Porphyrys Hierarchy of Virtues

Porphyry's Sentences are a collection of forty-four loosely related philosophical discourses, mostly about neo-Platonic metaphysics and psychology. Some of the "Sentences" are just single propositions, while others consist of longer expositions and arguments. By far the longest of all the "sentences," the thirty-second, gives an account of virtue.3

Porphyry begins his account of virtue with the familiar distinction between political and contemplative virtue. Virtues are divided into two sets, "one set of virtues belongs to the citizen, another to the man who ascends to contemplation.."4 The former, explains Porphyry, consist in "moderation of passion" and "are to follow and to conform to the conclusions based upon a calculation of what is proper or expedient in actions." Thus they derive their name as "political" virtues from the fact that "they have in view a social organization which shall not inflict injury upon its members."5 Porphyry distinguishes four virtues, the "cardinal" Greek virtues which had been appropriated already in the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Porphyry's description of the set of political cardinal virtues is consistent with this Greek tradition:

.prudence is conversant with that which is reasoned; courage with the passionate; temperance lies in the agreement and harmony of the desires and affections with rational calculation, while justice is the simultaneous limiting of each of these to its own sphere of action, in respect to ruling and being ruled.6

Porphyry continues by describing how these four cardinal virtues are manifested in the contemplative life. He begins by distinguishing generally between the political and contemplative spheres: "The disposition.which is based upon the political virtues may be stated as consisting in moderation of passion, having for its aim to enable man to live as a man according to nature. [But] the disposition based upon the contemplative virtues consists in apathy, the end whereof is assimilation to God." From this, it follows that the contemplative virtues "lie in withdrawal from things here [below]" and are considered "purifications." The political virtues prepare the soul for this purification, but are not themselves purificative, because they necessarily involve the body.8 Porphyry describes the four virtues as purifications thus:

Hence, in purifications, not to opine with the body, but to energize, alone constitutes prudence. Again, freedom from sympathies [with the body] constitutes temperance. [.] Not to fear, when withdrawing from the body, as if it were into something empty and non-being, constitutes courage. [.] And when reason and intellect lead and nothing opposes, this is justice.9

Porphyry goes on to argue that there needs to be further levels of virtue even after the contemplative or purificatory virtues. Purification alone does not make the soul partake of the good, but only rids it of certain evils; further virtues are required for the soul to reach its ultimate end. As Porphyry explains it, "the nature of the soul is not a good, but capable of partaking of the good, and having the form of the good. But the good for it is to be united with that which produced it."10 Thus, according to Porphyry, there is "a third class of virtues besides the purificative and political, those, namely, which belong to the soul energizing intellectually."11 This class of virtues is difficult to understand, for they are not available to us in this life12; nonetheless, Porphyry explains, even on this level can be found the four virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage:

Wisdom and prudence lie in contemplation of the things which nous13 has, whereas justice is proper action14 in the progress toward nous, and the energizing toward nous. Temperance again is the turning inward toward nous. Courage is absence of passion, in assimilation to that toward which it looks, and which is by nature passionless.15

These are the virtues of "the soul already looking inward toward nous, and filled from it,"16 and they are higher than those (the contemplative virtues) "which belong to the soul of a man purifying itself, and purified from the body and irrational passions," 7 which are in turn higher than those (the practical virtues) "belonging to the soul of man which adorns the man, by setting limits to irrationality and inculcating moderation of the passions."18

But these intellectual virtues19 are not themselves the highest, for above them are the paradigm, or "pattern," virtues. These are "in nous," and are "superior to those of the soul, and are the patterns of those to which the similitudes of the soul belong." Thus, the three lower levels of virtues are exemplifications of this highest level of virtue, "for nous is that in which all things are as patterns."20 So the four virtues, which are manifested on the three lower levels, have their pattern here:

wisdom is nous cognizing; self-attention,21 temperance; peculiar function [justice], proper action. Courage is sameness, and a remaining pure of self-dependence, through abundance of power.22

These pattern or exemplar virtues, the highest level, are, like the virtues of the purified soul, unavailable to man in this life, but they are available to certain higher orders of being:

Hence he who energizes according to the practical virtues is an earnest man; he who energizes according to the purificative ones, is a demonic man or even a good demon. He who energizes according to those alone which relate to nous is a god. He who energizes according to the pattern virtues is the father of the gods.23

Men, therefore, should strive to attain the lower two levels, but a man may not have the higher without the lower. He must, then, ascend from the lower level of virtue to the higher.

He who has the greater, has, of necessity, the less; but by no means vice versa. Moreover, from the fact of having the less, he who has the greater will no longer energize according to the less by predilection, but only in consequence of the circumstance of birth.24

The human soul cannot properly exhibit the highest, exemplar virtues; nonetheless, because the lower levels of virtues are analogically related to the higher levels,25 the human soul can share in them according to its own mode, namely by striving toward them through the political and contemplative virtues.

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