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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 30

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 30.—Porphyry’s Emendations and Modifications of Platonism.

If it is considered unseemly to emend anything which Plato has touched, why did Porphyry himself make emendations, and these not a few? for it is very certain that Plato wrote that the souls of men return after death to the bodies of beasts. 434   Plotinus also, Porphyry’s teacher, held this opinion; 435 yet Porphyry justly rejected it.  He was of opinion that human souls return indeed into human bodies, but not into the bodies they had left, but other new bodies.  He shrank from the other opinion, lest a woman who had returned into a mule might possibly carry her own son on her back.  He did not shrink, however, from a theory which admitted the possibility of a mother coming back into a girl and marrying her own son.  How much more honorable a creed is that which was taught by the holy and truthful angels, uttered by the prophets who were moved by God’s Spirit, preached by Him who was foretold as the coming Saviour by His forerunning heralds, and by the apostles whom He sent forth, and who filled the whole world with the gospel,—how much more honorable, I say, is the belief that souls return once for all to their own bodies, than that they return again and again to divers bodies?  Nevertheless Porphyry, as I have said, did considerably improve upon this opinion, in so far, at least, as he maintained that human souls could transmigrate only into human bodies, and made no scruple about demolishing the bestial prisons into which Plato had wished to cast them.  He says, too, that God put the soul into the world that it might recognize the evils of matter, and return to the Father, and be for ever emancipated from the polluting contact of matter.  And although here is some inappropriate thinking (for the soul is rather given to the body that it may do good; for it would not learn evil unless it did it), yet he corrects the opinion of other Platonists, and that on a point of no small importance, inasmuch as he avows that the soul, which is purged from all evil and received to the Father’s presence, p. 201 shall never again suffer the ills of this life.  By this opinion he quite subverted the favorite Platonic dogma, that as dead men are made out of living ones, so living men are made out of dead ones; and he exploded the idea which Virgil seems to have adopted from Plato, that the purified souls which have been sent into the Elysian fields (the poetic name for the joys of the blessed) are summoned to the river Lethe, that is, to the oblivion of the past,

“That earthward they may pass once more,

Remembering not the things before,

And with a blind propension yearn

To fleshly bodies to return.” 436

This found no favor with Porphyry, and very justly; for it is indeed foolish to believe that souls should desire to return from that life, which cannot be very blessed unless by the assurance of its permanence, and to come back into this life, and to the pollution of corruptible bodies, as if the result of perfect purification were only to make defilement desirable.  For if perfect purification effects the oblivion of all evils, and the oblivion of evils creates a desire for a body in which the soul may again be entangled with evils, then the supreme felicity will be the cause of infelicity, and the perfection of wisdom the cause of foolishness, and the purest cleansing the cause of defilement.  And, however long the blessedness of the soul last, it cannot be founded on truth, if, in order to be blessed, it must be deceived.  For it cannot be blessed unless it be free from fear.  But, to be free from fear, it must be under the false impression that it shall be always blessed,—the false impression, for it is destined to be also at some time miserable.  How, then, shall the soul rejoice in truth, whose joy is founded on falsehood?  Porphyry saw this, and therefore said that the purified soul returns to the Father, that it may never more be entangled in the polluting contact with evil.  The opinion, therefore, of some Platonists, that there is a necessary revolution carrying souls away and bringing them round again to the same things, is false.  But, were it true, what were the advantage of knowing it?  Would the Platonists presume to allege their superiority to us, because we were in this life ignorant of what they themselves were doomed to be ignorant of when perfected in purity and wisdom in another and better life, and which they must be ignorant of if they are to be blessed?  If it were most absurd and foolish to say so, then certainly we must prefer Porphyry’s opinion to the idea of a circulation of souls through constantly alternating happiness and misery.  And if this is just, here is a Platonist emending Plato, here is a man who saw what Plato did not see, and who did not shrink from correcting so illustrious a master, but preferred truth to Plato.



Comp. Euseb. Præp. Evan. xiii. 16.


Ennead, iii. 4, 2.


Æneid, vi. 750, 751.

Next: Chapter 31

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