Porphyry (c. 232 – c. 304 C.E.) was a Neoplatonist philosopher, a student of Plotinus and the editor of his works. He is considered one of the founders of Neo-Platonism. He was given the name Porphyrius (clad in purple, an allusion to the color of imperial robes), a play on his given name of “Malchus” (king), by his Athenian teacher, Cassius Longinus. Born in Tyre, he went to Rome in 262 C.E. and studied under Plotinus for six years. He later reorganized Plotinus’ writings, the Enneads, into their current form and added a biography, Life of Plotinus. He attempted to reconcile Aristotelian logic with Platonism in his Introduction to Categories. A Latin translation of the Introduction, Isagoge, became a standard medieval textbook and a foundation for later discussions of logic and the problem of universals. His Neoplatonist view greatly impacted the understanding of Platonism until early modern times. His interpretation on the Arbor porphyriana ("Porphyrian Tree"), a system for logical classification of substance, has continued until today to influence the classification of living things. Among the sixty works attributed to Porphyry were Aids to the Study of the Intelligibles, a basic summary of Neoplatonism; a Life of Pythagoras; commentaries on Euclidean geometry and Ptolemy’s Harmonics; Against the Christians; De Abstinentia (“On Abstinence”) and De Non Necandis ad Epulandum Animantibus (roughly “On the Impropriety of Killing Living Beings for Food”) in support of abstinence from animal flesh; and On the Cave of the Nymphs, an interpretation of classical mythology.
Most of the known details of the personal life of Porphyry are found in his own The Life of Plotinus. He was born in Tyre in Phoenicia (now Lebanon) around 234 C.E. and named Malchus, after his father. He studied in Athens under the Middle Platonist, Cassius Longinus, who gave him the name Porphyrius, a play on his name (king; royalty often wore purple robes) and an allusion to the manufacture of purple dye in Tyre. In 262 C.E. he came to Rome and studied under Plotinus. In 268 C.E., Plotinus advised him to go to Sicily to recover his health after a bout of depression. He remained there until after Plotinus’ death in 270 C.E., apparently returning to teach in Rome.
It is thought that he was the teacher of Iamblichus, who was strongly influenced by Porphyry though he later turned against him. Around 301 C.E. he edited Plotinus’ writings, the Enneads, rearranging them into six books with nine chapters each, the format in which they exist today. A Letter to Marcella, which is still in existence, indicates that he married an older wife later in life, a widow named Marcella who had seven children. The date of his death is uncertain.
Thought and Works
Porphyry is known for organizing and promulgating the concepts of Neo-Platonism. He wrote at least sixty works on a variety of topics including philosophy, religion, grammar and philology, geometry, astrology, music theory, natural science, and classical mythology. Most of them are now lost, or exist only as fragments. Still extant are Life of Plotinus, Life of Pythagoras, Letter to Marcella, On Abstinence from Eating Food from Animals, Starting-points Leading to the Intelligibles (usually called the Sententiae; in Latin, Sententiae ad intelligibilia ducentes), the Isagoge (Introduction), On the Cave of the Nymphs, and commentaries on Aristotle's Categories and Ptolemy's Harmonics. There are also fragments of a history of philosophy and of works on psychology. Against the Christians, one of his most famous works, originally consisted of fifteen books, of which only portions have survived.
Starting-points Leading to the Intelligibles (Sententiae) is a summary of the concepts of Neoplatonism and follows the teachings of Plotinus closely. Porphyry's most influential contribution to philosophy, the Introduction to Categories, incorporated Aristotle's logic into Neoplatonism, in particular the doctrine of the categories interpreted in terms of entities (in later philosophy, "universals"). The Introduction describes how qualities attributed to things may be classified, breaking down the philosophical concept of substance into relationships of genus and species. Written by Porphyry as a preface to his commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories, it was translated into Latin by Boethius as Isagoge, and became a standard medieval textbook of philosophy that remained in use for centuries. It laid the foundation for later philosophical-theological discussions of logic and the problem of universals. In medieval textbooks, the Arbor porphyriana ("Porphyrian Tree") illustrated his logical classification of substance. To this day, taxonomists use a system derived from Porphyry's Tree to classify all living organisms.
Porphyry is also known as an opponent of Christianity and defender of Paganism, on the grounds that Christianity was irrational and placed excessive emphasis on the mystical. Only fragments remain of the fifteen books of his Adversus Christianos (“Against the Christians”), in which he commented, "The Gods have proclaimed Christ to have been most pious, but the Christians are a confused and vicious sect." Counter-treatises were written by Eusebius of Caesarea, Apollinarius (or Apollinaris) of Laodicea, Methodius of Olympus, and Macarius of Magnesia; all have been lost. Jerome reports Porphyry's identification of the Book of Daniel as the work of a writer in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. There is no proof of the assertion of Socrates, the ecclesiastical historian, and Augustine, that Porphyry was once a Christian.
Porphyry, believing that only reason, exercised by a pure mind, could lead to unity with the One God, was opposed to the theurgy (the practice of ceremonies and mystic rituals in order to experience oneness with the Ultimate Being) of his disciple Iamblichus. He emphasized detaching oneself from the passions and confusion of the everyday world in order to practice true contemplation. Iamblichus devoted much of his work to the defense of mystic theurgic divine possession against the critiques of Porphyry.
Porphyry was an advocate of vegetarianism on spiritual and ethical grounds. He wrote the De Abstinentia (On Abstinence) and also a De Non Necandis ad Epulandum Animantibus (roughly “On the Impropriety of Killing Living Beings for Food”) urging respect for all living species and abstinence from animal flesh, and promoting an awareness of the destructive effects of human consumption on the natural world.
Porphyry also wrote widely on astrology, religion, philosophy, and musical theory; and produced a biography of his teacher, Plotinus, and another on the life of Pythagoras, named Vita Pythagorae (“Life of Pythagoras”; not to be confused with the book of the same name by Iamblichus). His writings preserved portions of the works of several mathematicians that have otherwise been lost.
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Works by Porphyry
- Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus)
- Vita Pythagorae (Life of Pythagoras)
- De abstinentia (On Abstinence)
- De antro nympharum (On the Cave of the Nymphs)
- Ad Marcellam (Letter to Marcellas)
- Isagoge sive quinque voces (Introduction to Aristotle's Categories)
- In Aristotelis categorias expositio per interrogationem et responsionem (Exposition on Aristotle's Categories by Question and Response)
- Sententiae ad intelligibilia ducentes
- In Platonis Timaeum commentaria (fragment) (Commentary on Plato's Timaeus)
- Chronica (fragment)
- De philosophia ex oraculis (On Philosophy from the Oracles)
- Περι Αγαλματων (On Statues)
- Epistula ad Anebonem (Letter to Anebo)
- Quaestionum Homericarum
- On the Harmonics of Ptolemy
- Contra Christianos (fragment)
- Historia philosophiae (fragment)
- Introductio in tetrabiblum Ptolemaei
- In Platonis Parmenidem commentaria (fragment)
(Source - Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Note that this list does not include other extant fragments.)
- Clarke, C.; John M. Dillon, Jackson P. Hershbell, N. Festa Iamblichus. Iamblichus: De mysteriis. Society of Biblical Literature; Bilingual edition (2003).
- Bechtle, G. The Anonymous Commentary on Plato's ‘Parmenides’. Bern, 1999.
- Bidez, J. Vie de Porphyre. Ghent, 1913.
- Ebbesen, S. “Porphyry's legacy to logic”. In R. Sorabji, Aristotle Transformed—The Ancient Commentators and their Influence. London, 1990. pp. 141-171.
- Evangeliou, C. Aristotle's Categories and Porphyry. Leiden, 1988.
- Strange, S. K. ‘Introduction’ to Porphyry: On Aristotle's Categories. London, 1992.
All links retrieved June 13, 2019.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
- Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, Book III
- Porphyry, On the Life of Plotinus
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Project Gutenberg
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