BMCR 2020.04.05

Porphyry’s On the cave of the nymphs in its intellectual context

K. Nilüfer Akçay, Porphyry's 'On the cave of the nymphs' in its intellectual context. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition, volume 23. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xii, 218 p.. ISBN 9789004407596 €105,00.


Porphyry of Tyre was born in about 234 CE and died early in the first decade of the fourth century (c. 305 CE), a few years after the appearance of his edition of the Enneads, the collected works of his master and teacher Plotinus. Porphyry’s corpus is usually considered to include sixty works on a wide range of topics including religion, medicine, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, and logic. It is noteworthy that Porphyry’s Isagoge was the textbook on logic until the Middle Ages. On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey (De Antro Nympharum) includes Porphyry’s allegorical interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey 13.102-112. Porphyry’s exegesis is mainly underlined by Platonic metaphysics, psychology, and ethics. The metaphysics of soul and body, the relationship between the perceptible and the intelligible realm, as well as the journey of the soul from the material to the divine world are mostly addressed. The text also includes allusions to mystery cults and theosophical traditions of late antiquity which have been observed and discussed by recent scholarship.

Nilufer Akçay aims to offer the first detailed and thematic study of Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs in the English language as well as to contribute to the wider recognition of Porphyry as an original and interesting thinker. Moreover, it is suggested that the allegorical interpretation of De Antro should be considered as an important tool in the teaching and understanding of Platonic philosophy. After an informative introduction on Porphyry’s life and work and the existing scholarship on De Antro, Akçay divides her study into four chapters, following closely Porphyry’s exposition in the treatise, viz. “the nature, method and purpose of allegorical interpretation, the features of the material realm symbolized by Homer’s cave of the nymphs, the association of the soul with the body, and the ways of descent and ascent of the soul” (p. 9). The edition is supplemented by a complete bibliography and four indexes: a General Index, an Index of Mithraic Monuments, an Index of Porphyry’s Works Cited and an Index of Ancient Authors.

In the first chapter, “Allegory as a Way of Thinking in On the Cave of the Nymphs“, Akçay presents the interpretative practices and features found in De Antro. The author stresses the importance of Homer’s poems as a repository of divine truth and the use of the allegorical concepts such as image-symbol in the formulation of Porphyry’s philosophical interpretation of Homer in specific passages. Akçay examines carefully the textual structure and the composition of De Antro and highlights the suggested influences of treatise such as those of the Stoics Cornutus and Crates and the Neopythagoreans Numenius and Cronius. The affinity between Porphyry’s De Antro and the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic indicates for Akçay the ethical and religious aims of the treatise as a guide for the soul’s salvation through a philosophical way of life and gradual process in moral excellence and purification.

In the second chapter, “The Cave as Symbol and Image of the Cosmos”, Akçay focuses on the symbolic uses of the cave in mystery cults, and in traditions and literature of the period. The cult of Mithras, the Orphic and the Eleusinian mysteries are discussed as well as the Homeric Hymns, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and pre-Platonic allusions found in Empedocles and the Pythagoreans. The author underlines the ontological aspects of De Antroand Porphyry’s philosophical exegesis in terms of a comparison between the Mithraic Cave and the Platonic Cave. In the case of the Mithraic elements in De Antro, Akçay relies on Mark Edwards’ influential paper “Porphyry’s ‘Cave of the Nymphs’ and the Gnostic Controversy’ (Hermes, 124, 1996: 88-100) and Roger Beck’s study The Religion of Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 2006). Akçay also carefully avoids speculative reconstructions that claim an identification between Mithraism and Neoplatonism. The author contrasts the Mithraic cave as a place of salvation with the cave of Plato’s Republic as a symbol of deception and ignorance. Akçay correctly identifies the relevance of Plato’s Timaeus and the discussion of the Demiurge; but the positive picture of the material world and the cosmos as the product of divine goodness in that work deserve further discussion as part of the Platonic and Plotinian background of Porphyry’s text.

In the third chapter, “Embodiment”, the author focuses on the metaphysics of soul and body, and the question of the soul’s descent into the material world understood as its genesis in pleasure. Akçay effectively highlights various forms of embodiment and their implications in De Antro, from the embodiment of the Naiads and their role in Porphyry’s demonology, to the ethical implications of the creation of body, the pneumatic theory of the body, and Porphyry’s discussion of the deception of the divine principle through pleasure. The author argues for the dual aspects of daimones in De Antro which, following Porphyry’s interpretative practice, represent the micro- and macrocosmic perspectives on soul’s genesis and noetic ascent. Akçay also evaluates the metaphysical analogies to Plato’s tripartite division of the soul in the soul’s processes of descent and ascent to the celestial regions.

In the fourth chapter, “The Path towards the Immortality of the Soul”, Akçay discusses specific passages of De Antro which relate to the soul’s journey through the perceptible realm and Homer’s double gates at the cave of the nymphs in Odyssey 13.109-112. It is suggested that the entrance of the mortals (oriented towards the North) refers to the soul’s lower perceptible or irrational part, while the entrance of the immortals (oriented towards the South) refers to the ascending journey of the soul towards to the intelligible world and the flight from the cave. The author further compares the double gates with the Mithraic cosmological model as well as the diurnal and nocturnal rotations of the Sun and the Moon. Akçay interestingly claims that the journey of the soul signifies Porphyry’s intention to stress the philosophical way of life as an important element of purification in soul’s immortality. This is supported through Porphyry’s theory of the levels of virtues in Sententia 32 and the identification of the goddess Athena with the virtue of phronesis. The author relates Sententia 32 to Plotinus’ Ennead I.2: possible divergences between Plotinian aretology and Porphyry’s virtue ethics in De Antro provide fruitful lines of inquiry for further study and evaluation. Moreover, Akçay offers an insightful analysis on the rational and pneumatic body in Porphyry’s philosophy with important reflections on pre-Platonic accounts (pp. 118-126). The complete detachment of the soul from the perceptible realm is also discussed in a significant identification of the soul with Odysseus, as well as in Porphyry’s theory of free will and the question of a self-determined life in the material world.

Overall, Akçay’s book is a systematic, well structured, and carefully written philosophical study of De Antro and its intellectual background. Modern scholarship on De Antro is discussed in dialogue with Akçay’s own interpretations. Akçay draws interesting links between key passages of De Antro with the Greek philosophical tradition from the Presocratics to the later Platonic tradition. The plurality of questions addressed in De Antroshows the philosophical and philological richness of the treatise and signifies the value of Porphyry’s thought in the history of Neoplatonism. Akçay’s study paves the way for the reevaluation of Porphyry’s philosophical work and justifies the significance of Porphyry’s thought not only as an eminent scholar of late antiquity and a charismatic student of Plotinus but as an original thinker who aims to declare the importance of the philosophical way of life and the purification of the soul.