Born: 120 AD
Birthplace: Samsat, Turkey
Died: c. 180 AD
Location of death: Athens, Greece
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Dialogues of the Dead
Lucian, Greek satirist of the Silver Age of Greek literature, 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 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 decides to pursue learning. For some time he seems to have made money 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 skeptic; 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. The doctrines of the "Light of the world" and that God is in heaven making a record of the good and bad actions of men, seem to have come from the same doubtful authorship. To understand them aright we must source, though the notion of a written catalogue of human actions to be used in judgment was familiar to Aeschylus and Euripides.
As a satirist and a wit Lucian occupies in prose literature the unique position which Aristophanes holds in Greek poetry. But whether he is a mere satirist, who laughs while he lashes, or a misanthrope, who hates while he derides, is not very clear. In favor of the former view it may be said that the two main objects of his ridicule are mythology and the sects of philosophy; in favor of the latter, his bitter exposure of imposture and chicanery in the Alexander, and the very severe attacks he makes on the "humbug" of philosophy, which he everywhere assails with the most acrimonious and contemptuous epithets.
As a writer Lucian is fluent, easy and unaffected, and a close follower of the best Attic models, such as Plato and the orators. His style is simpler than Plutarch's, and some of his compositions, especially the Dialogues of the Gods and of the Marine Deities, and, above all, the Dialogues of the Dead, are models of witty, polished and accurate Greek composition. Not less clever, though rather lax in morality, are other dialogues which remind us somewhat of the letters of Alciphron. The sarcasms on the popular mythology, the conversations of Pluto, Hermes, Charon and others of the powers in Hades, show a positive disbelief in any future state of existence. The model Lucian followed in these dialogues, as well in the style as in the sparkling and playful repartee, was the Platonic conversations, founded on the drama, of which the dialogue may be called the prose representative. Aristotle never adopted it, perhaps regarding it as beneath the true dignity of philosophy. The dialogue, in fact, was revived and improved by Lucian. For rhetoric loved to talk, expatiate and declaim, while dialectic strove to refute by the employment of question and answer, often in the briefest form.
Lucian evinces a perfect mastery over a language as wonderful in its inflections as in its immense and varied vocabulary; and it is a well-merited praise of the author to say that to a good Greek scholar the pages of Lucian are almost as easy and as entertaining as an English or French novel. It is true that he employs some forms and compounds which were not in use in the time of Plato or Demosthenes, and, as one who lived under Roman rule, has a tendency towards Latinisms. But his own sentiments on the propriety of diction are shown by his reproof to Lexiphanes, "if anywhere you have picked up an out-of-the-way word, or coined one which you think good, you labor to adapt the sense of it, and think it a loss if you do not succeed in dragging it in somewhere, even when it it not really wanted."
Lucian founded his style, or obtained his fluency, from the successful study of rhetoric, by which he appears to have made a good income from composing speeches which attracted much attention. At a later period in life he seems to have held a lucrative legal office in Egypt, which he retained until his death.
His extant works are so numerous that of some of the principal only a short sketch can be given. More than 80 pieces have come down to us under his name (including three collections of 71 shorter dialogues), of which about 20 are spurious or of doubtful authorship. To properly understand them we must remember that the whole moral code, the entire "duty of man" was included, in the estimation of the pagan Greek, in the various schools of philosophy. As these were generally rivals, and the systems they taught were more or less directly antagonistic, truth presented itself to the inquirer, not as one, but as manifold. The absurdity and impossibility of this forms the burden of all of Lucian's writings. He could only form one conclusion, that there is no such thing as truth.
One of the best written and most amusing treatises of antiquity is Lucian's True History, forming a rather long narrative in two books, which suggested Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Rabelais's Voyage of Pantagruel and Cyrano de Bergerac's Journey to the Moon. It is composed, the author tells us in a brief introduction, not only as a pastime and a diversion from severer studies, but avowedly as a satire on the poets and logographers who had written so many marvellous tales. He names Ctesias and Homer; but Hellanicus and Herodotus, perhaps others still earlier, appear to have been in his mind. The only true statement in his History, he wittily says, is that it contains nothing but lies from beginning to end.
The main purport of the story is to describe a voyage to the moon. He set out, he tells us, with fifty companions, in a well-provisioned ship, from the "Pillars of Hercules", intending to explore the western ocean. After eighty days' rough sailing they came to an island on which they found a Greek inscription, "This was the limit of the expedition of Heracles and Dionysus"; and the visit of the wine-god seemed attested by some miraculous vines which they found there. After leaving the island they were suddenly carried up, ship and all, by a whirlwind into the air, and on the eighth day came in sight of a great round island shining with a bright light, and lying a little above the moon. In a short time they are arrested by a troop of gigantic "horse-vultures" and brought as captives to the "man in the moon", who proves to be Endymion. He is engaged in a war with the inhabitants of the sun, which is ruled by King Phaėthon, the quarrel having arisen from an attempt to colonize the planet Venus (Lucifer). The voyagers are enlisted as "Moonites", and a long description follows of the monsters and flying dragons engaged in the contest. A fight ensues, in which the slaughter is so great that the very clouds are tinged with red. The long description of the inhabitants of the moon is extremely droll and original. After descending safely into the sea, the ship is swallowed by a huge "sea serpent" more than 100 miles long. The adventures during the long confinement in the creature's belly are most amusing; but at last they sail out through the chinks between the monster's teeth, and soon find themselves at the "Fortunate Islands." Here they meet with the spirits of heroes and philosophers of antiquity, on whom the author expatiates at some length. The tale comes to an abrupt end with an allusion to Herodotus in the promise that he "will tell the rest in his next books."
Another curious and rather long treatise exists, the authorship of which is regarded as doubtful. Parts of the story are coarse enough; the point turns on one Lucius visiting in a Thessalian family, in which the lady of the house was a sorceress. Having seen her changed into a bird by anointing herself with some potent drug, he resolves to try a similar experiment on himself, but finds that he has become an ass, retaining, however, his human senses and memory. The mistake arose from his having filched the wrong ointment; however, he is assured by the attendant, Palaestra, that if he can but procure roses to eat, his natural form will be restored. In the night a party of bandits break into the house and carry off the stolen goods into the mountains on the back of the unfortunate donkey, who gets well beaten for stumbling on the rough road. Seeing, as he fancies, some roses in a garden, he goes in quest of them, and again gets beaten as a thief by the gardener. After many adventures with the bandits, he attempts to run away, but is caught. A council is held, and he is condemned to die together with a captive girl who had essayed to escape on his back. Suddenly, however, soldiers appear, and the bandits are arrested. Again the ass escapes "to the great and populous city of Beroea in Macedonia." Here he is sold to a strolling conjurer, afterwards to a market-gardener; and both experiences are alike painful. Again he passes into the possession of a cook, where he gets fat and sleek on food more suited to his concealed humanity than the hard fare he has of late lived upon. At last, during an exhibition in the theater, he sees some roses being carried past, and, making a successful rush to devour them, he recovers his former shape. "I am Lucius", he exclaims to the wondering president of the exhibition, "and my brother's name is Caius. It was a Thessalian witch that changed me into a donkey." Thus all ends well, and he returns safe to his country.
The treatise On the Syrian Goddess (Mylitta, the moon-goddess, the Semitic Aphrodite) is written in the Ionic dialect in imitation perhaps of the style of Herodotus, though the resemblance is by no means close. The writer professes to be an Assyrian, and to describe the wonders in the various temples of Palestine and Syria; he descants on the eunuchs of Syria and the origin of the self-imposed privation of manhood professed and practised by the Galli. The account of the temples, altars and sacrifices is curious, if really authentic; after the manner of Pausanias it is little more than a list, with the reasons in most cases added, or the origin of the custom explained.
De Morte Peregrini is a narrative of one Proteus, a Cynic, who after professing various doctrines, and among them those of Christianity, ended his own life by ascending a burning pyre.
Bis accusatus ("Twice Accused") is a dialogue beginning with a satire on the folly of the popular notion that the gods alone are happy. Zeus is represented as disproving this by enumerating the duties that fall to their lot in the government of the world, and Hermes remarks on the vast crowds of philosophers of rival sects, by whose influence the respect and worship formerly paid to the gods have seriously declined. A trial is supposed to be held under the presidency of a goddess, between the Academy, the Porch, the schools of the Cynics and Epicureans, and Pleasure, Revelry, Virtue, Luxury, etc., as variously impugned or defended by them. Then Conversation and Rhetoric come before the court, each having an action for defamation to bring against Syrus the essayist, who of course is Lucian himself. His defense is heard, and in both cases he is triumphantly acquitted. This essay is brilliant from its clever parodies of Plato and Demosthenes, and the satire on the Socratic method of arguing by short questions and answers.
The Lover of Lying discusses the reason why some persons seem to take pleasure in falsehood for its own sake. Under the category of lying all mythology (e.g. that of Homer and Hesiod) is included, and the question is asked, why the hearers of such stories are amused by them? Quack remedies, charms and miraculous cures are included among the most popular kinds of falsehood; witchcraft, spiritualism, exorcism, expulsion of devils, spectres, are discussed in turn, and a good ghost story is told. An anecdote is given of Democritus, who, to show his disbelief in ghosts, had shut himself up in a tomb, and when some young men, dressed up with death's heads, came to frighten him at night, he did not even look up, but called out to them, "Stop your joking." This treatise, a very interesting one, concludes with the reflection that truth and sound reason are the only remedies for vain and superstitious terrors.
The dialogue Navigium seu Vota ("The Ship or the Wishes") gives an apparently authentic account of the measurements and fittings of an Egyptian ship which has arrived with a cargo of corn at the Peiraeus, driven out of its course to Italy by adverse winds. The full length is 180 feet, the breadth nearly 50, the depth from deck to the bottom of the hold 43 feet. The "wishes" turn on a party of friends, who have been to see the ship, declaring what they would most desire to possess. One would have the ship filled with gold, another a fine house with gold plate; a third would be a "tyrant" with a large force devoted to his interests; a fourth would like to make himself invisible, enter any house that he pleased, and be transported through the air to the objects of his affection. After hearing them all, the first speaker, Lycinus (Lucian), says that he is content with the privilege of laughing heartily at the vanity of human wishes, especially when they are those of professed philosophers.
The dialogue between Philo and Lycinus, Convivium seu Lapithae, is a very amusing description of a banquet, at which a party of dignified philosophers quarrelled over their viands at a marriage feast, and came to blows. The style is a good imitation of Plato, and the scene reminds one of the "clients' dinner" in the fifth satire of Juvenal. Matters come to a climax by the attempt of one of the guests, Zenothemis, to secure for himself a fatter fowl which had been served to his next neighbour Hermon. Each seizes his bird and hits the other with it in the face, at the same time pulling his beard. Then a general fight ensues. The story is a satire on philosophy, the favourite topic of a writer who believed neither in gods nor in men.
The Piscator ("Fisherman"), a dialogue between Lucian, Socrates, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato and others, commences with a general attack on the author as the enemy of philosophy. Socrates proposes that the culprit should be tried, and that Philosophia should assist in the prosecution. Lucian declares that he does not know where such a person lives, long as he has been looking for her. She is found at last, but declares Lucian has never disparaged her, but only impostors and pretenders under her name. He makes a long defense, abusing the philosophers in the sort of language in which some schools of theologians abuse the monks of the middle ages. The trial is held in the Acropolis of Athens, and the sham philosophers, dreading a verdict against them, throw themselves from the rock. A Cynic flings away his scrip in the hurry, and on examination it is found to contain, not books or loaves of bread, but gold coins, dice and fragrant essences. At the end Lucian baits his hook with a fig and a gold coin, and catches gluttonous strollers in the city while seated on the wall of the Acropolis.
The Voyage Home opens with the complaint that Charon's boat is kept waiting for Hermes, who soon appears with his troop of ghosts. Among them is one Megapenthes, who, as his name is intended to express, mourns greatly over the life he has just left. Amusing appeals are made by other souls for leave to return to life, and even bribes are offered to the presiding goddess of destiny, but Clotho is inexorable. The moral of the piece is closely like that of the parable of Dives and Lazarus: the rich and prosperous bewail their fate, while the poor and afflicted find rest from their troubles, and have no desire to return to them. Lucian shows the same bitter dislike of tyrants which Plato and the tragic writers display. The heavy penalty is adjudged to Megapenthes that he may ever remember in the other world the misdeeds done in life.
The Sales of Lives is an auction held by Zeus to see what price the lives of philosophers of the rival sects will bring. A Pythagorean, who speaks in the Ionic dialect, first undergoes an examination as to what he can teach, and this contains an enumeration of the doctrines usually ascribed to that sect, including metempsychosis. He is sold for a pittance and is succeeded by Diogenes, who avows himself the champion of truth, a cosmopolitan, and the enemy of pleasure. Socrates brings two talents, and is purchased by Dion, tyrant of Syracuse. Chrysippus, who gives some specimens of his clever quibbles, is bought for a handsome sum, Aristotle for double Chrysippus' price, while Pyrrho the skeptic (or one of his school), who professes to "know nothing" brings a tenth, "because he is dull and stupid and has no more sense than a grub." But the man raises a doubt, "whether or not he has really been bought", and refuses to go with the purchaser until he has fully considered the matter.
Timon is a very amusing and witty dialogue. The misanthrope, once wealthy, has become a poor farm laborer, 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 until all the ballots have been examined; so a man cannot select the right way until 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.
Other of Lucian's works include the Alexander (or False Prophet), Prometheus, Menippus, Life of Demonax, Toxaris, Zeus Tragoedus, The Dream or the Cock, Icaromenippus (an amusing satire on the physical philosophers). They are of considerable literary value.
Ran Away From Home
Risk Factors: Gout
Is the subject of books:
Lucian and His Influence in Europe, 1979, BY: Christopher Robinson
Lucian's Satire, 1981, BY: Jennifer Hall
Author of books:
Dialogues of the Gods
Dialogues of the Dead
The Passing of Peregrinus
The Auction of Lives
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