Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Luc Brisson, Gwenaëlle Aubry, Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, Françoise Hudry, et al (ed.), Porphyre. Sur la manière dont l'embryon reçoit l'âme. Histoire des doctrines de l'antiquité classique, 43. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2012. Pp. 383. ISBN 9782711624324. €30.00 (pb). Contributors: Greek text edited by Tiziano Dorandi, French translation by Luc Brisson, English translation by Michael Chase.

Reviewed by Eugene Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University, Russia (afonasin@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

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.


  1. Eugene Afonasin writes:
    Notes to the Text and Translations

    2.1.5 <ὁ> ὅρος ὁ ταύτης γίγνεται (cf. τὸν καιρὸν τῆς εἰσκρίσεως a few lines below) I would, together with the French translators, take to mean (determining) “when this [the entrance of the soul] takes place” [“quand elle a lieu”], while M. Chase rendering: «its definition» is less convincing.

    2.1.10. “lequel doit se situer après l’accouchement quand les choses ont suivi leur cours naturel’ (Brisson et al.) and “It must take place after birth from the womb, when this occurs naturally” (Chase), looks a bit misleading, as if the soul will not enter the body, if it is born ‘unnaturally’. I have no idea what the latter could mean, but I would suggest the following translation: “…after it is naturally born from the womb”.

    2.3. Generally speaking, Porphyry does not seem to be much concerned with the appropriate medical terminology. So sometimes do the translators. For instance, it would be a good idea to translate ἐκ γαστρὸς ‘from the belly’, not “from the womb”, since within few lines of the text we often find expressions like ἐν τῇ μήτρᾳ, ‘in the womb’ properly so speaking, while, on the other hand, ‘belly’ still can sometimes mean ‘stomach’ (7.2). Apparently the context matters.
    A striking example is 2.3.48-52. …ὅταν τις τὰς εἰσκρίσεις παραιτησάμενος τίθεσθαι μετὰ τὰς ἐκ τῆς μητρὸς ἀποκυήσεις εἰς τὰ κατὰ γαστρὸς ἔτι ὄντα καὶ τὴν ἐνταῦθα ἀδηλίαν ἐπάγῃ τὰ γιγνόμενα. We have the following translation: … pour avoir refusé de situer l’entrée de l’âme après l’accouchement, on la renvoie au processus de la gestation…
    Chase renders it thus: …because one refuses to situate the entries <of the soul after birth>, one attributes what happens to things (sic!) that are still in the womb…
    Festugière is less helpful here then usually: … pour s’être refusé à placer l’entrée de l’âme après l’enfantement hors du sein maternel, …
    I take it to mean the following: …refuses to situate the [soul’s] entrance after [the child’s birth] by its mother, having assigned this [event] to [the embryos (pl.)] that are still in the belly…
    Porphyry says ‘belly’, not ‘womb', and it is better to keep this. Another example is 2.5.64: τὸ κυούμενον is translated l’embryon (Chase, correctly, ‘fetus’, Festugière, also correctly, ‘le fruit’); cf., again, 3.1.6-7. Of course, unlike the Hippocratic doctors or Galen, Porphyry did not adopt the concept of gradual development of the fetus, and did not employ the special terminology, like γονή, κύημα, ἔμβρυον, and παιδίον, found in Galen (On semen 92.19–94.11 De Lacy; IV 542 ff. K.), but if he for some reasons distinguished between, say, τὸ κυούμενον and ἔμβρυον, let us allow him at least this little, and a note to 3.1.5-6 (p. 226) is quite unconvincing in this respect. Or take 5.1.3: …ῇ γαστρὶ τῆς μητρὸς… which Chase renders as “hot air contacts their’s mother’s womb” (!). Definitely the ‘belly’ will be more appropriate in this case (in the French translation it is, correctly, ‘le ventre’).
    By the way, 2.5. Chase’s (p. 321) <soul’s entry> must be: <soul’s> entry.

    2.3.39. Here we have an interesting expression: …ἣ χορηγὸς ἦν τοῦ σπέρματος, translated as: … la nature qui fournit le sperme…. the nature that supplies the sperm… I would suggest, following Wilberding, to preserve the wording: …the nature that was the seed’s orchestrator... Ср. 10.3., where an umbilical cord supplies (χορηγεῖται) the fetus with air and food.

  2. Eugene Afonasin writes:

    3.3.18 ff. …διὰ μόνης δὲ τῆς καλουμένης ἐντεριώνης διαπνεῖται τὰ φυτά, …animals breath (ἀναπνεῖν) through nostrils,… plants breath (διαπνεῖται) only through the so-called ‘marrow’ (Chase’s tr.). In this case the term ‘marrow’ is better to replace with ‘medulla’, since marrow is usually related with the animals, and, more importantly, to translate ἀναπνεῖν and διαπνεῖται differently. The French translation also has ‘respirent’ in both cases. I would opt for the solution, proposed by Wilberding, who translates ἀναπνεῖν as ‘breath’ (for animals), while διαπνεῖται as ‘transpire’ (for plants), which definitely captures the meaning better (plants do not breath after all, but receive air through pores). l also think that it is important to keep the term ‘chorion’, avoiding its replacement by ‘placenta’ (3.3. and again 10.3): the ancients knew the difference between chorion and amnion. Similarly, νεύρων at 13.4.35 are not nerves, but sinews.

    4.11, p. 325 ταὐτὸ δ' ἄν τις εἴποι καὶ ἐπὶ τοῦ ἐμβρύου, καὶ ἔτι γε μᾶλλον <ὃ> ἐπάγει περὶ τοῦ φυτοῦ, ἐπεὶ κἀκείνῳ ὡσαύτως πρόσεστι… Chase: The same could be said about of the embryo, as could, with even greater justification, what he adds about plants, since this <property> belongs identity (!) to the former. Must be : …since this in a similar manner applicable to the embryos.

    Generally, it appears that M. Chase often prefers Kalbfleisch’s edition, cf. for instance, 5.5.50 (Dorandi and the French tr. accept the manuscript reading, ζῷον, against K. κυηθὲν). Ср. 11.2.24 (Dorandi: ὁ νάφθας ἁφθεὶς ἁφθέντι πυρὶ ἐξάπτεται οὐ διὰ τοῦ μεταξὺ τόπου / Chase: ὁ νάφθας ἁφθεὶς ἁφθέντι πυρὶ...), or Ms. λέγεται / K. ἄγεται / FT: mais elle est dit… / Chase: it is led by reason.

    6.1.7. χρῴζοντας μὲν οὐδαμῶς could, interestingly, mean both ‘not by coloring it (pneuma)’ (Chase) or ‘without touching it in any way’ (Wilberding ). The FT gives: ‘non pas en le colorant’, so we will never know what the daimones do with the forms, but, the former is more probable, given the Sentence 23, where Porphyry says that ‘pneuma’ is by nature “invisible and dark”.

    7.3.22-29. ὡς οὖν καὶ διψᾶν λέγεται ταῦτα καὶ πάλιν κόρον ἴσχειν ἀφαντάστως, καὶ ὥσπερ πρὸς ἥλιόν τινα τρέπεται καὶ συμπεριάγεται συμμεταφερόμενα ταῖς κλίσεσι πρὸς τὰς ἐκείνου καμπάς, τὰ δὲ καὶ σχίζεται πρὸς τὴν σελήνην καὶ διανοίγεται εἰς χάσματα μεγίστης διαστάσεως, τὰ δ' ἤδη καὶ πρὸς χάρακας ὥσπερ χεῖρας ἐκτείνει τὰς ἕλικας, οὑτωσὶ δὲ καὶ πρὸς τὰς θέρμας φυσικῶς τινα πάλλει.
    Wilberding translates this sentence as following: “Hence, just as these plants are said to be thirsty or again to be sated without having representation… still other plants stretch their tendrils out like hands towards their vine-props, and in this same way some [plants] also sway in a natural manner towards heat”.
    The French translators differ in details but still in the last clause have ‘…certaines tressaillent naturellement sous l’effet de la chaleur’.
    πάλλω could equally mean sway, wave, and jump, and, given the structure of the previous paragraph, it is natural to suppose that here Porphyry again compares plants with embryos, which previously known to jump because of excessive heat (5.1). Therefore I would prefer M. Chase’s translation: ’Just as plants are said to be thirsty…., so <embryos> naturally jump under the influence of heat (p. 328)’.

    11.2.25 and also Comm. ad loc., p. 271. ἡ μαγνῆτις λίθος κατὰ συγγένειαν φύσει τὰ σιδήρια καὶ <….> τὰ κάρφη. I see absolutely no reason to keep the text as it stands and translate ‘…the Magnesian stone attracts iron filings and bits of straw’. It is clear that it is ἤλεκτρος, amber, which attracts τὰ κάρφη, as everybody knows from school. The experiment is well attested in Antiquity and Avicenna in his Canon of Medicine says that amber is named kahrobaa after its ability to ‘steal straw’ (s.l. Kaf, 340).

  3. Eugene Afonasin writes:

    Notes to the Commentary

    p. 223 ad 2.2.26–29. I see no reason for attributing of the second part of Iamblichus’ De anima fr. 32 (Finamore–Dillon) to Galenus. I would rather take this to belong to Iamblichus himself.

    p. 224 ad 2.3.39–40. Aristotelian testimony quoted, where he says that according to the Orphics “an animal comes into being in the same way as the knitting of a net”, is actually the Generation of Animals, 734a16-20, not 733b17-20.

    p. 234 ad 5.8.83. On the question of analogy and homonymy the reader is referred to an unspecified place in the Poetics. I would suggest trying the Rhetoric 1406b20 ff. and 1407а14. Ср. the Anon. prolegomena 27.

    p. 250, ad 7.3.23–25. Concerning heliotropes and selenotropes, one can also have a look at the Proclan On the sacred art 149.12 ff (cf. Stephen Ronan’s translation, and Dioscorides De materia medica 4.37, vol. 1, p. 196.13 Wellmann (on kunosbatos or selenotropion, mentioned by Wilberding, ad. loc.).

    p. 251, ad 8.3.25–37. Strictly speaking ὑστέρα and μήτρα are not synonymous. Maybe it is the case for Plato, Tim. 91b7, but in Aristotle, just before a place from the History of Animals 582b22–27, quoted in the commentary, he says that «forked» ὑστέρα or δελφύς is the womb, while the tube or orifice of it (ὁ καυλὸς καὶ τὸ στόμα τῆς ὑστέρας) is termed μήτρα (510b13).

    p. 255 ad 10.1.7–8. I would add the most interesting place from Clemens Alexandrinus, the Stromateis–4, where he offers a philosophical and pedagogical interpretation of the process of grafting and inoculation.

    p. 275–277 ad 11.4. To this note, full of references to Fourier transform and the quotes from musicological literature, one could add a more relevant reference: in his Commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics (65.21 ff.) Porphyry summarizes the acoustical ideas, expressed by certain Panaetius (not the Stoic), the phenomenon of resonance included.

    p. 284 ad 12.6.51–52. On the question of superfoetation, reference to Generation of Animals 4.7, 773-774b is misleading. Actually, 4.5, 773a30 ff. is about the phenomenon in question, while, after 4.6 (on birth defects), goes 4.7, 775b25 ff., about the phenomenon of “mole” also referred to by Porphyry (here and in the damaged part of 17.4).

    p. 291 ad 13.6.48. Concerning the Platonic division of the soul and the question of the seat of intelligence, I would also adduce an evidence from the Hippocratic On the sacred disease 17.

    Miscellaneous notes

    p. 7 gives “supp. gr. 635”, while elsewhere (p. 121 etc.) it is “suppl. gr. 635”.

    p. 175, marginal numbering is a line down.

    p. 254, “Medecine”, must be “Medicine”.

    p. 332, ET of 3.2 ‘by means if (must be OF) organs…’

    p. 324, ‘’’animal’’.

    p. 327, ET of 6.2. ‘intellect’ and ‘Intellect’ (as if these are to different intellects). The French translation gives it correctly.

    p. 333 12 (2) the numbering is missing.

    Back cover: one of the primary authors, T. Dorandi is not mentioned among the contributors, while, on the contrary, C. Castelletti and E. Vermon, listed here, are omitted from the title page.