Let’s do that jargon thing, Mr. Porphyry

I’ve started translating Porphyry’s Ad Gaurum, on how unborn babies get souls.  It uses quite a few technical terms, and although I have Festugiere’s French translation to hand, examination of the Greek is unavoidable, and puzzling over what each word means likewise.

Porphyry begins his treatise thus:

In general, men of learning and almost all physicians have wondered whether it is necessary to consider embryos [1] as living beings, or whether they have merely a vegetative [2] life.  The real character of living beings is perception [3] and impulses [4].  Vegetative beings are those which have the functions of nutrition and growth without the accompaniment of perception and impulses.  Therefore, since embryos, in their behaviour, show no imagination or impulses,  and are governed only by the functions of growth and nutrition, as evidenced by observation in each case, it is necessary to admit that embryos are similar to plants, or equivalent to plants. 

Now all four words marked with notes seem to be  technical terms. 

Note 1, ’embryo’, is ἔμβρυον, which Festugiere renders “embryo” but I suspect means specifically “unborn baby”.  (Am I alone in detesting the word and use of the term ‘foetus’ to refer to such?)

Note 2, ‘vegetative’, is φυτικός, plant-like, which I have so far treated with “vegetative”.  But I wonder if there is a better word to use?

Note 3, ‘perception’, is αἴσθησις , or perhaps judgement, discernment, rendered as “sensibility” by Festugiere (shades of Jane Austen!).  I’m not happy that I understand what is being said here.

Note 4, ‘impulses’, is ὁρμῇ, which Festugiere renders as l’impulsion.  Amusingly this is rendered in NT Greek as “assault”, and with a range of meanings in LSJ.

Then I discovered this version of a Bryn Mawr review of Luc Brisson, Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, Jean-Luc Solère (ed.), L’Embryon: formation et animation. Antiquité grecque et latine, traditions hèbraïque, chrétienne et islamique. Histoire des doctrines de l’Antiquité classique 38.   Paris, 2008.

[Véronique Boudon-Millot] first reviews the widely differing views of [Galen’s] predecessors (Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) and pays attention to the almost insoluble translation problems as far as terms like Greek kuêma (embryo) and embruon (foetus) are concerned. She finally argues that in Galen’s (and others’) view an embryo does have life from the beginning but that is a form of life ‘in potency‘ that only gradually develops into life in the full sense of the word. Stages in that development are, e.g., the beginning of heartbeat and of movements, and the final stage is of course breathing that is only reached at birth.  …

Next, Tiziano Dorandi discusses the textual history of Ad Gaurum, a work formerly attributed to Galen, but since Kalbfleisch’s edition of 1895 to Porphyry. This important treatise is wholly dedicated to the question of how an embryo is ensouled, but has been preserved in only one manuscript. Dorandi traces the indirect tradition of the text in the form of quotations and paraphrases in later authors such as John Philoponus and Michael Psellus and assesses their value as textual witnesses.

Gwenaëlle Aubry also focuses on Ad Gaurum but deals only with its concept of epitêdeiotês: the embryo is said to be a plant in actu but also a living being in potency kat’ epitêdeiotêta, which she translates by ‘according to receptivity.’ “Si l’on peut, selon Porphyre, dire de l’embryon qu’il est animal en-puissance, c’est donc en un tout autre sens que celui qu’ entend Aristote: ce n’est pas parce qu’il serait capable, déja comme embryon, et à un certain stade de son evolution, de developper par lui-même les facultés distinctives de l’animal, mais parce qu’il est, à la naissance, et à terme seulement, apte à recevoir l’âme animal” (155).  …

Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, too, like Dorandi, deals with the Byzantine reception history of Porphyry’s Ad Gaurum, especially in John Philoponus (who uses it as one of his sources for opposite arguments), Michael Psellus (who by and large agrees with Porphyry), and the 14th century anonymous author of Hermippus sive de astrologia (who combats Porphyry’s embryological ideas). There is some overlap with Dorandi’s piece here, but only to a limited degree, for Congourdeau is more interested in the Byzantines’ philosophical argumentation than in their value for textual criticism.

Who says you can’t find useful technical information on the web?  Now if only I could find the book online!  But sadly I don’t know where French-speaking pirates hang out.  I’m not sure, in truth, that my French would be quite equal to so technical a discussion anyway; for all these essays are in French.  But even this review has given me something.


5 thoughts on “Let’s do that jargon thing, Mr. Porphyry

  1. “rendered as “sensibility” by Festugiere”

    Did he use the word _sensibilité_ ? Because if so I wouldn’t translate that using the English word “sensibility”, but rather “sensitivity” or something else that implied perception using the senses.

  2. A recent trans. of Nemesius (Liverpool U.Press) might help with “insoluble” terminology. Does your ‘friend’ Tertullian (De Anima) go into it? (But the Latin terms are equally obscure… A 5th cent.text on my desk merrily used ‘mens’ ‘sensus’ ‘ratio’ all as trans of Gk ‘nous’!!!) I would go with “the unborn” for ’embryon’, and “vegetative” (explained a few lines down). Am not too convinced by “sensitivity” or Festugiere’s “sensitivite'” – Aristotle (I think) somewhere identifies aisthesis with phronesis (= cognition???). German would probably go for Empfindung (“feeling” – equally unhelpful). “Impulse” is tricky – the ability to ‘self-move’ opp. to stuck-in-mud plants. Is “motion” too off the mark?

  3. A correspondent points out that sensibilite = “aisthetikos”, related to “aesthetic” in our language; maybe just “feeling”?

    Impulse is the current problem, I agree.

    I wonder if I can find Nemesius.

  4. I find that Nemesius was also translated back in the 50’s in the “Library of Christian Classics” together with selections from Cyril of Jerusalem.

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