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Julian the Apostate, Letter to Themistius (1913) Works vol. 2, pp.299-237

[Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright]


On the strength of his Aristotelian " Paraphrases " Themistius may be called a scholar, though hardly a philosopher as he himself claimed. Technically he was a Sophist: that is to say he gave public lectures (ἐπιδείξεις), wrote exercises after the Sophistic pattern and went on embassies, which were entrusted to him solely on account of his persuasive charm. But he insisted that he was no Sophist, because he took no fees1 and styled himself a practical philosopher.2 He was indifferent to the Neo-Platonic philosophy,3 and, since Constantius made him a Senator, he cannot have betrayed any zeal for the Pagan religion. From Julian's Pagan restoration he seems to have held aloof, and, though Julian had been his pupil, probably at Nicomedia, he did not appoint him to any office. Under the Christian Emperor Theodosius he held a prefecture. There is no evidence for a positive coolness, such as Zeller4 assumes, between Themistius and Julian, and we know too little of their relations to assert with some critics that the respectful tone of this letter is ironical.5 It was probably written after Julian had |301 become Emperor, though there is nothing in it that would not suit an earlier date; it is sometimes assigned to 355 when Julian was still Caesar. The quotations from Aristotle are appropriately addressed to Themistius as an Aristotelian commentator.|303 

1 Themistius 260 c, 345 c.
2 245 d. 
3 33, 295 b. 
4 Vol. 5, p. 742.
5 Libanius Epistle 1061 mentions an Oration by Themistius in praise of Julian, but this is not extant.


I earnestly desire to fulfil your hopes of me even as you express them in your letter, but I am afraid I shall fall short of them, since the expectations you have raised both in the minds of others, and still more in your own, are beyond my powers. There was a time when I believed that I ought to try to rival men who have been most distinguished for excellence, Alexander, for instance, or Marcus;1 but I shivered at the thought and was seized with terror lest I should fail entirely to come up to the courage of the former, and should not make even the least approach to the latter's perfect virtue. With this in mind I convinced myself that I preferred a life of leisure, and I both gladly recalled the Attic manner of living, and thought myself to be in sweet accord with you who are my friends, just as those who carry heavy burdens lighten their labour by singing.2 But by your recent letter you have increased my fears, and you point to an enterprise in every way more difficult. You say that God has placed me in the same position as Heracles and Dionysus of old who, being at once philosophers and |305 kings, purged almost the whole earth and sea of the evils that infested them. You bid me shake off all thought of leisure and inactivity that I may prove to be a good soldier worthy of so high a destiny. And besides those examples you go on to remind me of law-givers such as Solon, Pittacus, and Lycurgus, and you say that men have the right to expect from me now greater things than from any of these. When I read these words I was almost dumbfounded; for on the one hand I was sure that it was unlawful for you as a philosopher to flatter or deceive; on the other hand I am fully conscious that by nature there is nothing remarkable about me — there never was from the first nor has there come to be now,— but as regards philosophy I have only fallen in love with it (I say nothing of the fates that have intervened 3 to make that love so far ineffectual). I could not tell therefore how I ought to interpret such expressions, until God brought it into my mind that perhaps by your very praises you wished to exhort me, and to point out how great are those trials to which a statesman must inevitably be exposed every day of his life.

But your method is more likely to discourage than to make one eager for such an existence. Suppose that a man were navigating your strait,4 and were finding even that none too easy or safe, and then suppose some professional soothsayer should tell him that he would have to traverse the Aegaean and then the Ionian Sea, and finally embark on the outer sea. "Here," that prophet would say, "you see towns and harbours, |307 but when you arrive there you will see not so much as a watch-tower or a rock, but you will be thankful to descry even a ship in the distance and to hail her crew. You will often pray to God that you may, however late, touch land and reach a harbour, though that were to be the last day of your life. You will pray to be allowed to bring home your ship safe and sound and restore your crew unscathed to their friends, and then to commit your body to mother earth. And this indeed may happen, but you will not be sure of it until that final day." Do you think that such a man after being told all this would choose even to live in a sea-port town? Would he not bid adieu to money-making and all the advantages of commerce, and caring little for troops of friends and acquaintances abroad, and all that he might learn about nations and cities, would he not approve the wisdom of the son of Neocles 5 who bids us "Live in obscurity"? Indeed, you apparently perceived this, and by your abuse of Epicurus you tried to forestall me and to eradicate beforehand any such purpose. For you go on to say that it was to be expected that so idle a man as he should commend leisure and conversations during walks. Now for my part I have long been firmly convinced that Epicurus was mistaken in that view of his, but whether it be proper to urge into public life any and every man, both him who lacks natural abilities and him who is not yet completely equipped, is a point that deserves the most careful consideration. We are told that Socrates dissuaded from the statesman's profession6 many who had no great natural talent, and |309 Glaucon too, Xenophon 7 tells us; and that he tried to restrain the son of Cleinias 8 also, but could not curb the youth's impetuous ambition. Then shall we try to force into that career men who are reluctant and conscious of their deficiencies, and urge them to be self-confident about such great tasks? For in such matters not virtue alone or a wise policy is paramount, but to a far greater degree Fortune holds sway throughout and compels events to incline as she wills. Chrysippus 9 indeed, though in other respects he seems a wise man and to have been rightly so esteemed, yet in ignoring fortune and chance and all other such external causes that fall in to block the path of men of affairs, he uttered paradoxes wholly at variance with facts about which the past teaches us clearly by countless examples. For instance, shall we call Cato a fortunate and happy man? Or shall we say that Dio of Sicily had a happy lot? It is true that for death they probably cared nothing, but they did care greatly about not leaving unfinished the undertakings which they had originally set on foot, and to secure that end there is nothing that they would not have endured. In that they were disappointed, and I admit that they bore their lot with great dignity, as we learn, and derived no small consolation from their virtue; but happy one could not call them, seeing that they had failed in all those noble enterprises, unless perhaps according to the Stoic conception of happiness. And with regard to that same Stoic conception we must admit that to be applauded and to be counted happy are two very different |311 things, and that if every living thing naturally desires happiness,10 it is better to make it our aim to be congratulated on the score of happiness rather than to be applauded on the score of virtue. But happiness that depends on the chances of Fortune is very rarely secure. And yet men who are engaged in public life cannot, as the saying is, so much as breathe unless she is on their side . . . 11 and they have created a merely verbal idea of a leader who is established somewhere above all the chances of Fortune in the sphere of things incorporeal and intelligible, just as men define the ideas, whether envisaging them truly or falsely imagining them. Or again they give us the ideal man, according to Diogenes "The man without a city, without a home, bereft of a fatherland," 12 that is to say, a man who can gain nothing from Fortune, and on the other hand has nothing to lose. But one whom we are in the habit of calling, as Homer did first, "The man to whom the people have been entrusted and so many cares belong," 13 how I ask shall we lead him beyond the reach of Fortune and keep his position secure? Then again, if he subject himself to Fortune, how great the provision he will think he must make, how great the prudence he must display so as to sustain with equanimity her variations in either direction, as a pilot must sustain the variations of the wind!

Yet it is nothing wonderful to withstand Fortune when she is merely hostile, but much more wonderful is it to show oneself worthy of the favours she bestows. By her favours the greatest of kings, the conqueror 14 |313 of Asia was ensnared, and showed himself more cruel and more insolent than Darius and Xerxes, after he had become the master of their empire. The shafts of her favours subdued and utterly destroyed the Persians, the Macedonians, the Athenian nation, Spartan magistrates, Roman generals, and countless absolute monarchs besides. It would be an endless business to enumerate all who have fallen victims to their wealth and victories and luxury. And as for those who, submerged by the tide of their misfortunes, from free men have become slaves, who have been humbled from their high estate after all their splendour and become poor and mean in the eyes of all men, what need now to go through the list of them as though I were copying it from a written record? Would that human life afforded no such instances! But it does not nor ever will lack such, so long as the race of man endures.

And to show that I am not the only one who thinks that Fortune has the upper hand in practical affairs, I will quote to you a passage from that admirable work the Laws of Plato. You know it well and indeed taught it to me, but I have set down the speech which runs something like this, and offer it as a proof that I am not really indolent. "God governs all things and with God Fortune and Opportunity govern all human affairs: but there is a milder view that Art must needs go with them and must be their associate." 15 He then indicates what must be the character of a man who is the craftsman and artificer of noble deeds and a divinely inspired king. Then he says: "Kronos therefore, as I have already related, knew that human |315 nature when endowed with supreme authority is never in any case capable of managing human affairs without being filled with insolence and injustice; therefore, having regard to this he at that time set over our cities as kings and governors not men but beings of a more divine and higher race, I mean demons; thus doing as we do now for our flocks and domestic herds. We never appoint certain oxen to rule over other oxen or goats to rule over goats, but we are their masters, a race superior to theirs. In like manner then God, since he loves mankind, has set over us a race of beings superior to ourselves, the race of demons; and they with great ease both to themselves and us undertake the care of us and dispense peace, reverence, aye, and above all justice without stint, and thus they make the tribes of men harmonious and happy. And that account is a true one which declares that in our day all cities that are governed not by a god but by a mortal man have no relief from evils and hardships. And the lesson is that we ought by every means in our power to imitate that life which is said to have existed in the days of Kronos: and in so far as the principle of immortality is in us we ought to be guided by it in our management of public and private affairs, of our houses and cities, calling the distribution of mind 'law.'16 But whether the government be in the hands of one man or of an oligarchy or democracy, if it have a soul that hankers after pleasure and the lower appetites and demands to indulge these, and if such a one rule over a city or individual having first trampled on the laws, there is no means of salvation." 17 |317 

I have purposely set down the whole of this speech for you lest you should think that I am cheating and defrauding by bringing forward ancient myths which may have some resemblance to the truth, but on the whole are not composed with regard to truth. But what is the true meaning of this narrative? You hear what it says, that even though a prince be by nature human, he must in his conduct be divine and a demi-god and must completely banish from his soul all that is mortal and brutish, except what must remain to safeguard the needs of the body. Now if, reflecting on this, one is afraid to be constrained to adopt a life from which so much is expected, do you therefore conclude that one admires the inaction recommended by Epicurus, the gardens and suburbs of Athens and its myrtles, or the humble home of Socrates? But never has anyone seen me prefer these to a life of toil. That toil of mine I would willingly recount to you, and the hazards that threatened me from my friends and kinsfolk at the time when I began to study under you, if you did not yourself know them well enough. You are well aware of what I did, in the first place, in Ionia in opposition to one who was related to me by ties of blood, but even more closely by ties of friendship, and that in behalf of a foreigner with whom I was very slightly acquainted, I mean the sophist. Did I not endure to leave the country for the sake of my friends? Indeed, you know how I took the part of Carterius when I went unsolicited to our friend Araxius to plead for him. And in behalf of the property of that admirable woman Arete and the wrongs she had suffered from her neighbours, did I |319 not journey to Phrygia for the second time within two months, though I was physically very weak from the illness that had been brought on by former fatigues? 18 Finally, before I went to Greece, while I was still with the army and running what most people would call the greatest possible risks, recall now what sort of letters I wrote to you, never filled with complaints or containing anything little or mean or servile. And when I returned to Greece, when everyone regarded me as an exile, did I not welcome my fate as though it were some high festival, and did I not say that the exchange to me was most delightful, and that, as the saying is, I had thereby gained "gold for bronze, the price of a hundred oxen for the price of nine"? 19 So great was my joy at obtaining the chance to live in Greece instead of in my own home, though I possessed there no land or garden or the humblest house.

But perhaps you think that though I can bear adversity in the proper spirit, yet I show a poor and mean spirit towards the good gifts of Fortune, seeing that I prefer Athens to the pomp that now surrounds me; because, you will doubtless say, I approve the leisure of those days and disparage my present life because of the vast amount of work that the latter involves. But perhaps you ought to judge of me more accurately, and not consider the question whether I am idle or industrious, but rather the precept, "Know thyself," and the saying, "Let every man practise the craft which he knows." 20 |321

To me, at any rate, it seems that the task of reigning is beyond human powers, and that a king needs a more divine character, as indeed Plato too used to say. And now I will write out a passage from Aristotle to the same effect, not "bringing owls to the Athenians," 21 but in order to show you that I do not entirely neglect his writings. In his political treatises he says: "Now even if one maintain the principle that it is best for cities to be governed by a king, how will it be about his children? Ought his children to succeed him? And yet if they prove to be no better than anybody else, that would be a bad thing for the city. But you may say, though he has the power he will not leave the succession to his children? It is difficult indeed to believe that he will not; for that would be too hard for him, and demands a virtue greater than belongs to human nature."22 And later on, when he is describing a so-called king who rules according to law, and says that he is both the servant and guardian of the laws, he does not call him a king at all, nor does he consider such a king as a distinct form of government; and he goes on to say: "Now as for what is called absolute monarchy, that is to say, when a king governs all other men according to his own will, some people think that it is not in accordance with the nature of things for one man to have absolute authority over all the citizens; since those who are by nature equal must necessarily have the same rights." 23 Again, a little later he says: "It seems, therefore, that he who bids Reason rule is really preferring the rule of God and the laws, |323 but he who bids man rule, adds an element of the beast. For desire is a wild beast, and passion which warps even the best men. It follows, therefore, that law is Reason exempt from desire." You see the philosopher seems here clearly to distrust and condemn human nature. For he says so in so many words when he asserts that human nature is in no case worthy of such an excess of fortune. For he thinks that it is too hard for one who is merely human to prefer the general weal of the citizens to his own children; he says that it is not just that one man should rule over many who are his equals; and, finally, he puts the finishing stroke 24 to what he has just said when he asserts that "law is Reason exempt from desire," and that political affairs ought to be entrusted to Reason alone, and not to any individual man whatever. For the reason that is in men, however good they may be, is entangled with passion and desire, those most ferocious monsters. These opinions, it seems to me, harmonise perfectly with Plato's; first, that he who governs ought to be superior to his subjects and surpass them not only in his acquired habits but also in natural endowment; a thing which is not easy to find among men; . . . 25 thirdly, that he ought by every means in his power to observe the laws, not those that were framed to meet some sudden emergency, or established, as now appears, by men whose lives were not wholly guided by reason; but he must observe them only in case the lawgiver, having purified his mind and soul, in enacting those laws keeps in view not merely the crimes of the moment |325 or immediate contingencies; but rather recognises the nature of government and the essential nature of justice, and has carefully observed also the essential nature of guilt, and then applies to his task all the knowledge thus derived, and frames laws which have a general application to all the citizens without regard to friend or foe, neighbour or kinsman. And it is better that such a lawgiver should frame and promulgate his laws not for his contemporaries only but for posterity also, or for strangers with whom he neither has nor expects to have any private dealings. For instance, i hear that the wise Solon, having consulted his friends about the cancelling of debts, furnished them with an opportunity to make money, but brought on himself a disgraceful accusation.26 So hard is it to avoid such fatalities, even when a man brings a passionless mind to the task of governing.

And since this sort of thing is what i dread, it is natural that i should often dwell on the advantages of my previous mode of life, and i am but obeying you when i reflect that you said not only that i must emulate those famous men Solon, Lycurgus and Pittacus, but also that i must now quit the shades of philosophy for the open air. This is as though you had announced to a man who for his health's sake and by exerting himself to the utmost was able to take moderate exercise at home: "Now you have come to Olympia and have exchanged the gymnasium in your house for the stadium of Zeus, where you will have for spectators Greeks who have |327 come from all parts, and foremost among them your own fellow-citizens, on whose behalf you must enter the lists; and certain barbarians will be there also whom it is your duty to impress, showing them your fatherland in as formidable a light as lies in your power." You would have disconcerted him at once and made him nervous before the games began. You may now suppose that I have been affected in the same manner by just such words from you. And you will very soon inform me whether my present view is correct, or whether I am in part deceived as to my proper course or whether indeed I am wholly mistaken.

But I should like to make clear to you the points in your letter by which I am puzzled, my dearest friend to whom I especially am bound to pay every honour: for I am eager to be more precisely informed about them. You said that you approve a life of action rather than the philosophic life, and you called to witness the wise Aristotle who defines happiness as virtuous activity, and discussing the difference between the statesman's life and the life of contemplation, showed a certain hesitation about those lives, and though in others of his writings he preferred the contemplative life, in this place you say he approves the architects of noble actions. But it is you who assert that these are kings, whereas Aristotle does not speak in the sense of the words that you have introduced: and from what you have quoted one would rather infer the contrary. For when he says: "We most correctly use the word 'act' of those who are the architects of public affairs by virtue of their intelligence," 27 we must suppose that what he |329 says applies to lawgivers and political philosophers and all whose activity consists in the use of intelligence and reason, but that it does not apply to those who do the work themselves and those who transact the business of politics. But in their case it is not enough that they should consider and devise and instruct others as to what must be done, but it is their duty to undertake and execute whatever the laws ordain and circumstances as well often force on them; unless indeed we call that man an architect who is "well versed in mighty deeds," 28 a phrase which Homer in his poems usually applies to Heracles, who was indeed of all men that ever lived most given to do the work himself.

But if we conceive this to be true, or that only those are happy who administer public affairs and who are in authority and rule over many, what then are we to say about Socrates? As for Pythagoras and Democritus and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, you will perhaps say that they were happy in another sense of the word, because of their philosophic speculations. But as for Socrates who, having rejected the speculative life and embraced a life of action, had no authority over his own wife or his son, can we say of him that he governed even two or three of his fellow-citizens? Then will you assert that since he had no authority over any one he accomplished nothing? On the contrary I maintain that the son of Sophroniscus29 performed greater tasks than Alexander, for to him I ascribe the wisdom of Plato, the generalship of Xenophon, the fortitude of Antisthenes, the Eretrian 30 |331 and Megarian 31 philosophies, Cebes, Simmias,32 Phaedo and a host of others; not to mention the offshoots derived from the same source, the Lyceum, the Stoa and the Academies. Who, I ask, ever found salvation through the conquests of Alexander? What city was ever more wisely governed because of them, what individual improved? Many indeed you might find whom those conquests enriched, but not one whom they made wiser or more temperate than he was by nature, if indeed they have not made him more insolent and arrogant. Whereas all who now find their salvation in philosophy owe it to Socrates. And I am not the only person to perceive this fact and to express it, for Aristotle it seems did so before me, when he said that he had just as much right to be proud of his treatise on the gods as the conqueror 33 of the Persian empire. And I think he was perfectly correct in that conclusion. For military success is due to courage and good fortune more than anything else or, let us say, if you wish, to intelligence as well, though of the common everyday sort. But to conceive true opinions about God is an achievement that not only requires perfect virtue, but one might well hesitate whether it be proper to call one who attains to this a man or a god. For if the saying is true that it is the nature of everything to become known to those who have an affinity with it, then he who comes to know the essential nature of God would naturally be considered divine. |333 

But since I seem to have harked back to the life of contemplation and to be comparing it with the life of action, though in the beginning of your letter you declined to make the comparison, I will remind you of those very philosophers whom you mentioned, Areius,34 Nicolaus,35 Thrasyllus,36 and Musonius.37 So far from any one of these governing his own city, Areius we are told refused the governorship of Egypt when it was offered to him, and Thrasyllus by becoming intimate with the harsh and naturally cruel tyrant Tiberius would have incurred indelible disgrace for all time, had he not cleared himself in the writings that he left behind him and so shown his true character; so little did his public career benefit him. Nicolaus did not personally do any great deeds, and he is known rather by his writings about such deeds; while Musonius became famous because he bore his sufferings with courage, and, by Zeus, sustained with firmness the cruelty of tyrants; and perhaps he was not less happy than those who administered great kingdoms. As for Areius, when he declined the governorship of Egypt he deliberately deprived himself of the highest end, if he really thought that this was the most important thing. And you yourself,—may I ask, do you lead an inactive life because you are not a general or a public speaker and govern no nation or city? Nay, no one with any sense would say so. For it is in your power by producing many philosophers, or even only three or four, to confer more benefit on the lives of men than many kings put together. To no trivial province |335 is the philosopher appointed, and, as you said yourself, he does not only direct counsels or public affairs, nor is his activity confined to mere words; but if he confirm his words by deeds and show himself to be such as he wishes others to be, he may be more convincing and more effective in making men act than those who urge them to noble actions by issuing commands.

But I must go back to what I said at the beginning, and conclude this letter, which is perhaps longer already than it should be. And the main point in it is that it is not because I would avoid hard work or pursue pleasure, nor because I am in love with idleness and ease that I am averse to spending my life in administration. But, as I said when I began, it is because I am conscious that I have neither sufficient training nor natural talents above the ordinary; moreover, I am afraid of bringing reproach on philosophy, which, much as I love it, I have never attained to, and which on other accounts has no very good reputation among men of our day. For these reasons I wrote all this down some time ago, and now I have freed myself from your charges as far as I can.

May God grant me the happiest fortune possible, and wisdom to match my fortune! For now I think I need assistance from God above all, and also from you philosophers by all means in your power, since I have proved myself your leader and champion in danger. But should it be that blessings greater than of my furnishing and than the opinion that I now have of myself should be granted to men by God through my instrumentality, you must not resent my words. For being conscious of no good |337 thing in me, save this only, that I do not even think that I possess the highest talent, and indeed have naturally none, I cry aloud and testify 38 that you must not expect great things of me, but must entrust everything to God. For thus I shall be free from responsibility for my shortcomings, and if everything turns out favourably I shall be discreet and moderate, not putting my name to the deeds of other men,39 but by giving God the glory for all, as is right, it is to Him that I shall myself feel gratitude and I urge all of you to feel the same.

1. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

2. Apparently an echo of Dio Chrysostom, Oration 1. 9, Arnim.

3. Euripides, Orestes 16.

4. The Bosporus; Themistius was probably at Constantinople.

5. Epicurus; his advice was λαθὲ βιώσας.

6. Literally "from the βῆμα," i.e. the stone on the Pnyx from which the Athenian orator addressed the people.

7. Memorabilia 3. 6. 1.

8.  Alcibiades.

9.  The Stoic philosopher.

10. Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1. 10. 6.

11. Note to the online edition: there is a gap in the text here.

12. Cf. Oration 6. 195b, note. 

13. Iliad 2. 25. 

14.  Alexander.

15. Laws 709b.

16.  A play on words.

17. Laws 713-714; Julian condenses and slightly alters the original.

18. We know nothing more of the events here mentioned.

19. A proverb derived from Iliad 6. 236, where Glaukos exchanges his golden armour for the bronze armour of Diomedes.

20. Aristophanes, Wasps 1431.

21. A proverb; cf. "bringing coals to Newcastle."

22. Aristotle, Politics 3. 15. 1286b.

23. Ibid 3. 16. 1287a.

24.  Cf. Plato, Theaetetus 153.

25. Note to the online edition: the text that has come down to us is missing a few words here.

26.  Before Solon's measure to cancel debts was generally known, some of his friends borrowed large sums, knowing that they would not have to repay them.

27.  Aristotle, Politics 7. 3. 1325b.

28. Odyssey 21. 26. 

29.  The father of Socrates.

30.  This school was founded by Phaedo in Elis and later was transferred by Menedemus to Eretria.

31. The Megarian school founded by Euclid was finally absorbed by the Cynics.

32. Simmias and Cebes were Pythagoreans; cf. Plato, Phaedo, where they discuss with Socrates.

33.  Alexander; Julian seems to be misquoting Plutarch, Moralia 78d.

34.  Cf. Caesars 326b note.

35.  A historian under Augustus. [Note to the online edition: Nicholas of Damascus]

36.  The Platonic philosopher and astrologer, cf. Tacitus, Annals 6. 21.

37.  The Stoic philosopher exiled by Nero.

38.  Demosthenes, De Corona 23.

39.  Cf. Caesars 323 b.

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