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Justice Purity Piety: A Reading of Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Ensouled Beings


Presenting a range of arguments against meat-eating, many strikingly familiar, Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Ensouled Beings (Greek Περὶ ἀποχῆς ἐμψύχων, Latin De abstinentia ab esu animalium) offers a sweeping view of the ancient debate concerning animals and their treatment. At the same time, because of its advocacy of an asceticism informed by its author’s Neoplatonism, Abstinence is often taken to be concerned primarily with the health of the human soul. By approaching Abstinence as a work of moral suasion and a work of literature, whose intra- and intertextual resonances yield something more than a collection of propositions or an invitation to Quellenforschung, I aim to push beyond interpretations that bracket the arguments regarding animals as merely dialectical; cast the text’s other-directed principle of justice as wholly subordinated to a self-directed principle of purity; or accept as decisive Porphyry’s exclusion of craftsmen, athletes, soldiers, sailors, and orators from his call to vegetarianism. In Porphyry’s treatise, a discourse of “more and less” with respect to animal reason is consistent with the “more and less” of abstinence itself among the work’s priestly and philosophical exempla and the results, “more and less” successful, of assimilating oneself to god “as much as possible.” Whether fully or partly abstinent, Porphyry’s models, part of a pervasive discourse of imitation and possibility, point to a life characterized by radical self-control, free of the bad mixture, impurity, and harmfulness that meat-eating entails. Reading the text as an integral whole rather than as a collection of sources deployed without commitment, I seek to foreground its suggestions of other-directedness and inclusiveness, not just in its extensive treatment of justice toward animals but also in its abiding concern for purity and piety.

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