Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)
The next day I received word that Aedesius would see me. I found him lying on a cot, his bearded wife beside him. Aedesius was a small man who had once been fat, but now because of illness and age the skin hung from him in folds. It was hard to believe that this frail old man had once been the pupil of Iamblichos and actually present on that occasion when Iamblichos caused two divine youths to appear from twin pools in the rock at Gadara. Yet despite his fragility, Aedesius was alert and amiable. “Sosipatra tells me that you have a gift for philosophy.”
“If a passion can be called a gift.”
“Why not? Passion is a gift of the gods. She also tells me that you plan to go to Ephesus.”
“Only if I cannot study with you.”
“Too late for that.” He sighed. “As you see, I am in poor health. She gives me four more years of this life. But I doubt that I shall last so long. Anyway, Maximus will be more to your taste. He was my student, you know. After Priscus of Athens, he was my best student. Of course Maximus prefers demonstration to argument, mysteries to books. But then there are many ways to truth. And from what Sosipatra tells me, he was born to be your guide. It is clearly destiny.”
Priscus: It was clearly a plot. They were all in on it. Years later, Maximus admitted as much. “I knew all along I was the right teacher for Julian. Naturally, I never dreamed he would be emperor.” He did not dream it; he willed it. “I saw him simply as a soul that I alone could lead to salvation.” Maximus then got Sosipatra and Aedesius to recommend him to Julian, which they did. What an extraordinary crew they were! Except for Aedesius, there was not a philosopher in the lot.
From what I gather, Julian in those days was a highly intelligent youth who might have been “captured” for true philosophy. After all, he enjoyed learning. He was good at debate. Properly educated, he might have been another Porphyry or, taking into account his unfortunate birth, another Marcus Aurelius.
But Maximus got to him first and exploited his one flaw: that craving for the vague and incomprehensible which is essentially Asiatic. It is certainly not Greek, even though we Greeks are in a noticeable intellectual decline. Did you know that thanks to the presence of so many foreign students in Athens, our people no longer speak pure Attic but a sort of argot, imprecise and ugly? Yet despite the barbarism which is slowly extinguishing “the light of the world”, we Athenians still pride ourselves on being able to see things as they are.
Show us a stone and we see a stone, not the universe. But like so many others nowadays, poor Julian wanted to believe that man’s life is profoundly more significant than it is. His sickness was the sickness of our age. We want so much not to be extinguished at the end that we will go to any length to make conjuror tricks for one another simply to obscure the bitter, secret knowledge that it is our fate not to be. If Maximus hadn’t stolen Julian from us, the bishops would have got him. I am sure of that. At heart he was a Christian mystic gone wrong.
Libanius: Christian mystic! Had Priscus any religious sense he might by now have experienced that knowledge of oneness, neither “bitter” nor “secret”, which Plotinus and Porphyry, Julian and I, each in his own way—mystically-arrived at. Or failing that, had he been admitted to the mysteries of Eleusis just fourteen miles from his own house in Athens, he might have understood that since the soul is, there can be no question of its not-being.
But I agree with Priscus about Maximus. I was aware at the time of the magicians’ plot to capture Julian, but since I was forbidden to speak to him I could hardly warn him. Yet they did Julian no lasting harm. He sometimes put too much faith in oracles and magic, but he always had a firm grip of logic and he excelled in philosophic argument. He was hardly a Christian mystic. Yet he was a mystic—something Priscus could never understand.