Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
From His Sayings and Sermons
“Since then the Gods know all things, I think that one who enters the temple with a right conscience within him should pray thus: ‘Give me, ye Gods, what is my due!’ “ (i II).
And thus again on his long journey to India he prayed at Babylon: “God of the sun, send thou me o’er the earth so far as e’er ‘tis good for Thee and me; and may I come to know the good, and never know the bad nor they know me” (i 31).
One of his most general prayers, Damis tells us, was to this effect: “Grant me, ye Gods, to have little and need naught” (i 34).
“When you enter the temples, for what do you pray?” asked the Pontifex Maximus Telesinus of our philosopher. “I pray,” said Apollonius, “that righteousness may rule, the laws remain unbroken, the wise be poor and others rich, but honestly” (iv 40).
The belief of the philosopher in the grand ideal of having nothing and yet possessing all things, is exemplified by his reply to the officer who asked him how he dared enter the dominions of Babylon without permission. “The whole earth,” said Apollonius, “is mine; and it is given me to journey through it” (i 21).
There are many instances of sums of money being offered to Apollonius for his services, but he invariably refused them; not only so but his followers also refused all presents. On the occasion when King Vardan, with true Oriental generosity, offered them gifts, they turned away; whereupon Apollonius said: “You see, my hands, though many, are all like each other.” And when the king asked Apollonius what present he would bring him back from India, our philosopher replied: “A gift that will please you, sire. For if my stay there should make me wiser, I shall come back to you better than I am” (i 41).
When they were crossing the great mountains into India a conversation is said to have taken place between Apollonius and Damis, which presents us with a good instance of how our philosopher ever used the incidents of the day to inculcate the higher lessons of life. The question was concerning the “below” and “above.” Yesterday, said Damis, we were below in the valley; today we are above, high on the mountains, not far distant from heaven. So this is what you mean by “below” and “above,” said Apollonius gently. Why, of course, impatiently retorted Damis, if I am in my right mind; what need of such useless questions? And have you acquired a greater knowledge of the divine nature by being nearer heaven on the tops of the mountains? continued his master. Do you think that those who observe the heaven from the mountain heights are any nearer the understanding of things? Truth to tell, replied Damis, somewhat crestfallen, I did think I should come down wiser, for I’ve been up a higher mountain than any of them, but I fear I know no more than before I ascended it. Nor do other men, replied Apollonius; “such observations make them see the heavens more blue, the stars more large, and the sun rise from the night, things known to those who tend the sheep and goats; but how God doth take thought for human kind, and how He doth find pleasure in their service, and what is virtue, righteousness and commonsense, that neither Athos will reveal to those who scale his summit nor yet Olympus who stirs the poet’s wonder, unless it be the soul perceive them; for should the soul when pure and unalloyed essay such heights, I swear to thee, she wings her flight far far beyond this lofty Caucasus” (ii 6).
So again, when at Thermopylæ his followers were disputing as to which was the highest ground in Greece, Mt Œta being then in view. They happened to be just at the foot of the hill on which the Spartans fell overwhelmed with arrows. Climbing to the top of it Apollonius cried out: “And I think this the highest ground, for those who fell here for freedom’s sake have made it high as Œta and raised it far above a thousand of Olympuses” (iv 23).
Another instance of how Apollonius turned chance happenings to good account is the following. Once at Ephesus, in one of the covered walks near the city, he was speaking of sharing our goods with others, and how we ought mutually to help one another. It chanced that a number of sparrows were sitting on a tree hard by in perfect silence. Suddenly another sparrow flew up and began chirping, as though it wanted to tell the others something. Whereupon the little fellow all set to a-chirping also, and flew away after the newcomer. Apollonius’ superstitious audience were greatly struck by this conduct of the sparrows, and thought it was an augury of some important matter. But the philosopher continued with his sermon. The sparrow, he said, has invited his friends to a banquet. A boy slipped down in a lane hard by and spilt some corn he was carrying in a bowl; he picked up most of it and went away. The little sparrow, chancing on the scattered grains, immediately flew off to invite his friends to the feast.
Thereon most of the crowd went off at a run to see if it were true, and when they came back shouting and all agog with wonderment, the philosopher continued: “Ye see what care the sparrows take of one another, and how happy they are to share their goods. And yet we men do not approve; nay, if we see a man sharing his goods with other men, we call it wastefulness, extravagance, and by such names, and dub the men to whom he gives a share, fawners and parasites. What then is left to us except to shut us up at home like fattening birds, and gorge our bellies in the dark until we burst with fat?” (iv 3).
On another occasion, at Smyrna, Apollonius, seeing a ship getting under weigh, used the occasion for teaching the people the lesson of cooperation. “Behold the vessel’s crew!” he said. “How some have manned the boats, some raise the anchors up and make them fast, some set the sails to catch the wind, how others yet again look out at bow and stern. But if a single man should fail to do a single one of these his duties, or bungle in his seamanship, their sailing will be bad, and they will have the storm among them. But if they strive in rivalry each with the other, their only strife being that no man shall seem worse than his mates, fair havens shall there be for such a ship, and all good weather and fair voyage crowd in upon it” (iv 9).
Again, on another occasion, at Rhodes, Damis asked him if he thought anything greater than the famous Colossus. “I do,” replied Apollonius; “the man who walks in wisdom's guileless paths that give us health” (v 21).
There is also a number of instances of witty or sarcastic answers reported of our philosopher, and indeed, in spite of his generally grave mood, he not unfrequently rallied his hearers, and sometimes, if we may say so, chaffed the foolishness out of them (see especially iv 30).
Even in times of great danger this characteristic shows itself. A good instance is his answer to the dangerous question of Tigellinus, “What think you of Nero?” “I think better of him than you do,” retorted Apollonius, “for you think he ought to sing, and I think he ought to keep silence” (iv 44).
So again his reproof to a young Crœsus of the period is as witty as it is wise. “Young sir,” he said, “methinks it is not you who own your house, but your house you” (v 22).
Of the same style also is his answer to a glutton who boasted of his gluttony. He copied Hercules, he said, who was as famous for the food he ate as for his labours.
“Yes,” said Apollonius, “for he was Hercules. But you, what virtue have you, midden-heap? Your only claim to notice is your chance of being burst” (iv 23).
But to turn to more serious occasions. In answer to Vespasian’s earnest prayer, “Teach me what should a good king do,” Apollonius is said to have replied somewhat in the following words:
“You ask me what can not be taught. For kingship is the greatest thing within a mortal’s reach; it is not taught. Yet will I tell you what if you will do, you will do well. Count not that wealth which is stored up - in what is this superior to the sand haphazard heaped? nor that which comes from men to groan beneath taxation's heavy weight - for gold that comes from tears is base and black. You’ll use wealth best of any king, if you supply the needs of those in want and make their wealth secure for those with many goods. Be fearful of the power to do whate’er you please, so will you use it with more prudence. Do not lop off the ears of corn that show beyond the rest and raise their heads - for Aristotle is not just in this [See Chassang, op. cit., p 458, for a criticism on this statement.]—but rather weed their disaffection out like tares from corn, and show yourself a fear to stirrers up of strife not in ‘I punish you’ but in ‘ I will do so.’ Submit yourself to law, O prince, for you will make the laws with greater wisdom if you do not despise the law yourself. Pay reverence more than ever to the Gods; great are the gifts you have received from them, and for great things you pray. [This was before Vespasian became emperor.] In what concerns the state act as a king; in what concerns yourself, act as a private man” (v 36).
And so on much in the same strain, all good advice and showing a deep knowledge of human affairs. And if we are to suppose that this is merely a rhetorical exercise of Philostratus and not based on the substance of what Apollonius said, then we must have a higher opinion of the rhetorician than the rest of his writings warrant.
There is an exceedingly interesting Socratic dialogue between Thespesion, the abbot of the Gymnosophist community, and Apollonius on the comparative merits of the Greek and Egyptian ways of representing the Gods. It runs somewhat as follows;
“What! Are we to think,” said Thespesion, “that the Pheidiases and Praxiteleses went up to heaven and took impressions of the forms of the Gods, and so made an art of them, or was it something else that set them a-modeling?”
“Yes, something else,” said Apollonius, “something pregnant with wisdom.”
“What was that? Surely you cannot say it was anything else but imitation?”
“Imagination wrought them - a workman wiser far than imitation; for imitation only makes what it has seen, whereas imagination makes what it has never seen, conceiving it with reference to the thing it really is.”
Imagination, says Apollonius, is one of the most potent faculties, for it enables us to reach nearer to realities. It is generally supposed that Greek sculpture was merely a glorification of physical beauty, in itself quite unspiritual. It was an idealisation of form and features, limbs and muscles, an empty glorification of the physical with nothing of course really corresponding to it in the nature of things. But Apollonius declared it brings us nearer to the real, as Pythagoras and Plato declared before him, and as all the wiser teach. He meant this literally, not vaguely and fantastically. He asserted that the types and ideas of things are the only realities. He meant that between the imperfection of the earth and the highest divine type of all things, were grades of increasing perfection. He meant that within each man was a form of perfection, though of course not yet absolutely perfect. That the angel in man, his dæmon, was of God-like beauty, the summation of all the finest features he had ever worn in his many lives on earth. The Gods, too, belonged to the world of types, of models, of perfections , the heaven-world. The Greek sculptors had succeeded in getting in contact with this world, and the faculty they used was imagination.
This idealisation of form was a worthy way to represent the Gods; but, says Apollonius, if you set up a hawk or owl or dog in your temples, to represent Hermes or Athena or Apollo, you may dignify the animals, but you make the Gods lose dignity.
To this Thespesion replies that the Egyptians dare not give any precise form to the Gods; they give them merely symbols to which an occult meaning is attached.
Yes, answers Apollonius, but the danger is that the common people worship these symbols and get unbeautiful ideas of the Gods. The best thing would be to have no representations at all. For the mind of the worshipper can form and fashion for himself an image of the object of his worship better than any art.
Quite so, retorted Thespesion, and then added mischievously: There was an old Athenian, by-the-by - no fool - called Socrates, who swore by the dog and goose as though they were Gods.
Yes, replied Apollonius, he was no fool. He swore by them not as being Gods, but in order that he might not swear by the Gods (iv 19).
This is a pleasant passage of wit, of Egyptian against Greek, but all such set arguments must be set down to the rhetorical exercises of Philostratus rather than to Apollonius, who taught as “one having authority,” as “from a tripod.” Apollonius, a priest of universal religion, might have pointed out the good side and the bad side of both Greek and Egyptian religious art, and certainly taught the higher way of symbol-less worship, but he would not champion one popular cult against another. In the above speech there is a distinct prejudice against Egypt and a glorification of Greece, and this occurs in a very marked fashion in several other speeches. Philostratus was a champion of Greece against all comers; but Apollonius, we believe, was wiser than his biographer.
In spite of the artificial literary dress that is given to the longer discourses of Apollonius, they contain many noble thoughts, as we may see from the following quotations from the conversations of our philosopher with his friend Demetrius, who was endeavouring to dissuade him from braving Domitian at Rome.
The law, said Apollonius, obliges us to die for liberty, and nature ordains that we should die for our parents, our friends, or our children. All men are bound by these duties. But a higher duty is laid upon the sage; he must die for his principles and the truth he holds dearer than life. It is not the law that lays this choice upon him, it is not nature; it is the strength and courage of his own soul. Though fire or sword threaten him, it will not overcome his resolution or force him from the slightest falsehood; but he will guard the secrets of others’ lives and all that has been entrusted to his honour as religiously as the secrets of initiation. And I know more than other men, for I know that of all that I know, I know some things for the good, some for the wise, some for myself, some for the Gods, but naught for tyrants.
Again, I think that a wise man does nothing alone or by himself; no thought of his so secret but that he has himself as witness to it. And whether the famous saying “know thyself” be from Apollo or from some sage who learnt to know himself and proclaimed it as a good for all, I think the wise man who knows himself and has his own spirit in constant comradeship, to fight at his right hand, will neither cringe at what the vulgar fear, nor dare to do what most men do without the slightest shame (vii 15).
In the above we have the true philosopher’s contempt for death, and also the calm knowledge of the initiate, of the comforter and adviser of others to whom the secrets of their lives have been confessed, that no tortures can ever unseal his lips. Here, too, we have the full knowledge of what consciousness is, of the impossibility of hiding the smallest trace of evil in the inner world; and also the dazzling brilliancy of a higher ethic which makes the habitual conduct of the crowd appear surprising - the“that which they do - not with shame.”