Porphyry Essay - Critical Essays




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.

Principal Works

De abstinentia [On Abstinence from Animal Food] (philosophy) written before 263

History of Philosophy (history/philosophy) written before 263

Life of Pythagoras (history/philosophy) written before 263

On the Images of the Gods (essay) written before 263

On the Philosophical Benefit of Oracles (essay) written before 263

Against the Christians (philosophy) written after 263

Chronica (philosophy) written after 263

De Regressu Animae (philosophy) written after 263

The Homeric Questions (literary criticism) written after 263

Isagoge [Eisagoge Introduction] (philosophical commentary) written after 263

Lecture on Literature (literary criticism) written after 263

Letter to Anebo (essay) written after 263

Letter to Marcella (correspondence/philosophy) written after 263

Parmenides Commentary (philosophy) written after 263

Sententiae [Sentences] (philosophy) written after 263

Summikta Zetemata [Various Investigations] (philosophy) written after 263

Enneads [editor] (philosophy) 301

Vita Plotini [Life of Plotinus] (biography) 301

Select Works of Porphyry (translated by T. Taylor) 1817

Life of Plotinus and The Enneads of Plotinus (translated by A. H. Armstrong) 1966

Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey (translated by R. Lamberton) 1969

Porphyry the Philosopher, To Marcella (translated by K. Wicker) 1969

Life of Plotinus (translated by G. R. Evans) 1980

On Abstinence from Animal Food (edited by E. Wynn-Tyson) 1988

Porphyry's Launching-Points to the Realm of Mind: An Introduction to the Neoplatonic Philosophy of Plotinus (translated by Kenneth Guthrie) 1989

The Homeric Questions (edited by Robin R. Schlunk) 1993

Porphyry's Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (ranslated by R. Joseph Hoffmann) 1994

On Aristotle's Categories (translated by C. Evangeliou) 1996

Porphyry's Letter to His Wife Marcella: Concerning the Life of Philosophy and the Ascent to the Gods (translated by Alice Zimmern) 1996

On Abstinence from Killing Animals (translated by Gillian Clark) 2000

Porphyry: Introduction (edited by Jonathan Barnes) 2003


M. J. Boyd (essay date July 1937)

SOURCE: Boyd, M. J. “The Chronology in Porphyry's Vita Plotini.Classical Philology 32, no. 3 (July 1937): 241-57.

[In the following essay, Boyd explains that there is some question about the accuracy of the statements made by Porphyry regarding the chronology of events in his Life of Plotinus, and he theorizes that the author used a particular system of reckoning to arrive at his dates.]

The ultimate source of all our knowledge of the chronological details of the life of Plotinus is the Vita Plotini of Porphyry.1 Yet, until Professor Oppermann produced his Die Chronologie in Porphyrios' “Vita Plotini,”2 no one...

(The entire section is 6618 words.)

Herbert A. Davidson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Davidson, Herbert A. Introduction to Averroes's Middle Commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge and on Aristotle's Categoriae, translated by Herbert A. Davidson, pp. xi-xxi. Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Davidson discusses the philosopher Averroes's less than enthusiastic opinion of Porphyry's Introduction, which he commented on together with Aristotle's Categories. Davidson notes that Averroes pointed out the errors in Porphyry's work as an introduction to the study of logic.]

By Averroes' time, eight of Aristotle's works had been grouped together to form a logical corpus, and Porphyry's...

(The entire section is 4252 words.)

Andrew Smith (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Smith, Andrew. Introduction to Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition, pp. xi-xviii. The Hague, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Smith compares Porphyry's main ideas with those of his influential teacher, Plotinus, and examines Porphyry's relationship to and attitude toward his teacher.]

Porphyry, who was born some twenty-eight years after Plotinus in 232-3 A.D. and probably about twenty years before Iamblichus,1 occupies in many ways a unique position in the history of Greek philosophy. He stands at the end of the final creative phase of Greek thought which culminates in Plotinus and at the beginning of...

(The entire section is 4184 words.)

Andrew Smith (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Smith, Andrew. “General Conclusion.” In Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition, pp. 145-50. The Hague, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Smith offers an assessment of Porphyry's views on the human soul and his treatment and exposition of Neoplatonism.]

Porphyry's exposition of Neoplatonism led him to adopt a number of phrases and terms which occur again and again in his writings. It is, perhaps, one of the qualities which made him such a good teacher of Neoplatonism. One word which dominates his thought is σωτηρία, the salvation of the soul. It was until recently thought that Porphyry's main, if not sole,...

(The entire section is 2855 words.)

Edward W. Warren (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Warren, Edward W. Introduction to Porphyry the Phoenician: Isagoge, translated by Edward W. Warren, pp. 9-23. Toronto, Can.: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Warren presents some biographical background on Porphyry before discussing his Isagoge in the context of the logical tradition and metaphysics, moving on to discuss Boethius's commentaries on the work.]


Porphyry was born at Tyre in Syria about 232 A.D. and died in Rome sometime between 301 and 306 A.D. He was educated in Syria and in Athens where he came under the influence of Longinus, who like Plotinus and the pagan...

(The entire section is 4346 words.)

Anthony Preus (essay date fall 1983)

SOURCE: Preus, Anthony. “Biological Theory in Porphyry's De abstinentia.Ancient Philosophy 3, no. 2 (fall 1983): 149-59.

[In the following essay, Preus discusses two biological theories—providential ecology and the rationality of animals—set forth in On the Abstinence from Animal Food.]


The earlier Neoplatonists are not famous for their contributions to biological science, for the good reason that they did not do any serious biological investigations.1 But the secondary literature has ignored the subject even more than it deserves. Although many pages have been written about Neoplatonic theories of the soul,...

(The entire section is 5716 words.)

Robert Lamberton (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Lamberton, Robert. “Plotinian Neoplatonism: Porphyry.” In Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, pp. 108-33. Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Lamberton examines Porphyry's sometimes conflicting treatment and interpretation of Homer in his Homeric Quotations and in his essay on the cave of the nymphs in the Odyssey.]


It is to Porphyry, the disciple, editor, and friend of Plotinus, that we owe the single largely complete essay in the explication of a Homeric text—one might even say of a literary text—that...

(The entire section is 11175 words.)

Colin Spencer (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Spencer, Colin. “Plato to Porphyry.” In The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism, pp. 87-107. London, Eng.: Fourth Estate, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Spencer comments briefly on Porphyry's praise of the vegetarian lifestyle, as well as on his ideas about respect for all creatures as argued in On the Abstinence from Animal Food.]

Porphyry was born in ad 232 in Tyre, Phoenicia. His original name was Malchus, which is a Syrian name meaning King. His name was hellenised at Athens by his Greek teacher of rhetoric, hence Porphyry—purple-robed. Besides Plotinus, another of his teachers was Origen, an early Christian theologian whose extraordinary...

(The entire section is 1298 words.)

Gillian Clark (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Clark, Gillian. “Translate into Greek: Porphyry of Tyre on the New Barbarians.” In Constructing Identities in Late Antiquity, edited by Richard Miles, pp. 112-32. New York: Routledge, 1999.

[In the following essay, Clark explores Porphyry's major writings in order to glean how the philosopher may have understood himself—as an intellectual in exile, a Roman, a Greek, a Neoplatonist, and a man in search of God in solitude.]

[Amelius] dedicated the book to Basileus, to me. The name Basileus belonged to me, Porphyry, because I had been called Malkos in my ancestral language (it was my father's name too), and Malkos means basileus, if...

(The entire section is 7871 words.)

M. J. Edwards (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Edwards, M. J. “Birth, Death, and Divinity in Porphyry's Life of Plotinus.” In Greek Biography and the Panegyric in Late Antiquity, edited by Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau, with the assistance of Christian Hogel, pp. 52-71. Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Edwards analyzes the Life of Plotinus and suggests that in this work Porphyry attempts to solve the mysteries about his teacher Plotinus—including his supernatural capacities—that remained obscure during his lifetime. The critic also characterizes the work as more than a biography, calling it a gospel of sorts.]

Open any book about...

(The entire section is 7898 words.)

Gillian Clark (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Clark, Gillian. Introduction to Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals, pp. 1-28. London, Eng.: Duckworth, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Clark offers background information on the dating, composition, and influences on Porphyry's On the Abstinence of Animal Food, before presenting a detailed analysis of his arguments for vegetarianism and the just treatment of animals.]


On Abstinence from Killing Animals, written in the last third of the third century ce, is a treatise in the form of an open letter from Porphyry of Tyre to his friend Firmus Castricius. Both were...

(The entire section is 12337 words.)

Jonathan Barnes (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Barnes, Jonathan. Introduction to Porphyry: Introduction, translated by Jonathan Barnes, pp. ix-xxiv. Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Barnes discusses the nature and purpose of Isagoge, which he maintains is not so much an introduction to Aristotle's Categories as it is a primary text and a handbook to philosophy and logic.]

For a thousand years and more, Porphyry's Introduction was every student's first text in philosophy. St Jerome learned his logic from it (ep 50 1). Boethius observed that ‘everyone after Porphyry's time who has tackled logic has started with this book’ (in Isag1...

(The entire section is 10308 words.)

Further Reading


Casey, P. M. “Porphyry and the Origin of the Book of Daniel.The Journal of Theological Studies 27 n.s., (1976): 15-33.

Examines the exegetical tradition used by Porphyry in his work contesting the traditional date of the biblical Book of Daniel.

Clark, Gillian. “Philosophic Lives and the Philosophic Life: Porphyry and Iamblichus.” In Greek Biography and the Panegyric in Late Antiquity, edited by Tomas Hägg and Philip Roussea, with the assistance of Christian Hogel, pp. 52-71. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000.

Claims that Porphyry did not misinterpret Aristotle's...

(The entire section is 530 words.)