PROBABLE ORDER OF WRITINGS.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE TIME.
LUCIAN AS A WRITER.
It is not to be understood that all statements here made are either ascertained facts or universally admitted conjectures. The introduction is intended merely to put those who are not scholars, and probably have not books of reference at hand, in a position to approach the translation at as little disadvantage as may be. Accordingly, we give the account that commends itself to us, without discussion or reference to authorities. Those who would like a more complete idea of Lucian should read Croiset’s Essai sur la vie et les oeuvres de Lucien, on which the first two sections of this introduction are very largely based. The only objections to the book (if they are objections) are that it is in French, and of 400 octavo pages. It is eminently readable.
With the exception of a very small number of statements, of which the truth is by no means certain, all that we know of Lucian is derived from his own writings. And any reader who prefers to have his facts at first rather than at second hand can consequently get them by reading certain of his pieces, and making the natural deductions from them. Those that contain biographical matter are, in the order corresponding to the periods of his life on which they throw light, The Vision, Demosthenes, Nigrinus, The Portrait-study and Defence (in which Lucian is Lycinus), The Way to write History, The double ndictment (in which he is The Syrian), The Fisher (Parrhesiades), Swans and Amber, Alexander, Hermotimus (Lycinus), Menippus and Icaromenippus (in which Menippus represents him), A literary Prometheus, Herodotus, Zeuxis, Harmonides, The Scythian, The Death of Peregrine, The Book-fancier, Demonax, The Rhetorician’s Vade mecum, Dionysus, Heracles, A Slip of the Tongue, Apology for ‘The dependent Scholar.‘ Of these The Vision is a direct piece of autobiography; there is intentional but veiled autobiography in several of the other pieces; in others again conclusions can be drawn from comparison of his statements with facts known from external sources.
Lucian lived from about 125 to about 200 A.D., under the Roman Emperors Antoninus Pius, M. Aurelius and Lucius Verus, Commodus, and perhaps Pertinax. He was a Syrian, born at Samosata on the Euphrates, of parents to whom it was of importance that he should earn his living without spending much time or money on education. His maternal uncle being a statuary, he was apprenticed to him, having shown an aptitude for modelling in the wax that he surreptitiously scraped from his school writing-tablets. The apprenticeship lasted one day. It is clear that he was impulsive all through life; and when his uncle corrected him with a stick for breaking a piece of marble, he ran off home, disposed already to think he had had enough of statuary. His mother took his part, and he made up his mind by the aid of a vision that came to him the same night.
It was the age of the rhetoricians. If war was not a thing of the past, the shadow of the pax Romana was over all the small states, and the aspiring provincial’s readiest road to fame was through words rather than deeds. The arrival of a famous rhetorician to lecture was one of the important events in any great city’s annals; and Lucian’s works are full of references to the impression these men produced, and the envy they enjoyed. He himself was evidently consumed, during his youth and early manhood, with desire for a position like theirs. To him, sleeping with memories of the stick, appeared two women, corresponding to Virtue and Pleasure in Prodicus’s Choice of Heracles — the working woman Statuary, and the lady Culture. They advanced their claims to him in turn; but before Culture had completed her reply, the choice was made: he was to be a rhetorician. From her reminding him that she was even now not all unknown to him, we may perhaps assume that he spoke some sort of Greek, or was being taught it; but he assures us that after leaving Syria he was still a barbarian; we have also a casual mention of his offering a lock of his hair to the Syrian goddess in his youth.
He was allowed to follow his bent and go to Ionia. Great Ionian cities like Smyrna and Ephesus were full of admired sophists or teachers of rhetoric. But it is unlikely that Lucian’s means would have enabled him to become the pupil of these. He probably acquired his skill to a great extent by the laborious method, which he ironically deprecates in The Rhetorician’s Vade mecum, of studying exhaustively the old Attic orators, poets, and historians.
He was at any rate successful. The different branches that a rhetorician might choose between or combine were: (1) Speaking in court on behalf of a client; (2) Writing speeches for a client to deliver; (3) Teaching pupils; (4) Giving public displays of his skill. There is a doubtful statement that Lucian failed in (1), and took to (2) in default. His surviving rhetorical pieces (The Tyrannicide, The Disinherited, Phalaris) are declamations on hypothetical cases which might serve either for (3) or (4); and The Hall, The Fly, Dipsas, and perhaps Demosthenes, suggest (4). A common form of exhibition was for a sophist to appear before an audience and let them propose subjects, of which he must choose one and deliver an impromptu oration upon it.
Whatever his exact line was, he earned an income in Ionia, then in Greece, had still greater success in Italy, and appears to have settled for some time in Gaul, perhaps occupying a professorial chair there. The intimate knowledge of Roman life in some aspects which appears in The dependent Scholar suggests that he also lived some time in Rome. He seems to have known some Latin, since he could converse with boatmen on the Po; but his only clear reference (A Slip of the Tongue,) implies an imperfect knowledge of it; and there is not a single mention in all his works, which are crammed with literary allusions, of any Latin author. He claims to have been during his time in Gaul one of the rhetoricians who could command high fees; and his descriptions of himself as resigning his place close about his lady’s (i.e. Rhetoric’s) person, and as casting off his wife Rhetoric because she did not keep herself exclusively to him, show that he regarded himself, or wished to be regarded, as having been at the head of his profession.
This brings us to about the year 160 A.D. We may conceive Lucian now to have had some of that yearning for home which he ascribes in the Patriotism even to the successful exile. He returned home, we suppose, a distinguished man at thirty-five, and enjoyed impressing the fact on his fellow citizens in The Vision. He may then have lived at Antioch as a rhetorician for some years, of which we have a memorial in The Portrait-study. Lucius Verus, M. Aurelius’s colleague, was at Antioch in 162 or 163 A.D. on his way to the Parthian war, and The Portrait-study is a panegyric on Verus’s mistress Panthea, whom Lucian saw there.
A year or two later we find him migrating to Athens, taking his father with him, and at Athens he settled and remained many years. It was on this journey that the incident occurred, which he relates with such a curious absence of shame in the Alexander, of his biting that charlatan’s hand.
This change in his manner of life corresponds nearly with the change in habit of mind and use of his powers that earned him his immortality. His fortieth year is the date given by himself for his abandonment of Rhetoric and, as he calls it, taking up with Dialogue, or, as we might say, becoming a man of letters. Between Rhetoric and Dialogue there was a feud, which had begun when Socrates five centuries before had fought his battles with the sophists. Rhetoric appeals to the emotions and obscures the issues (such had been Socrates’s position); the way to elicit truth is by short question and answer. The Socratic method, illustrated by Plato, had become, if not the only, the accredited instrument of philosophers, who, so far as they are genuine, are truth-seekers; Rhetoric had been left to the legal persons whose object is not truth but victory. Lucian’s abandonment of Rhetoric was accordingly in some sort his change from a lawyer to a philosopher. As it turned out, however, philosophy was itself only a transitional stage with him.
Already during his career as a rhetorician, which we may put at 145–164 A.D., he seems both to have had leanings to philosophy, and to have toyed with dialogue. There is reason to suppose that the Nigrinus, with its strong contrast between the noise and vulgarity of Rome and the peace and culture of Athens, its enthusiastic picture of the charm of philosophy for a sensitive and intelligent spirit, was written in 150 A.D., or at any rate described an incident that occurred in that year; and the Portrait-study and its Defence, dialogues written with great care, whatever their other merits, belong to 162 or 163 A.D. But these had been excursions out of his own province. After settling at Athens he seems to have adopted the writing of dialogues as his regular work. The Toxaris, a collection of stories on friendship, strung together by dialogue, the Anacharsis, a discussion on the value of physical training, and the Pantomime, a description slightly relieved by the dialogue form, may be regarded as experiments with his new instrument. There is no trace in them of the characteristic use that he afterwards made of dialogue, for the purposes of satire.
That was an idea that we may suppose to have occurred to him after the composition of the Hermotimus. This is in form the most philosophic of his dialogues; it might indeed be a dialogue of Plato, of the merely destructive kind; but it is at the same time, in matter, his farewell to philosophy, establishing that the pursuit of it is hopeless for mortal man. From this time onward, though he always professes himself a lover of true philosophy, he concerns himself no more with it, except to expose its false professors. The dialogue that perhaps comes next, The Parasite, is still Platonic in form, but only as a parody; its main interest (for a modern reader is outraged, as in a few other pieces of Lucian’s, by the disproportion between subject and treatment) is in the combination for the first time of satire with dialogue.
One more step remained to be taken. In the piece called A literary Prometheus, we are told what Lucian himself regarded as his claim to the title of an original writer. It was the fusing of Comedy and Dialogue — the latter being the prose conversation hat had hitherto been confined to philosophical discussion. The new literary form, then, was conversation, frankly for purposes of entertainment, as in Comedy, but to be read and not acted. In this kind of writing he remains, though he has been often imitated, first in merit as clearly as in time; and nearly all his great masterpieces took this form. They followed in rapid succession, being all written, perhaps, between 165 and 175 A.D. And we make here no further comment upon them, except to remark that they fall roughly into three groups as he drew inspiration successively from the writers of the New Comedy (or Comedy of ordinary life) like Menander, from the satires of Menippus, and from writers of the Old Comedy (or Comedy of fantastic imagination) like Aristophanes. The best specimens of the first group are The Liar and the Dialogues of the Hetaerae; of the second, the Dialogues of the Dead and of the Gods, Menippus and Icaromenippus, Zeus cross-examined; of the third, Timon, Charon, A Voyage to the lower World, The Sale of Creeds, The Fisher, Zeus Tragoedus, The Cock, The double Indictment, The Ship.
During these ten or more years, though he lived at Athens, he is to be imagined travelling occasionally, to read his dialogues to audiences in various cities, or to see the Olympic Games. And these excursions gave occasion to some works not of the dialogue kind; the Zeuxis and several similar pieces are introductions to series of readings away from Athens; The Way to write History, a piece of literary criticism still very readable, if out of date for practical purposes, resulted from a visit to Ionia, where all the literary men were producing histories of the Parthian war, then in progress (165 A.D.). An attendance at the Olympic Games of 169 A.D. suggested The Death of Peregrine, which in its turn, through the offence given to Cynics, had to be supplemented by the dialogue of The Runaways. The True History, most famous, but, admirable as it is, far from best of his works, presumably belongs to this period also, but cannot be definitely placed. The Book-fancier and The Rhetorician’s Vade mecum are unpleasant records of bitter personal quarrels.
After some ten years of this intense literary activity, producing, reading, and publishing, Lucian seems to have given up both the writing of dialogues and the presenting of them to audiences, and to have lived quietly for many years. The only pieces that belong here are the Life of Demonax, the man whom he held the best of all philosophers, and with whom he had been long intimate at Athens, and that of Alexander, the Asiatic charlatan, who was the prince of impostors as Demonax of philosophers. When quite old, Lucian was appointed by the Emperor Commodus to a well-paid legal post in Egypt. We also learn, from the new introductory lectures called Dionysus and Heracles, that he resumed the practice of reading his dialogues; but he wrote nothing more of importance. It is stated in Suidas that he was torn to pieces by dogs; but, as other statements in the article are discredited, it is supposed that this is the Christian revenge for Lucian’s imaginary hostility to Christianity. We have it from himself that he suffered from gout in his old age. He solaced himself characteristically by writing a play on the subject; but whether the goddess Gout, who gave it its name, was appeased by it, or carried him off, we cannot tell.
2. PROBABLE ORDER OF WRITINGS
The received order in which Lucian’s works stand is admitted to be entirely haphazard. The following arrangement in groups is roughly chronological, though it is quite possible that they overlap each other. It is M. Croiset’s, put into tabular form. Many details in it are open to question; but to read in this order would at least be more satisfactory to any one who wishes to study Lucian seriously than to take the pieces as they come. The table will also serve as a rough guide to the first-class and the inferior pieces. The names italicized are those of pieces rejected as spurious by M. Croiset, and therefore not placed by him; we have inserted them where they seem to belong; as to their genuineness, it is our opinion that the objections made (not by M. Croiset, who does not discuss authenticity) to the Demosthenes and The Cynic at least are, in view of the merits of these, unconvincing.
(i) About 145 to 160 A.D. Lucian a rhetorician in Ionia, Greece, Italy, and Gaul.
The Tyrannicide, a rhetorical exercise.
Phalaris I & II.
Demosthenes, a panegyric.
Patriotism, an essay.
The Fly, an essay.
Swans and Amber, an introductory lecture.
Dipsas, an introductory lecture.
The Hall, an introductory lecture.
Nigrinus, a dialogue on philosophy, 150 A.D.
(ii) About 160 to 164 A.D. After Lucian’s return to Asia.
The Portrait-study, a panegyric in dialogue, 162 A.D.
Defence of The Portrait-study, in dialogue.
A Trial in the Court of Vowels, a jeu d’esprit.
Hesiod, a short dialogue.
The Vision, an autobiographical address.
(iii) About 165 A.D. At Athens.
Pantomime, art criticism in dialogue.
Anacharsis, a dialogue on physical training.
Toxaris, stories of friendship in dialogue.
Slander, a moral essay.
The Way to write History, an essay in literary criticism.
The next eight groups, iv-xi, belong to the years from about 165 A.D. to about 175 A.D., when Lucian was at his best and busiest; iv-ix are to be regarded roughly as succeeding each other in time; x and xi being independent in this respect. Pieces are assigned to groups mainly according to their subjects; but some are placed in groups that do not seem at first sight the most appropriate, owing to specialties in their treatment; e.g. The Ship might seem more in place with vii than with ix; but M. Croiset finds in it a maturity that induces him to put it later.
(iv) About 165 A.D.
Hermotimus, a philosophic dialogue.
The Parasite, a parody of a philosophic dialogue.
(v) Influence of the New Comedy writers.
The Liar, a dialogue satirizing superstition.
A Feast of Lapithae, a dialogue satirizing the manners of philosophers.
Dialogues of the Hetaerae, a series of short dialogues.
(vi) Influence of the Menippean satire.
Dialogues of the Dead, a series of short dialogues.
Dialogues of the Gods, a series of short dialogues.
Dialogues of the Sea–Gods, a series of short dialogues.
Menippus, a dialogue satirizing philosophy.
Icaromenippus, a dialogue satirizing philosophy and religion.
Zeus cross-examined, a dialogue satirizing religion.
The Cynic, a dialogue against luxury.
Of Sacrifice, an essay satirizing religion.
Saturnalia, dialogue and letters on the relation of rich and poor.
The True History, a parody of the old Greek historians,
(vii) Influence of the Old Comedy writers: vanity of human wishes.
A Voyage to the Lower World, a dialogue on the vanity of power.
Charon, a dialogue on the vanity of all things.
Timon, a dialogue on the vanity of riches.
The Cock, a dialogue on the vanity of riches and power,
(viii) Influence of the Old Comedy writers: dialogues satirizing religion.
Prometheus on Caucasus.
The Gods in Council.
(ix) Influence of the Old Comedy writers: satire on philosophers.
The Ship, a dialogue on foolish aspirations.
The Life of Peregrine, a narrative satirizing the Cynics, 169 A.D.
The Runaways, a dialogue satirizing the Cynics.
The double Indictment, an autobiographic dialogue.
The Sale of Creeds, a dialogue satirizing philosophers.
The Fisher, an autobiographic dialogue satirizing philosophers.
(x) 165–175 A.D. Introductory lectures.
A literary Prometheus.
(xi) 165–175 A.D. Scattered pieces standing apart from the great dialogue series, but written during the same period.
The Book-fancier, an invective. About 170 A.D.
The Purist purized, a literary satire in dialogue.
Lexiphanes, a literary satire in dialogue.
The Rhetorician’s Vade-mecum, a personal satire. About 178 A.D.
(xii) After 180 A.D.
Demonax, a biography.
Alexander, a satirical biography,
(xiii) In old age.
Mourning, an essay.
Dionysus, an introductory lecture.
Heracles, an introductory lecture.
Apology for ‘The dependent Scholar.’
A Slip of the Tongue.
In conclusion, we have to say that this arrangement of M. Croiset’s, which we have merely tabulated without intentionally departing from it in any particular, seems to us well considered in its broad lines; there are a few modifications which we should have been disposed to make in it; but we thought it better to take it entire than to exercise our own judgment in a matter where we felt very little confidence.
3. CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE TIME
M. Aurelius has for us moderns this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization. Trajan talks of “our enlightened age” just as glibly as The Times talks of it.’ M. Arnold, Essays in Criticism, M. Aurelius.
The age of M. Aurelius is also the age of Lucian, and with any man of that age who has, like these two, left us a still legible message we can enter into quite different relations from those which are possible with what M. Arnold calls in the same essay ‘classical-dictionary heroes.’ A twentieth-century Englishman, a second-century Greek or Roman, would be much more at home in each other’s century, if they had the gift of tongues, than in most of those which have intervened. It is neither necessary nor possible to go deeply into the resemblance here 1; all that need be done is to pass in review those points of it, some important, and some trifling, which are sure to occur in a detached way to readers of Lucian.
The Graeco–Roman world was as settled and peaceful, as conscious of its imperial responsibilities, as susceptible to boredom, as greedy of amusement, could show as numerous a leisured class, and believed as firmly in money, as our own. What is more important for our purpose, it was questioning the truth of its religion as we are today questioning the truth of ours. Lucian was the most vehement of the questioners. Of what played the part then that the Christian religion plays now, the pagan religion was only one half; the other half was philosophy. The gods of Olympus had long lost their hold upon the educated, but not perhaps upon the masses; the educated, ill content to be without any guide through the maze of life, had taken to philosophy instead. Stoicism was the prevalent creed, and how noble a form this could take in a cultivated and virtuous mind is to be seen in the Thoughts of M. Aurelius. The test of a religion, however, is not what form it takes in a virtuous mind, but what effects it produces on those of another sort. Lucian applies the test of results alike to the religion usually so called, and to its philosophic substitute. He finds both wanting; the test is not a satisfactory one, but it is being applied by all sorts and conditions of men to Christianity in our own time; so is the second test, that of inherent probability, which he uses as well as the other upon the pagan theology; and it is this that gives his writings, even apart from their wit and fancy, a special interest for our own time. Our attention seems to be concentrated more and more on the ethical, as opposed to the speculative or dogmatic aspect of religion; just such was Lucian’s attitude towards philosophy.
Some minor points of similarity may be briefly noted. As we read the Anacharsis, we are reminded of the modern prominence of athletics; the question of football versus drill is settled for us; light is thrown upon the question of conscription; we think of our Commissions on national deterioration, and the schoolmaster’s wail over the athletic Frankenstein’s monster which, like Eucrates in The Liar, he has created but cannot control. The ‘horsy talk in every street’ of the Nigrinus calls up the London newsboy with his ‘All the winners.’ We think of palmists and spiritualists in the police-courts as we read of Rutilianus and the Roman nobles consulting the impostor Alexander. This sentence reads like the description of a modern man of science confronted with the supernatural: ‘It was an occasion for a man whose intelligence was steeled against such assaults by scepticism and insight, one who, if he could not detect the precise imposture, would at any rate have been perfectly certain that, though this escaped him, the whole thing was a lie and an impossibility.’ The upper-class audiences who listened to Lucian’s readings, taking his points with quiet smiles instead of the loud applause given to the rhetorician, must have been something like that which listens decorously to an Extension lecturer. When Lucian bids us mark ‘how many there are who once were but cyphers, but whom words have raised to fame and opulence, ay, and to noble lineage too,’ we remember not only Gibbon’s remark about the very Herodes Atticus of whom Lucian may have been thinking (‘The family of Herod, at least after it had been favoured by fortune, was lineally descended from Cimon and Miltiades’), but also the modern carriere ouverte aux talents, and the fact that Tennyson was a lord. There are the elements of a socialist question in the feelings between rich and poor described in the Saturnalia; while, on the other hand, the fact of there being an audience for the Dialogues of the Hetaerae is an illustration of that spirit of humani nihil a me alienum puto which is again prevalent today. We care now to realize the thoughts of other classes besides our own; so did they in Lucian’s time; but it is significant that Francklin in 1780, refusing to translate this series, says: ‘These dialogues exhibit to us only such kind of conversation as we may hear in the purlieus of Covent Garden — lewd, dull, and insipid.’ The lewdness hardly goes beyond the title; they are full of humour and insight; and we make no apology for translating most of them. Lastly, a generation that is always complaining of the modern over-production of books feels that it would be at home in a state of society in which our author found that, not to be too singular, he must at least write about writing history, if he declined writing it himself, even as Diogenes took to rolling his tub, lest he should be the only idle man when Corinth was bustling about its defences.
As Lucian is so fond of saying, ‘this is but a small selection of the facts which might have been quoted’ to illustrate the likeness between our age and his. It may be well to allude, on the other hand, to a few peculiarities of the time that appear conspicuously in his writings.
The Roman Empire was rather Graeco–Roman than Roman; this is now a commonplace. It is interesting to observe that for Lucian ‘we’ is on occasion the Romans; ‘we’ is also everywhere the Greeks; while at the same time ‘I’ is a barbarian and a Syrian. Roughly speaking, the Roman element stands for energy, material progress, authority, and the Greek for thought; the Roman is the British Philistine, the Greek the man of culture. Lucian is conscious enough of the distinction, and there is no doubt where his own preference lies. He may be a materialist, so far as he is anything, in philosophy; but in practice he puts the things of the mind before the things of the body.
If our own age supplies parallels for most of what we meet with in the second century, there are two phenomena which are to be matched rather in an England that has passed away. The first is the Cynics, who swarm in Lucian’s pages like the begging friars in those of a historical novelist painting the middle ages. Like the friars, they began nobly in the desire for plain living and high thinking; in both cases the thinking became plain, the living not perhaps high, but the best that circumstances admitted of, and the class — with its numbers hugely swelled by persons as little like their supposed teachers as a Marian or Elizabethan persecutor was like the founder of Christianity — a pest to society. Lucian’s sympathy with the best Cynics, and detestation of the worst, make Cynicism one of his most familiar themes. The second is the class so vividly presented in The dependent Scholar — the indigent learned Greek who looks about for a rich vulgar Roman to buy his company, and finds he has the worst of the bargain. His successors, the ‘trencher chaplains’ who ‘from grasshoppers turn bumble-bees and wasps, plain parasites, and make the Muses mules, to satisfy their hunger-starved panches, and get a meal’s meat,’ were commoner in Burton’s days than in our own, and are to be met in Fielding, and Macaulay, and Thackeray.
Two others of Lucian’s favourite figures, the parasite and the legacy-hunter, exist still, no doubt, as they are sure to in every complex civilization; but their operations are now conducted with more regard to the decencies. This is worth remembering when we are occasionally offended by his frankness on subjects to which we are not accustomed to allude; he is not an unclean or a sensual writer, but the waters of decency have risen since his time and submerged some things which were then visible.
A slight prejudice, again, may sometimes be aroused by Lucian’s trick of constant and trivial quotation; he would rather put the simplest statement, or even make his transition from one subject to another, in words of Homer than in his own; we have modern writers too who show the same tendency, and perhaps we like or dislike them for it in proportion as their allusions recall memories or merely puzzle us; we cannot all be expected to have agreeable memories stirred by insignificant Homer tags; and it is well to bear in mind by way of palliation that in Greek education Homer played as great a part as the Bible in ours. He might be taken simply or taken allegorically; but one way or the other he was the staple of education, and it might be assumed that every one would like the mere sound of him.
We may end by remarking that the public readings of his own works, to which the author makes frequent reference, were what served to a great extent the purpose of our printing-press. We know that his pieces were also published; but the public that could be reached by hand-written copies would bear a very small proportion to that which heard them from the writer’s own lips; and though the modern system may have the advantage on the whole, it is hard to believe that the unapproached life and naturalness of Lucian’s dialogue does not owe something to this necessity.
4. LUCIAN AS A WRITER
With all the sincerity of Lucian in The True History, ‘soliciting his reader’s incredulity,’ we solicit our reader’s neglect of this appreciation. We have no pretensions whatever to the critical faculty; the following remarks are to be taken as made with diffidence, and offered to those only who prefer being told what to like, and why, to settling the matter for themselves.
Goethe, aged fourteen, with seven languages on hand, devised the plan of a correspondence kept up by seven imaginary brothers scattered over the globe, each writing in the language of his adopted land. The stay-at-home in Frankfort was to write Jew–German, for which purpose some Hebrew must be acquired. His father sent him to Rector Albrecht. The rector was always found with one book open before him — a well-thumbed Lucian. But the Hebrew vowel-points were perplexing, and the boy found better amusement in putting shrewd questions on what struck him as impossibilities or inconsistencies in the Old–Testament narrative they were reading. The old gentleman was infinitely amused, had fits of mingled coughing and laughter, but made little attempt at solving his pupil’s difficulties, beyond ejaculating Er narrischer Kerl! Er narrischer Junge! He let him dig for solutions, however, in an English commentary on the shelves, and occupied the time with turning the familiar pages of his Lucian 2. The wicked old rector perhaps chuckled to think that here was one who bade fair to love Lucian one day as well as he did himself.
For Lucian too was one who asked questions — spent his life doing little else; if one were invited to draw him with the least possible expenditure of ink, one’s pen would trace a mark of interrogation. That picture is easily drawn; to put life into it is a more difficult matter. However, his is not a complex character, for all the irony in which he sometimes chooses to clothe his thought; and materials are at least abundant; he is one of the self-revealing fraternity; his own personal presence is to be detected more often than not in his work. He may give us the assistance, or he may not, of labelling a character Lucian or Lycinus; we can detect him, volentes volentem, under the thin disguise of Menippus or Tychiades or Cyniscus as well. And the essence of him as he reveals himself is the questioning spirit. He has no respect for authority. Burke describes the majority of mankind, who do not form their own opinions, as ‘those whom Providence has doomed to live on trust’; Lucian entirely refuses to live on trust; he ‘wants to know.’ It was the wish of Arthur Clennam, who had in consequence a very bad name among the Tite Barnacles and other persons in authority. Lucian has not escaped the same fate; ‘the scoffer Lucian’ has become as much a commonplace as ‘fidus Achates,’ or ‘the well-greaved Achaeans,’ the reading of him has been discountenanced, and, if he has not actually lost his place at the table of Immortals, promised him when he temporarily left the Island of the Blest, it has not been so ‘distinguished’ a place as it was to have been and should have been. And all because he ‘wanted to know.’
His questions, of course, are not all put in the same manner. In the Dialogues of the Gods, for instance, the mark of interrogation is not writ large; they have almost the air at first of little stories in dialogue form, which might serve to instruct schoolboys in the attributes and legends of the gods — a manual charmingly done, yet a manual only. But we soon see that he has said to himself: Let us put the thing into plain natural prose, and see what it looks like with its glamour of poetry and reverence stripped off; the Gods do human things; why not represent them as human persons, and see what results? What did result was that henceforth any one who still believed in the pagan deities might at the cost of an hour’s light reading satisfy himself that his gods were not gods, or, if they were, had no business to be. Whether many or few did so read and so satisfy themselves, we have no means of knowing; it is easy to over-estimate the effect such writing may have had, and to forget that those who were capable of being convinced by exposition of this sort would mostly be those who were already convinced without; still, so far as Lucian had any effect on the religious position, it must have been in discrediting paganism and increasing the readiness to accept the new faith beginning to make its way. Which being so, it was ungrateful of the Christian church to turn and rend him. It did so, partly in error. Lucian had referred in the Life of Peregrine to the Christians, in words which might seem irreverent to Christians at a time when they were no longer an obscure sect; he had described and ridiculed in The Liar certain ‘Syrian’ miracles which have a remarkable likeness to the casting out of spirits by Christ and the apostles; and worse still, the Philopatris passed under his name. This dialogue, unlike what Lucian had written in the Peregrine and The Liar, is a deliberate attack on Christianity. It is clear to us now that it was written two hundred years after his time, under Julian the Apostate; but there can be no more doubt of its being an imitation of Lucian than of its not being his; it consequently passed for his, the story gained currency that he was an apostate himself, and his name was anathema for the church. It was only partly in error, however. Though Lucian might be useful on occasion (‘When Tertullian or Lactantius employ their labours in exposing the falsehood and extravagance of Paganism, they are obliged to transcribe the eloquence of Cicero or the wit of Lucian’ 3), the very word heretic is enough to remind us that the Church could not show much favour to one who insisted always on thinking for himself. His works survived, but he was not read, through the Middle Ages. With the Renaissance he partly came into his own again, but still laboured under the imputations of scoffing and atheism, which confined the reading of him to the few.
The method followed in the Dialogues of the Gods and similar pieces is a very indirect way of putting questions. It is done much more directly in others, the Zeus cross-examined, for instance. Since the fallen angels
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate —
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute —
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost,
these subjects have had their share of attention; but the questions can hardly be put more directly, or more neatly, than in the Zeus cross-examined, and the thirtieth Dialogue of the Dead.
He has many other interrogative methods besides these, which may be left to reveal themselves in the course of reading. As for answering questions, that is another matter. The answer is sometimes apparent, sometimes not; he will not refrain from asking a question just because he does not know the answer; his role is asking, not answering. Nor when he gives an answer is it always certain whether it is to be taken in earnest. Was he a cynic? one would say so after reading The Cynic; was he an Epicurean? one would say so after reading the Alexander; was he a philosopher? one would say Yes at a certain point of the Hermotimus, No at another. He doubtless had his moods, and he was quite unhampered by desire for any consistency except consistent independence of judgement. Moreover, the difficulty of getting at his real opinions is increased by the fact that he was an ironist. We have called him a self-revealer; but you never quite know where to have an ironical self-revealer. Goethe has the useful phrase, ‘direct irony’; a certain German writer ‘makes too free a use of direct irony, praising the blameworthy and blaming the praiseworthy — a rhetorical device which should be very sparingly employed. In the long run it disgusts the sensible and misleads the dull, pleasing only the great intermediate class to whom it offers the satisfaction of being able to think themselves more shrewd than other people, without expending much thought of their own’ (Wahrheit und Dichtung, book vii). Fielding gives us in Jonathan Wild a sustained piece of ‘direct irony’; you have only to reverse everything said, and you get the author’s meaning. Lucian’s irony is not of that sort; you cannot tell when you are to reverse him, only that you will have sometimes to do so. He does use the direct kind; The Rhetorician’s Vade mecum and The Parasite are examples; the latter is also an example (unless a translator, who is condemned not to skip or skim, is an unfair judge) of how tiresome it may become. But who shall say how much of irony and how much of genuine feeling there is in the fine description of the philosophic State given in the Hermotimus (with its suggestions of Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, and of the ‘not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble’), or in the whimsical extravagance (as it strikes a modern) of the Pantomime, or in the triumph permitted to the Cynic (against ‘Lycinus’ too) in the dialogue called after him? In one of his own introductory lectures he compares his pieces aptly enough to the bacchante’s thyrsus with its steel point concealed.
With his questions and his irony and his inconsistencies, it is no wonder that Lucian is accused of being purely negative and destructive. But we need not think he is disposed of in that way, any more than our old-fashioned literary education is disposed of when it has been pointed out that it does not equip its alumni with knowledge of electricity or of a commercially useful modern language; it may have equipped them with something less paying, but more worth paying for. Lucian, it is certain, will supply no one with a religion or a philosophy; but it may be doubted whether any writer will supply more fully both example and precept in favour of doing one’s thinking for oneself; and it may be doubted also whether any other intellectual lesson is more necessary. He is nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, if ever man was; he is individualist to the core. No religion or philosophy, he seems to say, will save you; the thing is to think for yourself, and be a man of sense. ‘It was but small consolation,’ says Menippus, ‘to reflect that I was in numerous and wise and eminently sensible company, if I was a fool still, all astray in my quest for truth.’ Vox populi is no vox dei for him; he is quite proof against majorities; Athanasius contra mundum is more to his taste. “What is this I hear?” asked Arignotus, scowling upon me; “you deny the existence of the supernatural, when there is scarcely a man who has not seen some evidence of it?” “Therein lies my exculpation,” I replied; “I do not believe in the supernatural, because, unlike the rest of mankind, I do not see it; if I saw, I should doubtless believe, just as you all do.”’ That British schoolboys should have been brought up for centuries on Ovid, and Lucian have been tabooed, is, in view of their comparative efficacy in stimulating thought, an interesting example of habent sua fata libelli.
It need not be denied that there is in him a certain lack of feeling, not surprising in one of his analytic temper, but not agreeable either. He is a hard bright intelligence, with no bowels; he applies the knife without the least compunction — indeed with something of savage enjoyment. The veil is relentlessly torn from family affection in the Mourning. Solon in the Charon pursues his victory so far as to make us pity instead of scorning Croesus. Menippus and his kind, in the shades, do their lashing of dead horses with a disagreeable gusto, which tempts us to raise a society for the prevention of cruelty to the Damned. A voyage through Lucian in search of pathos will yield as little result as one in search of interest in nature. There is a touch of it here and there (which has probably evaporated in translation) in the Hermotimus, the Demonax, and the Demosthenes; but that is all. He was perhaps not unconscious of all this himself. ‘But what is your profession?’ asks Philosophy. ‘I profess hatred of imposture and pretension, lying and pride . . . However, I do not neglect the complementary branch, in which love takes the place of hate; it includes love of truth and beauty and simplicity, and all that is akin to love. But the subjects for this branch of the profession are sadly few.’
Before going on to his purely literary qualities, we may collect here a few detached remarks affecting rather his character than his skill as an artist. And first of his relations to philosophy. The statements in the Menippus and the Icaromenippus, as well as in The Fisher and The double Indictment, have all the air of autobiography (especially as they are in the nature of digressions), and give us to understand that he had spent much time and energy on philosophic study. He claims Philosophy as his mistress in The Fisher, and in a case where he is in fact judge as well as party, has no difficulty in getting his claim established. He is for ever reminding us that he loves philosophy and only satirizes the degenerate philosophers of his day. But it will occur to us after reading him through that he has dissembled his love, then, very well. There is not a passage from beginning to end of his works that indicates any real comprehension of any philosophic system. The external characteristics of the philosophers, the absurd stories current about them, and the popular misrepresentations of their doctrines — it is in these that philosophy consists for him. That he had read some of them there is no doubt; but one has an uneasy suspicion that he read Plato because he liked his humour and his style, and did not trouble himself about anything further. Gibbon speaks of ‘the philosophic maze of the writings of Plato, of which the dramatic is perhaps more interesting than the argumentative part.’ That is quite a legitimate opinion, provided you do not undertake to judge philosophy in the light of it. The apparently serious rejection of geometrical truth in the Hermotimus may fairly suggest that Lucian was as unphilosophic as he was unmathematical. Twice, and perhaps twice only, does he express hearty admiration for a philosopher. Demonax is ‘the best of all philosophers’; but then he admired him just because he was so little of a philosopher and so much a man of ordinary common sense. And Epicurus is ‘the thinker who had grasped the nature of things and been in solitary possession of truth’; but then that is in the Alexander, and any stick was good enough to beat that dog with. The fact is, Lucian was much too well satisfied with his own judgement to think that he could possibly require guidance, and the commonplace test of results was enough to assure him that philosophy was worthless: ‘It is no use having all theory at your fingers’ ends, if you do not conform your conduct to the right.’ There is a description in the Pantomime that is perhaps truer than it is meant to pass for. ‘Lycinus’ is called ‘an educated man, and in some sort a student of philosophy.’
If he is not a philosopher, he is very much a moralist; it is because philosophy deals partly with morals that he thinks he cares for it. But here too his conclusions are of a very commonsense order. The Stoic notion that ‘Virtue consists in being uncomfortable’ strikes him as merely absurd; no asceticism for him; on the other hand, no lavish extravagance and Persici apparatus; a dinner of herbs with the righteous — that is, the cultivated Athenian — a neat repast of Attic taste, is honestly his idea of good living; it is probable that he really did sacrifice both money and fame to live in Athens rather than in Rome, according to his own ideal. That ideal is a very modest one; when Menippus took all the trouble to get down to Tiresias in Hades via Babylon, his reward was the information that ‘the life of the ordinary man is the best and the most prudent choice.’ So thought Lucian; and it is to be counted to him for righteousness that he decided to abandon ‘the odious practices that his profession imposes on the advocate — deceit, falsehood, bluster, clamour, pushing,’ for the quiet life of a literary man (especially as we should probably never have heard his name had he done otherwise). Not that the life was so quiet as it might have been. He could not keep his satire impersonal enough to avoid incurring enmities. He boasts in the Peregrine of the unfeeling way in which he commented on that enthusiast to his followers, and we may believe his assurance that his writings brought general dislike and danger upon him. His moralizing (of which we are happy to say there is a great deal) is based on Tiresias’s pronouncement. Moralizing has a bad name; but than good moralizing there is, when one has reached a certain age perhaps, no better reading. Some of us like it even in our novels, feel more at home with Fielding and Thackeray for it, and regretfully confess ourselves unequal to the artistic aloofness of a Flaubert. Well, Lucian’s moralizings are, for those who like such things, of the right quality; they are never dull, and the touch is extremely light. We may perhaps be pardoned for alluding to half a dozen conceptions that have a specially modern air about them. The use that Rome may serve as a school of resistance to temptation (Nigrinus, 19) recalls Milton’s ‘fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary.’ ‘Old age is wisdom’s youth, the day of her glorious flower’ (Heracles, 8) might have stood as a text for Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra. The brands visible on the tyrant’s soul, and the refusal of Lethe as a sufficient punishment (Voyage to the lower World, 24 and 28), have their parallels in our new eschatology. The decision of Zeus that Heraclitus and Democritus are to be one lot that laughter and tears will go together (Sale of Creeds, l3)— accords with our views of the emotional temperament. Chiron is impressive on the vanity of fruition (Dialogues of the Dead, 26). And the figuring of Truth as ‘the shadowy creature with the indefinite complexion’ (The Fisher, 16) is only one example of Lucian’s felicity in allegory.
Another weak point, for which many people will have no more inclination to condemn him than for his moralizing, is his absolute indifference to the beauties of nature. Having already given him credit for regarding nothing that is human as beyond his province, it is our duty to record the corresponding limitation; of everything that was not human he was simply unconscious; with him it was not so much that the proper as that the only study of mankind is man. The apparent exceptions are not real ones. If he is interested in the gods, it is as the creatures of human folly that he takes them to be. If he writes a toy essay with much parade of close observation on the fly, it is to show how amusing human ingenuity can be on an unlikely subject. But it is worth notice that ‘the first of the moderns,’ though he shows himself in many descriptions of pictures quite awake to the beauty manufactured by man, has in no way anticipated the modern discovery that nature is beautiful. To readers who have had enough of the pathetic fallacy, and of the second-rate novelist’s local colour, Lucian’s tacit assumption that there is nothing but man is refreshing. That he was a close enough observer of human nature, any one can satisfy himself by glancing at the Feast of Lapithae, the Dialogues of the Hetaerae, some of the Dialogues of the Gods, and perhaps best of all, The Liar.
As it occurs to himself to repel the imputation of plagiarism in A literary Prometheus, the point must be briefly touched upon. There is no doubt that Homer preceded him in making the gods extremely, even comically, human, that Plato showed him an example of prose dialogue, that Aristophanes inspired his constructive fancy, that Menippus provided him with some ideas, how far developed on the same lines we cannot now tell, that Menander’s comedies and Herodas’s mimes contributed to the absolute naturalness of his conversation. If any, or almost any, of these had never existed, Lucian would have been more or less different from what he is. His originality is not in the least affected by that; we may resolve him theoretically into his elements; but he too had the gift, that out of three sounds he framed, not a fourth sound, but a star. The question of his originality is no more important — indeed much less so — than that of Sterne’s.
When we pass to purely literary matters, the first thing to be remarked upon is the linguistic miracle presented to us. It is useless to dwell upon it in detail, since this is an introduction not to Lucian, but to a translation of Lucian; it exists, none the less. A Syrian writes in Greek, and not in the Greek of his own time, but in that of five or six centuries before, and he does it, if not with absolute correctness, yet with the easy mastery that we expect only from one in a million of those who write in their mother tongue, and takes his place as an immortal classic. The miracle may be repeated; an English-educated Hindu may produce masterpieces of Elizabethan English that will rank him with Bacon and Ben Jonson; but it will surprise us, when it does happen. That Lucian was himself aware of the awful dangers besetting the writer who would revive an obsolete fashion of speech is shown in the Lexiphanes.
Some faults of style he undoubtedly has, of which a word or two should perhaps be said. The first is the general taint of rhetoric, which is sometimes positively intolerable, and is liable to spoil enjoyment even of the best pieces occasionally. Were it not that ‘Rhetoric made a Greek of me,’ we should wish heartily that he had never been a rhetorician. It is the practice of talking on unreal cases, doubtless habitual with him up to forty, that must be responsible for the self-satisfied fluency, the too great length, and the perverse ingenuity, that sometimes excite our impatience. Naturally, it is in the pieces of inferior subject or design that this taint is most perceptible; and it must be forgiven in consideration of the fact that without the toilsome study of rhetoric he would not have been the master of Greek that he was.
The second is perhaps only a special case of the first. Julius Pollux, a sophist whom Lucian is supposed to have attacked in The Rhetorician’s Vade mecum, is best known as author of an Onomasticon, or word-list, containing the most important words relating to certain subjects. One would be reluctant to believe that Lucian condescended to use his enemy’s manual; but it is hard to think that he had not one of his own, of which he made much too good use. The conviction is constantly forced on a translator that when Lucian has said a thing sufficiently once, he has looked at his Onomasticon, found that there are some words he has not yet got in, and forthwith said the thing again with some of them, and yet again with the rest.
The third concerns his use of illustrative anecdotes, comparisons, and phrases. It is true that, if his pieces are taken each separately, he is most happy with all these (though it is hard to forgive Alexander’s bathe in the Cydnus with which The Hall opens); but when they are read continuously, the repeated appearances of the tragic actor disrobed, the dancing apes and their nuts, of Zeus’s golden cord, and of the ‘two octaves apart,’ produce an impression of poverty that makes us momentarily forget his real wealth.
We have spoken of the annoying tendency to pleonasm in Lucian’s style, which must be laid at the door of rhetoric. On the other hand let it have part of the credit for a thing of vastly more importance, his choice of dialogue as a form when he took to letters. It is quite obvious that he was naturally a man of detached mind, with an inclination for looking at both sides of a question. This was no doubt strengthened by the common practice among professional rhetoricians of writing speeches on both sides of imaginary cases. The level-headedness produced by this combination of nature and training naturally led to the selection of dialogue. In one of the preliminary trials of The double Indictment, Drink, being one of the parties, and consciously incapable at the moment of doing herself justice, employs her opponent, The Academy, to plead for as well as against her. There are a good many pieces in which Lucian follows the same method. In The Hall the legal form is actually kept; in the Peregrine speeches are delivered by an admirer and a scorner of the hero; in The Rhetorician’s Vade mecum half the piece is an imaginary statement of the writer’s enemy; in the Apology for ‘The dependent Scholar’ there is a long imaginary objection set up to be afterwards disposed of; the Saturnalian Letters are the cases of rich and poor put from opposite sides. None of these are dialogues; but they are all less perfect devices to secure the same object, the putting of the two views that the man of detached mind recognizes on every question. Not that justice is always the object; these devices, and dialogue still more, offer the further advantage of economy; no ideas need be wasted, if the subject is treated from more than one aspect. The choice of dialogue may be accounted for thus; it is true that it would not have availed much if the chooser had not possessed the nimble wit and the endless power of varying the formula which is so astonishing in Lucian; but that it was a matter of importance is proved at once by comparing the Alexander with The Liar, or The dependent Scholar with the Feast of Lapithae. Lucian’s non-dialogue pieces (with the exception of The True History) might have been written by other people; the dialogues are all his own.
About five-and-thirty of his pieces (or sets of pieces) are in dialogue, and perhaps the greatest proof of his artistic skill is that the form never palls; so great is the variety of treatment that no one of them is like another. The point may be worth dwelling on a little. The main differences between dialogues, apart from the particular writer’s characteristics, are these: the persons may be two only, or more; they may be well or ill-matched; the proportions and relations between conversation and narrative vary; and the objects in view are not always the same. It is natural for a writer to fall into a groove with some or all of these, and produce an effect of sameness. Lucian, on the contrary, so rings the changes by permutations and combinations of them that each dialogue is approached with a delightful uncertainty of what form it may take. As to number of persons, it is a long step from the Menippus to the crowded dramatis personae of The Fisher or the Zeus Tragoedus, in the latter of which there are two independent sets, one overhearing and commenting upon the other. It is not much less, though of another kind, from The Parasite, where the interlocutor is merely a man of straw, to the Hermotimus, where he has life enough to give us ever fresh hopes of a change in fortune, or to the Anacharsis, where we are not quite sure, even when all is over, which has had the best. Then if we consider conversation and narrative, there are all kinds. Nigrinus has narrative in a setting of dialogue, Demosthenes vice versa, The Liar reported dialogue inside dialogue; Icaromenippus is almost a narrative, while The Runaways is almost a play. Lastly, the form serves in the Toxaris as a vehicle for stories, in the Hermotimus for real discussion, in Menippus as relief for narrative, in the Portrait-study for description, in The Cock to convey moralizing, in The double Indictment autobiography, in the Lexiphanes satire, and in the short series it enshrines prose idylls.
These are considerations of a mechanical order, perhaps; it may be admitted that technical skill of this sort is only valuable in giving a proper chance to more essential gifts; but when those exist, it is of the highest value. And Lucian’s versatility in technique is only a symbol of his versatile powers in general. He is equally at home in heaven and earth and hell, with philosophers and cobblers, telling a story, criticizing a book, describing a picture, elaborating an allegory, personifying an abstraction, parodying a poet or a historian, flattering an emperor’s mistress, putting an audience into good temper with him and itself, unveiling an imposture, destroying a religion or a reputation, drawing a character. The last is perhaps the most disputable of the catalogue. How many of his personages are realities to us when we have read, and not mere labels for certain modes of thought or conduct? Well, characterization is not the first, but only the second thing with him; what is said matters rather more than who says it; he is more desirous that the argument should advance than that the person should reveal himself; nevertheless, nothing is ever said that is out of character; while nothing can be better of the kind than some of his professed personifications, his Plutus or his Philosophy, we do retain distinct impressions of at least an irresponsible Zeus and a decorously spiteful Hera, a well-meaning, incapable Helius, a bluff Posidon, a gallant Prometheus, a one-idea’d Charon; Timon is more than misanthropy, Eucrates than superstition, Anacharsis than intelligent curiosity, Micyllus than ignorant poverty, poor Hermotimus than blind faith, and Lucian than a scoffer.
1 Some words of Sir Leslie Stephen’s may be given, however, describing the welter of religious opinions that prevailed at both epochs: ‘The analogy between the present age and that which witnessed the introduction of Christianity is too striking to have been missed by very many observers. The most superficial acquaintance with the general facts shows how close a parallel might be drawn by a competent historian. There are none of the striking manifestations of the present day to which it would not be easy to produce an analogy, though in some respects on a smaller scale. Now, as then, we can find mystical philosophers trying to evolve a satisfactory creed by some process of logical legerdemain out of theosophical moonshine; and amiable and intelligent persons labouring hard to prove that the old mythology could be forced to accept a rationalistic interpretation — whether in regard to the inspection of entrails or prayers for fine weather; and philosophers framing systems of morality entirely apart from the ancient creeds, and sufficiently satisfactory to themselves, while hopelessly incapable of impressing the popular mind; and politicians, conscious that the basis of social order was being sapped by the decay of the faith in which it had arisen, and therefore attempting the impossible task of galvanizing dead creeds into a semblance of vitality; and strange superstitions creeping out of their lurking-places, and gaining influence in a luxurious society whose intelligence was an ineffectual safeguard against the most grovelling errors; and a dogged adherence of formalists and conservatives to ancient ways, and much empty profession of barren orthodoxy; and, beneath all, a vague disquiet, a breaking up of ancient social and natural bonds, and a blind groping toward some more cosmopolitan creed and some deeper satisfaction for the emotional needs of mankind.’— The Religion of all Sensible Men in An Agnostic’s Apology, 1893.
2 Wahrheit und Dichtung, book iv.
3 Gibbon, Decline and Fall, cap. xv.
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