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Porphyry of Tyre, best known as the intellectual heir and literary executor of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, had a double intellectual pedigree—he had studied with the great philologist Cassius Longinus before his tenure as a disciple of Plotinus. Porphyry’s oeuvre, which ranges from exegetical treatises on the Iliad to detailed commentaries on Aristotle, bears out this twofold training in philosophy and philology. But Porphyry’s two teachers also represented, in effect, the “philosopher” and “sophist,” further contributing to a sense of the complex position that Porphyry occupied among these intellectual traditions. Indeed, the contrast was not lost on Plotinus, who once remarked “Longinus is a philologist, but not a philosopher” (VPl. 13.19-20).

This paper considers the ways in which Porphyry, as an individual at the threshold of the third sophistic, negotiated his double lineage and represented himself as both a heritor of classical literary culture and a scion of the Greek philosophical tradition. An investigation of Porphyry’s correspondence with Longinus (preserved in fragments within the Life of Plotinus) as well as the extant fragments of his Lecture on Literature (apud Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 10.3) indicates the fluidity of the boundaries between philosophy and rhetoric in the third century C.E. Although Porphyry’s career has often been periodized into pre-Plotinian “philological” and post-Plotinian “philosophical” periods, the evidence of the Lecture on Literature and the correspondence with Longinus preserved in the Life of Plotinus show that Porphyry never drew clear boundaries between his “philological” and “philosophical” interests and concerns. This is perhaps best evidenced by his inclusion of the preface of Longinus’ On the End within the Life of Plotinus (VPl. 20.15-105). Within the preface, Longinus offers an assessment of the literary and stylistic value of various philosophers’ work, including Plotinus and Porphyry himself. The fact that Porphyry includes this assessment within the Life of Plotinus suggests that Porphyry wished his audience to view his own and his teacher’s work as having literary as well as philosophical value. To write good philosophy was, for Porphyry, to participate in the classical literary tradition.

This analysis also points to Porphyry’s liminal status as a figure in this particular socio-historic moment: he is emblematic both of the defining characteristics of classical paideia and of how that tradition (and those associated with it) came to be employed against the growing number of Christian intellectuals in this period. The “classicism” of fourth- and fifth-century pagan intellectuals, which has often been characterized as the last refuge of pagan public intellectuals in the face of the increasing prestige enjoyed by Christian bishops, can be found already in Porphyry—a scholar whose career flourished during a period in which Christianity enjoyed neither imperial patronage nor social caché.