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Porphyry

PORPHYRY

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 citiesthis 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 192328) v.12. r. beutler, g. wissowa, et al., eds., Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft (Stuttgart 1953) 22.1; 273313. 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) 410438. 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) 315. 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) 205244.

[p. hadot]

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