Much ink has been spilled about a lost work of the Neoplatonist Porphyry of Tyre that Augustine refers to as De regressu animae (On the Return of the Soul), with many doubting whether this was even a work in its own right or only a subdivision of some other. But there is no reason to erect such speculative constructions. Augustine tells us that Porphyry wrote a work in multiple books on the subject, and that is that. The title should not lead to any doubts: it is exactly complementary to Iamblichus’ On the Descent of the Soul, since what is meant is the return upwards to the origin of the soul.
Next, it is often assumed that, in this work, Porphyry was taking a stance against his student Iamblichus’ enthusiastic promotion of theurgy, the ritual tradition of Julian the Chaldaean, who composed the Chaldaic Oracles.1 But the evidence for such a debate about theurgy is slim. Porphyry’s Letter to Anebo, which is often described as the opening salvo of the philosophical conflict, is a critique of Egyptian priestcraft, and likely did not employ the word “theurgy” at all.2 And On the Return of the Soul does not seem to have contained a critique of the Chaldaic Oracles so much as an explanation of their teaching, as Porphyry understood it. Augustine would have us think otherwise, but even in his (the only) descriptions of the content, it is generally quite clear what Porphyry himself wrote and what the church father wants us to extrapolate from it. One must only read critically and with an awareness of the rhetorical tactics Augustine uses to subvert the meaning of texts he is describing.
My translation is based on the edition of Andrew Smith, Porphyrii philosophi fragmenta, Teubner 1993. It collects the relevant pieces from Augustine, who read the Porphyrian work in a Latin translation.3 I have omitted all extraneous commentary from Augustine, and some purely repetitive material; I have also rearranged the order of the fragments thematically. In order to avoid the proliferation of different numberings systems, however, I have opted not to number the fragments according to my new arrangement (I may do so in a future, more worked-out publication).
Fragments 284 and 288a ought to be included in editions of the Chaldaic Oracles. Other pieces of information (like frr. 293, 294) seem to go back to the more obscure prose works of Julian the Chaldaean.
1: Also known as Chaldaean or Chaldean Oracles. The suggestion that Julian was merely an editor of an oracular corpus that accreted over time is unfounded. To the best of our knowledge, the whole collection was composed by this person (under the inspiration of the gods, if he is to be believed). Also unfounded is the idea that “Julian the Chaldaean” is a different person from “Julian the Theurge”. Although there is another Julian, the father of the Theurge, and he too could have been involved in the creation of the Oracles, this elder Julian has no particular byname he is known by (the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda calls him “Julian, a Chaldaean”, not “Julian the Chaldaean”).
2: Of the three sources for the lost Letter to Anebo—Iamblichus, Eusebius and Augustine—only Iamblichus, who is paraphrasing freely, puts the word into Porphyry’s mouth. In Augustine, who summarizes the Letter just after a section about On the Return of the Soul, suddenly ceases mentioning theurgy when he passes from one Porphyrian work to the other.
3: The only phrase Augustine seems to have known the Greek of is patrikos nous, which he repeatedly quotes with two alternate translations, paternus intellectus and paterna mens.
2 The Fragments of On the Return of the Soul
2a Porphyry introduces the Chaldaic Oracles and theurgy
(fr. 286 Smith)
They distinguish those damnable persons who are given to illict arts, and whom the common people also call sorcerers (malefici), because these are associated with goetia (gr. goēteia ‘sorcery’); but there are other, more praiseworthy people, to whom theurgy is allotted.
(from fr. 294 Smith)
[Porphyry] praises theurgy as a conciliator with angels and gods.
(from fragment 302a Smith)
He makes continuous mention of the Chaldaean Oracles (Chaldaea oracula) and cannot stay silent about them.
(from fr. 287 Smith)
[Porphyry learned] from Chaldaean teachers1 [that] the gods proclaim divine matters to the theurges.
(fr. 285 Smith)2
He said that there are some angels who descend and proclaim divine matters to theurgic persons because they are drawn down by their art. But there are other angels who declare the matters belonging to the Father, and his exaltedness and deepness,3 on the earth because it is their office to declare the will of the Father. These are to be imitated rather than invoked.
1 Meaning textual authorities, not literal teachers.
2 I have rearranged the phrases of this fragment to undo Augustine ’s tendentious presentation, but the wording and logical sequence are based entirely on Augustine, not on speculative reconstruction.
2b The teaching of the Oracles and of the Chaldaeans, according to Porphyry
(from fr. 287 Smith)
[Porphyry learned] from Chaldaean teachers [about] the aetherial and empyreal heights and celestial firmaments.
(fr. 293 Smith)
He distinguishes angels from daemons, and argues that the aerial regions belong to the daemons, but the aethereal or empyreal ones to the angels. And he warns against befriending any daemon, through whose help one can only be elevated a little from the earth after death, but holds out that there is a path to supernal fellowship with the angels. […] After death, while serving its punishments, the soul despises the worship of daemons in which it was entangled.4
(fr. 288a Smith)
The aethereal gods […] promised that those who are purified by the theurgic art in their pneumatic soul do not return to the Father, but they will dwell above the aerial regions among the aethereal gods. Those theurges or rather […] the gods […] purify the human pneuma (spiritus).
(fr. 284 Smith)
Porphyry also says that there was a response from the divine oracles that we cannot be purified by rituals (teletae) of the Moon and the Sun. […] In the same oracle, it was expressed, that only the first beings (principia) can purify. […] He is referring to […] the Father and [the one whom he calls a Greek name meaning] “paternal intellect” or “paternal mind”,5 [and] the one between them.6
(fr. 284a Smith)
The Father […], the paternal intellect or mind and the one between them […], three gods.
3 The deepness must refer to the “paternal abyss (patrikos bythos)”.
4 The danger of worshipping daemons isntead of gods is a continuous concern through Porphyry’s work, but Augustine invests it with a false Christian sense of dualism between true and false worship, which is alien to Porphyry and even more so to the Chaldaean theurges (who opposed the disruptive evil daemons to helpful good daemons).
5 Paternus intellectus or paterna mens. In Greek, patrikos nous.
6 This god is Hekate, as we know from other sources.
2c The paternal will—according to the Chaldaeans or Porphyry?
(fr. 298 Smith)
The god handed the soul over to the cosmos (mundus) for this reason, that it may become aware of the evils of matter and return to the Father, and no longer be held in defiling contact with such things. […] When the soul is cleansed (mundata) from all evils and stationed with the Father, it will never again suffer the evils of this cosmos.
(fr. 298a Smith)
And its happiness is more stable and will persist without end after its experience of evils.
(fr. 298b Smith)
The soul is handed over to the cosmos to become aware of evils, so that it will never suffer anything more of this sort once it has been liberated and purified from them and has returned to the Father.
2d The benefits of theurgy
(fr. 290 Smith)
[The theurgic art] is useful for the cosmic part of the soul (mundana pars animae): not the intellectual part, by which the truth of intelligible things7 (res intelligibiles) is perceived, which have no similarity to those which have bodies, but the pneumatic part, by which images of corporeal things are grasped. For this part of the soul can, through certain theurgic consecrations, which they call teletae, become suited and apt to see spirits (spiritus), angels and gods. From these theurgic teletae, no purification is granted to the intellectual soul which could make it suited to see [the Father]8 and to observe the true beings (ea quae vere sunt).9 […] The rational or intellectual soul can ascend to its own (realities) even if its pneumatic part (spiritale) is not purified by the theurgic art.
(fr. 290a Smith)
They see certain wondrously beautiful apparitions (imagines) of angels or gods through the purified pneuma.
7 The oft-repeated claim that the Oracles did not distinguish between intellectual (noeric) and intelligible (noetic) beings is ill-founded and dubious even on grammatical grounds. Porphyry may be representing the Chaldaic corpus fairly here.
8 “Its god” in Augustine, by which he means, of course, that the gods seen by the pneumatic soul are not really gods.
9 By this, Porphyry does not mean the truth (as if the previously mentioned were false, as Augustine implies) but ta ontōs onta, the eternal intelligible realities beyond the cosmos.
2e Some troubling10 features of theurgy
(from fr. 294 Smith)
He said: “A certain good man in Chaldaea said that in his great exertion to purify his soul, he was frustrated, because a man who was powerful in effecting such things bound the powers by adjuring them with sacred prayers, because was was jealous. Thus, the other had bound, and he could not loosen.” By this indication, he said, it appears that theurgy is an art of bringing about good as well as evil among gods and among people; and even the gods suffer and are drawn down towards these perturbations and passions.
(fr. 295 Smith)
Porphyry says that through the theurgic discipline, even the gods themselves are bound by passions and perturbations […] compelled by fear of a greater deity.11
(fr. 296 Smith)
A good god or daemon (genius) does not enter into a human being unless the evil (daemon) has first been placated.12
10 It is not clear whether only Augustine is troubled by these things, or whether Porphyry also problematized them here. Similar issues are raised in the Letter to Anebo, but it is not clear what the purpose of that work was or whether it reflects the same point of view as On the Return of the Soul.
11 Augustine makes fun of this idea. But Porphyry provides a solution: the pursuit of philosophy.
2f The dangers of theurgy
(fr. 289 Smith)
Yet he warns that one should be wary of this art as being deceitful, dangerous to practice and prohibited by laws.13
(fr. 289a Smith)
This art should be feared either because of the threat of the laws or because of its own practices.
(fr. 289b Smith)
People err through the theurgic discipline, and so many are deceived.
13 If the warnings in frr. 289–289b really concern the theurgic art and not goetia (as they might, if we distrust Augustine), one should remember that the Chaldaic corpus itself warns of the dangers posed by daemons in theurgic ritual, and that the danger of capital punishment for practicing magic was quite real. Porphyry is not contradicting the Chaldaeans by giving such a warning.
2g The limitations of theurgy
(fr. 293a Smith)
The teletae do not elevate the pneumatic soul after death.14
(fr. 292 Smith)
Purifying the pneumatic part is so far from the theurge that immortality and eternity do not come about on account of him.15
(fr. 292a Smith)
And even the pneumatic part […] which can be purified by such art […] nevertheless cannot become immortal and eternal through this art.
14 This seems a rather extreme position, to judge from the other fragments; in other passages, Porphyry adopts a more moderate view.
15 This must be balanced against fr. 288.
2h Porphyry’s verdict
(fr. 288 Smith)
After much discussion […], Porphyry admits the purification of the soul through theurgy, but he denies that the art can bring about the return to the god for anyone.16
(from fr. 287 Smith)
The purifications of the theurgic art do not seem to [him] to be necessary to a philosopher [but rather for those] who are unable to philosophize. […] Anyone who is far away from the virtue of philosophy, which is very arduous and belongs to few, […] should seek out the theurges, by whom the intellectual soul (anima intellectualis) is not purified, but at least the pneumatic soul (anima spiritalis).
(fr. 291 Smith)
The pneumatic soul can be purified, without theurgic arts and without teletae, […] through the virtue of continence.17 […] Certainly, ignorance and the many vices that are due to it are not purified by any teletae, but only through the patrikos nous, that is, the paternal mind or intellect, which is aware of the paternal will.
16 As the next fragment shows, this is not just what Porphyry believed, but also what he understood the Oracles to be saying.
17 Sophrosyne in Greek.
2i One must flee all body
(fr. 297 Smith)
To come to the god through the virtue of intelligence is granted to few. […] In this life, a human can in no way come to a perfection of wisdom, yet for those who live in accordance with intellect, everything which is lacking can be fulfilled through the providence and grace of the god after life. […] This can happen […] to the intellectual soul […] which is consubstantial with that paternal mind.
[…] One must flee from all body, so that the soul may remain with the god and be happy.
(dubious fragment: 297c Smith)
Without reason do you praise my body. Whatever the body is like, if the soul wishes to be happy, it must flee from all body.
(fr. 300 Smith)
Human souls return into bodies of humans, but not their own, which have been scattered, but other, new ones. […] Human souls can only fall into humans, and they escape imprisonment in beasts.
(fr. 300a Smith)
For the sake of the purification of the soul, all body must be fled. […] Those who have lived immoderately and dishonestly return to mortal bodies to serve their punishments, but only to the bodies of humans.
(fr. 301 Smith)
After many cycles through various bodies, at some point, these miseries end, as Porphyry says, and they never return to these, not by having an immortal body, but by fleeing all body.
(fr. 301a Smith)
The souls of the wise are liberated from the corporeal knots, so that, fleeing all body, they are happy and kept close by the Father without end. […] They will live not only without earthly but without any kind of body for eternity.
2k Porphyry’s conclusion at the end of the first book
(fr. 302 / 302a / 302b Smith)18
Porphyry says, near the end of the first book On the Return of the Soul, that no universal path for the liberation of the soul has yet19 been brought forth either from any most true philosophy, or from the customs and learning of the Indians, or from the teaching of the Chaldaeans or any other path, nor has this path yet been brough to his attention through historical study.
18 My translation combines the three fragments, printed in parallels by Smith, into one composite text. Read critically.
19 According to Augustine, this must been that such a universal path will be found, and he finds it in Christianity. But Porphyry may, on the contrary, be arguing that there is no universal (easy) path, but that each soul must make arduous progress in philosophy and virtue. This, presumably, was what the following books discussed.