Monday, 10 October 2011


The most well known disciple of Plotinus was Porphyry (c.232-c.305 CE), a Phoenician from Tyre, whose parents are often described as Syrians. Before meeting Plotinus, he originally studied at Athens under the Platonist Longinus. He possessed the disposition to study different languages and religions, and developed a polymathic ability.

When Porphyry moved to Rome in 263, he became a pupil of Plotinus, but was at first disconcerted by differences with the “official” Athenian format. The method of Plotinus contrasted with that of Longinus. Plotinus was far more informal and unorthodox. Longinus had composed two works of note, but Plotinus classified him as a scholar or literary man, not as a philosopher.

Plotinus (entry no. 42) did not write commentaries on Plato; his exposition, preserved in the Enneads, was in the Platonist spirit but altogether more free-ranging. Both he and Longinus had been students of the deceased Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria, yet they were in disagreement. Porphyry at first expected technical perfectionism from Plotinus, but the latter was not concerned about grammatical niceties in his usage of Greek. Like Ammonius, Plotinus was outside the official Platonist curriculum, whereas Longinus had become part of it.

Porphyry inherited the private manuscripts of Plotinus, which he considered defective in terms of format, though not in respect of ideational and experiential content. Porphyry eventually edited those manuscripts, publishing the result some thirty years after the death of his teacher. The Plotinus texts became known as the Enneads.

The output of Porphyry is rather different to that of Plotinus. He was an industrious writer, and evidently believed in a reconcilement of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle that Plotinus might have deemed too academic. These included the famous Isagoge, a preparation for the study of Aristotelian logic, and well received by the Christian Schoolmen centuries later.

About sixty works are attributed to Porphyry, though most of these are lost or extant in a fragmented form. The subjects covered include history, mathematics, Homeric literary criticism, and metaphysics. There are scholarly uncertainties in confirming a number of the attributions.

The uncertainties have contributed to a mixed assessment of Porphyry’s role. He may have deliberately composed for different readerships, given the diverse nature of attributions. Modern scholars have credited Porphyry with a basically rational orientation, though diverging into what some have deemed an idiosyncratic preoccupation with religious matters (and even astrology).

One view is that he validated the Chaldean Oracles for the common worshipper, though himself remaining aloof from theurgy. Augustine of Hippo presented him in terms of an anomaly, though Pierre Hadot concluded that Porphyry tried to find a universal denominator in varied religious phenomena, including the Indian “gymnosophists.”

His lengthy work Against the Christians survives only in fragments, and was denounced by Christianity, being burned in 448 by Byzantine decree. Porphyry was a defender of paganism, more specifically the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. During his lifetime, the spread of Christianity was slow by comparison with fourth century developments after the reign of Constantine.

One aspect of his mentation was a “Pythagorean” disposition associated with vegetarianism, which he advocated in the treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals. Like Plotinus, he believed in a contemplative and ascetic lifestyle, though at about the age of sixty, he married Marcella, whose interest in philosophy was commemorated in his Letter to Marcella.

Perhaps the most evocative writing of Porphyry is the Letter to Anebo, extant in fragments. This has been assessed in terms of critical reference to the ritualist version of Mysteries, and as being devised to turn the attention of distracted readers to philosophy. The anonymous epistle is addressed to an Egyptian priest, and it is evident that the author was averse to divination and theurgy.

The Letter to Anebo complains about Egyptian religion, and the priests who acted as astrologers, teaching an inflexible astrological fatalism. The document has been interpreted as an attack on Iamblichus, apparently a former pupil of Porphyry, and one who became an influential advocate of theurgy.

Iamblichus (c.245-325) is an eccentric subject in the view of some analysts. A Syrian from a wealthy family of aristocratic association, he taught a version of Neoplatonism at the Syrian town of Apamea. He was an enthusiast of Pythagoras, whom he revived in a theurgic context that is controversial. Iamblichus is credited with authorship of On the Mysteries (De Mysteriis), though the attribution has not been universally accepted. That treatise was composed under the pseudonym of Abammon, signifying a putative Egyptian priest, and evidently being intended as a response to Porphyry’s anti-theurgy composition.

There is no doubt that the issue of theurgy was attended by a strong disagreement. Porphyry was furthering the outlook of Plotinus on this point, while Iamblichus and his school were in support of ritual sacrifices, divination, trance, invocations, ritual mysteries, talismans, and other trappings.

This issue remains an important significator of orientation, both in respect of the Neoplatonist exemplars and the contemporary responses.

See further J. Barnes, Porphyry: Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003); G. Clark, trans., Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Cornell University Press, 2000); K. O’Brien Wicker, Porphyry the Philosopher to Marcella (Atlanta 1987); A. Smith, Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague, 1974).

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
October 10th 2011

ENTRY no. 43

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