views updated


(b. Paphlagonia, A.D. 317 [?]; d. Constantinople, ca. 388)

philosophy, politics.

Themistius is one of the most interesting representatives of the late Peripatetic school, being at the same time an outstanding Aristotelian scholar, a teacher of philosophy, an eloquent speaker, and an influential politician and diplomat. Some of his ideas are still vital, especially his doctrine of toleration and universal philanthropy. He was born about 320 (presumably in 317) in Paphlagonia, the country of his parents1. His father, Eugenius, was a teacher of philosophy, concerned mainly with Aristotle but also with Pythagoras, Plato, Zeno of Citium, and Epicurus. Themistius attended his father’s lectures, probably at Constantinople2. He himself began teaching philosophy in 345.

As a philosopher Themistius followed in the footsteps of his father, adhering mainly to Aristotle without disregarding Plato. His definition of philosophy as a constant attempt to imitate God, so far as it is possible for man to do so, comes primarily from Plato’s Theaetetus. His chief philosophical concern was not with logic or metaphysics but with ethics. The teaching of Themistius was very influential3, and many students came to Constantinople to attend his lectures. Aiming at the complete education of his students, he provided not only theoretical instruction but also practical preparation for the moral life. He wanted to make Aristotle understandable to everyone, not by an ordinary commentary, but by paraphrasing the texts of the Stagirite and summarizing the philosophical content. In connection with his lecturing, Themistius arranged meetings with the students and discussed particular problems with them. Presumably his paraphrases of Aristotle, as well as his commentaries on Plato, were written between 345 and 355. The paraphrases include the following: that of the Posterior Analytics, translated from Arabic into Latin by Gerard of Cremona; of the Prior Analytics, not preserved; of the Physics; of the Deanima, translated into Latin by William of Moerbeke (22 November 1267); of the De caelo and the twelfth book of the Metaphysics, both preserved only in a Hebrew translation; and of the Categories, Topics, De sensu, De generatione et corruptione, and possibly of the Nicomachean Ethics, none of which has been preserved. The paraphrase of the Parva naturalia, attributed to Themistius, was written by Sophonias. None of the commentaries on Plato has been preserved. Many of the paraphrases were translated into Arabic: Themistius was frequently used and quoted by medieval Arabic philosophers. He also wrote some philosophical treatises: Пєρì ἀρєτη̂ς which has been preserved in a Syrian translation only, and ПєρìΨυχη̂ς ,which is known through some fragments quoted by Stobaeus4. The Пєρì γη̂ρως attributed to him is not authentic.

Themistius’ political career started in 355, when he was appointed senator on 1 September. The Emperor Valens entrusted him with the education of his son; and Themistius was also appointed the tutor of Arcadius, the son of Theodosius 1. He had close relations with the Emperor Julian, who with his help endeavored to revive the ancient Hellenic religion, although he intended to be tolerant toward the Christians. In 383–384 Themistius was praefectus urbis and princeps senatus. His speeches are closely connected with his political career: thirty–one of them have been completely preserved, two almost completely (Orationes XXIII, XXXIII), four are known only through fragments, and the content of three may be reconstructed–the Пєρìα̂ρєτη̂ς, his speech on toleration, and his “Epistula ad Julianum”. The favorite topics of his speeches are philanthropy, liberty of conscience, the relation between politics and philosophy, the duties of the state, and the state, and the ideal of the stateman. The text of Oratio XII, entitled “De religionibus” and addressed to the Emporor Valens, is not authentic in the Dindorf edition: it was written by Andreas Dudith (1533–1589) of Breslau. As for Oratio XXVI, H. Kesters maintains that it was borrowed entirely from Antisthenes with only minor stylistic modifications5. Gregory of Nazianzus called Themistius his friend and praised him as the king of eloquence. Yet Themistius made no effort in his writings to be original, clinging always to classical thought and ancient wisdom, and remaining faithful to the traditional Hellenic religion.


1.Orationes, Dindorf ed., II. 33.28.

2.Ibid., XX.295.3 ff.; XXXIV.460.18; XVII, 261.11–14.

3. See ibid., “Oratio Constantii”, 23.31–24.4.

4. Stobaeus, Wachmuth and Hense, eds., III, 468, IV, 530, and V, 1032, 1086–1092.

5. H. Kesters, Plaidoyer d’un Socratique contre le Phèdre de Platon (Louvain–Paris, 1959).


I. Original Works Themistius’s paraphrases are in Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, as follows: In libros Aristotelis De anima paraphrasis, R. Heinze, ed., V. pt. 3 (Berlin, 1899); Analyticorum posteriorum paraphrasis, M. Wallies, ed., V. pt. 1 (Berlin, 1900); In Aristotelis Physica Paraphrasis, H. Schenkl, ed., V, pt. 2 (Berlin, 1900), in libros Aristotelis De caelo paraphrasis hebraice et latine, S. Landauer, ed., V, pt. 4 (Berlin, 1902); and In Aristotelis Metaphysicorum librum A paraphrasis hebraice et latine, S. Landauer, ed., V, pt. 5 (Berlin, 1903).

The Orationes have been edited by W. Dindorf (Leipzig, 1832); repr. Hildesheim, 1961) and by H. Schenkl, completed by G. Downey (Leipzig, 1965– ).

Medieval versions in Latin are Commentaire sur le traité de l’âme d’ Aristole, traduction de Guillaume de Moerbeke, critical ed. by G. Verbeke (Louvain–Paris, 1957; repr., Leiden, 1973); and “Paraphrasis of the Posterior Analytics in Gerard of Cremona’s Translation”, J. R. O’Donnell, ed., in Mediaeval Studies (Toronto), 20 (1958), 239–315.

II. Secondary Literature. See G. Downey, “Education and Public Problems as Seen by Themistius”, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 86 (1955), 291–307; “Education in the Christian Roman Empire, Christian and Pagan Theories Under Constantine and His Successors”, in Speculum, 32 (1957), 48–61; and “Themistius and the Defence of Hellenism in the Fourth Century”, in Harvard Theological Review, 50 (1957), 259–274; W. Stegemann, “Themistios”, in Pauly–Wissowa. Real–Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 2nd ser., V, pt.2 (1934), cols. 1642–1680; and G. Verbeke, “Themistius et le De unitate intellectus de saint Thomas”, in Revue philosophique de Louvain, 53 (1955), 141–164.

G. Verbeke