The distinction is due to Porphyry of having been the most able and consistent champion and exponent of the Alexandreian School. He was a native of Tyre, of Semitic extraction, and was born in the year 233, in the reign of the Emperor Alexander Severus. He was placed at an early age under the tutelage of Origen, the celebrated Christian philosopher, who had himself been a pupil of Ammonios Sakkas. Afterward he became a student of Longinus at Athens, who had opened a school of rhetoric, literature and philosophy. Longinus had also been a disciple of Ammonios, and was distinguished as the Scholar of the Age. He was often called a "Living Library," and the "Walking School of Philosophy." He afterward became the counsellor of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, an honor that finally cost him his life. Longinus foresaw the promise of his pupil, and according to a custom of the time, changed his Semitic name of Melech (king) to Porphyrios, or wearer of the purple.
In his thirtieth year, Porphyry bade farewell to his teachers in Greece and became a student in the school of Plotinos at Rome. Here he remained six years. Plotinos greatly esteemed him and often employed him to instruct the younger pupils, and to answer the questions of objectors. On one of the occasions, when the anniversary of Plato's Birthday was celebrated (the seventh of May), Porphyry recited a poem entitled The Sacred Marriage. Many of the sentiments in it were mystic and occult, which led one of the company to declare him crazed. Plotinos, however, was of another mind, and exclaimed in delight: "You have truly shown yourself to be at once a Poet, a Philosopher, and a Hierophant."
That Porphyry was an enthusiast and liable to go to extremes was to be expected. He acquired an abhorrence of the body, with its appetites and conditions, and finally began to entertain an intention to commit suicide. This, he says, "Plotinos wonderfully perceived, and as I was walking alone, he stood before me and said: 'Your present design, Porphyrios, is by no means the dictate of a sound mind, but rather of a Soul raging with the furor of melancholia.'"
Accordingly, at his direction, Porphyry left Rome and became a resident at Lilylaeum in Sicily. Here he presently recovered a normal state of mind and health. He never again saw his venerated instructor. Plotinos, however, kept up a correspondence with him, sending him manuscripts to correct and put in good form, and encouraging him to engage in authorship on his own account.
After the death of Plotinos, he returned to Rome and became himself a teacher. "With a temperament more active and practical than that of Plotinos, with more various ability and far more facility in adaptation, with an erudition equal to his fidelity, blameless in his life, preeminent in the loftiness and purity of his ethics, he was well fitted to do all that could be done toward drawing for the doctrines he had espoused that reputation and that wider influence to which Plotinos was so indifferent." [R. A. Vaughan.] It was his aim to exalt worship to its higher ideal, casting off superstitious notions and giving a spiritual sense and conception to the Pantheon, the rites and the mythologic legends. What is vulgarly denominated idolatry, paganism and polytheism, had little countenance in his works, except as thus expounded. He emulated Plotinos, who on being asked why he did not go to the temple and take part in the worship of the gods, replied: "It is for the gods to come to me."
When he lived, the new Christian religion was gaining a foothold, particularly among the Greek-speaking peoples, and its teachers appear to have been intolerant even to the extreme of bigotry. The departure from established customs was so flagrant as to awaken in the Imperial Court vivid apprehensions of treasonable purposes. Similar apprehensions had led the Roman Senate to suppress the Bacchic Nocturnal Rites; and energetic measures had also been employed in the case of the flagitious enormities in the secret worship of the Venus of Kotytto. The nightly meetings of the Christians were represented to be of a similar character. This led to vigorous efforts for their suppression. Porphyry, though broad in his liberality, was strenuous in his opposition to their doctrines, and wrote fifteen treatises against them. These were afterward destroyed in the proscription by Theodosios, without any attempt to answer them.
He was equally suspicious of the Theurgic doctrines and magic rites. The sacrifice of men and animals, for sacrifice and divination, was resolutely discountenanced as attracting evil demons. "A right opinion of the gods and of things themselves," he declared, "is the most acceptable sacrifice."
"Very properly," said he, "will the philosopher who is also the priest of the God that is above all, abstain from all animal food, in consequence of earnestly endeavoring to approach through himself alone to the alone God, without being disturbed by anything about him."
This was the very core of the Neo-Platonic doctrine. "This," says Plotinos, "this is the life of the Gods, and of divine and blessed human beings — a liberation from earthly concerns, a life unaccompanied by human delights, and a flight of the alone to the Alone."
"He who is truly a philosopher," adds Porphyry, "is an observer and skilled in many things; he understands the works of nature, is sagacious, temperate and modest, and is in every respect the savior and preserver of himself."
"Neither vocal language nor is internal speech adapted to the Most High God, when it is defiled by any passion of the soul; but we should venerate him in silence with a pure soul, and with pure conceptions about him."
"It is only requisite to depart from evil, and to know what is most honorable in the whole of things, and then everything in the universe is good, friendly and in alliance with us."
"Nature, being herself a spiritual essence, initiates those through the superior Mind (noos) who venerate her."
Although himself believing in divination and communion with spiritual essences, Porphyry distrusted the endeavor to blend philosophic contemplation with magic arts, or orgiastic observances. This is manifest in his Letter to Anebo the Egyptian prophet in which he demands full explanations respecting the arts of evoking the gods and demons, divining by the stars and other agencies, the Egyptian belief respecting the Supreme Being, and what was the true path to Blessedness.
Although we read of no formal schism, there appear to have been two distinct parties — that of the Theurgists represented by Iamblichos, Proklos and their followers, and the disciples of Porphyry, Hypatia, and other teachers, who inculcated that there is an intuitive perception cognate in the soul, and that there may be a union and communion with Divinity by ecstasy and suspension of corporeal consciousness.
"By his conceptions," says Porphyry, "had Plotinos, assisted by the divine light raised himself to the First God beyond, and by employing for this purpose the paths narrated by Plato in The Banquet, there appeared to him the Supreme Divinity who has neither any form nor idea, but is established above Mind and every Spiritual Essence: to whom also, I, Porphyry, say that I once approached, and was united when I was sixty-eight years of age. For the end and scope with Plotinos consisted in approximating and being united to the God who is above all. Four times he obtained this end while I was with him (in Rome) and this by an ineffable energy and not in capacity."
Porphyry lived till the reign of Diocletian, dying in his seventieth year. He had given the later Platonism a well-defined form, which was retained for centuries. Even after the change of the State religion, the whole energy of the Imperial Government was required to crush it. Even when Justinian arbitrarily closed the school at Athens, and the teachers had escaped to the Persian king for safety, there were still adherents in secret to their philosophy. Afterward, too, they came forth in Oriental Sufism and Western Mysticism, and retained their influence till the present time.
Among the works of Porphyry which have escaped destruction, are his treatise on "Abstinence from Animal Food," nearly entire, the "Cave of the Nymphs," Auxiliaries to the Study of Intelligible (Spiritual) Natures," "The Five Voices," "Life of Plotinos," "Letter to Anebo, " "Letter to his Wife Marcella," "The River Styx," "Homeric Questions," "Commentaries on the Harmonies of Ptolemy." His other books were destroyed by order of Theodosios.
The "Cave of the Nymphs" is described in the Odyssey as situate in the island of Ithaca. The term is figurative and the story allegoric. The ancients dealt much in allegory; and the Apostle Paul does not hesitate to declare the story of the patriarch Abraham and his two sons allegory, and that the exodus of the Israelites through the sea and into the Arabian desert was a narrative made up of types or figures of speech. Caves symbolized the universe, and appear to have been the sanctuaries of archaic time. It is said that Zoroaster consecrated one to Mithras as the Creator; and that Kronos concealed his children in a cave; and Plato describes this world as a cave and prison. Demeter and her daughter Persephone, each were worshipped in caves. Grottos once used for worship abound in Norway. Mark Twain asserts that the "sacred places" in Palestine were located by the Catholics, and are all of them caves. The initiation rites were performed in caves, or apartments representing subterranean apartments, with "a dim religious light." Zeus and Bacchus were nursed in such places. The Mithraic worship which was adopted from the Persians, and carried all through the Roman world, had its initiations in Sacred Caverns. To the caves were two entrances, one for mortals at the north and one for divine beings at the south. The former was for souls coming from the celestial world to be born as human beings, and the other for their departure from this world heavenward. An olive-tree standing above, expressed the whole enigma. It typified the divine wisdom, and so implied that this world was no product of chance, but the creation of wisdom and divine purpose. The Nymphs were also agents in the same category. Greek scholars will readily comprehend this. The nymphs presided over trees and streams of water, which also are symbols of birth into this world. Numphe signifies a bride, or marriageable girl; numpheion a marriage-chamber; numpheuma an espousal. Water was styled numphe as significant of generation. In short the Cave of the Nymphs, with the olive-tree, typified the world with souls descending from the celestial region to be born into it, in an order established by Divine Wisdom itself.
Thus we may see that the ancient Rites, and Notions, now stigmatized as idolatrous, were but eidola or visible representations of arcane and spiritual concepts. As they were once observed with pure reverence, it becomes us to regard them with respect. What is accounted holy can not be altogether impure.
The treatise on Animal Food covers a very broad field which space forbids the traversing. The point in view is of course, that a philosopher, a person in quest of a higher life and higher wisdom, should live simply, circumspectly, and religiously forbear to deprive his fellow-animals of life for his food. Even for sacrifice he regards the immolating of men or animals repugnant to the nature of Gods, and attractive only to lower races of spiritual beings.
He, however, leaves those engaged in laborious callings entirely out. His discourse, he declares, "is not directed to those who are occupied in sordid mechanical arts, nor to those engaged in athletic exercises; neither to soldiers, nor sailors, nor rhetoricians, nor to those who lead an active life, but I write to the man who considers what he is, whence he came, and whither he ought to tend."
"The end with us is to obtain the contemplation of Real Being [the essence that really is]; the attainment of it procuring, as much as is possible for us, a union of the person contemplating with the object of contemplation. The re-ascent of the soul is not to anything else than to True Being itself. Mind [noos] is truly-existing being; so that the end is, to live a life of mind."
Hence purification and felicity (endai-monia) are not attained by a multitude of discussions and disciplines, nor do they consist in literary attainments; but on the other hand we should divest ourselves of everything of a mortal nature which we assumed by coming from the eternal region into the mundane condition, and likewise of a tenacious affection for it, and should excite and call forth our recollection of that blessed and eternal essence from which we issued forth.
"Animal food does not contribute to temperance and frugality, or to the piety which especially gives completion to the contemplative life, but is rather hostile to it." Abstinence neither diminishes our life nor occasions living unhappily. The Pythagoreans made lenity toward beasts to be an exercise of philanthropy and commiseration. The Egyptian priests generally employed a slender diet, generally abstaining from all animals, some even refusing to eat eggs, and "they lived free from disease." So, Hesiod described the men of the Golden Age.
The essay on Intelligible or Spiritual Natures is in the form of aphorisms, and gives the cream of the Later Platonism. We can select only a few of the sentiments. Every body is in place; but things essentially incorporeal are not present with bodies by personality and essence. They, however, impart a certain power to bodies through verging towards them. The soul is an entity between indivisible essence, and the essence about bodies. The mind or spirit is indivisible, or whole. The soul is bound to the body through the corporeal passions and is liberated by becoming impassive. Nature bound the body to the soul; but the soul binds itself to the body. Hence there are two forms of death: one that of the separating of soul and body, and that of the philosopher, the liberating of the soul from the body. This is the death which Sokrates describes in the Phaedo.
The knowing faculties are sense, imagination, and mind or spirit. Sense is of the body, imagination of the soul, but mind is self-conscious and apperceptive. Soul is an essence without magnitude, immaterial, incorruptible, possessing its existence in life, and having life from itself.
The properties of matter are thus set forth: It is incorporeal; it is without life, it is formless, infinite, variable and powerless; it is always becoming and in existence; it deceives; it resembles a flying mockery eluding all pursuit, and vanishing into non-entity. It appears to be full, yet contains nothing.
"Of that Being that is beyond Mind many things are asserted through intellection; but it is better surveyed by a cessation of intellectual activity than with it. The similar is known by the similar; because all knowledge is an assimilation to the object of knowledge."
"The bodily substance is no impediment whatever to that which is essentially incorporeal, to prevent it from being where and in such a way as it wishes to be." An incorporeal nature, a soul, if contained in a body is not enclosed in it like a wild beast in a cage; nor is it contained in it as a liquid in a receptacle. Its conjunction with body is effected by means of an ineffable extension from the eternal region. It is not liberated by the death of the body, but it liberates itself by turning itself from a tenacious affection to the body.
God is present everywhere because he is nowhere; and this is also true of Spirit and Soul. Each of these is everywhere because each is nowhere. As all beings and non-beings are from and in God, hence he is neither beings nor non-beings, nor does he subsist in them. For if he was only everywhere he could be all things and in all; but since he is likewise nowhere, all things are produced through him, and are contained in him because he is everywhere. They are, however, different from him, because he is nowhere. Thus, likewise, mind or spirit being everywhere and nowhere, is the cause of souls, and of the natures posterior to souls; yet mind is not soul, nor the natures posterior to soul, nor does it subsist in them; because it is not only everywhere, but also nowhere with respect to the natures posterior to it. Soul, also, is neither body nor in body, but it is the cause of body; because being everywhere, it is also nowhere with respect to body. In its egress from the body if it still possesses a spirit and temper turbid from earthly exhalations, it attracts to itself a shadow and becomes heavy. It then necessarily lives on the earth. When, however, it earnestly endeavors to depart from nature, it becomes a dry splendor, without a shadow, and without a cloud or mist.
Virtues are of two kinds, political and contemplative. The former are called political or social, as looking to an innoxious and beneficial association with others. They consist of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. These adorn the mortal man, and are the precursors of purification. "But the virtues of him who proceeds to the contemplative life, consist in a departure from terrestrial concerns. Hence, also, they are denominated purifications, being surveyed in the refraining from corporeal activities, and avoiding sympathies with the body. For these are the virtues of the soul elevating itself to true being." He who has the greater virtues has also the less, but the contrary is not true.
When it is asserted that incorporeal being is one, and then added that it is likewise all, it is signified that it is not some one of the things which are cognized by the senses.
The scope of the political virtues is to give measure to the passions in their practical operations according to nature. "He who acts or energizes according to the practical virtues is a worthy man; he who lives according to the purifying virtues is an angelic man, or good demon; he who follows the virtues of the mind or spirit alone is a god; he who follows the exemplary virtues is father of gods." In this life we may obtain the purifying virtues which free us from body and conjoin us to the heavens. But we are addicted to the pleasures and pains of sensible things, in conjunction with a promptitude to them, from which disposition it is requisite to be purified. "This will be effected by admitting necessary pleasures and the sensations of them, merely as remedies or as a liberation from pain, in order that the higher nature may not be impeded in its operations." In short, the doctrines of Porphyry, like those of the older philosophers, teach that we are originally of heaven, but temporarily become inhabitants of the earth; and that the end of the true philosophic life, is to put off the earthly proclivities, that we may return to our primal condition.