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Eunapius-About Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus

Third Century bas-relief on a Roman sarcophagus of a reader identified to Plotinus and disciples. In the Egyptian Gregorian Museum at the Vatican.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Eunapius’ ‘Life of the Philosophers’, Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright, Loeb Edition of 1921. After the life of Sosipatra we posted earlier, Eunapius is now telling us about Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus.


§ 3.1  [353] PLOTINUS was a philosopher of Egyptian birth. But though I just now called him an Egyptian, I will add his native place also; Lyco they call it. Yet the divine philosopher Porphyry did not record this, though he said that he was his pupil and studied with him during the whole of his life, or the greater part of it. Altars in honour of Plotinus are still warm, and his books are in the hands of educated men, more so than the dialogues of Plato. Nay, even great numbers of the vulgar herd, though they in part fail to understand his doctrines, nevertheless are swayed by them. Porphyry set forth his whole life so fully that no one could bring forward more evidence. Moreover, he is known to have interpreted many of his books. But a life of Porphyry himself no one has written, so far as I know. However, from what I have gathered in my reading of the evidence that has been handed down, I have learned the following facts concerning him.

Porphyry Of Tyre , Greek Scholar, Mary Evans Library

§ 4.1  [354] Tyre was PORPHYRY’s birthplace, the capital city of the ancient Phoenicians, and his ancestors were distinguished men. He was given a liberal education, and advanced so rapidly and made such progress that he became a pupil of Longinus, and in a short time was an ornament to his teacher. At that time Longinus was a living library and a walking museum; and moreover he had been entrusted with the function of critic of the ancient writers, like many others before him, such as the most famous of them all, Dionysius of Caria.

§ 355  Porphyry’s name in the Syrian town was originally Malchus (this word means king), but Longinus gave him the name of Porphyry, thus making it indicate the colour of imperial attire. With Longinus he attained to the highest culture, and like him advanced to a perfect knowledge of grammar and rhetoric, though he did not incline to that study exclusively, since he took on the impress from every type of philosophy. For Longinus was in all branches of study by far the most distinguished of the men of his time, and a great number of his books are in circulation and are greatly admired. Whenever any critic condemned some ancient author, his opinion did not win approval until the verdict of Longinus wholly confirmed it. After Porphyry’s early education had thus been carried on and he was looked up to by all, he longed to see Rome, the mistress of the world, so that he might enchain the city by his wisdom. But directly he arrived there and became intimate with that great man Plotinus, he forgot all else and devoted himself wholly to him. And since with an insatiable appetite he devoured his teaching and his original and inspired discourses, for some time he was content to be his pupil, as he himself says. Then overcome by the force of his teachings he conceived a hatred of his own body and of being human, and sailed to Sicily across the straits and Charybdis, along the route where Odysseus is said to have sailed;

§ 357  and he would not endure either to see a city or to hear the voice of man, thus putting away from himself both pain and pleasure, but kept on to Lilybaeum; this is that one of Sicily’s three promontories that stretches out and looks towards Libya. There he lay groaning and mortifying the flesh, and he would take no nourishment and avoided the path of men. But great Plotinus kept no vain watch on these things, and either followed in his footsteps or inquired for the youth who had fled, and so found him lying there; then he found abundance of words that recalled to life his soul, as it was just about to speed forth from the body. Moreover he gave strength to his body so that it might contain his soul.

So Porphyry breathed again and arose, but Plotinus in one of the books that he wrote recorded the arguments then uttered by him. And while some philosophers hide their esoteric teachings in obscurity, as poets conceal theirs in myths, Porphyry praised clear knowledge as a sovereign remedy, and since he had tasted it by experience he recorded this in writing and brought it to the light of day.

Now Porphyry returned to Rome and continued to study philosophical disputation, so that he even appeared in public to make a display of his powers; but every forum and every crowd attributed to Plotinus the credit of Porphyry’s renown.

§ 359  For Plotinus, because of the celestial quality of his soul and the oblique and enigmatic character of his discourses, seemed austere and hard to listen to. But Porphyry, like a chain of Hermes let down to mortals, by reason of his many-sided culture expounded all subjects so as to be clear and easy of comprehension. He himself says (but perhaps as seems likely he wrote this while he was still young), that he was granted an oracle different from the vulgar sort; and in the same book he wrote it down, and then went on to expound at considerable length how men ought to pay attention to these oracles. And he says too that he cast out and expelled some sort of daemon from a certain bath; the inhabitants called this daemon Kausatha. As he himself records, he had for fellow-disciples certain very famous men, Origen, Amerius, and Aquilinus, whose writings are still preserved, though not one of their discourses; for though their doctrines are admirable, their style is wholly unpleasing, and it pervades their discourses. Nevertheless Porphyry praises these men for their oratorical talent, though he himself runs through the whole scale of charm, and alone advertises and celebrates his teacher, inasmuch as there was no branch of learning that he neglected. One may well be at a loss and wonder within oneself which branch he studied more than another; whether it was that which concerns the subject matter of rhetoric, or that which tends to precise accuracy in grammar,

§ 361   or that which depends on numbers, or inclines to geometry, or leans to music. As for philosophy, I cannot describe in words his genius for discourse, or for moral philosophy. As for natural philosophy and the art of divination, let that be left to sacred rites and mysteries. So true is it that the man was a being who combined in himself all the talents for every sort of excellence. One who cares most for this would naturally praise the beauty of the style of his discourse more than his doctrines, or again would prefer his doctrines, if one paid closer attention to these than to the force of his oratory. It seems that he entered the married state, and a book of his is extant addressed to his wife Marcella; he says that he married her, although she was already the mother of five children, and this was not that he might have children by her, but that those she had might be educated; for the father of his wife’s children had been a friend of his own. It seems that he attained to an advanced old age. At any rate he left behind him many speculations that conflict with the books that he had previously published; with regard to which we can only suppose that he changed his opinions as he grew older. He is said to have departed this life in Rome.

At this time those who were most distinguished for rhetoric at Athens were Paulus and the Syrian Andromachus. But Porphyry actually was at the height of his powers as late as the time of Gallienus, Claudius, Tacitus, Aurelian, and Probus. In those days there lived also Dexippus, who composed historical annals, a man overflowing with erudition and logical power.

§ 5.1  [363] After these men comes a very celebrated philosopher, IAMBLICHUS, who was of illustrious ancestry and belonged to an opulent and prosperous family. His birthplace was. Chalcis, a city in the region called Coele Syria. As a pupil of Anatolius, who ranks next after Porphyry, he made great progress and attained to the highest distinction in philosophy. Then leaving Anatolius he attached himself to Porphyry, and in no respect was he inferior to Porphyry except in harmonious structure and force of style. For his utterances are not imbued with charm and grace, they are not lucid, and they lack the beauty of simplicity. Nevertheless they are not altogether obscure, nor have they faults of diction, but as Plato used to say of Xenocrates, he has not sacrificed to the Graces of Hermes. Therefore he does not hold and enchant the reader into continuing to read, but is more likely to repel him and irritate his ears. But because he practised justice he gained an easy access to the ears of the gods; so much so that he had a multitude of disciples, and those who desired learning flocked to him from all parts.

§ 365  And it is hard to decide who among them was the most distinguished, for Sopater the Syrian was of their number, a man who was most eloquent both in his speeches and writings; and Aedesius and Eustathius from Cappadocia; while from Greece came Theodorus and Euphrasius, men of superlative virtue, and a crowd of other men not inferior in their powers of oratory, so that it seemed marvellous that he could satisfy them all; and indeed in his devotion to them all he never spared himself. Occasionally, however, he did perform certain rites alone, apart from his friends and disciples, when he worshipped the Divine Being. But for the most part he conversed with his pupils and was unexacting in his mode of life and of an ancient simplicity. As they drank their wine he used to charm those present by his conversation and filled them as with nectar. And they never ceased to desire this pleasure and never could have too much of it, so that they never gave him any peace; and they appointed the most eloquent among them to represent them, and asked: O master, most inspired, why do you thus occupy yourself in solitude, instead of sharing with us your more perfect wisdom? Nevertheless a rumour has reached us through your slaves that when you pray to the gods you soar aloft from the earth more than ten cubits to all appearance; that your body and your garments change to a beautiful golden hue; and presently when your prayer is ended your body becomes as it was before you prayed, and then you come down to earth and associate with us. Iamblichus was not at all inclined to laughter, but he laughed at these remarks.

§ 367  And he answered them thus: He who thus deluded you was a witty fellow; but the facts are otherwise. For the future however you shall be present at all that goes on. This was the sort of display that he made; and the report of it reached the author of this work from his teacher Chrysanthius of Sardis. He was a pupil of Aedesius, and Aedesius was one of the leading disciples of Iamblichus, and one of those who spoke to him as I have said. He said that there occurred the following sure manifestations of his divine nature. The sun was travelling towards the limits of the Lion at the time when it rises along with the constellation called the Dog. It was the hour for sacrifice, and this had been made ready in one of the suburban villas belonging to Iamblichus. Presently when the rites had been duly performed and they were returning to the city, walking slowly and at their leisure, — for indeed their conversation was about the gods as was in keeping with the sacrifice — suddenly Iamblichus even while conversing was lost in thought, as though his voice were cut off, and for some moments he fixed his eyes steadily on the ground and then looked up at his friends and called to them in a loud voice: Let us go by another road, for a dead body has lately been carried along this way. After saying this he turned into another road which seemed to be less impure, and some of them turned aside with him, who thought it was a shame to desert their teacher. But the greater number and the more obstinate of his disciples,

§ 369  among whom was Aedesius, stayed where they were, ascribing the occurrence to a portent and scenting like hounds for the proof. And very soon those who had buried the dead man came back. But even so the disciples did not desist but inquired whether they had passed along this road. We had to, they replied, for there was no other road.

But they testified also to a still more marvellous incident. When they kept pestering Iamblichus and saying that this that I have just related was a trifle, and perhaps due to a superior sense of smell, and that they wished to test him in something more important, his reply to them was: Nay, that does not rest with me, but wait for the appointed hour. Some time after, they decided to go to Gadara, a place which has warm baths in Syria, inferior only to those at Baiae in Italy, with which no other baths can be compared. So they set out in the summer season. Now he happened to be bathing and the others were bathing with him, and they were using the same insistence, whereupon Iamblichus smiled and said: It is irreverent to the gods to give you this demonstration, but for your sakes it shall be done. There were two hot springs smaller than the others but prettier, and he bade his disciples ask the natives of the place by what names they used to be called in former times. When they had done his bidding they said: There is no pretence about it, this spring is called Eros, and the name of the one next to it is Anteros.

§ 371  He at once touched the water with his hand — he happened to be sitting on the ledge of the spring where the overflow runs off — and uttering a brief summons he called forth a boy from the depth of the spring. He was white-skinned and of medium height, his locks were golden and his back and breast shone; and he exactly resembled one who was bathing or had just bathed. His disciples were overwhelmed with amazement, but Iamblichus said, Let us go to the next spring, and he rose and led the way, with a thoughtful air. Then he went through the same performance there also, and summoned another Eros like the first in all respects, except that his hair was darker and fell loose in the sun. Both the boys embraced Iamblichus and clung to him as though he were genuinely their father. He restored them to their proper places and went away after his bath, reverenced by his pupils. After this the crowd of his disciples sought no further evidence, but believed everything from the proofs that had been revealed to them, and hung on to him as though by an unbreakable chain. Even more astonishing and marvellous things were related of him, but I wrote down none of these since I thought it a hazardous and sacrilegious thing to introduce a spurious and fluid tradition into a stable and well-founded narrative. Nay even this I record not without hesitation, as being mere hearsay, except that I follow the lead of men who, though they distrusted other signs, were converted by the experience of the actual revelation. Yet no one of his followers recorded it, as far as I know. And this I say with good reason, since Aedesius himself asserted that he had not written about it, nor had any other ventured to do so.

§ 5.3  [373] At the same time as Iamblichus, lived ALYPIUS, who was especially skilled in dialectic. He was of very small stature and his body was very little larger than a pigmy’s, but even the body that he seemed to have was really all soul and intelligence; to such a degree did the corruptible element in him fail to increase, since it was absorbed into his diviner nature. Therefore, just as the great Plato says, that in contradistinction to human bodies, divine bodies dwell within souls, thus also of him one might say that he had migrated into a soul, and that he was confined and dominated there by some supernatural power. Now Alypius had many followers, but his teaching was limited to conversation, and no one ever published a book by him. On this account they very eagerly betook themselves to Iamblichus, to fill themselves full as though from a spring that bubbles over and does not stay within its limits. Now as the renown of both men increased and kept pace they encountered one another by chance or met in their courses like planets, and round them in a circle sat an audience as though in some great seat of the Muses. Now Iamblichus was waiting to have questions put to him rather than to ask them, but Alypius, contrary to all expectation, postponed all questioning about philosophy and giving himself up to making an effect with his audience said to Iamblichus: Tell me, philosopher, is a rich man either unjust or the heir of the unjust, yes or no? For there is no middle course.

§ 375  Iamblichus disliked the catch in the question and replied, Nay, most admired of men, this is not our method, to discuss anyone who more than other men possesses external things, but rather only one who excels in the virtue that is peculiar and appropriate to a philosopher. So saying he went away, and after he had risen the meeting broke up. But after he had left them and collected his thoughts, he admired the acuteness of the question, and often met Alypius privately; and he was so profoundly impressed by the subtlety and sagacity of the man, that when he died he wrote his biography. Indeed the author of this work once saw the book. The narrative was obscured by its style and it was hidden by a thick cloud, though not because of any lack of clearness in the subject matter, for his authority was a long discourse of Alypius; moreover, there was no mention of discourses that maintained an argument. The book told of journeys to Rome for which no reason was given, and it did not make manifest the greatness of his soul on those occasions, and though he insinuates that Alypius had many admiring followers it is not shown that he either did or said anything remarkable. No, the renowned Iamblichus seems to have made the same error as painters who are painting youths in their bloom and wish to add to the painting some charm of their own invention, whereby they destroy the whole character of the likeness, so that they fail to achieve either a resemblance or the beauty at which they aim. So it was with Iamblichus when he set out to praise by telling the exact truth; for though he clearly shows how severe were the punishments and sufferings in the law courts in his day, yet the causes of these things and their purposes he was

§ 377  neither fitted by nature to expound like one versed in politics, nor was that his purpose; hence he confused the whole outline and significance of the man’s life, and he hardly even left it open to the most keen-sighted to grasp the fact that he admired Alypius, and above ail reverenced his fortitude and constancy amid dangers, and the keenness and daring of his style in his discourses. Alypius was by birth an Alexandrian. This is all I have to say about him. He died an old man, in Alexandria, and after him died Iamblichus after putting forth many roots and springs of philosophy. The author of this narrative had the good fortune to benefit by the crop that sprang therefrom. For others of his disciples who have been mentioned were scattered in all directions over the whole Roman Empire, but Aedesius chose to settle at Pergamon in Mysia.

§ 6.1  AEDESIUS THE CAPPADOCIAN succeeded to the school of Iamblichus and his circle of disciples.’

Source: EUNAPIUS, LIVES OF THE PHILOSOPHERS AND SOPHISTS, full text here:🌿Pope Gregory’s museum:
Eunapius-About Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus

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