A Philosophical Epistle

A Philosophical Epistle

Having grown up in a Christian family, I am familiar with the fact that spiritual teachings can come in the form of letters. Every week we would go to church and hear sermons derived from epistles (letters) said to be written by apostles such as Peter, Paul, or John. Rather than being confined to a particular set of addressees in Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome, these letters were said to contain a universal message transcending time and place. I was thus pleasantly surprised when I encountered Porphyry’s Letter to Marcella, and learned that this art of epistolary teaching was not unique to Christianity.  

Porphyry was an influential 3rd century Neo-Platonist philosopher. Much of his work has been lost to history, likely due to the fact that Christian emperor Theodoseus II ordered the burning of his massively influential tome entitled “Against the Christians”, which was purported to have intellectually laid waste to the fledgling sect. As a result of the historical sea change initiated by Christianity’s ascent to imperial power, only a handful of Porphyry’s works survive, and his most lasting influence is perhaps his editorial role in compiling his teacher Plotinus’s writings into six Enneads and in his composition of an account of the life of Plotinus.

One of Porphyry’s works that we do have access to, however, is his Letter to his Wife Marcella. In it, he attempts to comfort his wife on account of his absence, as he has been called away from home to attend to the affairs of the Greeks and forced to delay his return (❡ 4). But, as with other famous epistles of the ancient world, his letter not only addresses the particular concerns of his wife, but also serves as a universal exhortation to philosophy amid life’s sorrows. As I was re-reading his letter, three principles stood out as particularly relevant for us today.

I. Expect Difficulty

The first principle is to expect difficulty in life. Porphyry contends that anything worth striving for will meet with resistance in the material world. He explains:

“It is impossible that those who desire to be mindful of their return, should accomplish their journey home from this terrestrial exile pleasantly and easily, as through some smooth plain. For no two things can be more entirely opposed to one another than a life of pleasure and ease, and the ascent to the gods. As the summits of the mountains cannot be reached without danger and toil, so it is not possible to emerge from the inmost depths of the body through pleasure and ease which drag man down to the body. For it is by anxious thought that we reach the road, and by recollection of our fall. But even if we encounter difficulties in our way, hardship is natural to the ascent, for it is given to the gods alone to lead an easy life” ❡6.[1]

Porphyry here invokes the Platonic doctrine that we are immortal souls, fallen into the gross world of matter, who, as a result of our descent, have forgotten our true home in the higher spheres of being. Such myths no longer sit well with us, awash as we are in the dogmas of a materialistic culture. I personally believe that the Platonic view of the soul has much to recommend it, and that it tends to be peremptorily dismissed without receiving a fair hearing. I’ll discuss this further in a post, but it is sufficient to note for now that the principle that we should expect difficulty in life holds true independently of this doctrine. In the world in which we live, the lofty and the noble can be attained only through intense struggle. Just as Hercules had to undertake great labors before ascending to the gods ❡7, so too must we suffer greatly if we hope to achieve anything of note. For, Porphyry observes “it is not those who live a life of pleasure that make the ascent to the gods, but rather those who have nobly learnt to endure the greatest misfortunes.” ❡7. Whether through self-help, positive psychology, or psychopharmacological drugs, we, in our culture, feel compelled to mute our suffering, often by numbing our minds entirely.[2] As a result, we can no longer hear what our pain has to teach us. When difficulty and distress mark our path, Porphyry likens them to heavy iron chains reminding us of our bondage to delusional beliefs and illusory passions, and spurring us, as a result, to cast them off and be free. Porphyry contrasts pain’s iron chains, with pleasure’s golden ones, which by their apparent beauty, dazzle their wearers into bearing them willingly, even enthusiastically ( ❡7). Porphyry, thus provides us with an alternate strategy for handling psychological distress than what is on offer today. Rather than attempting to eliminate suffering, Porphyry suggests that we can choose to bear it nobly. Indeed, this has long been considered one of the virtues of philosophy, as the rhetorician Isocrates noted in his Panegyric to Greek culture, philosophy distinguishes “between the misfortunes that are due to ignorance and those which spring from necessity” and teaches us “to guard against the former and bear the latter nobly” (❡47). How might our lives be different, if instead of trying to rid ourselves sorrow, we learned to accept it with magnanimity and continued our ascent towards the Good?

II. You Are Invisible

The second principle we can derive from Porphyry’s letter, is that, at your core, you are not a sensible object.  The self transcends what can be grasped by the senses. Marcella was distraught by her physical distance from her husband, and saddened that she could no longer see him or sensibly interact with him. But, Porphyry argues that, in fact, she had never seen him to begin with, since neither he nor she had ever been sensible objects. He queries

“What was it then that we learnt from those men who possess the clearest knowledge to be found among mortals? Was it not this–that I am in reality not this person who can be touched or perceived by any of the senses, but that which is farthest removed from the body, the colorless and formless essence which can by no means be touched by the hands, but is grasped by mind alone. And it is not from outward things that we receive those principles which are implanted in us.” ❡8.

This passage once more invokes a Platonic myth of the soul that might not sit well with a contemporary audience. And again, I won’t try to argue for the position here, but simply note that Porphyry’s general principle can still hold true even under a different ontology. All that is needed to accept his principle is that there be a distinction between consciousness and its objects. When I interact with an apple, for example, I can perceive it as red, round, crunchy and sweet. Say, for instance, that I bite into it and taste its sweetness. I can thus note that I, as a conscious subject, am experiencing something sweet. The sweetness is an object towards which my consciousness is directed. But the I that tastes this sweetness, is not itself sweet. The conscious mind that is aware of sensations, cannot itself be a sensation.

Porphyry’s reminder that we are, at our core, not sensible objects is much needed for us denizens of the hyper-real. If Porphyry thought it was a mistake to equate ourselves with our physical bodies and their sensible properties, how would he have characterized our virtual worlds that reduce people to their sensible properties without even hoping to ground those properties in bodies. For us residents of the twittering world, to be is to be perceived, but what is perceived is no longer the body, but a simulacrum tagged, filtered, and photoshopped, redacted to fit trends dictated by an algorithm.[3] If Platonists believed the physical world to be a mere shadow of true reality, our simulated world would be a mere reflection of a shadow rebounding endlessly in an empty hall of mirrors. For those of us who have grown nauseous at the spectacle, Porphyry’s call to look within to the stable perceiving subject rather than the fleeting sensible show, can provide us with the firm ground needed to restore our balance.

III. Your True Teacher is Within

Finally, the third principle we can take away from Porphyry’s letter is that you must look within, not without, to find your true teacher. Marcella is saddened by Porphyry’s absence and believes she has lost her husband and guide. But he reminds her not only that he is not a sensible object and thus was never physically present to her to begin with (as he did in the previous principle), but also that she needs no external teacher at all. He observes:

“Is it not then absurd, though you are persuaded that you have in yourself the saving and the saved, the losing and the lost, wealth and poverty, father and husband, and a guide to all true good, to pant after the mere shadow of a leader, as though you had not within yourself a true leader, and all riches within your power?” ❡9

Here Porphyry claims that Marcella holds within herself not only that which needs saving, but also the power to save, not only a feeling of sadness for loss, but also the immortal soul which has borne those losses, and not only a sense of poverty in the absence of her physical teacher, but an inner wealth kept in the sanctum sanctorum of the mind. Marcella, like all of us, must be her own teacher. This inner teacher will point the way to integrity and wholeness, instructing you

“to ascend into yourself, collecting together all the powers which the body has scattered and broken up into a multitude of parts unlike their former unity to which concentration lent strength. You should collect and combine into one the thoughts implanted within you endeavoring to isolate those that are confused, and to drag to light those that are enveloped in darkness” ❡10.

Through this process of integration, which Jung later came to call individuation, we grow into who we are and ascend to the Good. Porphyry claims that this inner journey, unlike the projects we undertake in the merely physical world, is unaffected by the whims of fate. Drawing oneself into life’s center, one no longer rises and falls with the turns of fortune’s wheel. He explains:

 “The divine law is unknown to the soul that folly and intemperance have rendered impure, but it shines forth in self-control and wisdom. It is impossible to transgress this, for there is nothing in man that can transcend it. Nor can it be despised, for it cannot shine forth in a man who will despise it. Nor is it moved by chances of fortune, because it is in truth superior to chance and stronger than any form of violence. Mind alone knows it, and diligently pursues the search thereafter, and finds it imprinted in itself, and supplies from it food to the soul as to its own body….Thus mind is become teacher and savior, nurse, guardian and leader, speaking the truth in silence, unfolding and giving forth the divine law; and looking on the impressions thereof in itself it beholds them implanted in the soul from all eternity.” ❡26

It is thus by looking within that the soul can find its true leader and law to guide it on its way. The resources we need for growth are therefore not to be found in the outer world and the products it hawks. No marketplace of ideas could ever furnish what we need. For what is truly needed can be found only within ourselves, as the mind turns inward and ascends to its source.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] Porphyry’s Letter to His Wife Marcella: Concerning the Life of Philosophy and the Ascent to the Gods trans. Zimmern (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press).

[2] For an enjoyable criticism of this approach to life see Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.

[3] See Baudrillard Simulacra and Simulation.

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