Demonax | Hellenic Library
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It was in the book of Fate that even this age of ours should not be destitute entirely of noteworthy and memorable men, but produce a body of extraordinary power, and a mind of surpassing wisdom. My allusions are to Sostratus the Boeotian, whom the Greeks called, and believed to be, Heracles; and more particularly to the philosopher Demonax. I saw and marvelled at both of them, and with the latter I long consorted. I have written of Sostratus elsewhere [Footnote: The life of Sostratus is not extant.], and described his stature and enormous strength, his open-air life on Parnassus, sleeping on the grass and eating what the mountain afforded, the exploits that bore out his surname — robbers exterminated, rough places made smooth, and deep waters bridged.
This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view: first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies; and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best — if I am any judge — of all philosophers.
He came of a Cyprian family which enjoyed considerable property and political influence. But his views soared above such things as these; he claimed nothing less than the highest, and devoted himself to philosophy. This was not due to any exhortations of Agathobulus, his predecessor Demetrius, or Epictetus. He did indeed enjoy the converse of all these, as well as of Timocrates of Heraclea, that wise man whose gifts of expression and of understanding were equal. It was not, however, to the exhortations of any of these, but to a natural impulse towards the good, an innate yearning for philosophy which manifested itself in childish years, that he owed his superiority to all the things that ordinary men pursue. He took independence and candour for his guiding principles, lived himself an upright, wholesome, irreproachable life, and exhibited to all who saw or heard him the model of his own disposition and philosophic sincerity.
He was no half-baked enthusiast either; he had lived with the poets, and knew most of them by heart; he was a practised speaker; he had a knowledge of philosophic principles not of the superficial skin-deep order; he had developed and hardened his body by exercise and toil, and, in short, had been at the pains to make himself every man’s equal at every point. He was consistent enough, when he found that he could no longer suffice to himself, to depart voluntarily from life, leaving a great reputation behind him among the true nobility of Greece.
Instead of confining himself to a single philosophic school, he laid them all under contribution, without showing clearly which of them he preferred; but perhaps he was nearest akin to Socrates; for, though he had leanings as regards externals and plain living to Diogenes, he never studied effect or lived for the applause and admiration of the multitude; his ways were like other people’s; he mounted no high horse; he was just a man and a citizen. He indulged in no Socratic irony; but his discourse was full of Attic grace; those who heard it went away neither disgusted by servility nor repelled by ill-tempered censure, but on the contrary lifted out of themselves by charity, and encouraged to more orderly, contented, hopeful lives.
He was never known to shout or be over vehement or angry, even when he had to correct; he touched offences, but pardoned offenders, saying that the doctors’ was the right model, who treat sickness but are not angry with the sick. It is human, he thought, to err, but divine (whether in God or man) to put the error right.
A life of this sort left him without wants of his own; but he was always ready to render any proper service to his friends — including reminders to those among them who passed for fortunate, how brief was their tenure of what they so prided themselves upon. To all, on the other hand, who repined at poverty, resented exile, or complained of old age or bad health, he administered laughing consolation, and bade them not forget how soon their troubles would be over, the distinction between good and bad be obsolete, and long freedom succeed to short-lived distress.
He was fond of playing peace-maker between brothers at variance, or presiding over the restoration of marital harmony. He could say a word in season, too, before an agitated political assembly, which would turn the scale in favour of patriotic duty. Such was the temper that philosophy produced in him, kindly, mild, and cheerful.
Nothing ever grieved him except the illness or death of a friend, friendship being the one among blessings that he put highest; and indeed he was every man’s friend, counting among his kindred whatever had human shape. Not that there were no degrees in the pleasure different people’s society gave him; but he avoided none, except those who seemed so far astray that they could get no good from him. And every word or act in which these principles took shape might have been dictated by the Graces and Aphrodite; for ‘on his lips Persuasion sat,’ as the play has it.
Accordingly he was regarded with reverence at Athens, both by the collective assembly and by the officials; he always continued to be a person of great consequence in their eyes. And this though most of them had been at first offended with him, and hated him as heartily as their ancestors had Socrates. Besides his candour and independence, there had been found Anytuses and Meletuses to repeat the historic charges: he had never been known to sacrifice, and he made himself singular by avoiding initiation at Eleusis. On this occasion he showed his courage by appearing in a garland and festal attire, and then pleading his cause before the people with a dash of unwonted asperity infused into his ordinary moderate tone. On the count of never having sacrificed to Athene, ‘Men of Athens,’ he said, ‘there is nothing wonderful in this; it was only that I gave the Goddess credit for being able to do very well without sacrifices from me.’ And in the matter of the Mysteries, his reason for not following the usual practice was this: if the Mysteries turned out to be bad, he would never be able to keep quiet about it to the uninitiated, but must dissuade them from the ceremony; while, if they were good, humanity would tempt him to divulge them. The Athenians, stone in hand already, were at once disarmed, and from that time onwards paid him honour and respect, which ultimately rose to reverence. Yet he had opened his case with a bitter enough reproof: ‘Men of Athens, you see me ready garlanded; proceed to sacrifice me, then; your former offering [Footnote: i.e., Socrates.] was deficient in this formality.’
I will now give some specimens of his pointed and witty sayings, which may begin with his answers to Favorinus. The latter had heard that he made fun of his lectures, and in particular of the sentimental verses with which they were garnished, and which Demonax thought contemptible, womanish, and quite unsuited to philosophy. So he came and asked him: ‘Who, pray, are you, that you should pour scorn upon me?’ ‘I am the possessor of a critical pair of ears,’ was the answer. The sophist had not had enough; ‘You are no infant,’ he went on, ‘but a philosopher, it seems; may one ask what marks the transformation?’ ‘The marks of manhood,’ said Demonax.
Another time the same person came up and asked him what school of philosophy he belonged to. ‘Who told you I was a philosopher?’ was all he said. But as he left him, he had a good laugh to himself, which Favorinus observing, demanded what he was laughing at; ‘I was only amused by your taking a man for a philosopher because he wears a beard, when you have none yourself.’
When Sidonius, who had a great reputation at Athens as a teacher, was boasting that he was conversant with all the philosophic systems — but I had better quote his words. ‘Let Aristotle call, and I follow to the Lyceum; Plato, and I hurry to the Academy; Zeno, and I make my home in the Porch; Pythagoras, and I keep the rule of silence.’ Then rose Demonax from among the audience: ‘Sidonius, Pythagoras calls.’
A pretty girlish young man called Python, son of some Macedonian grandee, once by way of quizzing him asked a riddling question and invited him to show his acumen over it. ‘I only see one thing, dear child,’ he said, ‘and that is, that you are a fair logician.’ The other lost his temper at this equivoque, and threatened him: ‘You shall see in a minute what a man can do.’ ‘Oh, you keep a man, do you?’ was Demonax’s smiling retort.
He once, for daring to laugh at an athlete who displayed himself in gay clothes because he had won an Olympic victory, received a blow on the head with a stone, which drew blood. The bystanders were all as angry as if they had themselves been the victims, and set up a shout —‘The Proconsul! the Proconsul!’ ‘Thank you, gentlemen,’ said Demonax, ‘but I should prefer the doctor.’
He once picked up a little gold charm in the road as he walked, and posted a notice in the market-place stating that the loser could recover his property, if he would call upon Demonax and give particulars of the weight, material, and workmanship. A handsome young exquisite came, professing to have lost it. The philosopher soon saw that it was a got-up story; ‘Ah, my boy,’ he said, ‘you will do very well, if you lose your other charms as little as you have lost this one.’
A Roman senator at Athens once presented his son, who had great beauty of a soft womanish type. ‘My son salutes you, sir,’ he said. To which Demonax answered, ‘A pretty lad, worthy of his father, and extremely like his mother.’
A cynic who emphasized his principles by wearing a bear’s skin he insisted on addressing not by his name of Honoratus, but as Bruin.
Asked for a definition of Happiness, he said that only the free was happy. ‘Well,’ said the questioner, ‘there is no lack of free men.’—‘I count no man free who is subject to hopes and fears.’— ‘You ask impossibilities; of these two we are all very much the slaves.’ ‘Once grasp the nature of human affairs,’ said Demonax, ‘and you will find that they justify neither hope nor fear, since both pain and pleasure are to have an end.’
Peregrine Proteus was shocked at his taking things so lightly, and treating mankind as a subject for humour: ‘You have no teeth, Demonax.’ ‘And you, Peregrine, have no bowels.’
A physical philosopher was discoursing about the antipodes; Demonax took his hand, and led him to a well, in which he showed him his own reflection: ‘Do you want us to believe that the antipodes are like that?’
A man once boasted that he was a wizard, and possessed of mighty charms whereby he could get what he chose out of anybody. ‘Will it surprise you to learn that I am a fellow-craftsman?’ asked Demonax; ‘pray come with me to the baker’s, and you shall see a single charm, just one wave of my magic wand, induce him to bestow several loaves upon me.’ Current coin, he meant, is as good a magician as most.
The great Herodes, mourning the untimely death of Pollux, used to have the carriage and horses got ready, and the place laid at table, as though the dead were going to drive and eat. To him came Demonax, saying that he brought a message from Pollux. Herodes, delighted with the idea that Demonax was humouring his whim like other people, asked what it was that Pollux required of him. ‘He cannot think why you are so long coming to him.’
When another person kept himself shut up in the dark, mourning his son, Demonax represented himself to him as a magician: he would call up the son’s ghost, the only condition being that he should be given the names of three people who had never had to mourn. The father hum’d and ha’d, unable, doubtless, to produce any such person, till Demonax broke in: ‘And have you, then, a monopoly of the unendurable, when you cannot name a man who has not some grief to endure?’
He often ridiculed the people who use obsolete and uncommon words in their lectures. One of these produced a bit of Attic purism in answer to some question he had put. ‘My dear sir,’ he said, ‘the date of my question is today; that of your answer is temp. Bell. Troj.’
A friend asking him to come to the temple of Asclepius, there to make prayer for his son, ‘Poor deaf Asclepius!’ he exclaimed; ‘can he not hear at this distance?’
He once saw two philosophers engaged in a very unedifying game of cross questions and crooked answers. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘here is one man milking a billy-goat, and another catching the proceeds in a sieve.’
When Agathocles the Peripatetic vaunted himself as the first and only dialectician, he asked him how he could be the first, if he was the only, or the only, if he was the first.
The consular Cethegus, on his way to serve under his father in Asia, said and did many foolish things. A friend describing him as a great ass, ‘Not even a great ass,’ said Demonax.
When Apollonius was appointed professor of philosophy in the Imperial household, Demonax witnessed his departure, attended by a great number of his pupils. ‘Why, here is Apollonius with all his Argonauts,’ he cried.
Asked whether he held the soul to be immortal, ‘Dear me, yes,’ he said; ‘everything is.’
He remarked a propos of Herodes that Plato was quite right about our having more than one soul; the same soul could not possibly compose those splendid declamations, and have places laid for Regilla and Pollux after their death.
He was once bold enough to ask the assembled people, when he heard the sacred proclamation, why they excluded barbarians from the Mysteries, seeing that Eumolpus, the founder of them, was a barbarian from Thrace.
When he once had a winter voyage to make, a friend asked how he liked the thought of being capsized and becoming food for fishes. ‘I should be very unreasonable to mind giving them a meal, considering how many they have given me.’
To a rhetorician who had given a very poor declamation he recommended constant practice. ‘Why, I am always practising to myself,’ says the man. ‘Ah, that accounts for it; you are accustomed to such a foolish audience.’
Observing a soothsayer one day officiating for pay, he said: ‘I cannot see how you can ask pay. If it is because you can change the course of Fate, you cannot possibly put the figure high enough: if everything is settled by Heaven, and not by you, what is the good of your soothsaying?’
A hale old Roman once gave him a little exhibition of his skill in fence, taking a clothes-peg for his mark. ‘What do you think of my play, Demonax?’ he said. ‘Excellent, so long as you have a wooden man to play with.’
Even for questions meant to be insoluble he generally had a shrewd answer at command. Some one tried to make a fool of him by asking, If I burn a hundred pounds of wood, how many pounds of smoke shall I get? ‘Weigh the ashes; the difference is all smoke.’
One Polybius, an uneducated man whose grammar was very defective, once informed him that he had received Roman citizenship from the Emperor. ‘Why did he not make you a Greek instead?’ asked Demonax.
Seeing a decorated person very proud of his broad stripe, he whispered in his ear, while he took hold of and drew attention to the cloth, ‘This attire did not make its original wearer anything but a sheep.’
Once at the bath the water was at boiling point, and some one called him a coward for hesitating to get in. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is my country expecting me to do my duty?’
Some one asked him what he took the next world to be like. ‘Wait a bit, and I will send you the information.’
A minor poet called Admetus told him he had inserted a clause in his will for the inscribing on his tomb of a monostich, which I will give:
Admetus’ husk earth holds, and Heaven himself.
‘What a beautiful epitaph, Admetus!’ said Demonax, ‘and what a pity it is not up yet!’
The shrunk shanks of old age are a commonplace; but when his reached this state, some one asked him what was the matter with them. ‘Ah,’ he said with a smile, ‘Charon has been having a bite at them.’
He interrupted a Spartan who was scourging his servant with, ‘Why confer on your slave the privilege of Spartans [Footnote: See Spartans in Notes.] like yourself?’ He observed to one Danae, who was bringing a suit against her brother, ‘Have the law of him by all means; it was another Danae whose father was called the Lawless. [Footnote: See Danae in Notes.]
He waged constant warfare against all whose philosophy was not practical, but for show. So when he saw a cynic, with threadbare cloak and wallet, but a braying-pestle instead of a staff, proclaiming himself loudly as a follower of Antisthenes, Crates, and Diogenes, he said: ‘Tell us no lies; your master is the professor of braying.’
Noticing how foul play was growing among the athletes, who often supplemented the resources of boxing and wrestling with their teeth, he said it was no wonder that the champions’ partisans had taken to describing them as lions.
There was both wit and sting in what he said to the proconsul. The latter was one of the people who take all the hair off their bodies with pitch-plaster. A cynic mounted a block of stone and cast this practice in his teeth, suggesting that it was for immoral purposes. The proconsul in a rage had the man pulled down, and was on the point of condemning him to be beaten or banished, when Demonax, who was present, pleaded for him on the ground that he was only exercising the traditional cynic licence. ‘Well,’ said the proconsul, ‘I pardon him this time at your request; but if he offends again, what shall I do to him?’ ‘Have him depilated,’ said Demonax.
Another person, entrusted by the Emperor with the command of legions and the charge of a great province, asked him what was the way to govern well. ‘Keep your temper, say little, and hear much.’
Asked whether he ate honey-cakes, ‘Do you suppose,’ he said, ‘that bees only make honey for fools?’
Noticing near the Poecile a statue minus a hand, he said it had taken Athens a long time to get up a bronze to Cynaegirus.
Alluding to the lame Cyprian Rufinus, who was a Peripatetic and spent much time in the Lyceum walks, ‘What presumption,’ he exclaimed, ‘for a cripple to call himself a Walking Philosopher!’
Epictetus once urged him, with a touch of reproof, to take a wife and raise a family — for it beseemed a philosopher to leave some one to represent him after the flesh. But he received the home thrust: ‘Very well, Epictetus; give me one of your daughters.’
His remark to Herminus the Aristotelian is equally worth recording. He was aware that this man’s character was vile and his misdeeds innumerable, and yet his mouth was always full of Aristotle and his ten predicaments. ‘Certainly, Herminus,’ he said, ‘no predicament is too bad for you.’
When the Athenians were thinking, in their rivalry with Corinth, of starting gladiatorial shows, he came forward and said: ‘Men of Athens, before you pass this motion, do not forget to destroy the altar of Pity.’
On the occasion of his visiting Olympia, the Eleans voted a bronze statue to him. But he remonstrated: ‘It will imply a reproach to your ancestors, men of Elis, who set up no statue to Socrates or Diogenes.’
I once heard him observe to a learned lawyer that laws were not of much use, whether meant for the good or for the bad; the first do not need them, and upon the second they have no effect.
There was one line of Homer always on his tongue:
Idle or busy, death takes all alike.
He had a good word for Thersites, as a cynic and a leveller.
Asked which of the philosophers was most to his taste, he said: ‘I admire them all; Socrates I revere, Diogenes I admire, Aristippus I love.’
He lived to nearly a hundred, free from disease and pain, burdening no man, asking no man’s favour, serving his friends, and having no enemies. Not Athens only, but all Greece was so in love with him that as he passed the great would give him place and there would be a general hush. Towards the end of his long life he would go uninvited into the first house that offered, and there get his dinner and his bed, the household regarding it as the visit of some heavenly being which brought them a blessing. When they saw him go by, the baker-wives would contend for the honour of supplying him, and a happy woman was the actual donor. Children too used to call him father, and bring him offerings of fruit.
Party spirit was once running high at Athens; he came into the assembly, and his mere appearance was enough to still the storm. When he saw that they were ashamed, he departed again without having uttered a word.
When he found that he was no longer able to take care of himself, he repeated to his friends the tag with which the heralds close the festival:
The games are done, The crowns all won; No more delay, But haste away,
and from that moment abstaining from food, left life as cheerfully as he had lived it.
When the end was near, he was asked his wishes about burial. ‘Oh, do not trouble; scent will summon my undertakers.’ Well, but it would be indecent for the body of so great a man to feed birds and dogs. ‘Oh, no harm in making oneself useful in death to anything that lives.’
However, the Athenians gave him a magnificent public funeral, long lamented him, worshipped and garlanded the stone seat on which he had been wont to rest when tired, accounting the mere stone sanctified by him who had sat upon it. No one would miss the funeral ceremony, least of all any of the philosophers. It was these who bore him to the grave.
I have made but a small selection of the material available; but it may serve to give readers some idea of this great man’s character.