(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek scholar and philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Porphyry} As the devoted disciple of Plotinus, who is credited as the founder of Neoplatonic thought, Porphyry undertook to compile and edit his master’s philosophical works. He also wrote extensive commentaries on Greek philosophers and on the allegorical interpretation, or exegesis, of the Homeric myths.

Early Life

Porphyry (POHR-feh-ree) was born of well-to-do Syrian parents in the Phoenician city of Tyre, where he spent most of his early years. His original name was Malchus, which in the Syro-Phoenician language signifies a king. He first Hellenized his name to Basileus, the Greek word for king. Later, at the suggestion of one of his teachers, Cassius Longinus, he changed it to Porphyry, which alludes to the royal purple color of the regal garments.

Sometime in his teens, Porphyry went to Athens to continue his education. There, he attended the lectures of the erudite critic and philosopher Cassius Longinus. From Longinus, he first learned of and was influenced by the Platonism of the time. At the age of thirty, he went to Rome to become the pupil of Plotinus. He remained with Plotinus for six years, during which time he gained his confidence and respect, enjoying prolonged private discussions with him. He was entrusted by Plotinus with the arrangement and editing of his writings, the Enneads (c. 256-270; The Enneads, 1918). At the end of his six years with Plotinus, Porphyry suffered an acute depression and was contemplating suicide. Plotinus persuaded him to leave Rome. He traveled to Sicily and remained there for several years. He was in Sicily when Plotinus died in 270.

Life’s Work

During his stay in Sicily, Porphyry wrote some of his most important philosophical works. He wrote commentaries on the Platonic and Aristotelian systems of philosophy, none of which survives. One of his works, the Isagoge (The Introduction of Porphyry, 1938), a commentary on Aristotle’s Categoriae (fourth century b.c.e.; Categories, 1812), served as an introduction to the elementary concepts of Aristotelian logic. The Isagoge was translated into Latin and interpreted by the medieval philosopher and theologian Boethius. The work’s views on the ontological status of universals, stated in the beginning, exercised great influence on the early medieval controversy between realism and nominalism, as well as being the subject of many commentaries. In Sicily, Porphyry also composed, in fifteen books, the polemic Kata Christanōn (c. 270 c.e.; Against the Christians, 1830). It was not a particularly philosophical work but a defensive reaction against the growing popularity of Christianity. This work was often imitated in later years, but it also provoked a number of Christian replies and brought on Porphyry much slander and verbal abuse.

Very little is known of the remainder of Porphyry’s life. He returned to Rome several years after the death of Plotinus, supposedly to take over Plotinus’s school. It was in Rome that he edited the works of Plotinus, wrote his biography, and gained a reputation as teacher and public speaker by his expositions of Plotinus’s thought. At the advanced age of seventy, c. 304, he married Marcella, the widow of a friend with seven children. As he states in Pros Markellan (Porphyry, the Philosopher, to His Wife, Marcella, 1896; better known as Ad Marcellam), the letter he sent to his wife while on a trip away from home, they married so that he could help to raise and educate her children.

Porphyry was very successful in popularizing the thought of Plotinus and in expounding it in a clear, concise, comprehensible manner. It was the Porphyrian version of Neoplatonism that influenced Western thought, both pagan and Christian, until the ninth century. His views are basically those of his master Plotinus. History does not credit Porphyry with any original views. Still, Porphyry did not follow Plotinus slavishly. The main emphasis of his thought was on the salvation, or ascent, of the individual soul, and he wanted to find a universal way of salvation that could be practiced by all individuals. Thus, he placed a greater emphasis on the moral and ascetic aspects of Neoplatonism, was much more interested in the popular religious practices than his master, and introduced the idea of theurgy into Neoplatonism. Porphyry’s views on the ascent of the soul are found in the following works: Aphormai pros ta noēta (Auxiliaries to the Perception of Intelligible Natures, 1823; better known as Sententiae), a disjointed collection of ideas; Peri apochēs empsychōn (On Abstinence from Animal Food, 1823; better known as De abstinentia), a treatise defending vegetarianism; and the Ad Marcellam, which deals with the practice of virtue and self-control.

Like Plotinus, Porphyry believed that the soul of an individual is of divine origin and has fallen into matter—the body. While in the body, the soul must purify itself by turning its attention from the bodily and material things to contemplation of the absolute supreme deity—the One, or God. Contemplation, or love of God, cannot be combined with concern for or love of the body. Thus, the soul must purify itself by liberating itself from the...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)