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“Souls and Daemons: The Contribution of Porphyry’s Commentary on the Timaeus for Later Platonist Psychology”

Aaron P Johnson

Lee University

Souls and Daemons: The Contribution of Porphyry’s Commentary on the Timaeus for Later Platonist


(abstract for ISNS panel at the SCS 2020)

As simultaneously one of the most astute students of Plotinus and one of the most wide-ranging and careful readers of the classical philosophical heritage among his peers in the later third century, Porphyry of Tyre displays a sustained interest in the nature and relational dynamics of the soul throughout several of his writings. Of these, unfortunately the most significant discussions survive in the sparse fragments of otherwise lost works (aside from the exquisite Sentences). The paper proposed here for presentation at the 2020 ISNS panel to be convened under the auspices of the Society of Classical Studies dedicates itself to delineating the contribution of his fragmentary Commentary on the Timaeus to the ongoing development of later Platonist thinking about the soul. In particular, the numerous fragments offering exegesis of the Timaeus’ myth of Atlantis (frags. 1-27 Sodano) bring into focus the nature of the soul in relation to the ontologically and theological hybrid beings that received the label of daimones. Whether daemons are defined according to a triple or a double classification (Comm.Tim. frags. 10 and 23, respectively), souls are said in both instances to fall within Porphyry’s conception of the daemonic. Yet, the daemons of the Comm.Tim., which remain understudied in treatments of his daemonology, are portrayed as relating to individuated souls in rather complex ways.

On the one hand, as just stated, souls are one of the classes of the ontological category of “daemon.” On the other, they are attacked by daemons while they are ascending or descending (Comm.Tim. frag.10). Yet, elsewhere, a daemon is the guardian of their transference into generation (On the Styx fr. 377) or it is daemons who lock souls into bodies (Comm.Tim. frag. 17). Many of the processes of souls are paralleled by those of daemons: e.g., souls foster ēthē while one class of daemon is said to be ēthosmaking; a soul improperly buried remains epigeios as do bad daemons; and so on. The paper proposed here seeks to shed light upon Porphyry’s psychology by grappling with this fecund area of daemonological thinking by first addressing the ways in which Porphyry engages key elements of pre-Socratic daemonology (in particular, claims made by Heracleitus and Empedocles) in his allegorical exposition of the Timaeus’ myth of Atlantis and second by tracing his articulation of difference between souls and daemons (in spite of his assertion that souls were a class of daemon). While material from his other works can (and will) be marshalled to clarify (or complicate) our understanding of his thought in the Comm.Tim. fragments, the paper hopes to show that close attention to those fragments has much to offer the broader study of later Platonist psychology: from the very basic recognition that, for later Platonist philosophers, psychology was inseparable from daemonology to the more narrow understanding of the precise nature of the soul as it stands “in relation” to physical phenomena before, during and after its life in a particular body.

A bibliography is available upon request.

Session/Panel Title

Souls Matters: How and Why Does Soul Matter to the Various Discourses of Neoplatonism?

Session/Paper Number


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