Myth and Philosophy in Late Antique Neoplatonism: Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234-305)

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During my term at the CHS (Fall 2017), I have jointly worked on: (a) my CHS project, focusing on the reception and interpretation of traditional (especially Homeric) and philosophical (Platonic) myths in Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234-305), Plotinus’ pupil and editor; (b) secondarily, the KU Leuven research project on epistemic authority in late antique Neoplatonism, focusing on the logical reconstruction of Plato’s arguments in the Greek commentary tradition (in collaboration with Jan Opsomer and Pieter d’Hoine).

(a) Porphyry is the only Neoplatonic philosopher to have devoted entire treatises to the interpretation of Greek mythology. These writings are a valuable source for earlier (Middle-Platonic) readings of myth, had a tremendous influence on later Neoplatonic exegeses, and played a crucial role in the Christian reception of Greek mythology. Porphyry’s interpretation of Plato’s myths provides valuable insights to the Neoplatonic understanding of Plato’s dialogues and thus to the relationship between Plato’s philosophy and its Neoplatonic developments. Despite the increasing scholarly interest, the relationship between philosophy and myth in Porphyry’s thought has not been thoroughly explored.

My proposed research has had the following aims: (i) to make Porphyry’s relevant fragments widely accessible through English translations and comprehensive essays; (ii) to determine what specific philosophical function, if any, the treatises devoted to Greek mythology have within Porphyry’s philosophy; (iii) to ascertain what place the myths have in Porphyry’s reading of Plato’s dialogues, and how this reading influenced later Platonic commentators; (iv) to trace Porphyry’s debt to Plotinus and Middle-Platonism; (v) to assess the role of Porphyry’s writings in the development of the allegorical method and literary criticism from late antiquity down to medieval exegesis and modern semiotics.

To achieve these aims, I have mainly focused on: (1) Porphyry’s writings of Homeric criticism (Cave of the Nymphs, Homeric Questions, other fragments, including Homerica in Smith’s Deubner’s edition); (2) Porphyry’s On Statues. My conclusion has been that the Cave of the Nymphs (philosophical approach) and the Homeric Questions (philological approach) are not methodologically incompatible works, as the traditional view propounds, but rather parts of a broader Homeric project comprising the following three stages:

A. philological analysis with a view to mastering the Homeric letter and appreciating Homer’s art of poetic language;

B. demonstration of the philosophical value of Homeric poetry when read allegorically, and setting of the criteria of good allegory;

C. application of the criteria on specific examples illustrating the way in which Homer’s poems should be read, so that the philosophically trained reader may benefit from them.

Widening the picture, it seems that Porphyry conceived his Homeric project as part of an even greater enterprise, in which he endeavored to defend poetry and the visual arts (especially sculpture), provided that they fulfilled certain Platonic requirements and that they were approached through proper philosophical means. The remaining evidence supports the hypothesis that Porphyry read Platonism into Homer and attributed to the Homeric poems a special place within his commentaries on Plato, (especially on Book X of the Republic).

I have communicated some of these conclusions at an invited conference at Bryn Mawr College Classics Colloquium (27th October 2017). A detailed analysis is contained in the third part of my second monograph, Porphyry: Towards a Reappraisal, which undertakes an original account of Porphyry’s thought. This monograph argues that Porphyry was a pionneer philosopher and makes a strong claim for the unity of his thought centered on Hellenic culture as this was reinterpreted through the authority of Plato. During my CHS residence, I have finalized this last part of my book, for which Brill has offered me a contract (November 2017).

b) The exegesis of authoritative philosophical texts proceeds partly through logical reconstruction, which is often (but not always) used to demonstrate the consistency and logical cogency of these texts. The late ancient commentaries on Plato and Aristotle are representative of textual traditions based on commentary and exegesis. Thus, understanding logical reconstruction in the case of these commentaries sheds light not only on the philosophy of the Commentators but also on one of the most basic exegetical tools throughout the history of philosophy, and beyond. Within this framework, I have conducted research on two questions: (1) The way in which Porphyry reconstructs Plato’s views on time and eternity in the Timaeus. My conclusion has been that Porphyry understands time and eternity as entities which are respectively dependent upon soul and intellect and which are the central terms of three successive enneadic sets of triads that structure the passage from the realm beyond eternity (transcendent One) to time at the level of our sensible cosmos. I have presented this reconstruction – to be included in the second part of my forthcoming book – at an invited talk at the University of Pennsylvania (7th December 2017). (2) The way in which the philosopher and rhetorician Themistius (c. 317-387) paraphrases the views of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus on the vegetative soul in his Paraphrase of Aristotles’ Metaphysics Lambda, preserved only in Arabic fragments and in a hebrew translation. This essay has been submitted for publication to The Classical Quarterly.

Additionally, during my CHS fellowship, I have done some preparatory work on a paper on Philolaus’ views on human physiology (“Philolaus’ B 13 DK and Plato’s Timaeus 90 a-b: From Presocratic Physiology to Platonic Psychology), which I intend to submit to a journal shortly.

Selective Bibliography

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———. 1990a. “Numenius, Pherecydes and The Cave of the Nymphs.” CQ 40, 1:258- 262.

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———. 1993. “Porphyry and the Cattle-Stealing God.” Hermes 121, 1:122-5.

———. 1996. “Porphyry’s ‘Cave of the Nymphs’ and the Gnostic Controversy.” Hermes 124,1:88-100.

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———. 2017a. “Divine Powers and Cult Statues in Porphyry of Tyre.” In Divine Powers in Late Antiquity, ed. A. Marmodoro and I.-F. Viltanioti. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2017b. “Porphyry’s Real Powers in Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus.” The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 11:24-43.

———. 2017c. “Cult Statues in Porphyry of Tyre and Makarios Magnes (Porph. Chr. Fr. 76 and 77 von Harnack).” JLA 10, 1:187-220.

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