'Proteus,' [Theagenes] cried, 'Proteus vain-glorious? Who dares name the word? Earth! Sun! Seas! Rivers! God of our fathers, Heracles! Was it for this that he suffered bondage in Syria? that he forgave his country a debt of a million odd? that he was cast out of Rome,–he whose brilliance exceeds the Sun, fit rival of the Lord of Olympus? ’Tis his good will to depart from life by fire, and they call it vain-glory! What other end had Heracles? ’Twas the thunderbolt, methinks, that slew Asclepius, Dionysus 1? ’Twas in the crater that Empedocles sought death?'
Theagenes (our friend with the lungs) had got thus far, when I asked one of the bystanders what all this meant about 'fire,' and what Heracles and Empedocles had got to do with Proteus?–'Proteus,' he replied, 'will shortly cremate himself, at the Olympic games.'–'But how,' I asked, 'and why?' He did his best to explain, but the Cynic went on bawling, and it was quite out of the question to attend to anything else. I waited on to the end. It was one torrent of wild panegyric on Proteus. The sage of Sinope, Antisthenes his master,–nay, Socrates himself–none of them were so much as to be compared with him. Zeus was invited to contend for the preeminence. Subsequently however it seemed advisable to leave the two on some sort of equality. 'The world,' he cried in conclusion, 'has seen but two works of surpassing excellence, the Olympian Zeus, and–Proteus. The one we owe to the creative genius of Phidias; the other is Nature's handiwork. And now, this godlike statue departs from among mankind; borne upon wings of fire, he seeks the heavens, and leaves us desolate.' He had worked himself up into a state of perspiration over all this; and when it was over he was very absurd, and cried, and tore his hair,–taking care not to pull too hard; and was finally taken away by some compassionate Cynics, sobbing violently all the time.
I need not have raised that point: not a soul, even among his own disciples, will be caught by his enthusiasm. That is where I think Theagenes is so much to blame: in all else he is a zealous adherent: yet when his master sets out “to be with Heracles,”–he stops behind, he won't go! though it is but a single header into the flames, and in a moment endless felicity is his.
'Besides, if Heracles really ever did anything so stupendous at all, he was driven to it by frenzy; he was being consumed alive by the Centaur's blood,–so the play tells us. But what point is there in Proteus's throwing himself into the fire? Ah, of course: he wants to set an example of fortitude, like the Brahmins, to whom Theagenes thought it necessary to corn-pare him. Well, I suppose there may be fools and empty-headed enthusiasts in India as elsewhere? Anyhow, he might stick to his models. The Brahmins never jump straight into the fire: Onesicritus, Alexander's pilot, saw Calanus burn himself, and according to him, when the pyre has been got ready, they stand quietly roasting in front of it, and when they do get on top, there they sit, smouldering away in a dignified manner, never budging an inch. I see nothing so great in Proteus's just jumping in and being swallowed by the flames. As likely as not he would jump out when he was half done; only, as I understand, he is taking care to have the pyre in a good deep hole.
I heard but now, from a friend, of Theagenes's producing a prophecy of the Sibyl on this subject: he quoted the very words:
What time the noblest of the Cynic host Within the Thunderer's court shall light a fire, And leap into its midst, and thence ascend To great Olympus–then shall all mankind, Who eat the furrow's fruit, give honour due To the Night-wanderer. His seat shall be Hard by Hephaestus and lord Heracles.
That 's the oracle that Theagenes says he heard from the Sibyl.