Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 6.16-20

Philostratus' Life of Apollonius: third-century biography of a charismatic teacher and miracle worker from the first century CE, who is often likened to Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Life of Apollonius, Athenian author Philostratus (a sophist who lived from c.170 to c.247) tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a charismatic teacher and miracle worker from the first century CE. (A summary of this work can be found here.) It is an apologetic vie romancée, in which Philostratus tries to prove that Apollonius was a man with divine powers, but not a magician.

The translation was made by F.C. Conybeare and was published in 1912 in the Loeb Classical Library.

[6.16] So when they had dined, "I," said Nilus, "until now have been camping together with the naked sages, and joined my forces with them as with certain light armed troops or slingers. But now l intend to put on my heavy armor, and it is your shield that shall adorn me."

"But," said Apollonius, "I think, my good Egyptian, that you will incur the censure of Thespesion and his society for two reasons; firstly, that after no further examination and testing of ourselves you have left them, and secondly that you give the preference to our manners and discipline with more precipitancy than is admissible where a man is making choice of how he shall live."

"I agree with you," said the young man, "but if I am to blame for making this choice, I might also be to blame if I did not make it; and anyhow they will be most open to rebuke, if they make the same choice as myself. For it will be more justly reprehensible in them, as they are both older and wiser than myself, not to have made the choice long ago which I make now; for with all their advantages they will have failed to choose what in practice would so much redound to their advantage."

"A very generous sentiment indeed, my good youth, is this which you have expressed," said Apollonius; "but beware lest the mere fact of their being so wise and aged should give them an appearance, at any rate, of being right in choosing as they have done, and of having good reason for rejecting my doctrine; and lest you should seem to take up a very bold position in setting them to rights rather than in following them."

But the Egyptian turned short round upon Apollonius and countering his opinion said: "So far as it was right for a young man to agree with his elders, I have been careful to do so; for so long as I thought that these gentlemen were possessed of a wisdom which belonged to no other set of men, I attached myself to them; and the motive which actuated me to do so was the following: My father once made a voyage on his own initiative to the Red Sea, for he was, I may tell you, captain of the ship which the Egyptians send to the Indies. And after he had had intercourse with the Indians of the seaboard, he brought home stories of the wise men of that region, closely similar to those which you have told us. And his account which I heard was somewhat as follows, namely that the Indians are the wisest of mankind, but that the Ethiopians are colonists sent from India, who follow their forefathers in matters of wisdom, and fix their eyes on the institutions of their home.

Well, I, having reached my teens, surrendered my patrimony to those who wanted it more than myself, and frequented the society of these naked sages, naked myself as they, in the hope of picking up the teaching of the Indians, or at any rate teaching allied to theirs. And they certainly appeared to me to be wise, though not after the manner of India; but when I asked them point blank why they did not teach the philosophy of India, they plunged into abuse of the natives of that country very much as you have heard them do in their speeches this very day.

Now I was still young, as you see, so they made me a member of their society, because I imagine they were afraid I might hastily quit them and undertake a voyage to the Red Sea, as my father did before me. And I should certainly have done so, yes, by Heaven, I would have pushed on until I reached the hill of the sages, unless someone of the gods had sent you hither to help me and enabled me without either making any voyage over the Red Sea or adventuring to the inhabitants of the Gulf, to taste the wisdom of India.

It is not today therefore for the first time that I shall make my choice, but I made it long ago, though I did not obtain what I hoped to obtain. For what is there to wonder at if a man who has missed what he was looking for, returns to the search? And if I should convert my friends yonder to this point of view, and persuade them to adopt the convictions which I have adopted myself, should I, tell me, be guilty of any hardihood? For you must not reject the claim that youth makes, that in some way it assimilates an idea more easily than old age; and anyone who counsels another to adopt the wisdom and teaching which he himself has chosen, anyhow escapes the imputation of trying to persuade others of things he does not believe himself. And anyone who takes the blessings bestowed upon him by fortune into a corner and there enjoys them by himself, violates their character as blessings, for he prevents their sweetness from being enjoyed by as many as possible."

[6.17] When Nilus had finished these arguments, and juvenile enough they were, Apollonius took him up and said: "If you were in love with my wisdom, had you not better, before I begin, discuss with me the question of my reward?"

"Let us discuss it," answered Nilus, "and do you ask whatever you like."

"I ask you," he said, "to be content with the choice you have made, and not to annoy the naked sages by giving them advice which they will not take."

"I consent," he said, "and let this be agreed upon as your reward."

This then was the substance of their conversation, and when Nilus at its close asked him how long a time he would stay among the nakes sages he replied: "So long as the quality of their wisdom justifies anyone in remaining in their company; and after that I shall take my way to the cataracts, in order to see the springs of the Nile, for it will be delightful not only to behold the sources of the Nile, but also to listen to the roar of its waterfalls."

[6.18] After they had held this discussion and listened to some recollections of India, they lay down to sleep upon the grass; but at daybreak, having offered their accustomed prayers, they followed Nilus, who led them into the presence of Thespesion. They accordingly greeted one another, and sitting down together in the grove they began a conversation in which Apollonius led as follows: "How important it is," said he, "not to conceal wisdom, is proved by our conversation of yesterday; for because the Indians taught me as much of their wisdom as I thought it proper for me to know, I not only remember my teachers, but I go about instilling into others what I heard from them. And you too will be richly rewarded by me, if you send me away with a knowledge of your wisdom as well; for I shall not cease to go about and repeat your teachings to the Greeks, while to the Indians I shall write them."

[6.19] "Ask," they said, "for you know question comes first and argument follows on it."

"It is about the gods that I would like to ask you a question first, namely, what induced you to impart, as your tradition, to the people of this country forms of the gods that are absurd and grotesque in all but a few cases? In a few cases, do I say? I would rather say that in very few are the gods' images fashioned in a wise and god-like manner, for the mass of your shrines seem to have been erected in honor rather of irrational and ignoble animals than of gods."

Thespesion, resenting these remarks, said: "And your own images in Greece, how are they fashioned?"

"In the way," he replied, "in which it is best and most reverent to construct images of the gods."

"I suppose you allude," said the other, "to the statue of Zeus in Olympia, and to the image of Athenanote and to that of the Cnidian goddessnote and to that of the Argive goddessnote and to other images equally beautiful and full of charm?"

"Not only to these," replied Apollonius, "but without exception I maintain, that whereas in other lands statuary has scrupulously observed decency and fitness, you rather make ridicule of the gods than really believe in them."

"Your artists, then, like Phidias," said the other, "and like Praxiteles,note went up, I suppose, to heaven and took a copy of the forms of the gods, and then reproduced these by their art or was there any other influence which presided over and guided their molding?"

"There was," said Apollonius, "and an influence pregnant with wisdom and genius."

"What was that?" said the other, "for I do not think you can adduce any except imitation."

"Imagination,"note said Apollonius, "wrought these works, a wiser and subtler artist by far than imitation; for imitation can only create as its handiwork what it has seen, but imagination equally what it has not seen; for it will conceive of its ideal with reference to the reality, and imitation is often baffled by terror, but imagination by nothing; for it marches undismayed to the goal which it has itself laid down.

When you entertain a notion of Zeus you must, I suppose, envisage him along with heaven and seasons and stars, as Phidias in his day endeavoured to do, and if you would fashion an image of Athena you must imagine in your mind armies and cunning, and handicrafts, and how she leapt out of Zeus himself. But if you make a hawk or an owl or a wolf or a dog, and put it in your temples instead of Hermes or Athena or Apollo, your animals and your birds may be esteemed and of much price as likenesses, but the gods will be very much lowered in their dignity."

"I think," said the other, "that you criticize our religion very superficially; for if the Egyptians have any wisdom, they show it by their deep respect and reverence in the representation of the gods, and by the circumstance that they fashion their forms as symbols of a profound inner meaning, so as to enhance their solemnity and august character."

Apollonius thereon merely laughed and said: "My good friends, you have indeed greatly profited by the wisdom of Egypt and Ethiopia, if your dog and your ibis and your goat seem particularly august and god-like, for this is what I learn from Thespesion the sage. But what is there that is august or awe-inspiring in these images? Is it not likely that perjurers and temple-thieves and all the rabble of low jesters will despise such holy objects rather than dread them; and if they are to be held for the hidden meanings which they convey, surely the gods in Egypt would have met with much greater reverence, if no images of them had ever been set up at all, and if you had planned your theology along other lines wiser and more mysterious.

For I imagine you might have built temples for them, and have fixed the altars and laid down rules about what to sacrifice and what not, and when and on what scale, and with what liturgies and rites, without introducing any image at all, but leaving it to those who frequented the temples to imagine the images of the gods; for the mind can more or less delineate and figure them to itself better than can any artist; but you have denied to the gods the privilege of beauty both of the outer eye and of an inner suggestion."

Thespesion replied and said: "There was was a certain Athenian, called Socrates, a foolish old man like ourselves, who thought that the dog and the goose and the plane tree were gods and used to swear by them."

"He was not foolish," said Apollonius, "but a divine and unfeignedly wise man; for he did not swear by these objects on the understanding that they were gods, but to save himself from swearing by the gods."

[6.20] Thereupon Thespesion as if anxious to drop the subject, put some questions to Apollonius, about the scourging in Sparta, and asked if the Lacedaemonians were smitten with rods in public.

"Yes," answered the other, "as hard, O Thespesion, as men can smite them; and it is especially men of noble birth among them that are so treated."

"Then what do they do to menials," he asked, "when they do wrong?"

"They do not kill them nowadays," said Apollonius, "as Lycurgusnote formerly allowed, but the same whip is used to them too."

"And what judgment does Hellas pass upon the matter?"

"They flock," he answered, "to see the spectacle with pleasure and utmost enthusiasm, as if to the festival of Hyacinthus, or to that of the naked boys."

"Then these excellent Hellenes are not ashamed, either to behold those publicly whipped who erewhile governed them{{Between 404 and 371 BCE.}] or to reflect that they were governed by men who are whipped by men who are whipped before the eyes of all? And how is it that you did not reform this abuse? For they say that you interested yourself in the affairs of the Lacedaemonians, as of other people."

"So far as anything could be reformed, I gave them my advice, and they readily adopted it; for they are the freest of the Hellenes; but at the same time they will only listen to one who gives them good advice. Now the custom of scourging is a ceremony in honor of the Scythian Artemis, so they say, and was prescribed by oracles, and to oppose the regulations of the gods is in my opinion utter madness."

"'Tis a poor wisdom, Apollonius," he replied, "which you attribute to the gods of the Hellenes, if they countenance scourging as a part of the discipline of freedom."

"It's not the scourging," he said, "but the sprinkling of the altar with human blood that is important, for the Scythians too held the altar to be worthy thereof; but the Lacedaemonians modified the ceremony of sacrifice because of its implacable cruelty, and turned it into a contest of endurance, undergone without any loss of life, and yet securing to the goddess as first fruits an offering of their own blood."

"Why then," said the other, "do they not sacrifice strangers right out to Artemis, as the Scythians formerly considered right to do?"

"Because," he answered, "it is not congenial to any of the Greeks to adopt in full rigor the manners and customs of barbarians."

"And yet," said the other, "it seems to me that it would be more humane to sacrifice one or two of themnote than to enforce as they do a policy of exclusion against all foreigners."note

"Let us not assail," said the other, "O Thespesion, the law-giver Lycurgus; but we must understand him, and then we shall see that his prohibition to strangers to settle in Sparta and live there was not inspired on his part by mere boorish exclusiveness, but by a desire to keep the institutions of Sparta in their original purity by preventing outsiders from mingling in her life."

"Well," said the other, "I should allow the men of Sparta to be what they claim to be, if they had ever lived with strangers, and yet had faithfully adhered to their home principles; for it was not by keeping true to themselves in the absence of strangers, but by doing so in spite of their presence, that they needed to show their superiority. But they, although they enforced his policy of excluding strangers, corrupted their institutions, and were found doing exactly the same as did those of the Greeks whom they most detested.

Anyhow, their subsequent naval programnote and policy of imposing tribute was modelled entirely upon that of Athens, and they themselves ended by committing acts which they had themselves regarded as a just casus belli against the Athenians, whom they had no sooner beaten in the field than they humbly adopted, as if they were the beaten party, their pet institution.

And the very fact that the goddess was introduced from Taurus and Scythia was the action of men who embraced alien customs. But if an oracle prescribed this, what want was there of the scourge? What need to feign an endurance fit for slaves? Had they wanted to prove the disdain that Lacedaemonians felt for death, they had I think done better to sacrifice a youth of Sparta with his own consent upon the altar. For this would have been a real proof of the superior courage of the Spartans, and would have disinclined Hellas from ranging herself in the opposite camp to them.

But you will say that they had to save their young men for the battlefield; well, in that case the law which prevails among the Scythians, and sentences all men of sixty years of age to death, would have been more suitably introduced and followed among the Lacedaemonians then among the Scythians, supposing that they embrace death in its grim reality and not as a mere parade.

These remarks of mine are directed not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against yourself, O Apollonius. For if ancient institutions, whose hoary age defies our understanding of their origins, are to be examined in an unsympathetic spirit, and the reason why they are pleasing to heaven subjected to cold criticism, such a line of speculation will produce a crop of odd conclusions; for we could attack the mystery rite of Eleusis in the same way and ask, why it is this and not that; and the same with the rites of the Samothracians, for in their ritual they avoid one thing and insist on another; and the same with the Dionysiac ceremonies and the phallic symbol, and the figure erected in Cyllene, and before we know where we are we shall be picking holes in everything.

Let us choose, therefore, any other topic you like, but respect the sentiment of Pythagoras, which is also our own; for it is better, if we can't hold our tongues about everything, at any rate to preserve silence about such matters as these."

Apollonius replied and said, "If, O Thespesion, you had wished to discuss the topic seriously, you would have found that the Lacedaemonians have many excellent arguments to advance in favor of their institutions, proving that they are sound and superior to those of other Hellenes; but since you are so averse to continue the discussion, and even regard it as impious to talk about such things, let us proceed to another subject, of great importance, as I am convinced, for it is about justice that I shall now put a question."