Porphyry Critical Essays



(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Porphyry c. 233-c. 305

Greek scholar and philosopher.

Porphyry was the most famous student of Plotinus, the third-century founder of Neoplatonism. As the editor of his teacher's works, Porphyry was instrumental in disseminating Plotinus's teachings and his biography of Plotinus is the single best source of information on the great Neoplatonist's life and thought. Porphyry wrote prolifically on philosophical and religious subjects, but only a small fraction of his output survives, mostly in fragments. His best-known works include a commentary on Aristotle's Categories, a treatise attacking Christianity, and a tract extolling the virtues of vegetarianism. Porphyry is not considered an original thinker or writer, but his work has scholarly breadth and presents valuable insights into the views of other philosophers. His writings present the main tenets of Neoplatonism and reveal his own deep interest in mysticism, the salvation of the soul, and the search for God.

Biographical Information

Porphyry was born around 233, either in Tyre, in Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), or in Batanea (near the southern border of Syria). His original name was Malchus, which means “king” in the Syro-Phoenecian language. As a young man he traveled widely, perhaps in search of a teacher, and he became acquainted with many Christian, Egyptian, and Gnostic doctrines. He studied under the theologian Origen in Alexandria, then under the orator and Platonist Cassius Longinus in Athens. Longinus gave him the Greek name Porphyry, which means “purple”—either as a symbol of royalty or because he wore purple robes. When he was twenty, Porphyry went to Rome to hear the teachings of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, but the master was no longer there. Porphyry returned to Athens and stayed with Longinus for ten years, becoming one of his chief disciples. Around 263, at the age of thirty, Porphyry went to Rome again to study under Plotinus. The two men came into conflict because Porphyry dared to criticize one of Plotinus's core ideas, but he was soon converted to Plotinus's way of thinking and was thereafter one of the Neoplatonist's most faithful and orthodox disciples. Porphyry spent almost six years with Plotinus, leaving the school when he had a nervous breakdown around 268. He did not see his teacher again, for Plotinus died two years later. After Plotinus's death, Porphyry returned to Rome, where he taught, wrote extensively, married the Roman Marcella (the widow of a friend) and collected, ordered, and edited Plotinus's writings. He died around 305.

Major Works

It is estimated that Porphyry wrote over seventy works, but very little of his vast output has been preserved and the dates of composition of almost all of his works are uncertain. Most of what has survived are fragments of longer works, and the authorship of a number of writings ascribed to him has been questioned. Porphyry's known surviving works are usually grouped by scholars into two categories: those written before he became a disciple of Plotinus in 263 and those written after. One of his better-known early works, most likely written in Syria, is On the Philosophical Benefit of Oracles, an essay that reveals the author's belief in demons and magic; some scholars have speculated that this is the same work that St. Augustine refers to as On the Return of the Soul. Another of his early works was his History of Philosophy, from which the surviving fragment Life of Pythagoras is an excerpt. While studying with Longinus, Porphyry probably also wrote De abstinentia (On the Abstinence from Animal Food), a treatise written in the form of an open letter to his friend Castricius in an attempt to persuade him to return to a vegetarian diet, which he had abandoned. Another extant fragment from Porphyry's early years is the inquiry On the Images of the Gods, a theological and philosophical interpretation of the symbolism of Greek gods and goddesses.

The many treatises Porphyry wrote after 263 reflect his Neoplatonist beliefs. His collection of Plotinian aphorisms sets out his teacher's views, and in his Letter to Anebo he adopts the persona of an inquirer to rebuke an Egyptian priest for his sacrilege and sham miracles. Against the Christians attacks the Christian faith and its practices from a legal and scholarly standpoint. Fragments of Porphyry's Summikta Zetemata (Various Investigations) have also been preserved, as have parts of his Lecture on Literature, commentary on a section of Homer's Odyssey, and his Life of Homer. Of Porphyry's many philosophical commentaries, only a few remain, the most important being his Isagoge, or Introduction to Aristotle's Categories, which became a standard medieval text. Porphyry's most important work, and that on which his reputation rests, was not as a writer but as the collector and compiler of Plotinus's writings. The Enneads (“Nines,” because they were sorted into chapters of nine sections each) became a book of great significance and influence not only in the Greco-Roman world, but later in the Islamic and Renaissance Christian worlds as well. Porphyry attached a biography of his teacher as a preface to the Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus) which provides insights into the great Neoplatonist's life and thought. Porphyry's letter to his wife, Marcella, discovered and published in 1861, also presents Neoplatonist ideas and is a tender and eloquent discussion of the higher moral life.

Critical Reception

Interest in Porphyry over the centuries has largely focused on his relationship with Plotinus, and his lasting fame rests on his work as an editor of his teacher's collected writings. However, during the Middle Ages Porphyry's name was also closely associated with Aristotle's; his introduction to the Categories was seen as being almost inseparable from the main text. In fact Boethius, in his commentary on Aristotle's Categories, explicates Porphyry's introduction as well, although he finds the Neoplatonist's work to be inadequate as an introduction to logic. The general opinion of Porphyry, then, has been characterized by gratitude for his scholarly efforts in explicating others' views, but a general dismissal of his own contributions, which are viewed as derivative. Some recent critics, however, have written appreciatively of Porphyry's nuanced, intellectual treatment of Neoplatonism, and a few have been especially drawn to his ideas about the rights of animals. Some have also tried to show that Porphyry did not misunderstand Aristotle in his Isagoge, as earlier critics have charged. Although Porphyry is viewed as a thinker of limited depth, his work is valued for its formidable learning and invaluable contribution to the understanding of Plotinus and Neoplatonism.