Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Apollonius of Tyana, the Philosopher-Reformer of the First Century A.D.

Book Review: Apollonius of Tyana, the Philosopher-Reformer of the First Century A.D. by George Robert Stowe Mead (Theosophical Publishing Society– 1901)

Mead translated and commented on several books of the Hermetic and related traditions. This one was actually a good read about Apollonius of Tyana who was thought to be Pythagorean by training but who traveled all over the known world as a sage penetrating philosophical and religious communities from Hellenistic lands to Babylon, Spain, Rome, Asia Minor, Persia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and India. He was said to have greatly admired the Indians who Mead identifies as Buddhists. He likely would have met Graeco-Buddhists on the way to India.

Apollonius lived in the first century during the height of the Roman Empire. He was quite famous during his time and shortly after as there were several accounts of his live and exploits. Of course, not long after this when Christianity came to full power, as a rival philosophical icon, he was pronounced a heretic and charlatan. Miracles and magic attributed to him were devilized. Mead notes the general religious tolerance of the Romans and points out that any oppression against groups was mainly for political reasons – even Nero’s expulsion of philosophers really had to do with those who advocated a return to the Republic.

Apollonius was said to have spent great effort on trying to reform the various religious cults of the time. Mead thought that the charges of depravity of the Roman cults were over-stressed by the later Christian-biased historians. He does think that there were some definite excesses but that much had to do with the rites dwindling into rote social functions (similar to many modern cults). State cults, such as the Eleuisinian Mysteries were thought to have become perfunctory as well and void of deeper meaning for the participants as in ages past. Other cults and particularly secret societies had much more stringent entry requirements and vows of secrecy. Since Ancient Greek times the Pythagoreans and the Orphics (with which they blended) were associated with discipline, morality, and respected for sage-like qualities. It was they who were known reformers of the Bacchic-Eleusinian rites. By the first century A.D. there were still Orphics and Pythagoreans but also Therapeuts, Essenes, Gnostics, and Hermetics, especially around Alexandria, Egypt. These brotherhoods were numerous and scattered but also generally secretive so very few records remain of their dispositions and practices. Much of their work was undoubtedly destroyed by later Christian and Islamic peoples.

Pythagoras was said by Neo-Pythagoreans (after the time of Apollonius) to have visited India, over 500 years before Apollonius. Questions of the influence of Brahmanism and Buddhism on the Orphics, Pythagoreans, and the other brotherhoods abound. The Indian Buddhist King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC is known to have sent missionaries to Syria, Macedonia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Communities of Indians were known to have lived in Egypt since before that time. Whether this had any influence is unknown but Mead notes similarities from the Hermes Trismegistus literature to that of the Upanishads. In any case it is unknown whether Indian ideas influenced the philosophical-religious brotherhoods of the Middle East and the West or even how much Pythagoreanism and Orphism influenced the Essenes and Gnostics. Certainly there was some scant knowledge of Vedanta and Dharma among the most philosophically-seeking of the ancient Greeks especially after the time of Alexander when contacts were well established and Greek communities mixed with Brahman and Buddhist communities in the greater-Bactrian regions. This is a fascinating time and place of much iconography and Gandharan Buddhist and hybrid texts are yet being discovered. Apollonius is recorded by a biographer and long-time companion of his who traveled along with him to India.

Mead gives an overview of much of the references to Apollonius in classical literature and beyond the Renaissance. Clearly, Apollonius was the most famous philosopher of his time and was even regarded by some as a god-like figure. He was condemned by Christian authors as his deeds rivaled those of Jesus himself. The most well known and detailed account of Apollonius of Tyana was composed by Philostratus – the Life of Apollonius. Monuments and statues of Apollonius were recorded as having been made. Vopiscus, Soterichus, Nicomachus, and Victorianus also wrote biographies of Apollonius. Those four accounts were lost. Porphry and Iamblichus both mention Apollonius as a source in their accounts of the early Pythagoreans. Beginning in the fourth century the various Christian accounts of Apollonius demonized him and even called him a plagiarizer of Christ, though he was also sometimes classified as one among the Magi. Generally the Neo-platonists of the Renaissance looked favorably on Apollonius as a key Pythagorean of their tradition. I think he is even considered a Gnostic saint in the current Ordo Templi Orientis.

The account of Philostratus (175-245 AD), a rhetorician near to the philosopher-empress Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of emperor Septimius Severus, is the key source. Domna Julia requested that he write the Life of Apollonius of Tyana and provided him with notes from accounts by Damis, a long-time companion of Apollonius. Philostratus also mentions traveling around collecting the various sayings and accounts of Apollonius. Mead mentions the difficulty of separating original accounts from the typically Roman glosses of the writer of the account. This gloss of incorporating legend into accounts was expected of the Roman authors. According to Mead:

“To Apollonius the mere fashion of a man’s faith was unessential; he was at home in all lands, among all cults. He had a helpful word for all, an intimate knowledge of the particular way of each of them, which enabled him to restore them to health. Such men are rare; the records of such men are precious, and require the embellishments of no rhetorician.”

Apollonius was born in Tyana, a city in Cappadocia in the central part of Anatolia. He studied in Tarsus and Aegae on the southern coast. He was said to have an extraordinary memory and studied Platonic, Stoic, Peripatetic, and Epicurean schools of philosophy and worked with the priests of healing temple of Asklepios. He is said to have had a special affinity for Pythagorean philosophy and learned initially from his teacher Euxenes. He adopted the Pythagorean forms of asceticism: avoiding dead things, ate only fruits and vegetables, abstained from wine, went barefoot, let his hair grow long, and wore nothing but linen. Still quite young he then lived in the Asklepian temple. After the death of his parents he shared the fortune with his brother and later gave more to his brother who had squandered his share. After restoring the family situation he returned to the temple in Aegeas and undertook a 5 year vow of silence. He traveled from city to city at this time and endured ridicule for his strange appearance. At these times he is said to have thought to himself, “ Heart, be patient, and thou, my tongue, be still.” These early accounts of Apollonius are thought to have come from Maximus of Aegea.

After this there is a gap and presumably, according to Mead, the account takes up again after a gap of some 15 or 20 years with the account of Damis. Apollonius is thought to have traveled around Arabia and greater Babylonia during this time after his vow of silence was up. Mead suggests an esoteric sort of freemasonry was about that allowed him to travel and be welcomed at various temples and communities. He is said to have adhered to a regular practice of religious exercises alone at sunrise after which he would converse with priests or leaders wherever he was, teaching and conferring with the initiated. After mid-day he would be available to all and any people seeking instruction, often in practical affairs.  In the evening he is said to have bathed in cold water like the Essenes and Therapeuts.

After this time he traveled to Ninus (formerly Nineveh) in Mesopotamia and met with Damis, who would be his traveling companion, but apparently an uninitiated and distant student. This is perhaps unfortunate for us but perhaps deliberate for Apollonius. From here he is said to have traveled to Babylon and stayed in the general region for nearly two years, then to Ecbatana in Media (northern Persia) and then on towards India through Taxila to the Indus and on to the valley of the Ganges staying for four months among the “monastery of the wise men.” This Ganges region (possibly in Nepal) was very likely a Buddhist region at this time. After returning to Babylon he went north again to Cyprus and Asia Minor, especially spending time at Ephesus, Troy, and Smyrna. Then it was on to Lesbos and Athens. In Greece he spent some time visiting and working on reforms of temple practices. After a stint in Crete he went to Rome. He was said to be in Rome in 66 AD when Nero issued his decree expelling all philosophers. From here he traveled to Spain to the city of Cadiz. After this he went to North Africa and Sicily. After this it was Rhodes and then to Alexandria where he was said to have stayed a while visiting with the future Roman Emperor Vespasian. Then he traveled up the Nile to so-called Ethiopia to visit the so-called “Gymnosophists,” the naked philosophers which some have equated as an Indian community. He is also said to have visited Phoenicians, Cilicians, Ionians, and Achaeans, then to Tarsus to meet with the new Roman Emperor Titus and back to Alexandria. He went to Rome to confront the new suspicious Emperor Domitian around 81 AD. Here he was tried but acquitted. Aside from these detailed time periods in his life there were large gaps as well. After he was acquitted in Rome (around 93 AD) he went back to Ephesus and Smyrna, sent Damis to Rome on business, and then he disappears from the pages of history.

Apollonius was for a long time among the Asklepian dream healing priests in Hellenic Asia Minor and Greece and was no doubt adept in the methods. He was said to have spent much time with the Babylonian Magi, about which to Damis he is said to have noted, “They are wise, but not in all things.” There is mention of the “Iygges” which the Magi called the “the four golden tongues of the gods’ or the winged wheels connected with Fate. These are thought to have possibly been the heavenly wheels described by Ezekiel and possibly the living spheres used in Hecate magic. Of his time in India we have only this quote from him given by Damis:

“I saw men dwelling on the earth and yet not on it, defended on all sides, yet without any defence, and yet possessed of nothing but what all possess.”

Apollonius is known to have visited the Temple of Aphrodite at Paphos. He is said to have stayed there for some time. He is said to have spent a night alone at the tomb of Achilles at Troy, afterwards visiting Thessaly to urge them to re-establish the veneration of the hero.  He said to have taught at the great Asklepian dream healing temple at Pergamos in Asia Minor. He is said to have received in vision from Achilles where to find a statue of Palamedes (an earlier hero associated with the development of letters) which he is said to have found and restored. He visited the ancient Orphic temple at Lesbos. He went to Athens and presented himself for initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. He was rebuked by a paranoid hierophant who quickly recanted but yet waited to be initiated by the next hierophant four years later. He is said to have spoken against the effeminacy of the Bacchanalia and the barbarism of gladiatorial combat. He visited many of the most ancient temples of Greece, restoring and consecrating temples and rites. He praised the Olympic games and recommended the Spartans to reinstitute their training methods. He is said to have avoided the Labyrith at Knossus when visiting Crete, possibly due to its one time use as a place of human sacrifice. Again in Alexandria he is said to have disdained blood-sacrifice (at the temple of Serapis?) by substitution of frankincence modeled into the form of the victim. He also sought to reform the wild excitement over horse racing that often led to violence in Alexandria. He is thought to have spent much of his life in Egypt including the long journey to Ethiopia. Apollonius is also credited with driving away unscrupulous Chaldean and Egyptian charlatans who “trafficked in the misfortunes of others.”

Damis mentions the trip to Ethiopia and their time spent among the Gymnosophists there, the naked ascetics with possible links to India. Apollonius seemed to indicate that these communities in southern Egypt and northern Ethiopia were of forgotten Indian origin. Apparently there were legends among them of their Indian origins. Mead seems to think that they were once Buddhists ascetics. 

The so-called miracles of Apollonius were mainly psychic visions, divinations, and healings attributed to him. Foreknowledge of events was a practice and subject in which Apollonius was very interested. Divination was apparently for him a spiritual practice. Communion with the “daemon” or higher self was a chief feature of the Pythagorean philosophers who were more natural mages than rhetorical philosophers. Thus he distinguished his foreknowledge as coming from a deeper or higher source than that of everyday soothsayers. Even though many miraculous healings were attributed to him he is also known to have favored rational scientific explanations over mythical ones, particularly for natural phenomena like earthquakes and tidal waves.

Apollonius practiced the Pythagorean asceticism of vegetarianism, avoiding wearing of animals, blood sacrifice, wine, and sex or marriage. He stated that Pythagoras said that he learned these practices from Indians. Apollonius did not seek to impose these restrictions on others lest they wished to be admitted to the inner circle of initiates. Damis was fine with meat and wine. Apollonius was aid to pray at sunrise, mid-day, and sundown. He was said to be prepared for death in the manner of a warrior prepared to die for the sake of philosophy. Indeed he thought it the duty of a sage to be prepared to die for his principles. Apollonius was said to be beautiful, mild, gentle, and modest but not without force when indignant. He was said to be pensive and often absorbed in meditation and focus. He was harsh with himself but gentle with others, not given to blame and complaint. He had some followers and even one among the Gymnosophists, but no specific school did he bequeath. As to Damis, he did give him these words:

“Damis, whenever you think on high matters in solitary meditation, you shall see me.”

After this and his encounters with the Indians where he stated his goal of similar communication through meditation at a distance we see that this telepathy was an interest and practice of Apollonius.

Regarding prayer and relationships to gods, Apollonius is said to have favored the gods as dispensers of justice and suggested that we pray for what is our due. He favored having little and few needs. He is said to have prayed for peace and honesty in the world. He praised the qualities of generosity, cooperation, and equality.

In a Socratic-style dialogue with Thespesion, abbot of the Gymnosophists, regarding a comparison of the Greek and Egyptian conceptions of gods, Apollonius is said to have uttered the following:

(regarding whether the gods were envisioned by imitation or imagination)

“Imagination wrought them – a workmen 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.”

He praised imagination as a way of bringing us closer to ideals.

Many sayings and stories are attributed to Apollonius, some in a small collection of his letters to various public officials. To Spartan officials went the following saying:

“It is possible for men not to make mistakes, but it requires noble men to acknowledge they have made them.”

In a letter to Criton he says:

“Pythagoras said that the most divine art was that of healing. And if the healing art is most divine, it must occupy itself with the soul as well as with the body; for no creature can be sound so long as the higher part in it is sickly.”

Apollonius is said to have written some widely circulated treatises, of which only a few fragments have survived. One text is called – The Mystic Rites, or Concerning Sacrifices, of which there are known fragments. In one part the following quote, showing the Pythagorean/Platonic Monism/Monotheism, is attributed to him:

“Tis best to make no sacrifice to God at all, no lighting of a fire, no calling Him by any name that men employ for things of sense. For God is over all, the first; and only after Him do come the other Gods. For He doth stand in need of naught e’en from the Gods, much less from us small men – naught that the earth brings forth, nor any life she nurseth, or even any thing the stainless air contains. The only fitting sacrifice to God is man’s best reason, and not the word that comes from his mouth.”

Other texts attributed to him include – the Oracles Concerning Divination, a rare work said to be based on whet he learned in India, The Life of Pythagoras (utilized by both Porphry and Iamblichus), the Will of Apollonius (his doctrines), a Hymn to Memory, and apparently many others.

Concerning the requirements of becoming his student these words are attributed:

“If any say he is my disciple, then let him add he keeps himself apart out of the Baths, he slays no living thing, eats of no flesh, is free from envy, malice, hatred, columny, and hostile feelings, but has his name inscribed among the race of those who’ve won their freedom.”

There is a long letter to consul Valerius about death and the wisdom of overcoming grief.

Here he describes life as “becoming” and death as ‘being’ and notes that life is the state of being seen or visible (in the dense realm being filled with matter) and death is the state of being unseen or invisible (in the subtle realms of ‘primal being’ void of matter ). Life is motion and death is rest.

“For being has this necessary peculiarity, that its change is brought about by nothing external to itself; but whole becomes parts and parts become whole in the oneness of the all.”

Here he explains that death is not a destruction of one’s nature but a change of state.

Interestingly he also explains in this letter brimming with wise sincerity that it is simply selfish to overly grieve and seek to change that which cannot be changed.

It should be noted that Mead’s account is based mainly on the biography by Philostratus but contains only short excerpts and descriptions from it. It is a useful read and I look forward to reading some of Mead’s texts regarding Gnosticism and Hermeticism.






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  1. http://apolloniustyaneus.blogspot.gr/2013/12/turin-shroud-proof-or-doom-for.html

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