Scientific commentary as series of problems : the case of Theon of Alexandria

Date and place : Series of problems workshop, date et lieu précisés bientôt

Organized by Alain Bernard (Centre A. Koyré), Gregory Chambon (ANHIMA). Discussion : Christian Jacob (ANHIMA)

Argument (A. Bernard)

Ancient scientific commentaries, like Theon of Alexandria’s extensive commentaries on Ptolemy’s Almagest or Handy Tables (or both) are highly interesting testimonies in spite of their poor reputation. Sometimes evaluated as the reflect of untalented or short sighted courses on Ptolemy’s astronomical treatises and tables (Rome 1936) or as paradigmatic examples of « derivative » or « deuteronomic » texts that held as a characteristic of late antique scientific literature (Netz 1998), their precise cultural and historical value is not so easy to evaluate. Much progress has been done in this direction, through the general perspective of the study of commentary techniques in the same period (Most 1999) : this has led A. Jones to propose a new evaluation of this kind of literature (of which Theon is not the only representative) in relation to the « classicization » of Ptolemy’s Almagest (Jones 1999), and I have also proposed to match I. Sluiter’s general characterisation of the system of values of ancient commentators (Sluiter 1999) with the particularities of Theon’s commentary (Bernard 2014).

More recently, the question of the worth of Theon’s commentary has been renewed through the recognition that the arabic-speaking philosopher al-Kindi grounded his « mathematical » philosophy of knowledge on the reading of the Almagest as well as on Theon’s commentary to it (Gannagé 2016). This is based on the ground breaking work initiated by J. Feke to delineate the coherency of Ptolemy’s philoosphical system (Feke and Jones 2010; Feke 2018). In this context, I have contributed to the discussion by showing that Theon’s commentary on Ptolemy’s « philosophical preface » to the Almagest is structured around two main difficulties of the text, that Theon sets up to elucidate in accordance with the general principles of his own commentary (Bernard, Alain, forthcoming). If we then name problems these exegetical difficulties brought out by Theon, the following general questions arise : to what extent is Theon’s commentary structured through such problems ? Of what nature are these problems ? Does the commentary as a whole constitue a series of such exegetical problems ? And then what is the meaning and structure of this series ? This is the kind of issues I would like to discuss through a choice of translated excerpts of Theon’s commentary.


Bernard, Alain. 2014. “In What Sense Did Theon’s Commentary on the Almagest Have a Didactic Purpose?” In Scientific Sources and Teaching Contexts Throughout History: Problems and Perspectives, C. Proust and A. Bernard (dir), 95–121.

Bernard, Alain. forthcoming “Theon of Alexandria’s Commentary on Ptolemy’s Introduction to the Almagest.” In Ptolemy’s Philosophy and Its Reception in Greek, Arabic and Hebrew Thought, edited by Emma Gannagé and Alan C. Bowen. Brill.

Feke, Jacqueline. 2018. Ptolemy’s Philosophy Mathematics as a Way of Life. Princeton UP.

Feke, Jacqueline, and Alexander Jones. 2010. “Ptolemy.” In The Cambridge history of philosophy in Late Antiquity, edited by L.P. Gerson, 199–209. CUP.

Gannagé, Emma. 2016. “Al-Kindī, Ptolemy (and Nicomachus of Gerasa) Revisited.” Studia Graeco-Arabica, no. 6: 83–111.

Jones, Alexander. 1999. “Uses and Users of Astronomical Commentaries in Antiquity.” In Commentaries – Kommentare, edited by Glenn W. Most, 147–72.

Most, Glenn W., ed. 1999. Commentaries. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Netz, Reviel. 1998. “Deuteronomic Texts: Late Antiquity and the History of Mathematics.” Revue D’histoire Des Mathématiques 4 (2): 261–88.

Rome, Adolphe. 1936. Commentaires de Pappus et de Théon d’Alexandrie sur l’Almageste. 2, Commentaire sur les livres 1 et 2 de l’Almageste. Vol. 72. Studi e Testi. Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

Sluiter, Ineke. 1999. “Commentaries and the Didactic Tradition.” In Commentaries – Kommentare, G.W. Most (ed.), 173–205. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

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