Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Henri Dominique Saffrey, Alain-Philippe Segonds, Porphyre: Lettre à Anébon l'Égyptien. Collection des universités de France. Serie grecque, 492. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012. Pp. cxix, 92. ISBN 9782251005768. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

The distinguished French Neoplatonists Saffrey et Ségonds have been engaged for many years now on a new edition of the De Mysteriis of Iamblichus (now called by them, more correctly, 'La réponse à Anébon'—a correction in which we will really have to learn to follow them!), and this edition of the fragments of the original letter of Porphyry to Anebo which provoked the response is in effect a spin-off of that enterprise. Sadly, the younger member of the partnership, Alain Ségonds, died in May 2011, leaving Saffrey to finish the job, a task which he has performed admirably, as one would expect of such a great scholar. The whole volume, indeed, is infused with the sort of meticulous (if rather nitpicking!) scholarship that I have come to associate with my friends in UPR 76 of the CNRS.

The volume consists of a long—and most informative—introduction, and then the text and translation of the 'fragments' (some verbatim, more not), to the number of fully 100, many of them subdivided, and all accompanied by copious notes.

The introduction is divided into five chapters, beginning with a survey of Porphyry's life, mainly comprising a translation of the Life by Eunapius, along with a lament that Eunapius is largely making it up as he goes along, relying on little more than sources also available to us, such as Porphyry's own Life of Plotinus and his Letter to Marcella. There is actually more biographical detail in Chapter 2, devoted to 'la fiction égyptienne'. This is enriched by a learned communication from a colleague in Egyptology, Elsa Oréal, discussing the possible etymology and significance of the names Anebo and Abammon (the former could mean 'Great is his master', and the latter 'Heart of Ammon', implying in either case some knowledge of Egyptian on the part of the protagonists, even at second hand!). This discussion of the 'Egyptian fiction', indeed, brings to the fore the remarkable nature of this polemic between Porphyry and Iamblichus, which, in its format, has few if any ancient analogues. Porphyry, presumably provoked by reports as to the position on theurgy being taken up by his former pupil (now running a school of his own in Apamea in Syria) writes a public letter, couched, Augustine assures us, in a series of polite — though deeply ironic — queries as to the theological presuppositions on which theurgy is based, to an imaginary Egyptian priest. This provocation, we must suppose, is brought to the attention of Iamblichus, who then composes a lengthy and elaborate reply, in the persona of the religious superior of this Egyptian priest. Is there any analogy for a polemical fiction of these dimensions?

There follow useful chapters on the reception of the Letter in both Hellenic and Christian writers; the main sources for our knowledge of it — primarily Eusebius (in the Praeparatio Evangelica V 7 and 10), Augustine (in the City of God, Book X 11), and of course Iamblichus himself; and finally, an attempt at reconstruction. In this connection, Saffrey is at pains to emphasise the tendentious nature of Iamblichus' quotations, and the importance of the other two as constituting controls on him; but I find his strictures on Iamblichus a little harsh — after all, we are involved in polemic here! On the other hand, he rightly stresses that the reconstruction of the Letter on the basis of Iamblichus' text, as is done by previous editors, such as Thomas Gale and Angelo Sodano, is distinctly rash.

This leads us to the collection of fragments itself. Here, the authors make the maximum use of Augustine and Eusebius as primary witnesses whenever possible, subjoining Iamblichus' versions for comparison, with enlightening results. In many cases, of course, we have only Iamblichus' testimony, and we must make the best of that. The total of 100 'fragments' are divided into three sections: (1) Frs. 1-32, covering Books I and 2 (in Scutelli's numbering) of the Response, concern the nature of the superior beings, from gods down to pure souls, where Porphyry is raising questions about the distinctions between gods and lower beings in respect of impassivity and immateriality; (2) Frs. 33-63, covering Book 3, on the topic of divination—with minimal input, unfortunately, from either Eusebius or Augustine; and (3) Frs. 64-100, covering Books 4-10, on the broad subject of theurgy—where the authors are able, by contrast, to make primary use of Eusebius and Augustine, with Iamblichus quoted just for purposes of comparison. In this connection, however, the insertion of the major passages from Eusebius and Augustine, already discussed in the introduction, as Frs. 64 and 65, with the Augustine passage being then broken up into sub- fragments 65a-y, and Eusebius following again, as Frs. 66-76, seems somewhat eccentric, as both seem actually to provide a fairly full summary of the whole of Porphyry's letter, and could have come at the beginning. Only towards the end—Frs. 81-100, covering Books VIII-X of the Response, where Iamblichus is replying to Porphyry's queries on fate and freewill (VIII), the personal daemon (IX), and his request for an account of eudaimonia (X), does Iamblichus come into his own again, for better or worse.

On balance, however, these complaints are not of much significance. This is a most valuable volume to have, and we look forward in due course to the new edition of the Response.

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