Works, by Lucian

Defence of the ‘Portrait-Study’

Polystratus. Lycinus

Poly. Well, here is the lady’s comment. Your pages are most kind and complimentary, I am sure, Lycinus. No one would have so over-praised me who had not felt kindly towards me. But if you would know my real feeling, here it is. I never do much like the complaisant; they always strike me as insincere and wanting in frankness. But when it comes to a set panegyric, in which my much magnified virtues are painted in glaring colours, I blush and would fain stop my ears, and feel that I am rather being made fun of than commended.

Praise is tolerable up to the point at which the object of it can still believe in the existence of the qualities attributed to him; pass that point, and he is revolted and finds the flatterer out. Of course I know there are plenty of people who are glad enough to have non-existent qualities added to their praises; who do not mind being called young and lusty in their decline, or Nireuses and Phaons though they are hideous; who, Pelias-like, expect praise to metamorphose or rejuvenate them.

But they are mistaken. Praise would indeed be a most precious commodity if there were any way of converting its extravagances into solid fact. But there being none, they can only be compared to an ugly man on whom one should clap a beautiful mask, and who should then be proud of those looks that any one could take from him and break to pieces; revealed in his true likeness, he would be only the more ridiculous for the contrast between casket and treasure. Or, if you will, imagine a little man on stilts measuring heights with people who have eighteen inches the better of him in stocking feet.

And then she told this story. There was a noble lady, fair and comely in all respects except that she was short and ill-proportioned. A poet wrote an ode in her honour, and included among her beauties that of tallness; her slender height was illustrated from the poplar. She was in ecstasies, as though the verses were making her grow, and kept waving her hand. Which the poet seeing, and realizing her appetite for praise, recited the lines again and again, till at last one of the company whispered in his ear, ‘Stop, my good man; you will be making her get up.’

She added a similar but still more absurd anecdote of Stratonice the wife of Seleucus, who offered a talent to the poet who should best celebrate her hair. As a matter of fact she was bald, with not a hair to call her own. But what matter what her head was like, or that every one knew how a long illness had treated her? she listened to these abandoned poets telling of hyacinthine locks, plaiting thick tresses, and making imaginary curls as crisp as parsley.

All such surrenders to flattery were laughed to scorn, with the addition that many people were just as fond of being flattered and fooled by portrait-painters as these by verbal artists. What these people look for in a painter (she said) is readiness to improve nature: Some of them insist upon the artist’s taking a little off their noses, deepening the shade of their eyes, or otherwise idealizing them to order; it quite escapes them that the garlands they afterwards put on the picture are offered to another person who bears no relation to themselves.

And so she went on, finding much in your composition to approve, but displeased in particular with your likening her to Hera and Aphrodite. Such comparisons are far too high for me, she said, or indeed for any of womankind. Why, I would not have had you put me on a level with women of the Heroic Age, with a Penelope, an Arete, a Theano; how much less with the chief of the Goddesses. Where the Gods are concerned (she continued; and mark her here), I am very apprehensive and timid. I fear that to accept a panegyric like this would be to make a Cassiopeia of myself; though indeed she only challenged the Nereids, and stopped short of Hera and Aphrodite.

So, Lycinus, she insisted that you must recast all this; otherwise she must call the Goddesses to witness that you had written against her wishes, and leave you to the knowledge that the piece would be an annoyance to her, if it circulated in its present shape, so lacking in reverence and piety. The outrage on reverence would be put down to her, if she allowed herself to be likened to her of Cnidus and her of the Garden. She would have you bear in mind the close of your discourse, where you spoke of the unassuming modesty that attempted no superhuman flights, but kept near the earth. It was inconsistent with that to take the same woman up to heaven and compare her with Goddesses.

She would like to be allowed as much sense as Alexander; he, when his architect proposed to transform Mount Athos into a vast image of the King with a pair of cities in his hands, shrank from the grandiose proposal; such presumption was beyond him; such patent megalomania must be suppressed; leave Athos alone, he said, and do not degrade a mighty mountain to the similitude of a poor human body. This only showed the greatness of Alexander, and itself constituted in the eyes of all future generations a monument higher than any Athos; to be able to scorn so extraordinary an honour was itself magnanimity.

So she commends your work of art, and your selective method, but cannot recognize the likeness. She does not come up to the description, nor near it, for indeed no woman could. Accordingly she sends you back your laudation, and pays homage to the originals from which you drew it. Confine your praises within the limits of humanity; if the shoe is too big, it may chance to trip her up. Then there was another point which I was to impress upon you.

I often hear, she said — but whether it is true, you men know better than I— that at Olympia the victors are not allowed to have their statues set up larger than life; the Stewards see to it that no one transgresses this rule, examining the statues even more scrupulously than they did the competitor’s qualification. Take care that we do not get convicted of false proportions, and find our statue thrown down by the Stewards.

And now I have given you her message. It is for you, Lycinus, to overhaul your work, and by removing these blemishes avoid the offence. They shocked and made her nervous as I read; she kept on addressing the Goddesses in propitiatory words; and such feelings may surely be permitted to her sex. For that matter, to be quite frank, I shared them to some extent. At the first hearing I found no offence; but as soon as she put her finger on the fault, I began to agree. You know what happens with visible objects; if we look at them at close quarters, just under our eyes, I mean, we distinguish nothing clearly; but stepping back to the right distance, we get a clear conception of what is right and what is wrong about them. That was my experience here.

After all, to compare a mortal to Hera and Aphrodite is cheapening the Goddesses, and nothing else. In such comparisons the small is not so much magnified as the great is diminished and reduced. If a giant and a dwarf were walking together, and their heights had to be equalized, no efforts of the dwarf could effect it, however much he stood on tiptoe; the giant must stoop and make himself out shorter than he is. So in this sort of portraiture: the human is not so much exalted by the similitude as the divine is belittled and pulled down. If indeed a lack of earthly beauties forced the artist upon scaling Heaven, he might perhaps be acquitted of blasphemy; but your enterprise was so needless; why Aphrodite and Hera, when you have all mortal beauty to choose from?

Prune and chasten, then, Lycinus. All this is not quite like you, who never used to be over-ready with your commendation; you seem to have gone now to the opposite extreme of prodigality, and developed from a niggard into a spendthrift of praise. Do not be ashamed to make alterations in what you have already published, either. They say Phidias did as much after finishing his Olympian Zeus. He stood behind the doors when he had opened them for the first time to let the work be seen, and listened to the comments favourable or the reverse. One found the nose too broad, another the face too long, and so on. When the company was gone, he shut himself up again to correct and adapt his statue to the prevailing taste. Advice so many-headed was not to be despised; the many must after all see further than the one, though that one be Phidias. There is the counsel of a friend and well-wisher to back up the lady’s message.

Ly. Why, Polystratus, I never knew what an orator you were. After that eloquent close-packed indictment of my booklet, I almost despair of the defence. You and she were not quite judicial, though; you less than she, in condemning the accused when its counsel was not in court. It is always easy to win a walk-over, you know; so no wonder we were convicted, not being allowed to speak or given the ear of the court. But, still more monstrous, you were accusers and jury at once. Well, what am I to do? accept the verdict and hold my tongue? pen a palinode like Stesichorus? or will you grant an appeal?

Poly. Surely, if you have anything to say for yourself. For you will be heard not by opponents, as you say, but by friends. Indeed, my place is with you in the dock.

Ly. How I wish I could, have spoken in her own presence! that would have been far better; but I must do it by proxy. However, if you will report me to her as well as you did her to me, I will adventure.

Poly. Trust me to do justice to the defence; but put it shortly, in mercy to my memory.

Ly. So severe an indictment should by rights be met at length; but for your sake I will cut it short. Put these considerations before her from me, then.

Poly. No, not that way, please. Make your speech, just as though she were listening, and I will reproduce you to her.

Ly. Very well, then. She is here; she has just delivered the oration which you have described to me; it is now counsel’s turn. And yet — I must confide my feelings to you — you have made my undertaking somehow more formidable; you see the beads gather on my brow; my courage goes; I seem to see her there; my situation bewilders me. Yet begin I will; how can I draw back when she is there?

Poly. Ah, but her face promises a kindly hearing; see how bright and gracious. Pluck up heart, man, and begin.

Ly. Most noble lady, in what you term the great and excessive praise that I bestowed upon you, I find no such high testimony to your merits as that which you have borne yourself by your surprise at the attribution of divinity. That one thing surpasses all that I have said of you, and my only excuse for not having added this trait to my portrait is that I was not aware of it; if I had been, no other should have had precedence of it. In this light I find myself, far from exaggerating, to have fallen much short of the truth. Consider the magnitude of this omission, the convincing demonstration of a sterling character and a right disposition which I lost; for those will be the best in human relations who are most earnest in their dealings with the divine. Why, were it decided that I must correct my words and retouch my statue, I should do it not by presuming to take away from it, but by adding this as its crowning grace. But from another point of view I have a great debt of gratitude to acknowledge. I commend your natural modesty, and your freedom from that vanity and pride which so exalted a position as yours might excuse. The best witness to my correctness is just the exception that you have taken to my words. That instead of receiving the praise I offered as your right you should be disturbed at it and call it excessive, is the proof of your unassuming modesty. Nevertheless, the more you reveal that this is your view of praise, the stronger proof you give of your own worthiness to be praised. You are an exact illustration of what Diogenes said when some one asked him how he might become famous:— ‘by despising fame.’ So if I were asked who most deserve praise, I should answer, Those who refuse it.

But I am perhaps straying from the point. What I have to defend is the having likened you, in giving your outward form, to the Cnidian and the Garden Aphrodite, to Hera and Athene; such comparisons you find out of all proportion. I will deal directly with them, then. It has indeed been said long ago that poets and painters are irresponsible; that is still more true, I conceive, of panegyrists, even humble prose ones like myself who are not run away with by their metre. Panegyric is a chartered thing, with no standard quantitative measure to which it must conform; its one and only aim is to express deep admiration and set its object in the most enviable light. However, I do not intend to take that line of defence; you might think I did so because I had no other open.

But I have. I refer you to the proper formula of panegyric, which requires the author to introduce illustrations, and depends mainly on their goodness for success. Now this goodness is shown not when the illustration is just like the thing illustrated, nor yet when it is inferior, but when it is as high above it as may be. If in praising a dog one should remark that it was bigger than a fox or a cat, would you regard him as a skilful panegyrist? certainly not. Or if he calls it the equal of a wolf, he has not made very much of it so either. Where is the right thing to be found? why, in likening the dog’s size and spirit to the lion’s. So the poet who would praise Orion’s dog called it the lion-queller. There you have the perfect panegyric of the dog. Or take Milo of Croton, Glaucus of Carystus, or Polydamas; to say of them by way of panegyric that each of them was stronger than a woman would be to make oneself a laughing-stock; one man instead of the woman would not much mend matters. But what, pray, does a famous poet make of Glaucus? —

To match those hands not e’en the might Of Pollux’ self had dared; Alcmena’s son, that iron wight, Had shrunk —

See what Gods he equals him to, or rather what Gods he puts him above. And Glaucus took no exception to being praised at the expense of his art’s patron deities; nor yet did they send any judgement on athlete or poet for irreverence; both continued to be honoured in Greece, one for his might, and the other for this even more than for his other odes. Do not be surprised, then, that when I wished to conform to the canons of my art and find an illustration, I took an exalted one, as reason was that I should.

You used the word flattery. To dislike those who practise it is only what you should do, and I honour you for it. But I would have you distinguish between panegyric proper and the flatterer’s exaggeration of it. The flatterer praises for selfish ends, cares little for truth, and makes it his business to magnify indiscriminately; most of his effects consist in lying additions of his own; he thinks nothing of making Thersites handsomer than Achilles, or telling Nestor he is younger than any of the host; he will swear Croesus’s son hears better than Melampus, and give Phineus better sight than Lynceus, if he sees his way to a profit on the lie. But the panegyrist pure and simple, instead of lying outright, or inventing a quality that does not exist, takes the virtues his subject really does possess, though possibly not in large measure, and makes the most of them. The horse is really distinguished among the animals we know for light-footed speed; well, in praising a horse, he will hazard:

The corn-stalks brake not ‘neath his airy tread.

He will not be frightened of ‘whirlwind-footed steeds.’ If his theme is a noble house, with everything handsome about it,

Zeus on Olympus dwells in such a home,

we shall be told. But your flatterer would use that line about the swineherd’s hovel, if he saw a chance of getting anything out of the swineherd. Demetrius Poliorcetes had a flatterer called Cynaethus who, when he was gravelled for lack of matter, found some in a cough that troubled his patron — he cleared his throat so musically!

There you have one criterion: flatterers do not draw the line at a lie if it will please their patrons; panegyrists aim merely at bringing into relief what really exists. But there is another great difference: the flatterers exaggerate as much as ever they can; the panegyrists in the midst of exaggeration observe the limitations of decency. And now that you have one or two of the many tests for flattery and panegyric proper, I hope you will not treat all praise as suspect, but make distinctions and assign each specimen to its true class.

By your leave I will proceed to apply the two definitions to what I wrote; which of them fits it? If it had been an ugly woman that I likened to the Cnidian statue, I should deserve to be thought a toady, further gone in flattery than Cynaethus. But as it was one for whose charms I can call all men to witness, my shot was not so far out.

Now you will perhaps say — nay, you have said already — Praise my beauty, if you will; but the praise should not have been of that invidious kind which compares a woman to Goddesses. Well, I will keep truth at arm’s length no longer; I did not, dear lady, compare you to Goddesses, but to the handiwork in marble and bronze and ivory of certain good artists. There is no impiety, surely, in illustrating mortal beauty by the work of mortal hands — unless you take the thing that Phidias fashioned to be indeed Athene, or Praxiteles’s not much later work at Cnidus to be the heavenly Aphrodite. But would that be quite a worthy conception of divine beings? I take the real presentment of them to be beyond the reach of human imitation.

But granting even that it had been the actual Goddesses to whom I likened you, it would be no new track, of which I had been the pioneer; it had been trodden before by many a great poet, most of all by your fellow citizen Homer, who will kindly now come and share my defence, on pain of sharing my sentence. I will ask him, then — or rather you for him; for it is one of your merits to have all his finest passages by heart — what think you, then, of his saying about the captive Briseis that in her mourning for Patroclus she was ‘Golden Aphrodite’s peer’? A little further on, Aphrodite alone not meeting the case, it is:

So spake that weeping dame, a match for Goddesses.

When he talks like that, do you take offence and fling the book away, or has he your licence to expatiate in panegyric? Whether he has yours or not, he has that of all these centuries, wherein not a critic has found fault with him for it, not he that dared to scourge his statue 57, not he whose marginal pen 58 bastarded so many of his verses. Now, shall he have leave to match with Golden Aphrodite a barbarian woman, and her in tears, while I, lest I should describe the beauty that you like not to hear of, am forbidden to compare certain images to a lady who is ever bright and smiling — that beauty which mortals share with Gods?

When he had Agamemnon in hand, he was most chary of divine similitudes, to be sure! what economy and moderation in his use of them! Let us see — eyes and head from Zeus, belt from Ares, chest from Posidon; why, he deals the man out piecemeal among the host of Heaven. Elsewhere, Agamemnon is ‘like baleful Ares’; others have their heavenly models; Priam’s son (a Phrygian, mark) is ‘of form divine,’ the son of Peleus is again and again ‘a match for Gods.’ But let us come back to the feminine instances You remember, of course,

— a match For Artemis or golden Aphrodite;

and

Like Artemis adown the mountain slope.

But he does not even limit himself to comparing the whole man to a God; Euphorbus’s mere hair is called like the Graces — when it is dabbled with blood, too. In fact the practice is so universal that no branch of poetry can do without its ornaments from Heaven. Either let all these be blotted, or let me have the same licence. Moreover, illustration is so irresponsible that Homer allows himself to convey his compliments to Goddesses by using creatures inferior to them. Hera is ox-eyed. Another poet colours Aphrodite’s eyes from the violet. As for fingers like the rose, it takes but little of Homer’s society to bring us acquainted with them.

Still, so far we do not get beyond mere looks; a man is only called like a God. But think of the wholesale adaptation of their names, by Dionysiuses, Hephaestions, Zenos, Posidoniuses, Hermaeuses. Leto, wife of Evagoras, King of Cyprus, even dispensed with adaptation; but her divine namesake, who could have turned her into stone like Niobe, took no offence. What need to mention that the most religious race on earth, the Egyptian, never tires of divine names? most of those it uses hail from Heaven.

Consequently, there is not the smallest occasion for you to be nervous about the panegyric. If what I wrote contains anything offensive to the deity, you are not responsible, unless you consider we are responsible for all that goes in at our ears; no, I shall pay the penalty — as soon as the Gods have settled with Homer and the other poets. Ah, and they have not done so yet with the best of all philosophers 59, for saying that man is a likeness of God. But now, though I could say much more, madam, I must have compassion upon Polystratus’s memory, and cease.

Poly. I am not so sure I am equal to it, Lycinus, as it is. You have made it long, and exceeded your time limit. However, I will do my best. See, I scurry off with my fingers in my ears, that no alien sound may find its way in to disturb the arrangement; I do not want to be hissed by my audience.

Ly. Well, the responsibility for a correct report lies with you alone. And having now duly instructed you, I will retire for the present. But when the verdict is brought into court, I will be there to learn the result.

57 Zoilus, called Homeromastix.

58 Aristarclius.

59 Lucian’s ‘best of all philosophers’ might be Plato, who is their spokesman in ‘The Fisher’ (see Sections 14, 22), or Epicurus, in the light of two passages in the ‘Alexander’ (Sections 47, 61) in which he almost declares himself an Epicurean. The exact words are not found in Plato, though several similar expressions are quoted; words of Epicurus appear to be translated in Cicero, De nat. Deorum, Book I, xviii s. f., hominis esse specie deos confitendum est: we must admit that the Gods are in the image of man.

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