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Statue of a sophist from the reign of Septimius Severus. Archaeological museum of Izmir (Turkey).

Flavius Philostratus:

The Life of Apollonius

Translated by F.C. Conybeare

  [§11] When he ended, all turned their eyes upon Apollonius; his own followers knowing well that he would reply, while Thespesion's friends wondered what he could say in answer. But he, after praising the fluency and vigor of the Egyptian, merely said: "Have you anything more to say?"

"No, by Zeus," said the other, "for I have said all I have to say."

Then he asked afresh: "And has not any one of the rest of the Egyptians anything to say?"

"I am their spokesman," answered his antagonist, "and you have heard them all."

Apollonius accordingly paused for a minute and then, fixing his eyes, as it were, on the discourse he had heard, he spoke as follows: "You have very well described and in a sound philosophic spirit the choice which Prodicus declares Heracles to have made as a young man; but, ye wise men of the Egyptians, it does not apply in the least to myself.

For I am not come here to ask your advice about how to live, insomuch as I long ago made choice of the life which seemed best to myself; and as I am older than any of you, except Thespesion, I myself am better qualified, now I have got here, to advise you how to choose wisdom, if I did not find that you had already made the choice. Being, however, as old as I am, and so far advanced in wisdom as I am, I shall not hesitate as it were to make you the auditors of my life and motives, and teach you that I rightly chose this life of mine, than which no better one has ever suggested itself to me.

For I discerned a certain sublimity in the discipline of Pythagoras, and how a certain secret wisdom enabled him to know, not only who he was himself, but also who he had been; and I saw that he approached the altars in purity, and suffered not his belly to be polluted by partaking of the flesh of animals and that he kept his body pure of all garments woven of dead animal refuse; and that he was the first of mankind to restrain his tongue, inventing a discipline of silence described in the proverbial phrase, "An ox sits upon it."

I also saw that his philosophical system was in other respects oracular and true. So I ran to embrace his teachings, not choosing one form of wisdom rather than another of two presented me, as you, my excellent Thespesion, advise me to do. For philosophy marshaled before me her various points of view, investing them with the adornment proper to each and she commanded me to look upon them and make a sound choice.

Now they were all possessed of an august and divine beauty; and some of them were of such dazzling brightness that you might well have closed your eyes. However I fixed my eyes firmly upon all of them, for they themselves encouraged me to do so by moving towards me, and telling me beforehand how much they would give me. Well, one of them professed that she would shower upon me a swarm of pleasures without any toil on my part and another that she would give me rest after toil; and a third that she would mingle mirth and merriment in my toil; and everywhere I had glimpses of pleasures and of unrestrained indulgence in the pleasures of the table; and it seemed that I had only to stretch out my hand to be rich, and that I needed not to set any bridle upon my eyes, but love and loose desire and such-like feelings were freely allowed me.

One of them, however, boasted that she would restrain me from such things, but she was bold and abusive and in an unabashed manner elbowed all others aside; and I beheld the ineffable form of wisdom which long ago conquered the soul of Pythagoras; and she stood, I may tell you, not among the many, but kept herself apart and in silence; and when she saw that I ranged not myself with the rest, though as yet I knew not what were her wares, she said: 'Young man, I am unpleasing and a lady full of sorrows; for, if anyone betakes himself to my abode, he must of his own choice put away all dishes which contain the flesh of living animals, and he must forget wine, nor make muddy therewith the cup of wisdom which is set in the souls of those that drink no wine; nor shall blanket keep him warm, nor wool shorn from a living animal.

But I allow him shoes of bark, and he must sleep anywhere and anyhow, and if I find my votaries yielding to sensual pleasures, I have precipices to which justice that waits upon wisdom carries them and pushes them over; and I am so harsh to those who make choice of my discipline that I have bits ready to restrain their tongues. But learn from me what rewards you shall reap by enduring all this: Temperance and justice unsought and at once, and the faculty to regard no man with envy, and to be dreaded by tyrants rather than cringe to them, and to have your humble offerings appear sweeter to the gods than the offerings of those who pour out before them the blood of bulls. And when you are pure I will grant you the faculty of foreknowledge, and I will so fill your eyes with light, that you shall distinguish a god, and recognize a hero, and detect and put to shame the shadowy phantoms which disguise themselves in the form of men.'

This was the life I chose, ye wise of the Egyptians; it was a sound choice and in the spirit of Pythagoras, and in making it I neither deceived myself, nor was deceived; for I have become all that a philosopher should become, and all that she promised to bestow upon the philosopher, that is mine. For I have studied profoundly the problem of the rise of the art and whence it draws its first principles; and I have realized that it belongs to men of transcendent religious gifts, who have thoroughly investigated the nature of the soul, the well-springs of whose existence lie back in the immortal and in the unbegotten.

Now I agree that this doctrine was wholly alien to the Athenians; for when Plato in their city lifted up his voice and discoursed upon the soul, full of inspiration and wisdom, they caviled against him and adopted opinions of the soul opposed thereto and altogether false. And one may well ask whether there is any city, or any race of men, where not one more and another less, but wherein men of all ages alike, will enunciate the same doctrine of the soul.

And I myself, because my youth and inexperience so inclined me, began by looking up to yourselves, because you had the reputation of an extraordinary knowledge of most things; but when I explained my views to my own teacher, he interrupted me, and said as follows: 'Supposing you were in a passionate mood and being of an impressionable age were inclined to form a friendship; and suppose you met a handsome youth and admired his looks, and you asked whose son he was, and suppose he were the son of a knight or a general, and that his grand-parents had been furnishers of a chorus - if then you dubbed him the child of some skipper or policeman, do you suppose that you would thereby be the more likely to captivate his affections, and that you would not rather make yourself odious to him by refusing to call him by his father's name, and giving him instead that of some ignoble and spurious parent? If then you were enamored of the wisdom which the Indians discovered, would you call it not by the name which its natural parents bore, but by the name of its adoptive sires; and so confer upon the Egyptians a greater boon, than if that were to happen over again which their own poets relate, namely if the Nile on reaching its full were found to be with honey blent?'

It was this which turned my steps to the Indians rather than to yourselves; for I reflected that they were more subtle in their understanding, because such men as they live in contact with a purer daylight, and entertain truer opinions of nature and of the gods, because they are near unto the latter, and live on the edge and confines of that thermal essence which quickens all unto life. And when I came among them, their message made the same impression upon me as the talent of Aeschylus is said to have made upon the Athenians. For he was a poet of tragedy, and finding the art to be rude and inchoate and as yet not in the least elaborated, he went to work, and curtailed the prolixity of the chorus, and invented dialogues for the actors, discarding the long monodies of the earlier time; and he hit upon a plan of killing people behind the stage instead of their being slain before the eyes of the audience.

Well, if we cannot deny his talent in making all these improvements, we must nevertheless admit that they might have suggested themselves equally well to an inferior dramatist. But his talent was twofold. On the one hand as a poet he set himself to make his diction worthy of tragedy, on the other hand as a manager, to adapt his stage to sublime, rather than to humble and groveling themes. Accordingly he devised masks which represented the forms of the heroes, and he mounted his actors on buskins so that their gait might correspond to the characters they played; and he was the first to devise stage dresses, which might convey an adequate impression to the audience of the heroes and heroines they saw. For all these reasons the Athenians accounted him to be the father of tragedy; and even after his death they continued to invite him to represent his plays at the Dionysiac festival, for in accordance with public decree the plays of Aeschylus continued to be put upon the stage and win the prize anew.

And yet the gratification of a well-staged tragedy is insignificant, for its pleasures last a brief day, as brief as is the season of the Dionysiac festival; but the gratification of a philosophic system devised to meet the requirements of a Pythagoras, and also breathing the inspiration in which Pythagoras was anticipated by the Indians, lasts not for a brief time, but for an endless and incalculable period.

It is then not unreasonable on my part, I think, to have devoted myself to a philosophy so highly elaborated, and to one which, to use a metaphor from the stage, the Indians mount, as it deserves to be mounted, upon a lofty and divine mechanism, and then wheel it forth upon the stage. And that I was right to admire them, and that I am right in considering them to be wise and blessed, it is now time to convince you. I beheld men dwelling upon the earth, and yet not upon it, I beheld them fortified without fortifications, I beheld them possessed of nothing, and yet possessed of all things.

You will say that I have taken to riddles, but the wisdom of Pythagoras allows of this; for he taught us to speak in riddles, when he discovered that the word is the teacher of silence. And there was a time when you yourselves took counsel with Pythagoras, and were advocates of this same wisdom; that was in the time when you could say nothing too good of the Indian philosophy, for to begin with and of old you were Indians. Subsequently because your soil was wrath with you, you came hither; and then ashamed of the reasons owing to which you quitted it, you tried to get men to regard you as anything rather than Ethiopians who had come from India hither, and you took every pains to efface your past.

This is why you stripped yourselves of the apparel in which you came thence, as if you were anxious to doff along with it your Ethiopian nationality. This is why you have resolved to worship the gods in the Egyptian rather than in your own fashion, and why you have set yourselves to disseminate unflattering stories of the Indians, as if in maligning them you did not foul your own nest. And in this respect you have not yet altered your tone for the better; for only today you have given here an exhibition of your propensities for abuse and satire, pretending that the Indians are no better employed than in startling people and in pandering to their eyes and ears. And because as yet you are ignorant of my wisdom, you show yourself indifferent to the fame which crowns it.

Well, in defense of myself I do not mean to say anything, for I am content to be what the Indians think me; but I will not allow them to be attacked. And if you are so sound and sane as to possess any tincture of the wisdom of the man of Himera [Stesichorus], who composed in honor of Helen a poem which contradicted a former one and called it a palinode, it is high time for you also to use the words he used and say: 'This discourse of ours is not true,' so changing your opinion and adopting one better than you at present entertain about these people. But if you have not the wit to recant, you must at least spare men to whom the gods vouchsafe, as worthy of them, their own prerogatives, and whose possessions they do not disdain for themselves.

You have also, Thespesion, made some remarks about the simplicity and freedom from pomp which characterizes the Pythian oracle; and by way of example you instanced the temple composed of wax and feathers; but I do not myself find that even this was devoid of pomp, for we have the line

O bird bring hither your wings, and bees your wax.[1]
Such language betokens a carefully prepared home and the form of house. And the god I believe regarded even this as too humble and below the dignity of wisdom, and therefore desired to have another and yet another temple, big ones these and a hundred feet in breadth; and from one of them it is said that golden figures of the wryneck were hung up which possessed in a manner the charm of the Sirens; and the god collected the most precious of the offerings into the Pythian temple for ornament; nor did he reject works of statuary, when their authors brought him to his temple colossal figures of gods and men, and also of horses, oxen and other animals; nor did he refuse the gift of [the worker of precious metal] Glaucus brought thither of a stand for a goblet, nor the picture of the taking of the citadel of Ilium which Polygnotus painted there.

For I imagine he did not consider that the gold of Lydia [2] really beautified the Pythian fane, but he admitted it on behalf of the Hellenes themselves, by way of pointing out to them, I believe, the immense riches of the barbarians, and inducing them to covet that rather than continue to ravage one another's lands. And he accordingly adopted the Greek fashion of art which suited his particular wisdom, and adorned his shrine therewith.

And I believe that it was by way of adornment that he also puts his oracles in metrical form. For if he did not wish to make a show in this matter, he would surely make his responses in such forms as the following: 'Do this, or do not do that'; and 'go, or do not go,' or 'choose allies, or do not choose them.' For here are short formulas, or as you call it naked ones. But in order to display his mastery of the grand style, and in order to please those who came to consult his oracle, he adopted the poetical form; and he does not allow that anything exists which he does not know, but claims to have counted the sands of the sea and to know their number, and also to have fathomed the depths of the sea.[3]

But I suppose you will call it miracle-monging, that Apollo dictates his oracles with such proud dignity and elation of spirit? But if you will not be annoyed, Thespesion, at what I say, there are certain old women who go about with sieves in their hands to shepherds, sometimes to cow-herds, pretending to heal their flocks, when they are sick, by divination, as they call it, and they claim to be called wise women, yea wiser than those who are unfeignedly prophets. It seems to me that you are in the same case, when I contrast your wisdom with that of the Indians; for they are divine, and have trimmed and adorned their science after the matter of the Pythian oracle; but you - however I will say no more, for modesty in speech is as dear to me as it is dear to the Indians, and I would be glad to have it at once to attend upon and to guide my tongue, seeking to compass what is in my power when I am praising those to whom I am so devoted, but leaving alone what is too high for me to attain unto, without bespattering it with petty disapproval.

But you no doubt delight in the story which you have read in Homer about the Cyclopes, how their land, all unsown and unploughed, nourished the most fearless and lawless of beings; and if it is some Edoni or Lydians who are conducting bacchic revels, you are quite ready to believe that the earth will supply them with fountains of milk and wine, and give them to drink thereof; but you would deny to these Indians, lovers of all wisdom as enthusiastic as ever bacchants were, the unsought bounties which earth offers them.

Moreover tripods, gifted with will of their own, attend the banquets of the gods also; and Ares, ignorant and hostile as he was to Hephaestus, yet never accused him merely for making them; nor is it conceivable that the gods ever listened to such an indictment as this: 'You commit an injustice, O Hephaestus, in adorning the banquet of the gods, and encompassing it with miracles.' Nor was Hephaestus ever sued for constructing handmaids of gold, nor accused of debasing the metals because he made the gold to breath. For ever art is interested to adorn, and the very existence of the arts was a discovery made in behalf of ornament.

Moreover a man who goes without shoes and wears a philosopher's cloak and hangs a wallet on his back is a creature of ornament; nay, more even the nakedness which you affect, in spite of its rough and plain appearance, has for its object ornament and decoration, and it is not even exempt from the proverbial 'pride of your own sort to match'.

We must judge by their own standard the religion of the Sun and the national rites of the Indians and any cult in which that god delights; for the subterranean gods will always prefer deep trenches and ceremonies conducted in the hollows of the earth, but the air is the chariot of the sun; and those who would sing his praise in a fitting manner must rise from the earth and soar aloft with god; and this everyone would like to do, but the Indians alone are able to do it."

[§12] Damis says that he breathed afresh when he heard this address; for that the Egyptians were so impressed by Apollonius' words, that Thespesion, in spite of the blackness of his complexion, visibly blushed, while the rest of them seemed in some way stunned by the vigorous and fluent discourse which they listened to; but the youngest of them, whose name was Nilus, leapt up from the ground, he says, in admiration, and passing over to Apollonius shook hands with him, and besought him to tell him about the interviews which he had had with the Indians.

And Apollonius, he says, replied: "I should not grudge you anything, for you are ready to listen, as I see, and are ready to welcome wisdom of every kind; but I should not care to pour out the teachings I gathered there upon Thespesion or on anyone else who regards the lore of the Indians as so much nonsense."

Whereupon Thespesion said: "But if you were a merchant or a seafarer, and you brought to us some cargo or other from over there, would you claim, merely because it came from India, to dispose of it untested and unexamined, refusing us either the liberty of looking at it or tasting it?"

But Apollonius repled as follows: "I should furnish it to those who asked for it; but if the moment my ship had reached the harbor, someone came down the beach and began to run down my cargo and abuse myself, and say that I came from a country which produces nothing worth having, and if he reproached me for sailing with a cargo of shoddy goods, and tried to persuade the rest to think like himself, do you suppose that one would, after entering such a harbor, cast anchor or make his cables fast, and not rather hoist his sails and put to sea afresh, entrusting his goods more gladly to the winds than to such undiscerning and inhospitable people?" 

"Well, I anyhow,"  said Nilus, "lay hold on your cables, and entreat you, my skipper, to let me share your goods that you bring hither; and I would gladly embark with you in your ship as a super-cargo and a clerk to check your merchandise."

[§13] Thespesion, however, was anxious to put a stop to such propositions, so he said: "I am glad, Apollonius, that you are annoyed at what we said to you; for you can the more readily condone our annoyance at the misrepresentation you made of our local wisdom, long before you had gained any experience of its quality."

Apollonius was for a moment astonished at these words, for he had heard nothing as yet of the intrigues of Thrasybulus and Euphrates; but as was his wont, he guessed the truth and said: "The Indians, O Thespesion, would never have behaved as you have, nor have given ear to these insinuation dropped by Euphrates, for they have a gift of prescience. Now I never have had any quarrel of my own with Euphrates; I only tried to wean him of his passion for money and cure his propensity to value everything by what he could make out of it; but I found that my advice was not congenial to him, nor in his case practicable; nay he merely takes it as a tacit reproach, and never loses any opportunity of intriguing against me.

But since you have found his attacks upon my character so plausible, I may as well tell you that it is you, rather than myself, that he has calumniated. For though, as is clear to me, the victims of calumny incur considerable dangers, since they are, I suppose, sure to be disliked without having done any wrong, yet neither are those who incline to listen to the calumnies free from danger; for in the first place they will be convicted of paying respect to lies and giving them as much attention as they would to the truth, and secondly they are convicted of levity and credulity, faults which it is disgraceful even for a stripling to fall into. And they will be thought envious, because they allow envy to teach them to listen to unjust tittle-tattle; and they expose themselves all the more to calumny, because they think it true of others. For man is by nature inclined to commit a fault which he does not discredit when he hears it related to others.

Heaven forbid that a man of these inclinations should become a tyrant, or even president of a popular state; for in his hands even a democracy would become a tyranny; nor let him be made a judge, for surely he will not ever discern the truth. Nor let him be captain of a ship, for the crew would mutiny, nor general of an army, for that would bring luck to the adversary; nor let one of his disposition attempt philosophy, for he would not consider the truth in forming his opinions.

But Euphrates has deprived you of even the quality of wisdom; for how can those on whom he has imposed with his falsehoods claim wisdom for themselves? have they not deserted from it to take sides with one who has persuaded them of improbabilities?"

Here Thespesion tried to calm him, and remarked: "Enough of Euphrates and of his small-minded affairs; for we are quite ready even to reconcile you with him, since we consider it the proper work of a sage to be umpire in the disputes of other sages."

"But," said Apollonius, "who shall reconcile me with you? For the victim of lies must surely be driven into hostility by the falsehood." 

[lacuna in the text]

"Be it so,"  said Apollonius, "and let us hold a conversation, for that will be the best way of reconciling us."

[§14] And Nilus, as he was passionately anxious to listen to Apollonius, said: "And what's more, it behoves you to begin the conversation, and to tell us all about the journey which you made to the people of India, and about the conversations which you held there, I have no doubt, on the most brilliant topics."

"And I too," said Thespesion, "long to hear about the wisdom of Phraotes, for you are said to have brought from India some examples of his arguments."

Apollonius accordingly began by telling them about the events which occurred in Babylon, and told them everything, and they gladly listened to him, spellbound by his words. But when it was midday, they broke of the conversations, for at this time of day the naked sages, like others, attend to the ceremonies of religion.

[§15] Apollonius and his comrades were about to dine, when Nilus presented himself with vegetables and bread and dried fruits, some of which he carried himself, while his friends carried the rest; and very politely he said: "The sages send these gifts of hospitality, not only to yourselves but to me; for I mean to share in your repast, not uninvited, as they say, but inviting myself."

"It is a delightful gift of hospitality," said Apollonius, "which you bring to us, O youth, in the shape of yourself and your disposition, for you are evidently a philosopher without guile, and an enthusiastic lover of the doctrines of the Indians and of Pythagoras. So lie down here and eat with us."

"I will do so," said the other, "but your dishes will not be ample enough to satisfy me."

"It seems to me," said the other, "that you are a gourmand and an appalling eater."

"None like me," said the other, "for although you have set before me so ample and so brilliant a repast, I am not sated; and after a little time I am come back again to eat afresh. What then can you call me but an insatiable cormorant?"

"Eat your fill," said Apollonius, "and as for topics of conversation, some you must yourself supply, and I will give you others."

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Note 1:
From an unidentified poem.

Note 2:
Given to the god of Delphi by king Croesus.

Note 3:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Histories 1.47.

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