The Goddess Athena as Symbol of Phronesis in Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs

In: The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition
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  • 1 Department of Classics, The Plato Centre Trinity College Dublin

Abstract

On the Cave of the Nymphs, an allegorical exegesis of Homer’s description of the cave of the nymphs at Odyssey 13.102-112, a passage quoted in full at the beginning of the treatise after the briefest possible indication of the project on which Porphyry is embarking, has been generally given little attention in discussions of Neoplatonic philosophy, as it is deemed to be of little importance for establishing Porphyrian doctrine. However, the treatise contains significant philosophical thoughts on the relationship between the soul and body, embodiment, demonology, and the concept of salvation of soul, which are compatible with his other works, especially On Abstinence from Killing Animals (De Abstinentia) and Pathways to the Intelligible (Sententiae). The concept of salvation of soul is found in Porphyry’s identification of the goddess Athena with phronesis, along with the olive tree, while Odysseus represents the soul descending into genesis, but will return back to his fatherland.

In this context, this paper will explore the role and meaning of phronesis, namely the goddess Athena, in the process of the soul’s journey towards the intelligible realm and show the relevance of the Neoplatonic doctrine of virtues, particularly the cathartic virtues, in Sententia 32 to Porphyry’s reading of Homer’s image of Odysseus under guidance of the goddess Athena. Phronesis inspires the soul to incline towards the level of Intellect that is, away from damaging influences of the body to which the soul is enslaved and which confuses it with desires, passions, fears and illusory impressions, and prevents it from attaining the intelligible realm, whereas the body and its desires lead us to conflict and unjust behaviour in order to gain wealth, status, power, and pleasure.

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