the intelligible Forms, although inasmuch as it is the receptacle of all their

copies, i.e. of

changing particulars, it is similar to Becoming. Nor is space a

merely passive receptacle of Becoming, but rather “the nurse of all Becoming”; in other words, it has a definitely active function in giving shape to everything

contained in it, so that in Plato’s conception of space, matter and space merge into one another. Incidentally, one should not overlook the lack of symmetry between Plato’s conceptions of space and time. Time is “the moving image of eternity”,g and thus its level is that of things becoming, while that of space is

‘Aristotle, Phys. 212a, 6. ‘Ibid. 212b, 22. ‘Diels, 13B, 2. 5Sextus, Adv. moth. VII, 127. ‘Ibid. VIII, 286. ‘Aristotle, De Caelo 312a, 12.

“Plato, Timaeus 47e-52d; choru is introduced at 52a.



Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism 175 intermediate between Being and Becoming. We shall come

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


intermediate between Being and Becoming. We shall come back to this asymmetry later on.













Hellenistic period threw into relief the active aspect of fopos and of what “encompasses”. They had various origins, but their interaction brought about

a crystallization

doctrines. Admittedly, in the physics of the early Stoics the notion of place was restricted in meaning to signifying a region which is fully or partly occupied by matter, thus making place merely secondary to bodies in place.‘O However,

another aspect of the Stoic doctrine, as well as of the Neopythagorean


philosophy following in the wake of the Stoics,

see place as an active entity,

between the notions of place and the universe.

which emerges from the few





the ground for the Neoplatonic

did further

the tendency

and at the same time gave rise to an association

is the picture

In broad


the following






the two

or three



of this

critical period. The pantheism

of the Stoics

led to



of the


quote Cicero: “Chrysippus said that the universe itself is God”.” Sextus

quotes Zeno: “The rational is superior to the irrational,


with God.

This is confirmed

by various




it suffices



superior to the soulless. However, nothing is superior to the universe, and thus it is endowed with reason and soul”.” This parallelism had originally a

definitely materialistic tinge, for the world-soul, the divine logos, was the active pneumu, the total mixture of fire and air, which completely penetrated the whole material universe and thereby endowed it with coherence and prevented its dispersion in the infinite surrounding void; the latter and the material cosmos together made up the space of Stoic physics. In the consciousness of later generations of Hellenism, however, a gradual change in the significance

of pneuma took place. From having originally been a tenuous stuff or corporeal

breath, it was transformed into abstract and incorporeal spirit, as can also be

shown by many quotations from the Old and New Testaments. Two important fragments ascribed to Archytas, but in fact deriving from an unknown Neophythagorean philosopher, give some indication as to how the connection between topos and the universe as a whole was established. The first fragment emphasizes the superiority of place for the reason that without it bodies are unable to move. The association of place and movement

points to the wider significance of the former as that in which the latter occurs:

“Since all things in motion are moved in some place, it is obvious that one has

to attribute superiority to the place in which things are moving or being acted

‘“Cf. von Amim, Stoic. vef. fr. II. 504, 505 (Aetius, Depfuc.Phil. I, 20, 1; Sextus, Adv. math.




De not. deor. I, 39.


Adv. mafh. IX, 104.

1 7 6 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science upon. Thus, perhaps, it is


Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

upon. Thus, perhaps, it is the first of all things, since all existing things are either in place or not without place”.13 In the second fragment, topos clearly alludes to the pan, the whole material universe of the Stoics: “It is peculiar to place that everything is contained in it,

in nothing. For were it in another place, this place

while place

is contained

would itself again be in another one, and this will go on ad infinitum. For that very reason, it is necessary for everything to be in place and for place to be in

nothing. Thus its relation to existing things is always that of the boundaries to things bounded. For the place of the whole universe is the boundary of all existing things”.‘” Apart from this development in the conception of the divine Stoic universe, we have to take into account the old significance of “place” in the religions


happens to reveal himself to man. Such places were often hills or trees,15 as is amply documented in the Bible and occasionally also in Greek literature. Thus Socrates says to Phaedrus, while they are sitting under the plane tree near the Ilissus: “This place seems to be a holy place”.” As to the Bible (where such a holy site is called maqom, or topos in the Septuagint), two examples will suffice. Firstly: “Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem,

unto the plane of Moreh

Secondly, the story of Jacob? dream: “He lighted upon a certain place and

tarried there all night”;‘* later on Jacob exclaimed: “Surely

place, and 1 knew it not

Simplicius tells us that Atargatis, the goddess of fertility, and Isis, the Egyptian goddess, were called “the place of gods”, because “they comprise the specific properties of many gods”.‘O As Jewish monotheism became gradually purified from anthropomorphic elements and increasingly abstract, the place of the God of Israel as well as God Himself were identified with the whole universe, that entity identified in Stoic pantheism with the Supreme Being.

of the Middle East, as a holy site or the dwelling place


a god,









the Lord is in this

.this is none other

but the house of God”.19











commentary on Jacob’s dream. Here he ascribes three meanings to place:

(1) place is the room filled by a body; (2) place is the divine logos, which God Himself has totally filled with incorporeal powers; (3) God Himself is called place, for He encompasses the universe, but is not encompassed by anything.”


Cuteg. 361.21-24.





“Genesis xii, 6-7. “Ibid. xxviii, 11. The AV obsoletely spells “plain(e)“. “Ibid. xxviii, 17-18. ‘OSimplicius, Phys. 641, 33. “Philo, DeSomniis 1,61-64 (ed. Cohn and Wendland. III, 218, 10-24).

iii, 6.



Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism 1 7 7 A few centuries later the same

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


A few centuries later the same figure of speech, reminiscent

fragment of Pseudo-Archytas,” is to be found in Jewish exegetic literature:

“Why is God called place? Because He is the place of the world, while the world

is not His place”.22 Place as a synonym for God became a generally accepted expression in the Hebrew language from the first centuries of the Christian era onwards. This brief survey must also take note of one more important development. The asymmetry in the levels of reality of space and time, mentioned above in connection with Plato’s cosmology, was finally eliminated by Plotinus. He expressly distinguished between physical space, which is the receptacle of matter and thus has a lower rank than the matter and bodies in it,2’ and


intelligible space, which is “the very source

hypostatic equality was established between intelligible space and intelligible time, later the main pillar of Iamblichus’ ontology of time.25 Since every hypostatic level participates to some extent in that above it, it follows that physical space is endowed with some of the properties of intelligible space,

though to a restricted degree only. It is on this conception that the “intellectual theory of space” of Iarnblichus is based, as Simplicius terms it,” who also quotes from Iamblichus’ comment-

aries on the Timaeus as follows: “


primarily along with the beginning of the existence of bodies. For they who




of Soul and



.Space came into existence naturally united




And therefore the Timaeus reasonably introduces space


not make space akin to cause, but drag it down to the boundaries of surfaces


to empty receptacles, or indeed to extensions of what kind soever, introduce

foreign notions as well as miss the

whole purpose of the Timaeus, which

always associates nature with creation. Thus, in the same way as Plato primarily

introduced bodies as akin to cause, one must also regard space as linked to the cause to which the Timaeus has guided us. And in the same way as we tried to


space to0”.27

Iamblichus here emphasizes the inseparable bond between space and matter, as well as the superiority of space to matter, since space is the active cause of the coherence of bodies. In this connection Iamblichus uses figures


of speech which appear in the Old and New Testaments

the attributes or actions of God: “What notion gives a definition of space which is perfect and akin to its essence? That which assumes it to be like a

time as being of the same nature

as the creation,

one has to explain

in contexts


“See e.g. Genesis Rabba Lxviii.9. “Plotinus, Em. II, 4, 12, 11. “&id. II, 5,3,39. ‘“Cf. S. Sambursky, “The Concept of Time in Late Neoplatonism”, Proc. IV. Acud. of Sci. und Hum. II (1%8), 153-67. “Simplicius, Cureg. 362.7-364.6. I7Simplicius. Phys. 639.25-36.

178 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science corporeal power sustaining and supporting bodies, raising


Studies in History and Philosophy

of Science

corporeal power sustaining and supporting bodies, raising the falling ones


encompassing them on every side”.28 It emerges from Simplicius’ ample statements about Iamblichus’ intellectual theory of space that this theory was a synthesis of Stoic, Jewish and Neopy- thagorean ideas. In view, however, of its detailed and systematic account of the superiority of space to matter, we may regard it as the intellectual property of Iamblichus. The central conception of this theory is that the encompassed is supported by the encompassing, that secondary entities are always contained in primary ones and have their place in them. Thus the physical world is encompassed by the superior reality of the Soul, and the Soul by the Intellect, which constitutes a still higher reality. Just as we speak about our soul as the seat or the place of our thoughts, space, being a non-corporeal entity, is a cause superior to bodies or matter, which are encompassed by it. For space is not the geometrical boundary of mathematical solids, but the physical boundary of real bodies; indeed, the forces acting in space do not merely encompass bodies, but totally penetrate them. Finally, Iamblichus reaches the peak of his adulation of space by likening it to a divine entity. Space is the supreme cause, which we have to identify with God, because it has the form of unity, holds all things together and accomplishes the whole world according to one measure.26 At the root of Iamblichus’ theory of space one can discern some age-old ideas; only two should be mentioned here. One is the conception of matter as a passive, lifeless entity, which became more pronounced and finally culminated in some eastern religions as the representation of evil. The other is the cosmological principle that the higher layers of the universe are more tenuous than the lower, that grosser and more passive entities are enveloped by finer and more active ones. In Aristotle’s cosmology, for instance, earth, the solid element, is at the centre of the universe, surrounded by water, which again is surrounded by air, while above this there is the highest layer of the sublunar world - fire. The higher the layer, the greater its activity and subtlety. This is the doctrine of the hierarchy of worlds, according to which what is higher from a topographical point of view is also superior from a conceptual point of view. In this picture of the cosmological hierarchy, the archetypal number seven was of particular importance long before Neoplatonism. In later Neoplatonic sources the seven firmaments begin with three physical regions: the sublunar sphere, that of the planets and that of the fixed stars. Above them there are three aetherial regions, and finally the seventh region of fire, the empyrean. Allusions to this can be found in the Orphic hymns and the Chaldean Oracles

and gathering together the scattered ones, completing them




640.2. C_ Psalm cxlv,

10; Isaiah xi, 12; John xi, 52.

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism 179 of the second century. Analogous views prevailed among

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


of the second century. Analogous views prevailed among the Jews of the same


Talmud.” Iamblichus’ doctrine influenced the philosophy of space in modern times. Henry More (1614-1687), the leading Platonist of Cambridge, postulated the existence of two kinds of extension, physical and metaphysical. Physical

extension, like that assumed

on the other hand, is pure space, it is eternal and infinite like God, and the manifestation of the essence of God, His omnipresence which cannot be directly perceived by man. Newton, influenced by More, called space the sensorium dei, the medium by which God unifies all the separate movements of the various bodies and makes them parts of one absolute and well-ordered


period; an account of the seven


is given,




by Descartes, is material. Metaphysical extension,

Newton established a connection between the divine character of absolute

of bodies in space. A similar connection had formed

space and the movements

the point of departure for Syrianus’ doctrine, a hundred years after Iamblichus. In contradistinction to Iarnblichus, who emphasized the connection between space and matter, Syrianus’ central idea associates space and motion. In accordance with the Neoplatonic doctrine of hypostases, he assumes the properties of physical extension to be derived from the different thoughts of the Soul and the irradiation of the creative Forms. By virtue of these, extension appropriates the various bodies and makes itself the proper domain of the

elements fire, earth, etc., and thus everything moves naturally towards its natural

place or remains in it. The nature

of extension, is secondary to that of extension.” From here Syrianus arrives at an analysis of the connection between place and movement, an analysis which passes from place in the restricted sense to place in the broader sense, and from there to the cosmic extension, to absolute space. He argues as follows: “How, could one say, are bodies in motion moved in space? They certainly move from one place to another, for generally things in a place seem to rest, whereas things in motion are in place as well as not in place. They are not in their own primary and, so to say, proper place, except when they rest; however, they are in the broadly defined place, in the sense in which we say that the sun is in the sign of the Lion when the breadth of the Lion contains her, and that the flying eagle is in the air, or that the sailing ship is in the sea. All these have a place within a certain range, and when they are in motion they do not occupy their primary and proper place”.32 Again and again, Syrianus emphasizes the essential difference between the proper place

of the various bodies is thus subjected to that

“CJ Hagiga 12b.

aONewton. Opticks, Queries 28 and 31.


Phys. 618,29-619,2.

“Ibid, 628.26-34.

180 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science of a body, which in fact is


Studies in History and Philosophy

of Science

of a body, which in fact is identical with its volume, and common place, place in the broader sense, in which movement occurs. This latter “belongs to a more universal body and is inseparable from it”.l’ There is little doubt that the term “universal body” refers to the universe, i.e. absolute space, in

contrast to relative space, i.e. the place of a body relative to other bodies, which is subject to change. Striking evidence for this view of Syrianus’ can be found in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He agrees with those “who assume that extension goes through the whole universe and receives in itself the whole nature of the body, and who say that it neither cuts the air nor is cut and divided together

by it and other bodies,

and detached from all change through the whole universe, conferring room

and receptacle and boundary and outline and all suchlike upon all that fills the sensible universe. Those who hold this view say openly that this kind of space and extension is not a mathematical body, though like a mathematical body in respect of immateriality and immobility and impalpability and freedom from resistance and altogether from every quality subject to influence”.3’ While discussing the nature of absolute space, Syrianus seems to disavow the Stoic doctrine of the total penetration of two bodies, which caused so much commotion in the Hellenistic world. In fact, however, he accepts this doctrine with some qualifications. He argues that two “immaterial” bodies, i.e. very tenuous ones, can co-exist in the same place, and the same holds for the

interpenetration of a material body and

instructive illustration: “Immaterial bodies are like lights emitted from different lamps and propagated throughout the same room, penetrating each other unmingled and undivided. These lights, though one would call them incorporeal; are yet extending together with the bodies and spreading like

them in three dimensions, and there is nothing to hinder them and the bodies from occupying the same place, for the very reason that they are elementary and immaterial and are not split up when divided”.35 To these explanations Syrianus characteristically adds the following words: “This we say in order

not frighten us,

that some of the strange doctrines of the physicists should

who transfer to the whole of extended nature the properties of material and resistant bodies that are subject to influence”.” Syrianus’ illustration of the interpenetrating lightbeams apparently induced some association of ideas in his pupil Proclus, who based his systematic doctrine of absolute space on the concept of light. Proclus’ exposition is quoted in detail by Simplicius, who enters into a lengthy polemic with him.3’

but that it is placed steady and firm and immobile,

an immaterial one. He gives a very

“Ibid. 637, 26-28. “Syrianus, Met. 84; 31-85, 3. Here and below “room” translates choru. ‘5/hid. 85, 19-25.




Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism 181 Proclus, like his predecessors, rejects Aristotle’s concept of

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


Proclus, like his predecessors, rejects Aristotle’s concept of place. He declares the primary place of a body to be the spatial extension between the boundaries of its receptacle; it has to be regarded as a reality, for otherwise the concept of locomotion, of movement from one place to another, would lose its meaning. Furthermore, the level of reality of this specific extension does not differ essentially from that of the extension of the whole universe.


reasons - the superiority of the encompassing to the material encompassed,

and the comparison of space with divinity.

Pro&s, like Syrianus, regarded space as a corporeal entity, in conformity with the Platonic tradition according to which interaction is possible only between entities of the same kind. By analogy with the well-known thesis that the human eye could not perceive the light of the sun were it not itself a luminous object, it stands to reason that space could not exert any influence on bodies in space were it not itself of a corporeal nature. This is the first link in Proclus’ logical chain of arguments, which continues as follows: space must be a body at rest, for were it in motion, there would need to exist another space in order to define this motion, and this would lead to an infinite sequence of spaces. If, however, space is at rest, it follows that it must be indivisible. For every divisible body moves along the sides of the body dividing it, air, for instance, along the sides of a missile, or water along those of a sailing boat. Consequently, the concept “a divisible body at rest” contains a contradiction in terms, and thus space must be an indivisible body. If this is the case, it is either a material body or an immaterial body. Proclus defines a material body as a body which reacts on another body because of its susceptibility to influences, and what characterizes such influences is precisely the property of divisibility. Space must thus be an immateriaI body, i.e. a passive non-reacting body without any

resistive power whatsoever. The final result is that space is an indivisible, immaterial body in the state of rest.

Iamblichus had emphasized the incorporeal





In contradistinction to this,

and immaterial of

bodies in order to explain the total interpenetration of space and body, which

are both of a corporeal nature. Plato himself, he says, had declared light to be a kind of fire, less corporeal than a flame, fire itself being the most tenuous of all the elements.38 Space is thus nothing but light, the purest of all bodies. And Proclus continues: “Let us now suppose two spheres, one made of light and

the other of many bodies, both equal in volume. One of them is placed

centre of the universe, and the other immersed in the first sphere. The whole

it will

universe will thus be seen in its place in the immobile light. As a whole

be immobile, so as to imitate space, but each of its parts will be moving, so

that in this respect the universe will be inferior to space”.Jg

Here Proclus introduces light as the most elementary

at the



Timaeus 58~.



1 8 2 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Proclus’ sphere of light constitutes


Studies in History and Philosophy

of Science

Proclus’ sphere of light constitutes an ancient version of absolute space,

or, in modern terminology, the general reference system whose absolute rest

furnishes a constant coordinate system to which one can refer movements of bodies in the physical world. As is well known,


century physicists were still looking for a concrete representation of Newton’s absolute space. Some thought to have discovered it in the hypothetical aether,


did Carl Neumann in 1875, who gave this body the name “the body Alpha”. What is the nature of the sphere of light which represents absolute space? It

cannot be the light of the sun, for the sun is a part of the physical world, one of the partial worlds immersed in that sphere. This light must rather be of a primary character, and Proclus recalls the myth at the end of the Republic, where the wanderers “could see a line of light, like a column let down from

above, extending right through the whole heaven and through colour resembling the rainbow, only brighter and purer”.‘O

In this connection Proclus also quotes the Chaldean Oracles, which say of the primal Soul that “on high it animates light, fire, aether, the worlds”, the


material regions. It is “the light which received first the eternal allotments of the gods and manifested in itself revelatory visions to those who deserve it”.”

It is not altogether out of the question that these words were influenced by the

Jewish literature of two or three centuries before Proclus, in which the nature


was said,‘2 had been concealed by God because of the wickedness of the early generations of man, but He would reveal it to the righteous in days to come. Proclus adds another remarkable comment to his explanation: in this light, the shapeless things acquire shape and it causes unextended things to be extended; it thus may well be said that topos hints at space as being a certain typos (shape, matrix) of the whole cosmic body.43 We shall see presently that

this play upon words acquired an even deeper significance in Damascius’ theory

of the light created on the first


others even postulated the existence of a body in a state

the various

in the


of absolute

the earth,

being that


kind of light is above


empyrean, aetherial and

day of Creation

was discussed;

this light,

of space. Darnascius was the last head of the Platonic Academy; on its closure by

Justinian in 529, he left Athens for exile in Persia with his pupil Simplicius and

a few other scholars. They returned to Athens after a short time, where, from

about 535 on, Simplicius continued

A considerable part of Simplicius’ Corrolarium de loco in his commentary on

Aristotle’s Physica” contains critical comments of his own on the subject. His exposition amounts to a penetrating and comprehensive analysis of the

his commentaries on Aristotle’s writings.


“Simplicius, Ph_w.~613,3-7. ‘*Genesis Rabba iii, 6; Hagiga 12a

“Simplicius, Phys.





Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


notion of absolute space, finally resulting in a complete rejection of Aristotle’s conception of place. It is worth mentioning that his conclusions are almost identical with those of his contemporary and sworn enemy John Philoponus, the Christian Neoplatonic who held the chair of philosophy in Alexandria. Some of Simplicius’ words may be quoted here in full: “There exists one single extension which penetrates into all things and receives with its different parts all the various bodies. For the wine jar is in a certain extension penetrating that of the body of the jar as well as the body of the wine, and when it is shifted, the extension will not be carried along with the jar, but the jar is translated from one part of the extension to another. This extension, since it is of a separate nature, is fixed and immobile”.‘5 Simplicius compares this extension, i.e. absolute space, to a receptacie at


bodies that happen to be in it, is immobile; it is like the immobile channels through which water flows, whereby at different times the water is contained by another part of the channel without carrying with itself the former part of that charmel”.4B Simplicius also clearly polemizes against Aristotle: “There is nothing absurd about two lumps of matter being in one and the same place, for matter does not exclude mutual interpenetration. Nor is it absurd for two

extensions to co-exist in the same place, if one of them is corporeal, the other

void, one a kind of room, the other something

extension has four meanings: (1) one that does not include a spatial dimension,

such as the boundary of the extension; (2) extension as an idea, such as the mathematical body; (3) material extension possessing physical qualities and resistances, for instance, the body; (4) material extension, but without qualities

in any respect, and incorporeal [

Space is not plain extension, but it is an

extended room”.” Let us compare this with one sentence from Philoponus’ elaborate and devastating polemic against Aristotle: “We do not maintain that extension is a body, but that it is the room of a body and mere empty dimensions without any substance and matter”.” Whereas Simplicius’ analysis is in the main a summary of a conceptual crystallization extending over many generations, Damascius’ theory contains an important innovation insofar as his concept of place implies the elucidation of its connection with that of position. Damascius’ theory of space is part of a comprehensive theory of entities which in the intelligible wor!d are unextended, but which acquire extension when they descend into the physical world.4g The three unextended and indivisible magnitudes in the intelligible world are the


whole extension with every part of it, which always receives the

in the room. For its seems that




“Ibid. 623, 12-20.


Phys. 577,15-16.

1 8 4 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science numerical monad, the “now” and


Studies in History and Philosophy

of Science

numerical monad, the “now” and the spatial point. In our world the numerical monad is transformed into the plurality of numbers, and the sequence of integers clearly exhibits a definite order, for instance, the alternation of odd and even numbers, or the interval between square numbers, which each time increases by two. This well-ordered arrangement of the series of integers is based on the significance of the position of every term in that series. In the case of the transition from the pointlike “now” to the linear extension of time, one can also apprehend that the flux of physical time is marked by the fixed position of each of its events. Finally, through the transformation of the

intelligible spatial point into a section of finite length, the spatial extension of the physical world is created, which has three dimensions and is the measure of the position of body as a whole as well as the position of its parts relative to that whole and to each other.

theory of space centres around this idea of his that space

measures the position of bodies and thus endows everything in it with its specific structure. Space is the cause of the structure of bodies, the cause of the structural differentiations and the symmetrical or asymmetrical ramifications of bodies and their parts, which are the sum total of their relative positions. Space forces a definite length upon every extended thing, a length which falls to its share within the frame of the Whole. It also forces a definite structure upon every body, a structure in consequence of which its left side differs from

its right side; for instance, the heart of an animal being on the left and its liver on the right, the head of a man being up and his feet down.


In Damascius’ conception,




of that play upon words


kind of outline of position as a whole and of its parts, and, as it were, a matrix into which the thing situated must fit, should it be suitably situated and not be confounded and behave contrary to nature.“5” The shaping power of Damascius’ space can be recognized by the structure of bodies in space,

mentioned before comes into its own: topos is typos. “Space is, so to


precisely as the divine power of Iamblichus’ space can be recognized by the coherence of the bodies encompassed by it.










it is nothing


Proclus’ primary and extended light, as is shown by a passage of his treatise




place; (3) an entity superior to that contained in it, as the sun itself, which is contained in the extended light. This latter kind of space is space in the absolute sense, while the others are relative spaces”.” It may be worth drawing attention here to a certain similarity between

De primis principiis: “Space has three meanings, (1) an entity inferior to

as the light

of the

like the sun when

sun is said to we locate

be in the her in her



(2) an entity


equal to its

in her

as being

“Ibid. 645.7-10.



(ed. Ruelle)

II, 219,21-220.2.

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism 185 Damascius’ doctrine and Einstein’s theory of general relativity,

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


Damascius’ doctrine and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, according to which the metric of space determines the movement, and generally the behaviour, of bodies. However, one should not forget that in modern physics the superiority of the encompassing over the encompassed does not hold, but

it is rather maintained that there exists a mutual influence between both. Today

from regarding matter as passive; on the contrary, it represents an

enormous concentration of energy, and by virtue of this it imposes a definite

metric upon the spatial (and temporal) surroundings of bodies, a metric which for its own part imposes upon bodies a definite dynamical behaviour in the neighbourhood of large concentrations of matter. Simplicius, following in the footsteps of his teacher Damascius, expounds in detail the notions of position and space and their relative and absolute significance; in this connection, he clarifies the relation between the whole and its parts. By means of striking illustrations, he succeeds in analyzing cases where the relative positions of the parts are conserved while the position of the whole changes. He uses a bold ideal experiment: “If somebody should displace the earth from its position around the centre of the universe, it would still keep the well-ordered arrangement of its proper parts within its proper whole, but then it would not occupy its position as a part of the universe. Therefore, were it set free as a whole, it would be carried towards the centre, although its parts would preserve their relative configuration, even if the earth itself happened to be outside the centre. Similarly, a man raised high in the air will keep the correct order of his proper parts, but no longer their order relative to the whole”.” In the course of his analysis, Simplicius emphasizes that everything must preserve its due place within the universe for as long as it continues to exist

as an organic part of

notion of universal harmony: “A specific thing everywhere is dead and lifeless if it is separated from the common whole and deprived from the union due to it with the whole; plants, for instance, even if one tears them up by their roots together with all their parts, will immediately wither away, having been separated from the common whole. For all things live through the one cosmic living Being. Thus, as long as each thing is rooted in the universe through the appropriate whole, it will live and be preserved, but if it is separated from the appropriate whole, it will be separated also from the common one”.53

we are


the whole; this is a statement conforming to the Stoic

Most instructive is the parallel which Simplicius draws between intellectual

time, as conceived by Iamblichus


his followers,5’




which he regards also as a kind of intelligible reality.





explained, space has a twofold meaning: intrinsic space, existing absolutely for


Phys. 627, 32-628, 2.





op cit.

note 25, pp.


1 8 6 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science every body whether at rest


Studies in History and Philosophy

of Science

every body whether at rest or in motion, and that of becoming different at

different times in the changes of place relative to the position of the universal system of the world. Intrinsic space, inasmuch as it is naturally united with Being, is hardly distinguishable from Being, whereas that which becomes different at different times, while Being remains the same, is easily noticeable

and excites our faculty of discernment as to its otherness This is just like time, which also has a twofold nature:

measuring the intrinsic motion, on the other hand the external and active

relative to Being. on the one hand

motion [







is unknowable,





Simplicius wants to regard absolute


as an intelligible


out of

which there evolves relative and changing space. He adopts a simile which had been employed by his teacher Damascius, one which likens Becoming, i.e. the flux of time, to “a kind of unfolding, unwinding out of Being”.56 Admittedly,

this mode of expression does not fit space quite as well as time; still, Simplicius

“The intrinsic outline of the position of

repeats it in the following passage:

the Whole always remains the same, whether all the world moves or rests; and the multitude of the various changes of positions of this abiding Whole will be, so to say, a kind of unfolding”.57 And Simplicius goes on to elaborate the analogy between space and time. Precisely as time is on the one hand intelligible, i.e. perpetual and abiding in the same position, and on the other hand physical, i.e. having its reality in generation and corruption, so space too measures on the one hand the intrinsic extension or position, and is of a permanent nature, and on the other hand the changing position, which has its existence in Becoming. 58 Damascius, however, went still farther in his theory of time and declared the totality of changing time, “the river of becoming” whose waters are flowing from the beginning of creation till the end of days, to be a single reality existing as a simultaneous oneness .58Man cannot be aware of this simultaneity, for his consciousness transforms the side-by-side of the parts of intelligible time into the one-after-the-other of the parts of physical time, consisting of past, present and future. In his Corollurium de tempore Simplicius makes one of the rare observations of a personal nature to be found in the literature of that period: “However, these words of Damascius [that becoming is a kind of unfolding of being] have not worried me so much as those he used to say to me, without convincing me, when he was still alive, namely, that time as a whole simultaneously exists in reality”.60


Phys. 638.23-35.

“Ibid. 775,30. “Ibid. 632.29-3 1. “Ibid. 632.33-633.8.

‘*Cf. Sambursky, op. cit. note 25, p. 165. *OSimplicius, Phys. 775, 32-34.

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism 187 Although Simplicius was not convinced by Damascius, he

Place and Space in Late Neoplatonism


Although Simplicius was not convinced by Damascius, he still arrived at an analogous formulation of the connection between relative and absolute space,

which in its abstractness does not fall short of what Damascius said about time. Simplicius declares that “the single intrinsic position encompasses ah the positions of the whole universe.61 In other words: even if we are unable to

attain an immediate and direct perception of

perceive it indirectly as the sum total of all the varying positions in physical space. Behind all these relative positions which ever happened to be realized in

the past or are yet to be realized in the future, there is hidden the position of absolute space, as the permanent and unchangeable mean. This definition of Simplicius doubtless constitutes the pinnacle of his doctrine of space. The lesson which can be drawn from the story of the concepts of space in the doctrines of the late Neoplatonists - a story which could be told here only in a rather cursory way - is that even the historical development of this notion alone is fraught with problems which transcend physical and epistemol- ogical considerations and enter into the realm of metaphysical reflections. Porphyry formulated it very strikingly: “It is not the business of the physicist to inquire whether there exist principles of physical things, but this is the business of him who ascends to a higher level of knowledge. For the physicist

it could be said that it is the

makes use of them as given data. And still more

business of the man on the higher level to inquire of what kind these principles


.] for the cognition of the causes of his own principles transcends the

capacities of the physicist and belongs to a domain of higher knowledge - that of metaphysics”.62

Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem

absolute space, we can still