Tyre, the name of which means 'rock', was the most famous city of Phoenicia. Isolated on a miniscule island until Alexander the Great constructed a mole connecting it with its suburbs on the Phoenician coast, Tyre was a maritime centre of craft and trade and also of religion. Its multi-storeyed houses – loftier than any found in Rome – were built around the great temple of Melquarth, 'the Lord of the City', Ba'al in his celestial and marine aspects. Hellenistic and Semitic cultures blended in a lively profusion of modes, manners and customs as Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans successively dominated the area. They were fascinated with the mysterious Tyrian purple, the dye which permanently tinted the hands of those who worked in it and marked its wearers as kings. These peoples brought their gods to Tyre – Apollo and Astarte, Jehovah and Adonis, Mithra and Cybele – where remnants of their worship continued into the twentieth century. Prized, well fortified by nature and fierce in self-defence, Tyre was a focus of geopolitical attention until the end of the Crusades.
Porphyry was born in Tyre about 232 A. D. and given the name Malchus, which means 'king' in the Semitic languages of the area. Nothing is known of his early life or descent, though ancient writers generally supposed that he was Syrian. As he grew up, he could easily have been exposed to the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, disciples of which flourished throughout coastal Asia Minor. While still a young man he found his way to Athens, took the Greek name Basileus – a translation of his Phoenician original – and studied under Longinus, who persuaded him to settle on the name Porphyrius, the Greek designation for Tyrian purple. Though Longinus was more a man of letters than a philosopher, he cultivated the natural philosophic temperament of his disciple and imparted breadth of learning, respect for philosophical reasoning and lucidity in written expression. Porphyry's penetrating and synthesizing intellect flourished in the Athenian atmosphere vibrant with reminiscences of the early age of philosophical and literary giants. Yet he found the tradition of the later Academy stale and unoriginal, exegetical studies of the texts having obscured the Platonic injunction to live the philosophical life in daily practice. The teaching of Diotima, the significance of the Allegory of the Cave and the Myth of Er had been forgotten.
Porphyry visited Rome when he was thirty years old and there encountered disciples of the school of Plotinus, notably the devoted Amelius of Tuscany. The genius of Plotinus and his impeccable philosophical character fired Porphyry from the first, but his probing honesty led him to question the Plotinian teachings on several points. Contrary to the prevalent interpretations of Platonic doctrine, Plotinus held that the One is above Being and not, as conventionally thought, identical with it. Further, this view suggested that Intellect or Divine Thought - the second Hypostasis of Plotinus – is in some sense identical with its objects. Porphyry boldly yet respectfully set forth his objections before Plotinus himself. Rather than dismiss Porphyry as an upstart, Plotinus recognized Porphyry's philosophical potential and invited Amelius, already on friendly terms with Porphyry, to explain the teachings carefully. After considerable internal struggle Porphyry came to the view that the One – Agathon – is above both Being and Becoming, a mystery not to be known in itself but presented to Divine Mind as the First Hypostasis. From that abstract standpoint, the world of manifest existence is a reflection of the mystery. Intellect or Divine Mind and its objects may be identified with each other as reflections of the same order. In an emanative universe of hierarchical reflections, the arena of discourse, and therefore of thought, determines its subject as paradigmatically real, with dependent levels defined as illusory reflections of the paradigm. But when confronted with That which cannot be known, all arenas of discourse are seen as relative to one another, and illusory in relation to It. Porphyry wrote a detailed recantation of his former views, read it out to Plotinus and was admitted to the school.
Plotinus did not write a systematic account of his philosophy. When urgent and persistent questions arose in his meetings with small groups of followers, he would compose a response to the problem and allow it to be circulated privately amongst his closest disciples. By the time Plotinus reached fifty-nine, when Porphyry became his disciple, twenty-one of these treatises were extant. Porphyry and Amelius encouraged Plotinus to set his thoughts on paper, and Porphyry undertook the task of editing them. During the next six years Plotinus wrote another twenty-four treatises on a wide variety of subjects – the unity of the transcendent One, potentiality and actuality, the soul, the power of seeing, numbers, happiness, eternity and time, memory and the kinds of being. Porphyry devoted himself to understanding his master's thought and how his intellect approached every issue. Plotinus repeatedly achieved union with the One in ecstatic meditation, and Porphyry, striving to do the same, twice followed his master's path out of the world of manifestation into the unspeakable realm beyond the pairs of opposites.
Like all those who follow the spiritual path, Porphyry found himself at the edge of the abyss of meaninglessness, where the world appears as an intolerable burden and the realm of spirit remains empty. One evening Porphyry was on the verge of suicide when suddenly, Plotinus, divining his wretched condition, came to him and instructed him to go to Sicily for a rest. Away from the intense orbit of Plotinus, Porphyry regained resolve and perspective, and Plotinus continued instructions by sending nine additional treatises to him. The physical separation was accompanied by a spiritual reunion with the mind and heart of the teacher, though Porphyry sorely regretted being absent when Plotinus died.
Having been charged by Plotinus with editing the treatises for dissemination and use, Porphyry returned to Rome, assumed direction of the school and organized his master's thoughts into the magnificent Enneads. He became a teacher in his own right, giving focus to the neo-Platonic movement in his Sententiae, composing a brilliant history of philosophy which became the textbook of philosophical studies for two centuries, questioning the practices of divination in the Letter to Anebo, outlining the significance of philosophical allegory in De Antro Nympharum and enjoining the renunciation of meat-eating and animal sacrifices in De Abstinentia. His lengthy refutation of Christian claims to final truth and doctrinal perfection was sufficiently powerful to draw the full fury of the developing church. This work was publicly burnt by Constantine and later by Theodosius, though Constantine wrote that it was not a work against religion but rather against the teachings of the entrenched establishment. Except for the lives of Pythagoras and Plotinus, his history of philosophy suffered the same fate. His Isagoge, a commentary on Aristotle's Categories, divorced logic from metaphysics, thus permitting it to be investigated even during the darkest days of religious dogmatism, and raised the questions which launched the prolonged philosophical debate on 'the problem of universals'.
Late in life a friend of his died, leaving the philosopher Marcella a widow with many young children. Porphyry wrote to her, encouraging her devotion to philosophy, and, renouncing his own preference for an unmarried life, subsequently wed her so that she would be protected and her children might be raised in the Pythagorean manner. In this he imitated the Essenes, whom he admired and wrote about, declaring "They despise wedlock, but receiving the children of other persons, and instructing them in disciplines while they are yet of a tender age, they consider them as their kindred and form them to their own manners." Porphyry's own childhood, life-experiences and philosophical reflections convinced him that many classes of visible and invisible beings filled the universe, but he cautioned against superstition, demonolatry and thaumaturgy. Not until Iamblichus showed him that the root of ancient Egyptian and Chaldean esotericism was true theurgy, or spiritual transformation, was he reconciled to the magical side of neo-Platonism. By the end of his life, about 306 A.D., Porphyry had so secured the basis of the Plotinian tradition that Eunapius could write, near the end of the fourth century, that Plotinus was more widely disseminated amongst educated citizens than Plato himself. Plotinus was revered for the teaching, while Porphyry received credit for making his teacher's thought clear, "as if some Hermaic chain had been let down to men During his life and after his death, Christian writers were his implacable enemies, and yet the quality of his thought and the tenor of his life called forth their praise. To Augustine of Hippo he was "the noble philosopher"; to Eusebius, "the wonderful theologian" and "the great prophet"; and to Simplicius, "the most learned of philosophers".
Porphyry's philosophical thought evinces the central ethical concern illustrated in his life. In the Sententiae, Porphyry held that the three Hypostases – the One, Intellect or Divine Mind, and Soul – are not subject to location or specific conditions. Wholly intelligible Being is neither here nor there. The addition of location or relation is in truth a deprivation of Being. When made a part of the consciousness of the individual, self-knowledge is lost, the person is alienated from his own being and delusion and confusion result. Being can be diminished, however, only in appearance, and the true philosophical life is the sustained effort to banish the illusion of separateness from the One, the essential Self. Union with the One, as harmony with Its reflected activity through ethical thought and action, then as self-awareness and full self-knowledge and ultimately as transcendent realization, is possible through self-discipline. The virtues are powers of the enslaved soul summoned to cut through the web of illusion which binds it. Virtues are thus of different kinds and serve different ends on the journey back to one's own true nature. Political or civic virtues nurture moderation and a freedom from excessive attachment to the body, the most concrete expression of the metaphysically false sense of separateness. Purificatory or cathartic virtues free the soul from all attachment, allowing it to turn naturally towards the Good which is also its own good. Contemplative or theoretic virtues are the awakening intellectual energies of the soul and paradigmatic or archetypal virtues are those of the Divine Mind or Intellect, which the individual intellect looks to as models. Those who are serious about the philosophical life and the spiritual promise it holds will be most concerned with the virtues of purification, for if cultivated in this life, all the rest will follow in some existence. Since illusion arises when properties of corporeal Becoming are ascribed to incorporeal Being, purification is the condition for self-knowledge.
Failure to cultivate the virtues can result in further diminution of one's being, allegorically compared to reincarnation in symbolically suitable animal forms. Porphyry, however, is careful to point out that while there is a profound similarity between the souls of human beings and those of animals – both are connected with the Third Hypostasis – human souls are intellectually awakened and cannot regress to an animal condition.
In De Antro Nympharum – the Cave of the Nymphs – Porphyry taught that all authentic myths, such as Homer's account of the Grotto of the Nymphs at Ithaca, are rich allegorical deposits of ancient wisdom identical with true philosophy. Proper interpretation unveils the meaning inherent in the myth and does not add to it, for myth intimates eternal verities within the framework of local space and time. Myth can avoid the difficulty of expressing in the language of concrete existence the truths of an incorporeal realm. Just as sleep must be spoken of in the language of waking life but can be known only through sleep, so the insight of ecstatic meditation can be expressed only in a language of ordinary sensible and intellectual experience, but it can be known only through meditation itself. Myth builds a bridge of understanding between these realms without misleading the learner through discursive language.
When Firmus Castricius, a disciple of Plotinus and companion of Porphyry, abandoned his vegetarian diet, Porphyry composed the De Abstinentia to guide him back to abstinence from all animal slaughter. Recalling the moral reforms of Apollonius of Tyana and Plotinus, Porphyry argued that while a vegetarian diet might be unsuitable for some constitutions, it was critical to one on the spiritual path to self-knowledge because the vital nature and psychic energy of the animal consumed affects the whole nature of the eater. Abstinence out of respect for animal life inclines one towards a greater respect for human life, and one must recognize that the inferiority of the thinking and feeling powers of animals does not imply their total absence. As Carneades held, the natural end of each being must be of profit to that being and not some other. A vegetarian regime both exemplifies and supports the cultivation of the purificatory virtues and imitates the original "golden race" of spiritually awake men and women.
Animal sacrifice to the gods was used in Porphyry's day to justify meat-eating. Like Apollonius, Porphyry condemns the custom by noting that the most ancient sacrifices were of fruits, cakes and incense, and he indicates the nature of philosophical sacrifice: "To the gods, indeed, the most excellent offering is a pure intellect and tranquil soul."
From the most practical matters to the most abstract reasoning, Porphyry's teachings resound with the tones of compassion and ethical awareness. For him separation from the One is an unnecessary and unnatural, if understandable, condition which can be healed only through noble conceptions and bold applications in strict self-discipline and compassionate self-awareness.
He advocated a progressive transcendence of all attachments.