Barbarian wisdom: Porphyry of Tyre’s Neoplatonic perspective (third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarian wisdom: Porphyry of Tyre’s Neoplatonic perspective (third century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=8883.

Ancient author(s): Porphyry, Philosophy from Oracles, fragments 323-324, as cited by Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 9.10 // 14.10  (link to Greek text; link to full translation).

Comments: These citations (by Eusebius in the fourth century CE) of an earlier, lost work by Porphyry of Tyre (third century CE) on Philosophy from Oracles demonstrate clearly that this Neoplatonic philosopher was among those who emphasized so-called barbarian peoples as an important source of ancient wisdom. In this case, Porphyry speaks of Egyptians, Phoenicians, Chaldeans / Assyrians, Lydians, and Hebrews as examples. Porphyry’s extensive employment of ethnographic materials in his work on the need to abstain from eating meat likewise confirms his rather positive approach to non-Greek peoples, in that case with a focus on Judean, Syrian, Persian, and Indian wisdom (link).

Source of the translation: E.H. Gifford, Eusebius: Preparation for the Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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Book 9

10 [fragment 323] In the first book of his Philosophy from Oracles, Porphyry introduces his own god [Apollo] as himself bearing witness to the wisdom of the Hebrew descent group (genos) as well as of the other peoples (ethnē) renowned for wisdom. It is Porphyry’s Apollo who speaks as follows in an oracle which he is uttering. Furthermore, while still explaining the subject of sacrifices, he adds words which are well worthy of attention, as being full of all divine knowledge: “Steep and rough is the road that leads to heaven, / Entered at first through portals bound with brass. / Within are found innumerable paths, / Which for the endless good of all humankind / They first revealed, who Nile’s sweet waters drink. / From them the heavenward paths Phoenicia learned, / Assyria, Lydia, and the Hebrew descent group,” and so on.

[fragment 324] Porphyry adds: “Have you heard how much work it takes for a man to offer sacrifices of purification for the body, to say nothing of finding the salvation of the soul? [preceding sentence from 14.10.5]. The barbarians discovered many paths on that road, but the Greeks went astray and those who already held it even perverted it. The discovery was ascribed by the god [Apollo] to Egyptians, Phoenicians, Chaldeans (for these are the Assyrians), Lydians, and Hebrews. In addition to this, Apollo also says in another oracle: “Only Chaldeans and Hebrews found wisdom / In the pure worship of a self-born god.” When he was again asked about why people speak of many heavens, he gave the following response: “One circle is around the world on every side, / In seven zones rising to the starlit paths: / These, in their sevenfold orbits as they roll, / Chaldeans and enviable Hebrews / Named heavens to go on a sevenfold circuit.”

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