A lost Greek philosophical text rediscovered in Syriac: Porphyry’s “On Principles and Matter”

The discovery of a lost text from ancient times is not something that happens every day.  Obviously it’s exciting when it does!  Strangely a recent discovery seems to have passed mostly unnoticed.

The text in question is On Principles and Matter, a text written by none other than the famous Porphyry, the late 3rd century neoplatonist philosopher.  He was a disciple of Plotinus, whose Isagoge (Introduction to Logic) was translated into every ancient language.  He is also known as the author of a lost text against the Christians.

The original Greek remains lost, but the work was discovered in a Syriac translation by researcher Yuri Arzhanov of the University of Salzburg.  It then turned out that the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I (778-820 AD) references the work in his Letter 43.

The manuscript was discovered at Deir al-Surian (= “Monastery of the Syrians”), the famous monastery in the Nitrian desert that preserved an enornous haul of Syriac literature, brought to England in 1842 by Archdeacon Tattam.  In recent years there has been a Polish mission at work at the monastery, sponsored by the Levantine Foundation (website seems to be down).  A catalogue of the 48 manuscripts (mostly a single quire) and fragments (some 200+) was published in 2014 by Sebastian Brock and Lucas Van Rompay.[1]  This was inaccessible to me, but thankfully Syriacist Grigory Kessel published a review which is accessible on his Academia page here.  This review tells us quite a bit:

Regrettably, the authors do not give any further information on the history of the remaining Syriac manuscripts. According to Murad Kamil, the manuscripts in fact were found during restoration works (“a few years ago Anba Tawfilus, the bishop of the monastery, when he was repairing a wall, found a case with a number of Syriac mss”). …

Frgm. 27 belongs to the famous codex BL Add. 12150, the oldest dated Syriac manuscript (411); Frgm. 9 comes from the Codex Curetonianus (BL Add. 14451), one of the two known manuscripts of the Old Syriac Gospels; and Frgm. 8 belongs to BL Add. 14528, an early list of biblical lessons. As far as the Patristic texts are concerned, Frgm. 4 belongs to BL Add. 14552, a unique witness of the Homilies on Luke by Cyril of Alexandria. Frgm. 7 once formed a part of BL Add. 12159, which contains the Cathedral Homilies of Severus of Antioch. Two flyleaves attached to the manuscripts Syr. 1, Syr. 9 and Syr. 31 turn out to derive from BL Add. 17270, our only witness of a commentary on the works of Mark the Solitary presumably written by Babai the Great (the text remains unedited).

Murad Kamil was a Coptic scholar who visited the monastery in 1951, and drew up a list of the manuscripts there, but never published it.

The Porphyry text is found in MS. Deir al-Surian Syr. 27, which contains a number of other texts. Our text is given there without author or title.  However the author calls himself a disciple of Longinus and Plotinus, and comparison with extant fragments of Porphyry leaves no doubt as to the author.  The title is modern.  At least one scholar has wondered whether it is, in fact, not a separate work, but a portion of Porphyry’s lost commentary on Plato’s Timaeus.

A scribal note at the bottom of f.111r indicates that the manuscript was given to the monastery by Abraham b. Zur`a, when he was Coptic patriarch between 975-8 AD.   The patriarch must have brought a number of Syriac manuscripts with him to Egypt.

Dr Arzhanov published the Syriac text with an English translation: Yury Arzhanov, Porphyry, ‘On Principles and Matter’: A Syriac Version of a Lost Greek Text with an English Translation, Introduction, and Glossaries, DeGruyter (2021).  Series: Scientia Graeco-Arabica 34.  It is currently accessible on Archive.org here.

Dr A. also edited a volume of papers about the discovery: Yury Arzhanove (ed.), Porphyry in Syriac: The Treatise ‘On Principles and Matter’ and its place in the Greek, Latin, and Syriac philosophical traditions, DeGruyter (2024).  From the introduction:

In 2021, a previously unknown work by Porphyry of Tyre (d. 301/305 AD) preserved in a Syriac translation was made available to historians of philosophy (Arzhanov 2021). The treatise, which has come down to us without any title, was published as On Principles and Matter (abbreviated as PM). This text not only enlarges our knowledge of the legacy of the most prominent disciple of Plotinus but also serves as an important witness to Platonist discussions of first principles and of Plato’s concept of prime matter in the Timaeus, since it contains extensive quotations from Middle Platonist philosophers (e.g., Atticus and Severus).

Soon after the edition of the PM, Alexandra Michalewski published a review of it in the journal Etudes platoniciennes (Michalewski 2022), stressing the importance of the newly discovered text both for our understanding of Porphyry’s views and for our knowledge of the Middle Platonist interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus. In addition, the French scholar pointed out the similarity between some portions of the PM and the final part (De Silua) of the commentary on the Timaeus composed in Latin in the fourth century AD by Calcidius (see Michalewski 2022, §§19–21). The close proximity between the published Syriac treatise and the Latin text of Calcidius has been established independently by Michael Chase (see his chapter in the present volume).

Parallels between the treatise preserved in Syriac translation and the Latin text of Calcidius turn out to be one of the most important keys to our interpretation of the PM. These parallels further strengthen the attribution of the original Greek text that underlies the PM to Porphyry, since scholars long assumed that the section De Silua in Calcidius’ commentary depended on a work of Plotinus’ disciple. In addition, a number of publications which appeared after the edition of 2021 made apparent the value of the quotations from other philosophers (which mostly belong to the period of Middle Platonism) preserved in the PM (Ge 2022).

The work itself is philosophy, which will appeal mainly to specialists.  But all the same, it is wonderful to have a bit more of antiquity.

  1. [1]Brock, Sebastian, and Lucas Van Rompay, Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts and Fragments in the Library of Deir al-Surian, Wadi al-Natrun (Egypt), Peeters (2014).

One thought on “A lost Greek philosophical text rediscovered in Syriac: Porphyry’s “On Principles and Matter”

Leave a Reply