A Double-Edged Sword: Porphyry on the Perils and Profits of Demonological Inquiry

In John F. Finamore & Danielle A. Layne (eds.), Platonic Pathways: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. The Prometheus Trust. pp. 93-123 (2018)
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Abstract

There is a tension in Porphyry’s writings concerning his attitude towards sorcery in general and the invocation of demons in particular. In his De Abstinentia, which contains his most extended surviving demonology, Porphyry distinguishes between good and evil demons and the respective groups of people by whom they are invoked and with whom they are associated. While association with evil demonic entities is condemned by Porphyry, he nevertheless suggests that there is a role for a philosophical treatment of demonic agency. The beneficent demons warn humanity of the impending dangers brought on by the maleficent “so far as they are able … by revelations in dreams, or through an inspired soul, or in many other ways” (De Abs. 2.41.3). The meanings of the signs and revelations granted by the beneficent demons, however, are not explicitly apparent, for “not everyone understands what the signs mean, just as not everyone can read what is written, but only the person who has learned letters” (De Abs. 2.41.4). Porphyry claims that it is partially the role of the philosopher to recognize and interpret these signs and to distinguish them from the lies and deceptions of the evil demons (De Abs. 2.49.2). In the Letter to Anebo, however, Porphyry is much more skeptical about the efficacy of demons (good and evil): the effectiveness of theurgy and sorcery is called into doubt. While Porphyry does claim that certain things can be divined from natural signs, he denies here that divinities or demons are involved in such predictions (Letter to Anebo 25, 28), and he doubts the sorcerous power to bind and control demonic forces. It seems then, that at least the Letter, theurgy and sorcery could be ineffective, and therefore, unnecessary for the salvation of the human soul. Indeed, for Porphyry, for the purification of the soul, theurgy and demonic aid are unnecessary at best, and dangerously counterintuitive at worst.

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Seamus O'Neill
Memorial University of Newfoundland

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