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The Medical Side of Porphyry’s Intellectual Portrait

Svetla Slaveva-Griffin

Florida State University

          This paper will examine Porphyry’s engagement with the art of medicine. This side of his intellectual portrait has remained virtually unexplored until recently. Two translations of his one ostensibly “medical” work, entitled To Gaurus On How Embryos are Ensouled, brought the subject to light, respectively by Wilberding in 2011 and Brisson in 2012. Both Wilberding and Brisson acknowledge Porphyry’s explicit interest to engage with the contemporary debate about soul’s entrance in the body, held among the broader, philosophical and medical, audience of his time. While Porphyry’s contribution to the debate is staunchly Platonic and, in this sense, expected, if not even predictable, the attitude he shows towards medicine is rather unique in comparison to both Plato’s signature interest in medicine and the more reserved Neoplatonic treatment of the natural world and the auxiliary disciplines that serve it.

            Porphyry begins Ad Gaurum by emphasizing that both “natural philosophers” (phusikoi) and “nearly all physicians” (schedon iatroi pantes) are puzzled whether the soul enters the body in ovo or post partum (ad Gaurum 1.1–5). His emphasis is flattering for both sides. It is flattering for the philosophers, and especially for the philosophers of his, Platonic, stripe, to participate in a debate which seems to be of purely medical nature, just as it is flattering for the physicians to be considered a part of an ongoing philosophical discussion the stakes of which are high. Porphyry seems comfortable with the unifying tone of his remark and actively invites both, philosophers and physicians, to join forces in tackling the difficult question. What his remark reveals the most, however, is that Porphyry himself is comfortable to make medicine a part of his modus philosophandi and, in light of the other leading Neoplatonists’ work on medicine, he does so on uniquely Porphyrian terms.

            A closer examination of Porphyry’s written output, intact or fragmented, brings ample evidence in support of the above observation. More specifically, this presentation will feature Porphyry’s variegated treatment of medicine in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, the Homeric Questions, and On the Abstinence from Killing Animals. These works represent the three principal themes which compose the medical side of his intellectual portrait: 1) His Commentary on the Categories demonstrates how Porphyry uses the art of medicine as a tool for philosophizing by expanding Aristotle’s discussion of homonyms with the help of Aristotle’s own reliance on the art of medicine and the concept of health in his corpus (in Cat. 66); 2) the Homeric Questions and his Commentary on the Odyssey shift Porphyry’s interest from the versatility of medicine as an epistemic tool to the versatility of medicine as the art, par excellence, which serves the diverse constitution of the body (poikilēn sustasin, ad Od. 1.1.27–9). 3) On the Abstinence from Killing Animals reveals his interest in the ontological roots of medicine as one of the gifts the lesser gods bring to mankind (de Abst. 2.38.19–21).

            The epistemic, anthropological, and ontological aspects of Porphyry’s extensive treatment of the art of medicine above demonstrate that medicine’s innate connection with the body is not a curse but a blessing. Porphyry is an exceptional thinker with a Renaissance-type of breadth who is fully immersed in the accumulated wealth of knowledge of his time. He is also fully committed to the grand Platonic project of healing the soul from its contact with corporeality. It is precisely “this act of healing” which makes medicine of a particular interest for him: “As there is no profit in the physician’s art unless it cures the diseases of the body, so there is none in philosophy, unless it expels the troubles of the soul” (ad Mar. 31.3–7).

            For Porphyry, both philosophy and medicine deal with the “salt of life.” For this reason, medicine becomes an inseparable and clearly defined part of his philosophical portrait which has been overlooked for far too long. It is time for us to understand it.

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Porphyry the Polymath

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