Monday, September 10, 2007
Lucian of Samosata (c 120 CE-c 190 CE)
No doubt, my dear Celsus, you think it a slight and trivial matter to bid me set down in a book and send you the history of Alexander, the impostor of Abonoteichus, including all his clever schemes, bold emprises, and sleights of hand; but in point of fact, if one should aim to examine each detail closely, it would be no less a task than to record the exploits of Philip’s son Alexander. The one was as great in villainy as the other in heroism. Nevertheless, if it should be your intention to overlook faults as you read, and to fill out for yourself the gaps in my tale, I will undertake the task for you and will essay to clean up that Augean stable, if not wholly, yet to the extent of my ability, fetching out some few baskets full, so that from them you may judge how great, how inexpressible, was the entire quantity of filth that three thousand head of cattle were able to create in many years... - beginning of Alexander the False Prophet
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Greek satirist of the Silver Age of Greek literature, was born at Samosata on the Euphrates in northern Syria. He tells us in the Somnium or Vita Luciani, that, his means being small, he was at first apprenticed to his maternal uncle, a statuary, or rather sculptor of the stone pillars called Hermae. Having made an unlucky beginning by breaking a marble slab, and having been well beaten for it, he absconded and returned home. Here he had a dream or vision of two women, representing Statuary and Literature. Both plead their cause at length, setting forth the advantages and the prospects of their respective professions; but the youth chooses Haukia, and decides to pursue learning. For some time he seems to have made money as a prirup, following the example of Demosthenes, on whose merits and patriotism he expatiates in the dialogue Demosthenis Encomium. He was very familiar with the rival schools of philosophy, and he must have well studied their teachings; but he lashes them all alike, the Cynics, perhaps, being the chief object of his derision. Lucian was not only a sceptic; he was a scoffer and a downright unbeliever. He felt that men's actions and conduct always fall far short of their professions and therefore he concluded that the professions themselves were worthless, and a mere guise to secure popularity or respect. Of Christianity he shows some knowledge, and it must have been somewhat largely professed in Syria at the close of the 2nd century. In the Philopatris, though the dialogue so called is generally regarded as spurious, there is a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the “Galilaean” who had ascended to the third heaven," and "renewed " by the waters of baptism, may possibly allude to St Paul. In the Alexander we are told that the province of Pontus, due north of Syria, was " full of Christians."
Timon is a very amusing and witty dialogue. The misanthrope, once wealthy, has become a poor farm-labourer, and reproaches Zeus for his indifference to the injustice of man. Zeus declares that the noisy disputes in Attica have so disgusted him that he has not been there for a long time. He tells Hermes to conduct Plutus to visit Timon, and see what can be done to help him. Plutus, who at first refuses to go, is persuaded after a long conversation with Hermes, and Timon is found by them digging in his field. Poverty is unwilling to resign her votary to wealth; and Timon himself is with difficulty persuaded to turn up with his mattock a crock of gold coins. Now that he has once more become rich, his former flatterers come cringing with their congratulations and respects, but they are all driven off with broken heads or pelted with stones. Between this dialogue and the Plutus of Aristophanes there are many close resemblances.
Hermotimus is one of the longer dialogues, Hermotimus, a student of the Stoic philosophy for twenty years, and Lucian (Lycinus) being the interlocutors. The long time - forty years at the least - required for climbing up to the temple of virtue and happiness, and the short span of life, if any, left for the enjoyment of it, are discussed. That the greatest philosophers do not always attain perfect indifference, the Stoic ultimatum, is shown by the anecdote of one who dragged his pupil into court to make him pay his fee, and again by a violent quarrel with another at a banquet. Virtue is compared to a city with just and good and contented inhabitants; but so many offer themselves as guides to the right road to virtue that the inquirer is bewildered. What is truth, and who are the right teachers of it? The question is argued at length, and illustrated by a peculiar custom of watching the pairs of athletes and setting aside the reserved combatant at the Olympian games by the marks on the ballots. This, it is argued, cannot be done till all the ballots have been examined; so a man cannot select the right way till he has tried all the ways to virtue. But to know the doctrines of all the sects is impossible in the term of a life. To take a taste of each, like trying a sample of wine, will not do, because the doctrines taught are not, like the crock of wine, the same throughout, but vary or advance day by day. A suggestion is made that the searcher after truth should begin by taking lessons in the science of discrimination, so as to be a good judge of truth before testing the rival claims. But who is a good teacher of such a science? The general conclusion is that philosophy is not worth the pursuit. "If I ever again," says Hermotimus, "meet a philosopher on the road, I will shun him, as I would a mad dog."
The Anacharsis is a dialogue between Solon and the Scythian philosopher, who has come to Athens to learn the nature of the Greek institutions. Seeing the young men performing athletic exercises in the Lyceum, he expresses his surprise at such a waste of energy. This gives Socrates an opportunity of descanting at length on training as a discipline, and emulation as a motive for excelling. Love of glory, Solon says, is one of the chief goods in life. The argument is rather ingenious and well put; the style reminds us of the minor essays of Xenophon.
These are the chief of Lucian's works. Many others, e.g. Prometheus, Menippus, Life of Demonax, Toxaris, Zeus Tragoedus, The Dream or the Cock, Icaromenippus (an amusing satire on the physical philosophers), are of considerable literary value. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]
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