There is a fable told in the Roman emperor Julian’s oration To the Cynic Heracleios that is worth relating and discussing. The fable is rather involved, but we will extract its relevant parts here. The god Hermes once appeared before a youth who, though virtuous and good, was having some difficulties in life. Hermes said to the young man:
Follow me, and I will guide you by a better road. All you have to do is follow this winding and uneven road, where you see many other men stumbling and falling.
The youth accepted this challenge. He armed himself with a sword, spear, and shield, and set himself to travel the road put before him. Eventually he came to the foot of a huge, craggy mountain. At this point, his guide Hermes said to him:
At the top of this vast mountain you will find the father of the gods. Make sure you worship and honor him with the greatest piety. You can ask of him whatever you wish.
And with this, Hermes vanished. The youth uttered a short prayer to Zeus, requesting his aid, and it was at this point that a feeling of divine ecstasy, a kind of trance, came over him. Suddenly he found himself before Helios, who in late antiquity (or at least in the writings of the Emperor Julian) came to be identified with the father of all the gods. Helios saw the boy and called in the goddess Athena for her opinion. She saw the youth’s sword, spear, and shield, but could see he had no helmet. The youth told the goddess that he had no helmet, and that it was hard enough for him to have acquired what he had already. He said that he was not favored by his family or by other people he knew, and had received little or no help in life.
Helios then led the youth to a vantage-point on the mountain peak where he could see down to the world of mortals below. The king of the gods asked the boy what he saw. The boy said, “I see my kinsmen and friends going about their lives in blissful ignorance. A few are honest, but many are vicious and cruel. They live lives of dissolution and ignorance, unable to appreciate the divine spark that resides within them.” Helios and Athena then bade the youth to return to earth, and gave him the following advice for him to carry out:
The men you see often are asleep, and are often deceived. You must be sober and vigilant, so that you do not allow yourself to be taken in by flatterers who appear to be friends. A flatterer is like a smith who, though coming out of his forge, is dressed in white; he then tries to convince you of his lily-white purity while being covered with ash and soot from head to toe.
You must also choose your friends wisely, and treat them as true friends. Remember that they are not your servants or orbiters. Your conduct towards them must be honest, generous, and noble: do not say one thing to them and do another, for this is the way of snakes. And treachery is the vilest of all deeds.
Now depart with an elevated spirit. Know, O my son, that we, the gods of Olympus, will be with you at all times. Never become a slave to your passions, nor allow yourself to become a slave to someone else’s passions. Take the armor with you that you have brought here; it will be useful to you.
But before you go, I will give you this torch. With it a great light will shine for you, and with the aid of this light, you will not crave the material things of the earth. Athena will give you an aegis [an animal-skin or shield] and a helmet. Hermes here will give you a golden wand. Go to your homeland, then, and obey our laws, and do not allow anyone to misdirect you away from our commands. As long as you do so, you will be honored and respected.
And know also that your mortal body was given you so that you might carry out these commands. Remember that you have an immortal soul that comes from us; and that this soul can become something godlike.
This was the advice given by Helios to the youth, as related by the emperor Julian. What is the meaning of this fable? Julian was a Neoplatonist in his inclinations; for him, the story was definitely meant to be allegorical. As he saw it, the man who followed the path of virtue was literally following a divine path. It was not an easy road, and not every man would be willing to attempt it. But for those who did, rewards of incalculable value might be earned. The man who undertook this mission would carry the symbolic items like the aegis, torch, sword, and helmet; these would protect him from the iniquities and evils of the world.
But what was perhaps most important was Julian’s attitude towards a man’s corporeal form. In keeping with the spirit of late antiquity, the body was seen as inferior to the soul; it was nothing but an instrument to be used towards the attainment of divine qualities. As Julian himself would say later in his Oration:
Now the true short-cut to philosophy is this. A man must completely come out of himself and recognize that he is divine, and not only keep his mind untiringly and steadfastly fixed on divine and stainless and pure thoughts, but he must also utterly despise his body, and think it, in the words of Heracleitus, “more worthless than dirt.” And by the easiest means he must satisfy his body’s needs so long as the god commands him to use it as an instrument. [Trans. by W.C. Wright]
This has a very strong Neoplatonic flavor. And for Julian it was conduct that mattered, not surface appearances or memberships in organizations. One did not become a good man by joining groups alone; he had to demonstrate his goodness by positive acts. In this regard, Julian quoted the philosopher Diogenes, who said:
It is absurd to think that any tax-collector can share in the rewards of the next world if he simply becomes initiated into some group, while great men like Agesilaus and Epaminondas are fated to lie in their graves. [See Diog. Laertius VI.39].
Actions are what count, rather than appearances. Every man must remember that he is similar to the youth who was counseled by Helios: as he makes his way in the world, he has special tools give him by the immortal gods. He must make wise use of these tools, and always remember that he carries within him a spark of that Divine Light imparted to his soul from the moment of his birth. This is that “torch” (or even that aegis of Athena) referred to in the fable above; and a man can choose to make use of this divine aspect and develop it to its full potential, or he can elect to ignore it. These implements symbolize the possession of the noble virtues. And to take up this torch, to wear the aegis of Athena, and to carry these things along the road of life: this is the path of true glory.
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