Porphyry (c.233-309 ad)

The late ancient philosopher Porphyry was one of the founders of Neoplatonism. He edited the teachings of Plotinus into the form in which they are now known, clarified them with insights of his own and established them in the thought of his time. But, in reaction to Plotinus, he also advanced the cause of Aristotle's philosophical logic. Indeed, Porphyry is responsible for the resurgence of interest in Aristotle, which continued to the Middle Ages and beyond. Because of Porphyry, later Greek philosophy recovered both its Platonic and its Aristotelian roots, and Neoplatonism aimed to combine inspired thought with academic precision.

He was a scholar of great learning, with interests ranging from literary criticism and history to religion. An example is his defence of vegetarianism, which anticipated the modern debate on ecological preservation. Humans and animals belong to the same family. Seeking to preserve life is a matter of extending philanthropy and respect to all living species, which are our natural siblings. Ideally we ought to display 'harmlessness' even towards plants, except that our bodies, being composite and mortal, need to consume something else for food. Thus we should be ever conscious of the destructive effect that our eating habits and consumerism have on the creation of which we are part, and should try to keep to a simple lifestyle.

Porphyry's attention to logic, metaphysics and all other topics was driven by his firm belief that reason exercised by pure mind leads to the true essence of things, the One God. Intellectual activity detaches the soul from passions and confusions, and concentrates its activity on the real things. Porphyry attacked Christianity and Gnosticism because he thought they appealed to the irrational. Mysteries and rituals are fitted for those who are unable to practise inward contemplation. Salvation comes to those leading the life of the philosopher-priest.

  1. Life and philosophical conflicts
  2. Language and metaphysics
  3. Ethics
  4. Literary theory
  5. Influence

1. Life and philosophical conflicts

Porphyry was born in the ancient Phoenician port of Tyre. His parents were Syrian and he was originally named after his father Malkhos ('king'). He spent many years expanding his general knowledge, and learning the languages (including Hebrew) and religions of the eastern Roman Empire. He then travelled to Athens, one of the two main centres of teaching in the Empire, and became a mature student of the eminent scholar Longinus. According to the vivid descriptions typical of the age, Longinus was a 'living library and walking museum' and the academic's critical attention to detail, clarity of style and erudition left their permanent mark on the keen student. Longinus renamed him 'Porphyry', which in Greek means 'purple', the royal dye for which Tyre was famous.

At the age of thirty, Porphyry went to join Plotinus in Rome. His first impression of him was ambivalent: Plotinus was original but could not express himself clearly - 'The seminars were like conversations' and 'The logical coherence of the argument was not made obvious'. Longinus disagreed with Plotinus over the contents of reality, the Platonic Forms. Longinus considered them distinct from the thoughts about them. Plotinus taught that they are identical with thoughts in God's intellect. 'On the third try' Porphyry came to 'understand with difficulty' Plotinus' position, was persuaded and 'tried to rouse in the master the ambition to organize his doctrines' (Life of Plotinus 18).

Five years later Porphyry moved away from Rome to Sicily. His own retrospective explanation was that he suffered from depression to the point of contemplating suicide. Recent studies, however, have linked his decision to crises in Plotinus' circle. On the one side, Plotinus' closest spokesman, Amelius, turned increasingly to theurgy as the means to enlightenment, and moved away to Apamea (Syria) (see Iamblichus). On the other, Porphyry disagreed with Plotinus' denigration of Aristotle, especially of his categories of being. Porphyry had concluded that the chief enemy was the irrational appeal of Gnosticism and Christianity (see Gnosticism). Hellenic philosophies had to close ranks. During his stay in Sicily Porphyry composed a treatise on the 'harmony of Aristotle and Plato' and wrote the key works that marked the revival of Aristotelian studies. He wrote them in a teachable form, especially the Introduction (Isagog) to logic and a commentary On Aristotle's Categories in user-friendly question and answer format. He also wrote the unique philosophical study of vegetarianism, On Abstinence from Animal Food (it includes an invaluable history of arguments for and against). Equipped with his knowledge of textual criticism and languages, he published a critical appraisal of Christian doctrines and the Bible (not superseded until modern times), and proved a Zoroastrian book a forgery. Most importantly he kept in touch with Plotinus, who entrusted him with revising his teachings.

Porphyry returned to Rome much later (in the early 280s) - well after Plotinus' solitary death in ad 270 from leprosy. In this period he married, continued his sojourns, wrote commentaries on Plato and treatises on ethical, philological and historical topics, and added to his already considerable reputation as the most lucid and learned scholar. Clarity and concision are indeed Porphyry's traits. He attracted the interest of Iamblichus, who may have visited him. However, he soon disagreed vigorously with Iamblichus' fondness for the supra-rational and they parted company in the 290s. By ad 301 or 305 Porphyry had completed the grand task of editing and publishing Plotinus' teachings in the form in which they are now known - the six Enneads. These he prefaced, in the conventional scholastic manner, with the master's biography. Interestingly, Plotinus is presented as the paragon of the true philosopher, who reaches enlightenment through contemplation, not through theurgy, in contrast to Iamblichus. During this latter period Porphyry was invited to the court of the eastern Roman emperor, but may have returned to Rome where he died.

2. Language and metaphysics

For Porphyry, Aristotle and Plato agree once their domains are demarcated. How are they in 'harmony'? Porphyry's treatise on this is lost but we can extrapolate from other works and fragments, mainly those on Aristotle's logic. First, Porphyry disagreed with Plotinus over the fundamental divisions of things, the categories (see Aristotle §7; Categories §1). What do we categorize? Our ways of talking (words)? Our ways of thinking (concepts)? Things that exist (beings)? Furthermore, when we form statements and propositions, are the predicates we use, linguistic expressions, concepts, classes, or realities? As Porphyry tells us in the commentary On Aristotle's Categories, the Stoics, several Middle Platonists and Plotinus (politely left unnamed in Porphyry's attack) took Aristotle's theory of categories to be about real beings, and rejected it. Platonists could never accept that only individual, material things constitute the ultimate substance. The Platonic separable Forms are the 'truly real', and as Plotinus asserted the true categories should follow from the 'five most general kinds' in Plato's Sophist (see Plotinus §4). Porphyry, in contrast, saw an inherent validity in Aristotle's analysis. The categories are indeed valid when limited to the fields of logic and semantics. We base our accounts and phrases on individual concrete 'substances': for example, this or that human, animal, house; we talk of physical qualities, places, and so on. Abstracted universals are constructs of personal minds, but are not real universals, the Forms. Thus, Aristotle's categories do not impinge on what may or not be independently real. In our ordinary experience we live in a world of 'signifying sounds' (smantikai phonai). These enable us to communicate the concepts we acquire about the objects we sense. The fundamental divisions of our immediate common experience refer to 'expressions signifying objects' (On Aristotle's Categories 58.3-6).

Second, how well we communicate depends on how precise our definitions are. In the Introduction to Aristotle's logic (in the Categories and Topics), Porphyry argued that only five 'signifying terms' cover the range of predicates we use: genus (general type), species (specific), difference (what distinguishes a family of species from the rest within a genus), property (what is characteristic of a species) and accident. Things are thus defined by their 'properties in the strict sense' (kyrios idia): for example, a horse is what neighs, and conversely, what neighs is a horse. Indeed, a thing is a 'bundle' (athroismos) of properties (compare Russell, B.A.W. §12). Porphyry made the scheme amenable to Platonists by interpreting difference and property (also genus and species) as potentialities for fulfillment, not actualities. Defining a human as a laughing animal refers only to the capacity, which is always present, not the act of laughing itself. This makes it possible to admit degrees of fulfillment: the 'more or less' approximation to the archetypal form.

Third, Porphyry supported the distinction between immanent and transcendent universals. This we see earlier in the Middle Platonist Alcinous. Universals in concrete things correspond to the forms as Aristotle saw them, that is, as compounds with matter. Universals that are separable from material manifestation correspond to the Platonic Forms (see Platonism, Early and Middle §4).

Fourth, Porphyry seems to have interpreted a key passage in Aristotle's Metaphysics (XII) in a way that supported the Neoplatonic One as the foundation of all existence (see Plotinus §3). Since Porphyry's commentary on the Metaphysics is lost, evidence may be reconstituted from references to him in a commentary on the Categories by Dexippus, a student of Iamblichus (see Hadot 1974). For Aristotle, the study of physical substances presupposes a pure, intelligible substance. For a Neoplatonist like Porphyry, Aristotle suggests a series of substances, from the physical to the incorporeal. The latter can be described only by analogy with things perceived by the senses. Furthermore, the intelligible substance gives coherence to the series of substances only because it has itself received unity from a pure One.

The 'harmonization' through demarcation seems to underlie Porphyry's extensive discussion of incorporeals and corporeals in his Sentences Leading to the Intelligibles. Although it is intended as a concise introduction to Plotinus, it contains fresh ideas anticipating modern distinctions of mind/body. Soul, intellect and the One are classed together as incorporeal. They lack spatial extension, location and volume. Without corporeality, the categories and relations of our ordinary language, big-small, in-out, here-there etc., lose their normal reference. So to locate such incorporeals we resort to paradoxical statements: for example, 'everywhere and nowhere'. Bodies are not 'zoo-cages' for minds, nor do souls 'fall down' to earth. Rather, incorporeal entities exercise their activity in a particular area, according to their 'disposition'. Incorporeals and bodies do not mix but form an asymmetrical 'assimilation' and 'union'. For Porphyry, this is the reason why our world of experience 'remains much distant' from reality (Sentences 35.30).

From another perspective, the Neoplatonic One emerges as the sole entity to possess its own foundation for existence. Everything else exists in relation to it. This, together with the telescoping of the metaphysical differences between soul and intellect may mean that Porphyry was a monist. On the other hand, in his Sentences we see a proliferation of elemental bodies of the soul. The controversial anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides, attributed to Porphyry or a follower, reinforces the importance of the One, but also offers first evidence of the threefold structure, being-life-intellect, which will typify the complex metaphysics of Iamblichean Neoplatonism. It may simply be the case that Porphyry contracted or expanded metaphysical layers depending on the distinction he was examining.

Porphyry extended his polymathy to religion. He wrote on daemons and is the first to quote the Chaldaean Oracles. Because these appear to be out of character for someone known for his rationalist attitude, it has been suggested that he was concerned with them in his earlier, pre-philosophical life. However, belief in the existence of such entities was commonplace in all strata of ancient society. What is more pertinent is his evaluation of such things. Judging from his attack on Iamblichus, Porphyry does not dismiss rituals and spirit-work but limits them to a purifying role (see §3). The divine cannot be reached in this way. Philosophical contemplation alone can activate the soul towards intellect and the One God.

3. Ethics

Porphyry treats ethics as applied metaphysics and epistemology. We garner his views from lines in the Sentences which refer to virtue, from the Letter to Marcella (Porphyry's wife) and from On Abstinence. In all three the goal of moral life is 'becoming like God'. In the first two he establishes that intellectual contemplation is the surest path to God. In the third he fleshes out how a rational, just life preserves things and does no harm to them.

The best example of his ethics is in the opening remarks of his Letter to Marcella, where he reminds his wife, 'you should put aside irrational distress, which is an emotion, and not be led by trivial judgments, but remember the divine words by which you were initiated into upright philosophy. For a steadfast attention to these words will habitually prove itself in action. It is deeds that give proof of our doctrines, and we must live by our faith to bear faithful witness to our teachings' (8.4-8).

The aim of ethics is to show the way of assimilating one's self to the true being, the Neoplatonic One. Since intellect is the level closest to the divine One, the path to God is philosophical. One must first reach the state of 'impassibility' (apatheia) (see Stoicism §9). The calm, rational mind separates from the passions that try to tear apart the unity of human life (on separation of soul, see Plato §13). A person's living presence is not the body and therefore cannot be physically located. 'Surely, you must not think of my self as something that can be touched and be incidental to the senses: my true self is remote from the body, without colour and shape, not to be touched by the hands but grasped only by the mind' (Letter to Marcella 8.11-3).

For Porphyry, true priests are the 'wise', those philosophers who practise what they teach:

'Whoever practises wisdom practises knowledge of God, not by always praying and sacrificing, but by practising piety in the actions towards God... we must make ourselves pleasing to God, and consecrate our own disposition by making it similar to the immortal and blessed nature'. He also states: 'The wise soul joins with God and always beholds God and keeps his company.... It is not the utterance of the wise that is honourable to God, but deeds. A wise person honours God even silent.... The wise person, therefore, alone is a priest, alone is beloved by God, alone knows how to pray'.

(17.1-6, 16.7-17.2)

The philosopher respects all life as expressions of the One true being. Thus the philosopher-priest is a pacifist towards all types of life. There should be no killing, even for food, and certainly no killing of animals. Furthermore, we should regret that we have to eat other life forms, even plants (On Abstinence III 27).

Following Plotinus, Porphyry identified four kinds of virtue: civil life, purification, contemplation and exemplary. Each is fit for an appropriate grade of life:

'There is a difference between the virtues of the citizen; those of the one who attempts to rise to contemplation, and who, on this account, is said to be contemplative; those of the one who does contemplate perfectly; and finally those of the pure Intelligence, which is completely separated from soul'.

(Sentences 32)

Each virtue befits a level of awareness:

'The objects (skopoi), differ with the kind of virtues. The object of the civil virtues is to moderate our passions to conform withthe activities of human nature. That of the purificatory virtues is to detach the soul completely from the passions. That of the contemplative virtues is to apply the soul to intellectual activities, even to the extent of no longer having to think of the need of freeing oneself from the passions.... The exemplary virtues reside within intelligence'.

(Sentences 32)

4. Literary theory

During his time with Longinus, Porphyry developed his skill for literary criticism - 'critic' (kritikos) was a title of professional recognition. What is the meaning of a literary account? How are we to understand it? Does it refer to concrete or symbolic events? The last question was the more problematic because it opens wide the field of interpretation and links literature to the representational arts. The question then arises whether the creation of an artist (poits) reflects truth or somehow misleads. Put in a Platonic context, do artists (in literature, sculpture, drawing) use artistic images as representations and 'imitations' of intangible truths, or do they exercise their artistic ''licence' (exousia) without regard for truth, and so present distortions and falsehoods?

Porphyry showed his 'critical' skill both negatively (to prove that some Gnostic and Christian holy books were recent forgeries) and positively (notably the allegorizing of Homer's Odyssey and the Cave of Nymphs). Building on a tradition that can be traced to Numenius (a second-century ad Platonist, who anticipated Plotinus and Iamblichus), Porphyry interpreted the Homeric hero as the human soul. The hero's journey is an allegory for the journey of the soul through life with the attendant travails and terrors: the process of psychological internalization. Poetic descriptions of the lands, dwellings and temples the hero visits, and of the people and wondrous creature he encounters, can be interpreted on many levels according to the Neoplatonic levels of knowledge and being.

Works of literature and art are not just for entertainment or purging the emotions. They may point to truths about knowledge and being, just as language mediates reality. Thus literary theory (and aesthetics) becomes part of the philosopher's purview.

5. Influence

As the editor and publicist of the Enneads, Porphyry ensured the dissemination of Plotinian thought. Although he expanded the emerging Neoplatonic metaphysics, in this he remained in his master's shadow. This Plotinian-Porphyrian theological Neoplatonism can be seen in Augustine and his followers in the Latin West.

Porphyry shone independently, however, in his work on Aristotle and logic. He is the pivotal figure among the Aristotle Commentators, rescuing Aristotelian studies from total obscurity and securing their place in post-Plotinian philosophy. It is this new, broader Neoplatonism we find in Boethius, and it is this which gave rise to medieval scholasticism and so-called Aristotelianism (see Aristotelianism, medieval; Aristotelianism, Renaissance). On the Greek side, both Porphyry and Aristotle became part of the Iamblichean Neoplatonism and were enshrined in the curriculum that lasted for centuries. In the Latin West, we may trace the influence of Porphyry's Isagog both to autonomous logical theory (see, for example, the work of Shyreswood and William of Ockham), and to the debate on nominalism and realism (see Abelard). We may also profitably reflect on Porphyry's contribution to the problem of sense and reference.

See also: Neoplatonism

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Porphyry's works may be dated according to very broad eras of interest, the mainly Aristotelian, followed by the Platonic, then finally a work against Iamblichus ( Letter to Anebo) and an edition of Plotinus' Enneads. Twenty or so of his eighty titles survive. Porphyry (mid 3rd century ad) Philosophy from the Chaldaean Oracles, ed. G. Wolff, De philosophia ex oraculis, Berlin: Springer, 1856; repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1962. (Greek text.)

Porphyry (mid 3rd century ad) On Aristotle's Categories, trans. S. Strange, London: Duckworth, 1992. (English translation; for Greek text, see Introduction ( Isagog).)

Porphyry (mid 3rd century ad) Introduction ( Isagog) ed. A. Busse, Isagoge et in Aristotelis categorias commentarium, CAG 4.1, Berlin: Reimer, 1887; trans. E. Warren, Porphyry the Phoenician: Isagog, Toronto, Ont: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1975. (English translation.)

Porphyry (mid 3rd century ad) Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey, Arethusa Monographs 1, ed. L.G. Westerink, Buffalo, NY: State University of New York Press, 1969; trans. R. Lamberton, Porphyry on the Cave of the Nymphs, Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1983. (Greek text with English translation.)

Porphyry (mid 3rd century ad) The Homeric Questions, ed. R. Schlunk, New York: P. Lang, 1993. (Greek text and translation.)

Porphyry (mid 3rd century ad) Against the Christians, ed. A. von Harnack, Porphyrius. Gegen die Christen, Berlin: Reimer, 1916; trans. R.J. Hoffmann, Porphyry Against the Christians: The Literary Remains, Frome: Prometheus Trust, 1994. (The former is Greek text, the latter an English translation of the fragments.)

Porphyry (late 3rd century ad) Letter to Marcella, ed. W. Pötcher, Leiden: Brill, 1969; trans. K. Wicker, Porphyry the Philosopher, To Marcella. (The former is Greek text and German translation, the latter an English translation.)

Porphyry (late 3rd century ad) History of Philosophy, ed. E. des Places and A. Segonds, Porphyre. Vie de Pythagore, - Lettre à Marcella, - frg. de l' Historie de la philosophie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1982. (Parallel Greek text and French translation.)

Porphyry (late 3rd century ad) On Abstinence from Animal Food, ed. J. Bouffartigue and M. Pattilon, Porphyre. De l'Abstinence, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1977-94. (Parallel Greek text and French translation.)

Porphyry (late 3rd century ad) Sentences Leading to the Intelligibles, ed. E. Lamberz, Porphyrius Sententiae ad Intelligibilia, Leipzig: Teubner, 1975; trans. K. Guthrie, Launching-Points to the Realm of Mind, Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1988. (The former is Greek text; the latter is an English translation of an earlier edition.)

Porphyry (late 3rd century ad) Letter to Anebo, ed. A.R. Sodano, Porfirio. Lettera ad Anebo, Naples: L'Arte Tipografica, 1958. (Greek text and Italian translation; "Anebo' was Porphyry's pseudonym for Iamblichus, so the Letter usually appears with editions of Iamblichus' On the Mysteries.)

Porphyry (mid to late 3rd century ad) Select Works of Porphyry, trans. T. Taylor, London, 1817; repr. Frome: Prometheus Trust, 1994. (Includes English translations and explanatory notes for Abstinence from Animal Food, Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey and Auxiliaries to the Perception of Intelligible Natures.)

Porphyry (mid 3rd to early 4th century ad) Fragmenta, ed. A. Smith, Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1993. (Collection of surviving Greek and Latin fragments of Porphyry's works on Aristotle, Plato, metaphysics, science, history, religion and literature.)

Porphyry (early 4th century ad) Life of Plotinus and The Enneads of Plotinus, trans. A.H. Armstrong, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: Heinemann, 1966. (Parallel Greek text and English translation.)

References and further reading

Brisson, L. (ed.) and Centre National Recherche Scientifique (1990-2) Porphyre. La vie de Plotin (Porphyry. The Life of Plotinus), Paris: Vrin. (Important articles on Porphyry in relation to Plotinus.)

Dombrowski, D. (1984) The Philosophy of Vegetarianism, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. (Porphyry and the Platonic background on vegetarianism.)

Edwards, M.J. (1990) 'Porphyry and the Intelligible Triad', Journal of Hellenic Studies 110: 14-25. (On Porphyry's Neoplatonic metaphysics.)

Evangeliou, C. (1988) Aristotle's Categories and Porphyry, Leiden: Brill. (The logic and ontology of Porphyry's theory.)

Hadot, P. (1968) Porphyre et Victorinus, Paris: Études Augustiniennes. (Mainly on metaphysics and theology, and their relation to Christianity.)

Hadot, P. (1974) 'The Harmony of Plotinus and Aristotle according to Porphyry', in R. Sorabji (ed.) Aristotle Transformed, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Further analysis on the harmony between Plato and Aristotle.)

Lamberton, R. (1986) Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. (Includes extensive study of Porphyry's literary criticism and theory of interpretation.)

Romano, F. (1985) Porfirio di Tiro, Catania: University of Catania. (Survey of Porphyry's philosophy.)

Smith, A. (1974) Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. (Classic study of Porphyry in relation to Plotinus.)

Smith, A. (1987) 'Porphyrian Studies since 1913', in W. Haase (ed.) Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, II 36:2, 719-73. (Survey of scholarship on Porphyry.)

Sorabji, R. (ed.) (1990) Aristotle Transformed, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Articles on Porphyry, Aristotle and logic.)

Spade, V. (ed.) (1994) Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals: Porphyry, Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company. (Translated texts showing a development of Porphyry's thought.)

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