Bibliotherapy

A Porphyrian Diptych

Heinrich Khunrath’s ‘Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom’

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Part I: On Prayer and Providence

‘…Porphyry, quoted by Proclus in his ‘Commentary on the Timaeus’, develops a whole argumentation about three forms of atheisms, before concluding on the reality of prayer in five arguments. To refer at the source of the Platonic text will help us to see its worth. The ‘Timaeus’ text in in fact and invocation: “Men, for how little they participate to wisdom, when they are about to undertake something small or big, always one way or another invoke divinity’. (27cl-3). We will ask whether it can be taken as a prayer and wasn’t a formal prelude.’

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‘Prayer (ευχη, efchi) was the subject of many episodes in Homer’s work and the tragedians. “The ordinary plan of Greek prayer, in a triadic form was, Invocation-Argument-Request.” The invocation was a laudatory address to the gods; the arguments was what men could say to justify their demand; prayer appearing like a right, showing their worth and the services they are asking for and finally the request. The pattern seems to, most of the time, dominate the Homeric epic, as for example with Ulysses and Athena, in the Iliad V,762-7 or X, 278-83; with Achilles and Apollo, II,22-15; with Diomedes, V,114 and Athena and II,157-65 with Hera. We may think that this pattern was close enough to the common practices that were not only the hero’s, but also the commoner, like this inscription in Dodona where a peasant queries a god ‘to know to which gods address which prayers’, and this was the popular practice Homer transcribed and embellished.’

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…Men become worthy of the gods through the acquisition of wisdom. This highlights a platonic perspective, because ‘the image of the wise man must be essentially the complement to a discourse on devotion.’ The ‘Philebus’ notes: ‘If some god is eager to answer my prayers-then I pray and contemplate; in fact, i believe that a god is favorable to us in all circumstances’. (12b-c). The ‘Epithomis’ adds: “The true wise man is the one who knows how to think, do and say upon the subject of the gods all things appropriate and timely’. We can discover in the ‘Critias’ the following:” May we pray the god to gift us himself the most perfect and outstanding potion, knowledge. And after saying this invocation (proseuchesthai) lets allow Critias to continue.” (106 a-b). But it is in the ‘Timaeus’ that we find the request: “Let’s us again now pray as we begin the god, so that he may save us from absurd and incoherent considerations and suggests us likely opinions.” (48 d-e). The text in 27d-e used ‘ευχεσθαι’: “To pray them so that our discourses above all would be conform to their thoughts’, and spoke of a help, without precising which one. We now know what it was: The use of ‘discourse’, corresponding to the demand Timaeus is about to make.’

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‘Porphyry talked about three cause of atheism: ‘not to believe in the existence of gods’, the first sort of atheism according to Porphyry, ‘to believe in them but they are indifferent to human affairs’, second cause. In the first case, he talks about the advantages that arise: Prayer has a function and a utility, which makes this position close to Origen’s in his treatise: ‘…Those who are completely atheists and deny the existence of God’, and ‘Those who admit his existence without recognizing his providence’. Finally, the third cause, ‘those who admit the existence of the gods and their providence, who want that everything that comes from them necessarily happens.’ They are the Stoics, because they admit a multiplicity of physical causes in order that everything that may happen to the phenomena was tied together; the causes linked to each other to create a continuity, binding an external event to another, even though a main cause predominates. Hence pure necessity is overwhelming and there is no possible room for providence. What Porphyry was seeing in prayer was that it supposes the idea of an external influence, called providence, and that invoking the gods was the manner to recognize the idea ipso facto that prayer was tightly connected to it. Here, we have Porphyry the theologian and religious man.’

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Part II: On Purity While Performing Sacrifices

19….It is seemly then that those who want to sacrifice go purified in their moral character, bringing sacrifices that are dear to the gods, not such that are lavish. Nowadays they believe that it does not suffice for the holiness of the sacrifice to throw a glittering garment around an unclean body. But if some have a shiny body along with a shiny garment, yet proceed to sacrifice with their soul not cleansed of evil, they think it makes no difference, as though the god did not delight most of all if what is most godlike within ourselves is clean, since it is homogeneous with him. In Epidaurus, at any rate, there was the inscription:

“Pure must be he who enters the fragrant temple; purity means to think nothing but holy thoughts”

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Alternative translation of the same paragraph by Thomas Taylor:

19…It is necessary, therefore, that, being purified in our manners, we should make oblations, offering to the Gods those sacrifices which are pleasing to them, and not such as are attended with great expense. Now, however, if a man’s body is not pure and invested with a splendid garment, he does not think it is qualified for the sanctity of sacrifice. But when he has rendered his body splendid, together with his garment, though his soul at the same time is not, purified from vice, yet he betakes himself to sacrifice, and thinks that it is a thing of no consequence; as if divinity did not especially rejoice in that which is most divine in our nature, when it is in a pure condition, as being allied to his essence. In Epidaurus, therefore, there was the following inscription on the doors of the temple:

“Into an odorous temple, he who goes

Should pure and holy be; but to be wise

In what to sanctity pertains, is to be pure.”

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🌿Part I: Our working English translation of quotes from Jean-Michel Charrue’s study, ‘ Neoplatonisme, Of existence and human destiny’, L’Harmattan-Paris_2014. Chapter V. Pages 91 to 94. 🌿Part II: Porphyry, On abstinence from animal food (Translated by Thomas Taylor in 1823). / https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Porphyry_Abstinence
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