Porphyry (Greek scholar)
(b. Tyre, 232–234 CE; d. 304), ancient philosophy, musical theory.
A Greek philosopher, Porphyry was pupil of the Neo-platonist Plotinus in Rome and popularizer of his master’s doctrines. In the last part of his life he edited and published Plotinian writings. He was author of a massive quantity of philosophical, religious, historical, rhetorical, and philological books, most of which are lost. In his philosophical writings are found a synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian elements, on which (despite his lack of originality) medieval thought drew mainly. Within the scope of his scientific activity, his main attention was directed to Ptolemy, on whose Harmonic he wrote a commentary.
Born in Tyre between 232 and 234 CE, his real name was Malchus, which in Semitic language means “king,” but he became famous as “Porphyry” (an allusion to his place of origin, the city of purple), a nickname attributed to him by his teacher in Athens, the rhetorician and philosopher Cassius Longinus. In 263 he went to Rome and began to attend Plotinus’s lectures, gradually becoming one of his closest assistants and helping the master in revising and correcting his writings. Overloaded with this work, he fell into depression, which culminated in an attempted suicide. After this, on Plotinus’s advice, in 268 he left Rome for Sicily, where he stayed for some time even after his master’s death in 270. On his return he took the direction of the Neoplatonic school and worked on the edition of Plotinus’s writings, dividing them into six books of nine treatises each (hence the name Enneads) on the basis of a mystical numerology according to which “six” was the perfect number, prefacing them with a biography of the master. Scholars are not very well informed on the last part of his life: it is known that he married the widow of a friend, Marcella, to whom he dedicated one of his extant writings, the Letter to Marcella, in which his ethical conception, concerning the relations between the human and the divine world according to the Neoplatonic view, is displayed.
Notwithstanding the numerous works on which there is information, few of them survived (and not all complete): the Introduction to Aristotelian Categories, a commentary that combines the Aristotelian logic with Platonic theories; the Starting-Points Leading to the Intelligibles, a synthesis of Neoplatonic ideas; a Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, handed down as anonymous, but by Pierre Hadot (1968) attributed (even if not unanimously) to the Tyrian philosopher; the Life of Plotinus, where Porphyry depicts his master as a charismatic character, dwelling upon the story of his mystical union with the One, or the first cause of everything (by Plotinus experienced four times and by Porphyry himself once). The treatise On Abstinence from Eating Food from Animals observes in animals the presence of a soul similar to ours (although less rational). The work To Gaurus is erroneously attributed to Galen, once again on the conception of the soul. Against the Christians, perhaps one of his best-known titles, is a treatise in fifteen books in which he refuses the Christian idea of creation (despite the assertion of Socrates, the ecclesiastical historian, and Augustine, that Porphyry was once a Christian). A Life of Pythagoras(probably part of the first book of a history of philosophy) has affinities with the work by Iamblichus, affinities that can be explained by their dependence on the same source. Finally there is the previously mentioned Letter to Marcella and the allegoric interpretation of Homer displayed by the treatise On the Cave of the Nymphs, where he considers the Homeric texts to have a hidden and philosophical meaning behind the literal one are also included.
The cosmological vision according to which the universe was regulated by exact laws and correspondences led Porphyry to take a scientific interest in astronomy, mathematics, and music. As a consequence, he wrote commentaries on the Euclidean Elements and on some of Ptolemy’s works, such as the astrological treatise known as Tetrabiblos and the Harmonics. The Commentary on the Harmonics, addressed to a certain Eudoxius, is particularly interesting not especially for the originality of its critical analysis (it is mainly a paraphrase of Ptolemy’s first two books, which breaks off at the beginning of book two), but for the inclusion of quotations drawn from earlier literature, in many cases otherwise unknown. The primary intent of Porphyry really seems to have been the identification of Ptolemy’s sources or opponents, whom the great scientist had avoided mentioning, and their excerpts are given in order to provide a basis for further digressions, which, however, do not lead to any substantial remarks.
He mainly discusses the basic conceptions of the harmonics, the science that grasps the distinctions related to high and low pitch in sounds, and its criteria, hearing and reason; but he does not investigate thoroughly the complex technical analysis of Ptolemy’s himself, skimming over the surface of the topic. Furthermore, as it stands, the commentary does not represent a finished or complete work, because it is much more detailed on the first four chapters of Harmonics, book one, than on the part that goes from chapter five of book one to chapter seven of book two, where it suddenly stops.
The most important quotations preserved in Porphyry’s work are the Peripatetic De audibilibus, which includes many pieces of information on the nature of sounds and the causes of their qualities’ modifications; a fragment of a treatise On music by Theophrastus, whose bulk seems to be the polemic against the quantitative interpretation of sounds; extended fragments of works by Ptolemais of Cyrene (Pythagorean Elements of Music), Didymus (On the Difference between the Aristoxenians and the Pythagoreans), Aelian (Commentary of the Timaeus), and Panaetius (Concerning the Ratios and Intervals in Geometry and Music)—perhaps the philosopher of Rhodes—all of which are otherwise unknown.
Also the other commentary work on Ptolemy, the Eisagoge Eis Ten Apotelesmatiken Tou Ptolemaiou (where is found a succinct explanation of elementary concepts of Greek astrology), gets its importance especially for its valuable references to some astrological texts otherwise lost. Porphyry’s interest in this science led him to write also an Introduction to Astronomy, where he supports the thesis according to which each soul receives particular features from different planets (such as the imagination from the Sun or the impulsiveness from Mars).
The original Greek text of Porphyry’s works and fragments, based on the best available editions, can now be found in an electronic version in the Thesaurus Linguae Graece collection. For the text of The Commentary on the Harmonics see, in particular, Düring, Ingemar: Porphyrios Kommentar zur Harmonielehre des Ptolemaios ; Göteborg, Sweden: Elanders, 1932. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1980. For the Tetrabiblos commentary see Boer, Aemilia, and Stephanus Weinstock, Introductio in Tetrabiblum Ptolemaei, in Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum 5, 4. Brussels: Academia, 1940, pp. 190–228. Below is a list of some translations of Porphyry’s work into English.
WORKS BY PORPHYRY
The Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey. A revised text with translation by Seminar Classics 609. State University of New York at Buffalo, Arethusa Monograph 1. Buffalo: Dept. of Classics, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1969.
To Marcella. Text and translation with introduction and notes by Kathleen O’Brien Wicker. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987.
Greek Musical Writings. Vol. 2, Harmonic and Acoustic Theory. Edited by Andrew Barker. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Translation of some excerpts of Porphyry’s Commentary on the Harmonics.
Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains. Edited and translated with an introduction and epilogue by R. Joseph Hoffmann. Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 1994.
Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus. Translated Texts for Historians 35. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
On Abstinence from Killing Animals. Translated by Gillian Clark. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Porphyry’s Introduction. Translated with a commentary by J. Barnes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.
Barker, Andrew. “Porphyry. Porphyry’s Music Theory.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Bidez, Joseph. Vie de Porphyre: Le philosophe neo-platonicien, avec les fragments des traites Peri Agalmaton et De regressu animae. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1913. Reprint, Hildesheim, Germany: Olm, 1964.
Deuse, Werner. Untersuchungen zur mittelplatonischen und neuplatonischen Seelenlehre. Wiesbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1983.
Düring, Ingemar. Ptolemaios uns Porphyrios über die Musik.Göteborg, Sweden: Elanders, 1934. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1980.
Edwards, Mark J. “Porphyry and the Intelligible Triad.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 110 (1990): 14–24.
Evangeliou, Christos. Aristotle’s Categories and Porphyry. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1988.
Girgenti, Giuseppe. Porfirio negli ultimi cinquant’anni: bibliografia sistematica e ragionata della letteratura primaria e secondaria. Milan, Italy: Vita e Pensiero, 1994.
Hadot, Pierre. Porphyre et Victorinus. Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1968.
———. Plotin, Porphyre—études néoplatoniciennes. Paris: Les belles lettres, 1999.
Smith, Andrew. Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition: A Study in Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974.
———. “Porphyrian Studies since 1913.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2, 36, 2 (1987): 717–773.
Strange, Steven K. “Plotinus, Porphyry and the Neoplatonic Interpretation of the ‘Categories.’” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2, 36, 2 (1987): 955–974.
Neoplatonic philosopher greatly influencing the development of philosophical and theological thought at the close of antiquity; b. Tyre, 234; d. Rome?, after 301. At Athens, in 254, he became a pupil and constant friend of the Platonist Longinus Cassius. In 263 he went to Rome to join the school of plotinus, whose teaching led him astray from the outset. Yet he was not slow in becoming one of the most important members of this school. Five years later, possibly as a result of his intellectual labors, he fell victim to neurasthenia and contemplated suicide. Under advice from Plotinus, who discerned his difficulty, he went to Marsala (Lilybaeum) in Sicily. After Plotinus's death (270), he returned to Rome, became head of the school, and married Marcella, the widow of a philosopher.
Porphyry wrote an immense opus, comprising almost 70 treatises; only fragments of this work remain. It is not quite correct to hold, as many do, that Porphyry was content merely with popularizing Plotinus's teaching. Besides the edition of the Enneads, the only Plotinian thought in Porphyry's writings is that in the Sententiae ad intellegibilia ducentes, whose title J. Bidez has rendered "Treasury of thoughts for a soul wishing to arrive at the intelligible" (Vie 106). Here Porphyry reproduces complete sentences from Plotinus but often adds his own reflections. One can detect that, while seeking to systematize Plotinus, Porphyry distorts his thought, notably as regards the distinction of virtues into political, purificatory, contemplative, and paradigmatic (Sent. 32). Although he proposed to make a résumé of Plotinus (Enn. 1.2), Porphyry actually presented a quite different teaching. Yet this distinction among the virtues prevailed throughout the Middle Ages.
Generally, Porphyry seems not to have understood Plotinus perfectly, notably as regards the latter's teaching concerning the transcendency of the One in relation to the intelligible world. He seems instead to have remained partially faithful to the traditional Platonism of Longinus. When Plotinus violently criticized the Aristotelian teaching in the Categories, Porphyry wrote a commentary on this treatise and actually refuted Plotinus's objections. His Isagoge, a sort of introduction to Aristotle's Organon, systematizes the teaching on the predicables. By asking whether genus and species are realities subsistent in themselves or mere conceptions of the mind, Porphyry proposed the problem of universals to the Middle Ages. Moreover, he commented upon many dialogues of Plato, especially the Timaeus (traces of this commentary are found in calcidius, macrobius, and proclus) and the Parmenides (14 pages of this have been recently identified in a palimpsest at Turin). Porphyry identifies the first One, corresponding to the first hypostasis in the Parmenides, with the act of being, and the second One, corresponding to the second hypostasis with the subject receiving being. This distinction, found also in marius victorinus, was used by boethius in his De hebdomadibus and was eventually formulated in the Middle Ages as the difference between existence (esse ) and what exists (quod est ).
Porphyry was much preoccupied throughout his life with moral and religious questions concerning the salvation of the soul and spiritual cult. Bidez maintains that his thought on this subject underwent an evolution. Before his encounter with Plotinus, he had written a work titled "Philosophy Drawn from the Oracles," a collection of oracles gleaned from various centers of cult. Here Porphyry professes a strong belief in the most uncouth superstitions and practices of paganism. He attacks Christianity, while admitting that Christ could have been a superior man. After meeting Plotinus, however, he discovered that the true salvation of the soul could come only from mystical union with the divinity. In his De regressu animae, of which fragments have been conserved by augustine (Civ. 10), he claims nonetheless that the religious practices advised by the Chaldaic Oracles could afford salvation for the inferior part of the soul (see neo-platonism). In his letter to the Egyptian priest Anebo, he enumerates a whole series of doubts and criticisms concerning the public cult given to the gods. These criticisms can be seen in his De abstinentia: bloody sacrifices cannot honor the gods; they can, at best, appease the evil demons. The philosopher, as a priest of the supreme God, refrains from these practices. As Bidez notes (Vie 101), the religious teaching of Porphyry recognizes three levels: the lowest is the public cult rendered by the cities—this protects the masses from evil demons; above this, the mystery rites purify man's imagination and turn it to the visible gods; and at the summit, the contemplation of the wise provides the only cult that is worthy of the supreme God.
In Sicily, after 268, Porphyry wrote his 15 books against the Christians, which deal with numerous points of chronological or philological detail and attack especially the veracity of the Gospel narratives. Despite his desire for objectivity, Porphyry makes many errors in details and quite simply represents the prejudices of the Greek mind against Christianity. Yet this great adversary of Christianity has exercised a great influence on Christian thought. To formulate the Trinitarian dogma, Marius Victorinus and synesius of cyrene (in his Hymns ) employ the schemata Porphyry had used to translate into Platonic terms the data furnished by the Chaldaic Oracles. The Oracles placed, at the summit of all, a triad formed by the Father, His Power, and His Intellect. Porphyry identified the Father with the first One and the triad Father-Power-Intellect with the triad being-life-thought. Thus he compromised the transcendence of the Plotinian One. In similar fashion, Victorinus and Synesius identified the Father with the One and the Being, and made the Son and the Holy Spirit correspond to the Power and the Intellect (otherwise known as Life and Thought) to form a triad with the Father. St. ambrose and St. Augustine also seem to have been strongly influenced by the metaphysical and moral doctrine of Porphyry.
Porphyry's works are still poorly known; important fragments may yet be found in Arabian translations.
See Also: porphyrian tree
Bibliography: porphyry, Lettera ad Anebo, ed. a. r. sodano (Naples 1958). f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster MD 1950) v.1. f. ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie (Berlin 1923–28) v.1–2. r. beutler, g. wissowa, et al., eds., Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft (Stuttgart 1953) 22.1; 273–313. j. bidez, Vie de Porphyre (Leipzig 1913). h. dÖrrie, Porphyrios' "Symmikta Zetemata" (Munich 1959). p. hadot, "Fragments d'un commentaire de Porphyre sur le Parménide, " Revue des études grecques 74 (1961) 410–438. f. altheim and r. stiehl, Porphyrios und Empedokles (Tübingen 1954). r. stiehl, "New Fragments of Greek Philosophers: II. Porphyry in Arabic and Syriac Translation," East and West 13 (Rome 1962) 3–15. w. theiler, Die chaldäischen Orakel und die Hymnen des Synesios (Halle 1942). j. j. o'meara, Porphyry's Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine (Paris 1959), but see review of this by p. hadot, "Citations de Porphyre chez Augustin," Revue des études augustiniennes 6 (1960) 205–244.
1. Beautiful and very hard rock quarried in Egypt in Antiquity, deep purplish-red in colour, capable of taking a high polish.
2. Black or green stones of porphyritic structure quarried in Sardinia, Greece, etc.
3. Any unstratified or igneous rock having a homogeneous base containing crystals of one or more minerals, e.g. felspar porphyry, claystone porphyry, porphyritic granite, and porphyritic greenstone. The best-known are porfido rosso (deep red with whitish spots), porfido nero (black with white spots), serpentino nero antico (black with lighter oblong spots), porfido verde (very dark, almost black, with fine green shades), porfido di Vitelli (pea-green with small lighter green spots), and a blue porphyry found by the Romans at Fréjus. The so-called rosso antico was not a porphyry, but was in fact a marble found in Greece or Italy, and was both cheaper and easier to work. The finest rosso antico occurred at Brescia, was deep blood-red or liver in colour, with a fine grain, and could take a high polish.
J. Papworth (1832)
234-circa 305 c.e.
Devoted Student. Probably of Syrian background and originally named Malchus, Porphyry was likely born in Tyre. He studied with Plotinus in Rome in the 260s and attempted to integrate systematic Aristotelian logic with Plotinus’s new interpretation of Plato. He wrote commentaries on the works of Plato and Aristotle and saw to the posthumous publication of Plotinus’s Enneads. He was critical of the Christians and wrote a work against them. He was, however, respectful of traditional forms of religious ritual and belief.
John J. O’Meara, Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1959).
Andrew Smith, Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition: A Study in PostPlotinian Neoplatonism (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1974).
por·phy·ry / ˈpôrfərē/ • n. (pl. -ries) a hard igneous rock containing crystals, usually of feldspar, in a fine-grained, typically reddish groundmass.
i. porfurie, -firie,
ii. purfire, porphire,
iii. porphyry; all ult. — medL. porphyreum, for L. porphyrītēs — Gr. porphurī́tes, f. pórphuros PURPLE.