Friday, 16 October 2015

Apollonius and the Pythagoreans - Part II

First published on my classics blog, Memento, on 15 March 2015.

From around the first century BC, the Pythagorean movement underwent a reinaissance.  Pythagoras came to be seem as a kind of semi-divine figure - a master of teaching and doctrine who had given the other great Greek philosophers their ideas.  Writers forged entire treatises in the name of Pythagoras and his early followers in order to tell the world what they really ought to have said.  In the hands of the New Pythagoreans, Pythagoras and his legacy came to take on the appearance of a storehouse of wisdom on subjects ranging across metaphysics, magic, music, mathematics and morality.

Into this context stepped a figure known as Apollonius, who came from Tyana in modern-day Turkey.  He appears to have lived in the first century AD.  His rather meagre surviving writings reveal the recognisable outlines of a Pythagorean philosopher.  He advocated an ascetic, virtuous lifestyle, and showed a particular disdain for worldly wealth.  Our sources report that he wrote several treatises on philosophical and religious topics.

He seems to have acknowledged both the traditional gods of the Greek pantheon and a higher, transcendent godhead.  He also seems to have opposed traditional ritual practices.  This surviving fragment from his works is particularly interesting:
In this way, then, I think, one would best show the proper regard for the deity, and thereby beyond all other men secure His favour and good will, if to Him whom we called the First God, and who is One and separate from all others, and to whom the rest must be acknowledged inferior, he should sacrifice nothing at all, neither kindle fire, nor dedicate anything whatever that is an object of sense - for He needs nothing even from beings who are greater than we are: nor is there any plant at all which the earth sends up, nor any animal which it, or the air, sustains, to which there is not some defilement attached - but should ever employ towards Him only that better speech, I mean the speech which passes not through the lips, and should ask good things from the noblest of beings by what is noblest in ourselves, and this is the mind, which needs no instrument. According to this therefore we ought by no means to offer sacrifice to the great God who is over all.
This is fascinating stuff, and makes one wish that more of Apollonius' works had survived.

Our main source for Apollonius' life is a long biography written by one Philostratus (c.170 - c.245 AD), a Greek rhetorician who had connections with the imperial house.  In particular, he was a personal friend of the Empress Julia Domna, who appears to have inspired him to write the book.  He wrote several other works as well, both fiction and non-fiction, including an influential set of biographies of other rhetoricians.

It isn't quite clear where Philostratus got his information from.  He refers to a number of sources, in particular an earlier biography of Apollonius by a follower of his called Damis of Nineveh.  But Damis' work has not survived, and we have no way of knowing how accurate it was or how close Philostratus kept to it.  Some have suggested that Philostratus made it up.

On the whole, the Apollonius who comes through to us from Philostratus' biography has the feel of a fictional character.  Philostratus' whole work is essentially novelistic.  It is written in something of a rhetorical style, and its atmosphere is curiously unreal.  Anecdotal and digressive, it has the general feel of a romance composed for entertainment rather than a work of strong intellectual fibre.  It is certainly not a philosophical treatise, although there are some references to Pythagorean concerns such as reincarnation, vegetarianism and numerology.  Philostratus does not attribute any very profound or detailed teachings to his subject.

Interestingly, Apollonius is presented by Philostratus not merely as a Pythagorean philosopher - though he certainly is that - but as a kind of semi-legendary hero.  He is exemplary in virtue and wisdom.  He has supernatural gifts, including powers of clairvoyance and healing.  He is honoured even by the gods.  He travels around the known world - Mesopotamia, Iran, India, Spain and Egypt - and converses with kings and emperors.  In the final part of the book, he miraculously escapes from a trial before the evil Emperor Domitian.  Interestingly, Pythagoras himself was also said to have travelled around exotic parts of the world while he was developing his teachings.  It looks like Apollonius was mythologised and divinised in the same sort of way as Pythagoras.

It is particularly interesting that the sentiments expressed by the real Apollonius in the quotation above find little or no place in Philostratus' work.  Far from discoursing on the ineffable Godhead and the uselessness of making sacrifices to it, Philostratus' Apollonius is depicted as cheerfully dispensing advice on traditional cultic practices.

Apollonius ended up gaining a certain notoriety as a kind of pagan equivalent to Jesus.  Certain similarities between the two characters were seized upon both by ancient pagans and by Enlightenment rationalists.  Christian writers, conversely, suggested that Apollonius was a satanic figure.  There is little to be gained from pursuing this tired old quarrel.  Apollonius and Jesus were both revered as holy men with supernatural powers - just like numerous other figures in history - but it is much more productive to study each of them in his own context than it is to pit them against each other in a game of religious polemic.  Rabbi Jeshua of Nazareth is best viewed in a 1st century Palestinian Jewish context; and Apollonius is more interesting in his own right than as a tool for undermining his more famous counterpart.