Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
Himself and His Circle
Though, as we have seen, he was inflexibly stern with himself, he was ever ready to make excuses for others; if, on the one hand, he praised the courage of those few who remained with him at Rome, on the other he refused to blame for their cowardice the many who had fled (iv 38). Nor was his gentleness shown simply by abstention from blame, he was ever active in positive deeds of compassion (cf vi 39).
One of his little peculiarities was a liking to be addressed as “Tyanean” (vii 38), but why this was so we are not told. It can hardly have been that Apollonius was particularly proud of his birth-place, for even though he was a great lover of Greece, so that at times you would call him an enthusiastic patriot, his love for other countries was quite as pronounced. Apollonius was a citizen of the world, if there has ever been one, into whose speech the word native-land did not enter, and a priest of universal religion in whose vocabulary the word sect did not exist.
In spite of his extremely ascetic life he was a man of strong physique, so that even when he has reached the ripe age of four-score years, we are told, he was sound and healthy in every limb and organ, upright and perfectly formed. There was also a certain indefinite charm about him that made him more pleasant to look upon than even the freshness of youth, and this even though his face was furrowed with wrinkles, just as the statues in the temple of Tyana represented him in the time of Philostratus. In fact, says his rhetorical biographer, report sang higher praises over the charm of Apollonius in his old age than over the beauty of Alcibiades in his youth (viii 29).
In brief, our philosopher seems to have been of a most charming presence and lovable disposition; nor was his absolute devotion to philosophy of the nature of the hermit ideal, for he passed his life among men. What wonder then that he attracted to himself many followers and disciples! It would have been interesting if Philostratus had told us more about these “Apollonians,” as they were called (viii 21), and whether they constituted a distinct school, or whether they were grouped together in communities on the Pythagorean model, or whether they were simply independent students attracted to the most commanding personality of the times in the domain of philosophy. It is, however, certain that many of them wore the same dress as himself and followed his mode of life (iv 39). Repeated mention is also made of their accompanying Apollonius on his travels (iv 47; v 21; viii 19, 21, 24), sometimes as many as ten of them at the same time, but none of them were allowed to address others until they had fulfilled the vow of silence (v 43).
The most distinguished of his followers were Musonius, who was considered the greatest philosopher of the time after the Tyanean, and who was the special victim of Nero’s tyranny (iv 44; v 19; vii 16), and Demetrius, “who loved Apollonius” (iv 25, 42; v 19; vi 31; vii 10; viii 10). These names are well known to history; of names otherwise unknown are the Egyptian Dioscorides, who was left behind owing to weak health on the long journey to Ethiopia (iv 11, 38; v 43), Menippus, whom he had freed from an obsession (iv 25, 38; v 43), Phædimus (iv 11), and Nilus, who joined him from Gymnosophists (v 10 sqq., 28), and of course Damis, who would have us think that he was always with him from the time of their meeting at Ninus.
On the whole we are inclined to think that Apollonius did not establish any fresh organization; he made use of those already existing, and his disciples were those who were attracted to him personally by an overmastering affection which could only be satisfied by being continually near him. This much seems certain, that he trained no one to carry on his task; he came and went, helping and illuminating, but he handed on no tradition of a definite line, and founded no school to be continued by successors. Even to his ever faithful companion, when bidding him farewell for what he knew would be the last time for Damis on earth, he had no word to say about the work to which he had devoted his life, but which Damis had never understood. His last words were for Damis alone, for the man who had loved him, but who had never known him. It was a promise to come to him if he needed help. “Damis, whenever you think on high matters in solitary meditation, you shall see me” (viii 28).
We will next turn our attention to a consideration of some of the sayings ascribed to Appolonius and the speeches put into his mouth by Philostratus. The shorter sayings are in all probability authentically traditional, but the speeches are for the most part manifestly the artistic working-up of the rough notes of Damis. In fact, they are definitely declared to be so; but they are none the less interesting on this account, and for two reasons.
In the first place, they honestly avow their nature, and make no claim of inspiration; they are confessedly human documents which endeavour to give a literary dress to the traditional body of thought and endeavour which the life of the philosopher built into the minds of his hearers. The method was common to antiquity, and the ancient compilers of certain other series of famous documents would have been struck with amazement had they been able to see how posterity would divinise their efforts and regard them as immediately inspired by the source of all wisdom.
In the second place, although we are not to suppose that we are reading the actual words of Apollonius, we are nevertheless conscious of being in immediate contact with the inner atmosphere of the best religious thought of the Greek mind, and have before our eyes the picture of a mystic and spiritual fermentation which leavened all strata of society in the first century of our era.