Works, by Lucian

A Slip of the Tongue in Salutation

29

If a poor mortal has some difficulty in guarding against that spirit of mischief which dwells aloft, he has still more in clearing himself of the absurd consequences when that spirit trips him up. I am in both predicaments at once; coming to make you my morning salutation, which should have taken the orthodox form of Rejoice, I bade you, in a very choice fit of absent-mindedness, Be healthy — a good enough wish in its way, but a little untimely and unconnected with that early hour. I at once went moist and red, not quite aware whether I was on my head or my heels; some of the company took me for a lunatic, no doubt, some thought I was in my second childhood, some that I had not quite got over my last night’s wine — though you yourself were the pink of good manners, not showing your consciousness of the slip by any ghost of a smile. It occurred to me to write to myself a little something in the way of comfort, and so modify the distress my blunder gave me — prove to myself that it was not absolutely unpardonable for an old man to transgress etiquette so flagrantly before so many witnesses. As to apology, there could be no occasion for that, when one’s slip had resulted in so well-omened a wish.

I began to write expecting my task to be very difficult, but found plenty of material as I went on. I will defer it, however, till I have cleared the way with a few necessary remarks on the three forms — Rejoice or Joy, Prosper or Prosperity, Hail or Health. Joy is a very ancient greeting; but it was not confined to the morning, or the first meeting. They did use it when they first saw one another:

Joy to thee, Lord of this Tirynthian land!

But again at the moment when the wine succeeded to the meal:

Achilles, Joy! We lack not fair repast —

so says Odysseus discharging his embassy. And even at parting:

Joy be with you! And henceforth know me God, No longer mortal man.

In fact the apostrophe was not limited to any particular season, as now to the morning alone; indeed they used it on gloomy, nay, on the most lamentable occasions; in Euripides, Polynices ends his life with the words,

Joy with you! for the darkness closes on me.

Nor was it necessarily significative of friendliness; it could express hatred and the determination to see no more of another. To wish much joy to, was a regular form for ceasing to care about.

The modern use of the word dates back to Philippides the dispatch-runner. Bringing the news of Marathon, he found the archons seated, in suspense regarding the issue of the battle. ‘Joy, we win!’ he said, and died upon his message, breathing his last in the word Joy. The earliest letter beginning with it is that in which Cleon the Athenian demagogue, writing from Sphacteria, sends the good news of his victory and capture of Spartans at that place. However, later than that we find Nicias writing from Sicily and keeping to the older custom of coming to business at once with no such introduction.

Now the admirable Plato, no bad authority on such matters, would have us reject the salutation Joy altogether; it is a mean wish, wanting in seriousness, according to him; his substitute is Prosperity, which stands for a satisfactory condition both of body and soul; in a letter to Dionysius, he reproves him for commencing a hymn to Apollo with Joy, which he maintains is unworthy of the Pythian, and not fit even for men of any discretion, not to mention Gods.

Pythagoras the mystic has vouchsafed us no writings of his own; but we may infer from his disciples, Ocellus the Lucanian and Archytas, for instance, that he headed his letters neither with Joy nor Prosperity, but recommended beginning with Hail. At any rate all the Pythagoreans in writing to one another (when their tone is serious, that is) started with wishing Health, which they took to be the prime need of soul and body alike, and to include all human blessings. The Pentagram 30, that interlaced triple triangle which served them as a sort of password, they called by the name Health. They argued that Health included Joy and Prosperity, but that neither of those two was coextensive with Health. Some of them gave to the Quaternion, 31 which is their most solemn oath, and sums their perfect number, the name of Beginning of Health. Philolaus might be quoted.

But I need hardly go so far back. Epicurus assuredly rejoiced in joy — pleasure was the chief Good in his eyes; yet in his most earnest letters (which are not very numerous), and in those to his most intimate friends, he starts with Hail. And in tragedy and the old comedy you will constantly find it used quite at the beginning. You remember,

Hail to thee, joy be thine —

which puts health before rejoicing clearly enough. And says Alexis:

All hail, my lord; after long time thou comest.

Again Achaeus:

I come in sorry plight, yet wish thee health.

And Philemon:

Health first I ask, and next prosperity, Joy thirdly, and to owe not any man.

As for the writer of the drinking-song mentioned in Plato, what says he? —‘Best is health, and second beauty, and third wealth’; joy he never so much as names. I need hardly adduce the trite saw:

Chief of them that blessings give, Health, with thee I mean to live.

But, if Health is chief, her gift, which is the enjoyment of health, should rank before other Goods.

I could multiply these examples by the thousand from poets, historians, philosophers, who give Health the place of honour; but you will not require any such childish pedantry of me, wiping out my original offence by another; I shall do better to add a historical anecdote or two which occur to me as relevant.

Eumenes of Cardia, writing to Antipater, states that just before the battle of Issus, Hephaestion came at dawn into Alexander’s tent. Either in absence of mind and confusion like mine, or else under a divine impulse, he gave the evening salutation like me —‘Hail, sire; ’tis time we were at our posts.’ All present were confounded at the irregularity, and Hephaestion himself was like to die of shame, when Alexander said, ‘I take the omen; it is a promise that we shall come back safe from battle.’

Antiochus Soter, about to engage the Galatians, dreamed that Alexander stood over him and told him to give his men the password Health; and with this word it was that he won that marvellous victory.

Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, in a letter to Seleucus, just reversed the usual order, bidding him Hail at the beginning, and adding Rejoice at the end instead of wishing him Health; this is recorded by Dionysodorus, the collector of his letters.

The case of Pyrrhus the Epirot is well worth mention; as a general he was only second to Alexander, and he experienced a thousand vicissitudes of fortune. In all his prayers, sacrifices, and offerings, he never asked for victory or increase of his royal dignity, for fame or excessive wealth; his whole prayer was always in one word, Health; as long as he had that, he thought all else would come of itself. And it was true wisdom, in my opinion; he remembered that all other good things are worthless, if health is wanting.

Oh, certainly (says some one); but we have assigned each form to its proper place by this time; and if you disregard that — even though there was no bad meaning in what you did say — you cannot fairly claim to have made no mistake; it is as though one should put a helmet on the shins, or greaves on the head. My dear sir (I reply), your simile would go on all fours if there were any season at all which did not require health; but in point of fact it is needed in the morning and at noonday and at night — especially by busy rulers like you Romans, to whom physical condition is so important. And again, the man who gives you Joy is only beginning auspiciously; it is no more than a prayer; whereas he who bids you Hail is doing you a practical service in reminding you of the means to health; his is more than a prayer, it is a precept.

Why, in that book of instructions which you all receive from the Emperor, is not the first recommendation to take care of your health? Quite rightly; that is the condition precedent of efficiency. Moreover, if I know any Latin, you yourselves, in returning a salutation, constantly use the equivalent of Health.

However, all this does not mean that I have deliberately abandoned Rejoice and substituted Hail for it. I admit that it was quite unintentional; I am not so foolish as to innovate like that, and exchange the regular formulae.

No, I only thank Heaven that my stumble had such very fortunate results, landing me in a better position than I had designed; may it not be that Health itself, or Asclepius, inspired me to give you this promise of health? How else should it have befallen me? In the course of a long life I have never been guilty of such a confusion before.

Or, if I may not have recourse to the supernatural, it is no wonder that my extreme desire to be known to you for good should so confuse me as to work the contrary effect. Possibly, too, one might be robbed of one’s presence of mind by the crowd of military persons pushing for precedence, or treating the salutation ceremony in their cavalier fashion.

As to yourself, I feel sure that, however others may have referred it to stupidity, ignorance, or lunacy, you took it as the sign of a modest, simple, unspoiled, unsophisticated soul. Absolute confidence in such matters comes dangerously near audacity and impudence. My first wish would be to make no such blunder; my second that, if I did, the resulting omen should be good.

There is a story told of the first Augustus. He had given a correct legal decision, which acquitted a maligned person of a most serious charge. The latter expressed his gratitude in a loud voice, thus:—‘I thank your majesty for this bad and inequitable verdict.’ Augustus’s attendants raged, and were ready to tear the man to pieces. But the Emperor restrained them; ‘Never mind what he said; it is what he meant that matters.’ That was Augustus’s view. Well, take my meaning, and it was good; or take my word, and it was auspicious.

And now that I have got to this point, I have reason to fear that I may be suspected of having made the slip on purpose, leading up to this apology. O God of health, only grant me that the quality of my piece may justify the notion that I wanted no more than a peg whereon to hang an essay!

29 This piece, which even in the Greek fails to convince us that Asclepius heard the prayer with which it concludes, is still flatter in English, because we have no words of salutation which correspond at once in etymological meaning and in conventional usage to the Greek. The English reader who cares to understand a piece so little worth his attention, will obligingly bear in mind that the Greek word represented here by Joy and Rejoice roughly answered in Lucian’s time to our Good-morning and How do you do, as well as to the epistolary My dear ——; while that represented by Hail or Health did the work of Good-night, Good-bye, Farewell, and (in letters) Yours truly.

30 See Pythagoras in Notes.

31 See Pythagoras in Notes.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49