How to Write a Commentary

What is a Commentary?

A commentary is a detailed, line-by-line “explication” of a text. From Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages, several commentaries were commentaries were written on a wide variety of ancient texts, each with the aims of (1) explaining difficult aspects of the text for novice readers, (2) resolving textual ambiguities, and (3) exploring the philosophical, literary, or historical questions raised by the text. For similar reasons modern “critical editions” of ancient texts are also often accompanied by commentaries.

The Structure of a Commentary

Commentaries can differ significantly in organization and focus depending on the commentator’s interest, whether it is the literary character of a text, its historical transmission, its connection with other ancient literature, or its philosophical content. But whatever its focus, any commentary will have something like the following structure:

  1. The commentary will begin by introducing the text, giving its overall context, aims, and reception by ancient and modern readers.
  2. The commentator then proceeds slowly through the text, section-by-section, line-by-line, (a) clarifying the meaning of and (b) raising questions about the text, (c) making cross-references to other relevant passages, and (d) discussing alternative interpretations of the text.
  3. Each new section to be discussed is introduced by a lemma, an abbreviated quotation of a line of the text that introduces the issues to be discussed.
  4. Paraphrase is discouraged; claims referenced from the text are cited by page and line number (e.g., Stephanus pages for Plato’s works, Bekker lines for Aristotle’s)

Requirements for Your Philosophical Commentary

You will be writing a philosophical commentary. This means that your commentary will be dedicated to explicating the philosophical content of the text you choose. Here are some features your philosophical commentary must include:

  1. Avoid paraphrase. It will be more helpful to your reader if you explain the meaning of a passage, rather than put the same claim into different words.
  2. Break down the text into its logical components; dedicate a section of your commentary to each component of the text.
  3. Consider alternative readings. Many sentences will be ambiguous. Pointing out the ambiguities and discussing the implications of alternative readings will help you and your reader understand the text.
  4. Reference other passages, especially those which illuminate the context of the passage or contain more in depth discussion of ideas referenced in the text.
  5. Keep the context in focus. What is the author’s project in the local context of the passage? What is the project of the containing work as a whole? How ought the context influence our interpretation of the text on which you are commenting?