Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!
I wanted to continue my old practice of sharing a passage, though this year I found something a bit different, not really Platonic in doctrine, but Stoic, but still stylistically much affected by Plato, and probably a little affected in at least some minor ways in thought too, brought out nicely by DA Russell in his excellent commentary on this speech, and in fact Plato is mentioned more than once in it by name as well. And what is presented here in my selection is also a myth - lately I have been interested in myths used in philosophy, and of course Plato is the master of that practice, I think most would agree, or a master, at least. And in the case of this work, one cannot also help thinking of the myth of the charioteer in the Phaedrus, to me one of the most beautiful passages in all of Plato. Thus my defence for introducing the Stoic words of Dio Chrysostom from his 36th oration, the end of the Borystheneticus.
This piece I just encountered - oddly enough, for the first time - when doing a bit of digging once again in Mithraic studies, for quite another purpose, though to be honest it may not be relevant to Mithras at all - the jury is out on that point, pace Cumont. But regardless, it is a lovely piece, and I just ask you forgive the Stoic bent here! Though I have to admit personally that I find the notion of ekpyrosis fascinating (just not any time soon, though, please!), and Dio's own representation of it is certainly striking, to say the least, whether it really derives in any way from Persian thought or has any connection to Mithras.
And, after all, we are all still here! So far. The solstice came and went and the great axis of heaven still turns quite happily in its majesty above, or so it seems to me, and all those high schools in Michigan that they closed early out of apocalyptic concern and pseudo-Mayan paranoia can now open again and get back to studying! After a Merry Christmas, of course.
The following is excerpted from the Loeb translation of Cohoon and Crosby, compliments of the Lacus Curtius site where the whole speech is reproduced in the Loeb.
Dio has just been discussing Zeus' kingly and fatherly role in the 'city' of the universe and the fellowship of gods and men:
"Moreover, there is besides a myth which arouses admiration as sung in secret rites by the Magi, who extol this god of ours as being the perfect and original driver of the most perfect chariot. For the chariot of Helios, they claim, is relatively recent when compared with that of Zeus, though visible to the many because its course is run in full view. Therefore, they say, the chariot of Helios has enjoyed a reputation with all mankind, since the poets, beginning practically with the earliest times, so it would seem, are always telling of its rising and its setting, all in the same manner describing the yoking of the horses and Helios himself mounting his car.
"But the mighty, perfect chariot of Zeus has never been praised as it deserves by any of the poets of our land, either by Homer or by Hesiod; and yet Zoroaster sings of it, as do the children of the Magi, who learned the song from him. For the Persians say that Zoroaster, because of a passion for wisdom and justice, deserted his fellows and dwelt by himself on a certain mountain; and they say that thereupon the mountain caught fire, a mighty flame descending from the sky above, and that it burned unceasingly. So then the king and the most distinguished of his Persians drew near for the purpose of praying to the god; and Zoroaster came forth from the fire unscathed, and, showing himself gracious toward them, bade them to be of good cheer and to offer certain sacrifices in recognition of the god's having come to that place. And thereafter, so they say, Zoroaster has associated, not with them all, but only with such as are best endowed with regard to the truth, and are best able to understand the god, men whom the Persians have named Magi, that is to say, people who know how to cultivate the divine power, not like the Greeks, who in their ignorance use the term to denote wizards. And all else that those Magi do is in accordance with sacred sayings, and in particular they maintain for Zeus a team of Nisaean horses and these horses are the finest and largest to be found in Asia but for Helios they maintain only a single horse.
"These Magi narrate their myth, not in the manner of our prophets48 of the Muses, who merely present each detail with much plausibility, but rather with stubborn insistence upon its truthfulness. For they assert that the universe is constantly being propelled and driven along a single path, as by a charioteer endowed with highest skill and power, and that this movement goes on unceasingly in unceasing cycles of time. And the coursing of Helios and Selenê, according to their account, is the movement of portions of the whole, and for that reason it is more clearly perceived by mankind. And they add that the movement and revolution of the universe as a whole is not perceptible to the majority of mankind, but that, on the contrary, they are ignorant of the magnitude of this contest.
"What follows regarding the horses and their driving I really am ashamed to tell in the manner in which the Magi set it forth in their narrative, since they are not very much concerned to secure consistency at all points in their presentation of the picture. In fact, quite possibly I may appear absurd when, in contrast with Greek lays of grace and charm, I chant one that is barbarian; but still I must make the venture.
"According to the Magi, that one of the horses p461which is the highest in the heavens is immeasurably superior in beauty, size, and speed, since it has the outside track and runs the longest course, a horse sacred to Zeus himself. Furthermore, it is a winged creature, brilliant in colour with the brilliance of the purest flame; and in it Helios and Selenê are to be seen as conspicuous signs or marks like, I fancy, the marks which horses bear here on earth, some crescent-shaped and some of other patterns. And they say that these 'marks' appear to us to be in close array, as it were great sparks of fire darting about in the midst of brilliant light, and yet that each has its own independent motion. Furthermore, the other stars also which are visible through that Horse of Zeus, one and all being natural parts of it, in some instances revolve along with it and have the same motion, and in others follow different tracks. And they add that among men these stars which are associated with the Horse of Zeus have each its own particular name; whereas the rest are treated collectively in groups, distributed so as to form certain figures or patterns.
"Well then, the horse that is most brilliant and most spangled with stars and dearest to Zeus himself, being praised by the Magi in their hymns for some such attributes as these, quite properly stands first in sacrifice and worship as being truly first. Next in order after that, in closest contact with the Horse of Zeus, comes one that bears the name of Hera, a horse obedient to the rein and gentle, but far inferior in strength and speed. In colour this horse is of its own nature black, but that portion which receives the light of Helios is regularly bright, whereas where it is in shadow in its revolution it has its own proper colour. Third comes a horse that is sacred to Poseidon, still slower than the second. Regarding this steed the poets have a myth to the effect that its counterpart appeared among men he whom they call Pegasus, methinks and they claim that he caused a fountain to burst forth at Corinth by pawing with his hoof. But the fourth is the strangest conception of them all, a horse both firm and immovable, to say nothing of its having no wings, and it is named after Hestia.58 However, the Magi do not shrink from its portrayal; on the contrary, they state that this steed also is harnessed to the chariot, and yet it remains immovable, champing its adamantine curb. And from all sides the other horses press close to him with their bodies and the pair that are his neighbours59 swerve toward him abreast, falling upon him, as it were, and crowding him, yet the horse that is farthest off is ever first to round that stationary steed as horses round the turn in the hippodrome.
"Now for the most part the horses continue in peace and friendship, unharmed by one another. But on one occasion in the past, in the course of a long space of time and many revolutions of the universe, a mighty blast from the first horse fell from on high, p465and, as might have been expected from such a fiery-tempered steed, inflamed the others, and more especially the last in order; and the fire encompassed not alone its mane, which formed its personal pride, but the whole universe as well.63 48 And the Magi say that the Greeks, recording this experience as an isolated occurrence, connect it with the name of Phaethon, since they are unable to criticize the driving of Zeus and are loath to find fault with the coursings of Helios. And so they relate that a younger driver, a mortal son of Helios, desiring a sport that was to prove grievous and disastrous for all mankind, besought his father to let him mount his car and, plunging along in disorderly fashion, consumed with fire everything, both animals and plants, and finally was himself destroyed, being smitten by too powerful a flame.
"Again, when at intervals of several years the horse that is sacred to Poseidon and the Nymphs rebels, having become panic-stricken and agitated beyond his wont, he overwhelms with copious sweat that same steed, since they two are yoke-mates. Accordingly it meets with fate which is the opposite of the disaster previously mentioned, this time being deluged with a mighty flood. And the Magi state that here again the Greeks, through youthful ignorance and faulty memory, record this flood as a single occurrence and claim that Deucalion, who was then king, saved them from complete destruction.
"According to the Magi, these rare occurrences are viewed by mankind as taking place for their destruction, and not in accord with reason or as a part of the order of the universe, being unaware that they occur quite properly and in keeping with the plan of the preserver and governor of the world. For in reality it is comparable with what happens when a charioteer punishes one of his horses, pulling hard upon the rein or pricking with the goad; and then the horse prances and is thrown into a panic but straightway settles down to its proper gait.
"Well then, this is one kind of driving of which they tell, attended by violence but not involving the complete destruction of the universe. On the other hand, they tell also of a different kind that involves the movement and change of all four horses, one in which they shift among themselves and interchange their forms until all come together into one being, having been overcome by that one which is superior in power. And yet this movement also the Magi dare to liken to the guidance and driving of a chariot, though to do so they need even stranger imagery. For instance, it is as if some magician were to mould horses out of wax, and then, subtracting and scraping off the wax from each, should add a little now to this one and now to that, until finally, having used up all the horses in constructing one from the four, he should fashion a single horse out of all his material. They state, however, that in reality the process to which they refer is not like that of such inanimate images, in which the craftsman operates and shifts the material from without, but that instead the transformation is the work of these creatures themselves, just as if they were striving for victory in a contest that is great and real. And they add that the victory and its crown belong of necessity to that horse which is first and best in speed and prowess and general excellence, I mean to that one which we named in the beginning of our account as the special steed of Zeus. For that one, being most valiant of all and fiery by nature, having speedily used up the others as if, methinks, they were truly made of wax in no great span of time (though to us it seems endless according to our reckoning) and having appropriated to itself all the substance of them all, appeared much greater and more brilliant than formerly; not through the aid of any other creature, either mortal or immortal, but by itself and its own efforts proving victor in the greatest contest. And, standing tall and proud, rejoicing in its victory, it not only seized the largest possible region but also needed larger space at that time, so great was its strength and its spirit.
"Having arrived at that stage in their myth, the Magi are embarrassed in search of a name to describe the nature of the creature of their own invention. For they say that now by this time it is simply the soul of the charioteer and master; or, let us say, merely the intellect and leadership of that soul. (Those, in fact, are the terms we ourselves employ when we honour and reverence the greatest god by noble deeds and pious words). For indeed, when the mind alone had been left and had filled with itself immeasurable space, since it had poured itself evenly in all directions and nothing in it remained dense but complete porosity prevailed at which time it becomes most beautiful having obtained the purest nature of unadulterated light, it immediately longed for the existence that it had at first. Accordingly, becoming enamoured of that control and governance and concord which it once maintained not only over the three natures of sun and moon and the other stars, but also over absolutely all animals and plants, it became eager to generate and distribute everything and to make the orderly universe then existent once more far better and more resplendent because newer. And emitting a full flash of lightning, not a disorderly or foul one such as in stormy weather often darts forth, when the clouds drive more violently than usual, but rather pure and unmixed with any murk, it worked a transformation easily, with the speed of thought. But recalling Aphroditê and the process of generation, it tamed and relaxed itself and, quenching much of its light, it turned into fiery air of gentle warmth, and uniting with Hera and enjoying the most perfect wedlock, in sweet repose it emitted anew the full supply of seed for the universe. Such is the blessed marriage of Zeus and Hera66 of which the sons of sages sing in secret rites. And having made fluid all his essence, one seed for the entire world, he himself moving about in it like a spirit that moulds and fashions in generation, then indeed most closely resembling the composition of the other creatures, inasmuch as he might with reason be said to consist of soul and body, he now with ease moulds and fashions all the rest, pouring about him his essence smooth and soft and easily yielding in every part.
"And having performed his task and brought it to completion, he revealed the existent universe as once more a thing of beauty and inconceivable loveliness, much more resplendent, indeed, than it appears to‑day. For not only, I ween, are all other works of craftsmen better and brighter when fresh from the artistic hand of their maker, but also the younger specimens of plants are more vigorous than the old and altogether like young shoots. And indeed animals, too, are charming attractive to behold right after their birth, not merely the most beautiful among them colts and calves and puppies but even the whelps of wild animals of the most savage kind. For, on the one hand, the nature of man is helpless and feeble like Demeter's tender grain, but when it has progressed to the full measure of its prime, it is a stronger and more conspicuous creation than any plant at all. However, the entire heaven and universe when first it was completed, having been put in order by the wisest and noblest craft, just released from the hand of the creator, brilliant and translucent and brightly beaming in all its parts, remained helpless for no time at all, nor weak with the weakness that nature ordains for man and other mortal beings, but, on the contrary, was fresh and vigorous from the very beginning. At that time, therefore, the Creator and Father of the World, beholding the work of his hands, was not by any means merely pleased, for that is a lowly experience of lowly beings; nay, he rejoiced and was delighted exceedingly,
As on Olympus he sat, and his heart did laugh
For joy, beholding the gods
who were now all created and present before him."
But the form of the universe at that moment I mean both the bloom and the beauty of that which is for ever ineffably beauteous no man could conceive and fitly express, neither among men of our time nor among those of former days, but only the Muses and Apollo with the divine rhythm of their pure and consummate harmony. For that reason let us also refrain for the present, now that we have not shirked exalting the myth to the best of our power. And if the form of that myth has turned out to be utterly lofty and indistinct, just as those who are expert in augury declare that the bird which ascends too high into the heavens hides itself in the clouds makes divination incomplete, still it is not I whom you should blame, but rather the insistence of those men of Borysthenes, because it was they who bade me speak that day.
Somehow I missed studying Dio, along with a lot else, and now I am most curious about his Olympicus as well, and would conclude here with a wonderful tag cited by Russell in his commentary (p15) on that oration, from Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, in which he said when seeing the statue of Zeus:
Agathe Zeu, su gar houtw ti agathos hws kai sautou koinwnesai tois anthrwpois.
"Oh good Zeus, thou art so good as even to share thyself with men."
Russell does find that an echo of Plato, and so do I, and hope to say that, even now, the Highest may never begrudge us the ever overflowing of the Good.