BMCR 2013.04.18

Porphyre. Sur la manière dont l’embryon reçoit l’âme. Histoire des doctrines de l’antiquité classique, 43

, , , , , , Porphyre. Sur la manière dont l’embryon reçoit l’âme. Histoire des doctrines de l’antiquité classique, 43. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2012. 383. ISBN 9782711624324 €30.00 (pb).

This book, another collective work by members of UPR 76 of the CRNS, Paris in collaboration with many French and foreign colleagues, includes a new edition, with French and English translations and commentary, of a small treatise by the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, On How the Embryo is Ensouled (or, rather: On How Embryos are Ensouled: περὶ τοῦ πῶς ἐμψυχοῦται τὰ ἔμβρυα), in which he advocates the view that the fetus becomes a living being only after its birth. It makes for fascinating and pleasurable reading, and should be studied in conjunction with the earlier work by more or less the same team: L’Embryon: formation et animation. Antiquité grecque et latine, traditions hèbraïque, chrétienne et islamique (BMCR 2009-04-15). One should also note a very recent English translation of the Ad Gaurum by James Wilberding.1

The volume opens with a series of introductory essays on Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Galen and Plotinus, and ends with two complementary notes, on Porphyry’s work On the Styx,2 and on Theophrastus, written by the members of the team, and designed to help the readers to put the Ad Gaurum on the map. The first essay (by Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, pp. 19-30) discusses, with appropriate quotes, those few places from Hippocrates which Porphyry cites and refers to, as well as supplying readers with relevant background information on ancient embryology, starting with sources for embryological knowledge, semen, conception, and the development and formation of the embryo, and finishing with various anomalies that can arise in gestation and birth. All the information given is relevant and the exposition is perfectly clear. Special attention is, understandably, given to issues related to the treatise in question, e.g. the parallelism between the Hippocratic De victu 1.8 and Ad Gaurum 16.6 (a musical analogy).

Turning with Véronique Boudon-Millot to Galen (pp. 87-102), we find out that the celebrated physician is important in the present occasion in at least two respects (apart from the undisputable fact that his works are always found in the background to any study of ancient medicine). First, since the Ad Gaurum is attributed to Galen in the manuscript, everyone is tempted to show why this cannot be true. In the first part of her essay, B.-M. examines a series of passages from the De prop. placit.,3 and elsewhere in the Galenic corpus, to show that, first, in his authentic writings, Galen developed an embryology largely incompatible with that adopted by Porphyry, and, secondly, he was not generally speaking inclined to investigate “the substance of the soul”, admitting that he cannot say for sure whether it is corporeal or incorporeal, mortal or immortal ( De prop. placit., 7, etc.). Given his general position and various more technical differences, the question of authorship is definitively settled, but there remains another, perhaps more interesting question: did Porphyry know and use Galenic works? The answer given is “probably not”, and the point is illustrated by a series of examples and metaphors differently interpreted by Galen and Porphyry (this concerns the meaning of σύλληψις, conception, the naval and magnet metaphors, and a doubtful idea about the usefulness of beautiful images for conceiving beautiful children). Galen always assumes a more sober and practical attitude in comparison with Porphyry, while in the last case the similarity in attitude is misleading because the work De theriaca ad Pisonem is actually apocryphal. It is a bit frustrating that the author does not always acknowledge the sources of her quotes: e.g. at p. 89 and again 99 (ἐκ βιβλίου κυβερνήται from De libris propriis 19, p. 33.5 Kühn; and there are two other instances).

In her introductory essay, Gwenaëlle Aubry (pp. 47-67) deals with the Aristotelian concept of the fetus – a fundamental source for ancient embryology in general, and an important starting-point for Porphyry’s argumentation in particular.4 The author’s major concern is terminology. How we are to distinguish a lifeless thing (ἄψυχος) from a living being (τὸ ζῷον) and, in the latter class, an animal (also termed τὸ ζῷον) from a plant (τὸ φυτόν)? How does this initial qualitative change occur, and what determines the subsequent gradual development of a living being? “On ne naît pas animal, on le deviant” (p. 67): and the process of becoming a living creature is described in the terms of potentiality (δυνάμει, κατὰ δύμαμιν) and actuality (ἐντελεχείᾳ, and ἐνεργείᾳ). Aristotle ( De anima 417а20 ff., ср. Hist. anim. 735а9, etc.) famously distinguishes between two senses of potentiality (the first, when a thing is capable of receiving a quality, although it has not received it yet, and the second, when a thing which has received a quality is not acting according to it), and Porphyry, building upon Alexander (see De anima 9.24 ff., 36.19 ff., his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima II 5, and quaest. 81.8–10), formulates this distinction as a starting point for his argumentation, reserving for first and second potentiality the terms ἐπιτηδειότης and ἕξις respectively.

It is in four respects that the Stoics matter for the present work and Bernard Collette-Dučić (pp. 69-85) discusses them in turn. First of all, we are back again to the fundamental distinction between lifeless objects and living beings, now formulated in the Stoic terms. In order to be an animal, the living being must possess sensation, representation (or imagination) and impulse (αἴσθησις, φαντασία, ὁρμή). This well-attested Stoic criterion of demarcation (cf. Hierocles, Elem. Eth. 1a, 31-35 and SVF 2.844; 2.825, also mentioned, is hardly relevant) is critically taken by Porphyry, according to the author of the essay, as “a basis for discussion, apparently neutral for Porphyry and his adversaries” (p. 70). Secondly, the essay deals with the “paradoxical” concept of total mixture (SVF 2.463-81, and Alexander, De mixtione), evoked by Porphyry at 10.4-6 and elsewhere (including the last, badly damaged page of the treatise). Next comes the concept of universal sympathy, equally important for Porphyry’s argumentation (esp. 11.2 sq. and 16.6). Fourthly, it is shown how Porphyry exposes and criticizes the Stoic theory of animation (14.1 sq., cf. SVF 2. 804-8).

Finally, two introductory essay by Luc Brisson are dedicated, respectively, to Plato and Plotinus (pp. 31-46 and 103- 19). First, he analyses a series of Platonic passages either directly quoted in the Ad Gaurum, or somehow otherwise used by Porphyry in the course of his argumentation (esp. Phaedrus 245c sq. on the immortality of the soul, and Timaeus 91a1 sq and 76e7 sq. on the mechanism of reproduction and plants). In the second essay he starts once again with the same classical definition of the ζῷον ( Phaedrus 246c5) and explores various aspects of Platonic psychology as reflected in Plotinus. Αἴσθησις, φαντασία, ὁρμή and the most problematic notion of λόγοι are discussed again, this time with reference to Plato. Both expositions are very rich in details and truly useful.

Given the research interests of some members of the team, it is perhaps surprising how little attention is given to the medical background of the work in proportion to the wealth of information related to its situation within Neoplatonic psychology and metaphysics, which, in part, can be explained by the interests of the other part of the team as well as unquestionably Platonic nature of the work itself. Porphyry would not object, I guess.

Having familiarized her/himself with the background literary tradition, the reader is now ready to appreciate the text itself, which is, one must admit, quite extraordinary, albeit difficult. The Greek text and facing French translation of the treatise is prefaced with an introduction by the editor, Tiziano Dorandi, where he gives appropriate information about the manuscript, previous editions,6 and the editorial strategy adopted. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the indirect textual tradition (Iamblichus, Philoponus, Psellus, Michael of Ephesus, and, finally, “Hermippus”, de astronomia dialogus), which is important for establishing the damaged parts of the text (the evidence of Psellus and “Hermippus” especially so). All the relevant testimonies are quoted in their entirety and translated. Unlike Kalbfleisch, Dorandi does not attempt to reconstruct the lost parts of Chapters 17 and 18, simply reprinting the text proposed by Kalbfleisch, while, unlike Wilberding, the translators and commentators do not attempt to guess the content of the last two pages on the basis of key-words and phrases which are at least partially legible.

The very learned commentary that follows the text is also the fruit of collective effort, in which the contribution of each of the participants is clearly defined. It is supplemented with an English translation by Michael Chase, a Greek glossary, and various indices.

Detailed notes on the text, translations, and commentary can be found as an appendix to this review on the BMCR blog.

Let me state once again my overall impression: the book is an excellent work indispensable to any scholar interested in ancient psychology and medicine, and clearly this solid contribution to the fields should be available in any serious research library.


1. J. Wilberding (tr.) (2011) Porphyry, To Gaurus on How Embryos are Ensouled and On What is in Our Power. Bristol Classical Press. I am extremely grateful to the author for sending me a copy of his valuable work.

2. This appears to be the only contribution to the volume by the Italian scholar C. Castelletti, who recently published Porfirio, Sullo Stige (Milan, 2006).

3. These are quoted in the Greek from a Thessaloniki manuscript, recently discovered and now edited by herself and A. Pietrobelli. I would remind the reader that this text was previously available only in a Latin translation from the Arabic (aparts from some short Greek quotes) (CNG V 3.2, 1999, ed. V. Nutton). It is also noteworthy that together with J. Jouanna and A. Pietrobelli she has recently published another text, this time one previously unknown, from the same MS (Vladaton 14): a letter by Galen, entitled De indolentia, that is, On not getting upset and written on the occasion of a misfortune that Galen experienced in 192 CE – a disaster, terrible for any intellectual: as the result of a fire he lost his library, recipes, the ingredients used for preparing medications, and his medical instruments. The document is quite extraordinary and this edition is excellent. Finally, I would like to refer the reader to a recent work by V. Boudon-Millot on the subject in question ( L’embryon et son âme dans les sources grecques, esp. its third part), reviewed at BMCR 2011.01.16.

4. The subject was previously explored by the same author at L. Brisson et al. (2008), L’Embryon: formation et animation (as above), pp. 139-55.

5. See now I. Ramelli (ed.) and D. Konstan (tr.) (2009), Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments and Excerpts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

6. One can now check the Kalbfleish edition online. See also an important book by: W. Deuse.