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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Lucian (c. 125–after 180)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Emily James Putnam (1865–1944)
DURING the middle and end of the second Christian century, a revival of Greek letters gave us the remarkable movement known as the New Sophistic. For the most part futile in aim and pedantic in method, the sophistic offers such a spectacle of solemn and fatuous frivolity that the lover of Hellenism knows not where to look. But by sheer force of monopoly in education and literature, the school counted as its disciples whatever men of talent the century produced; and among them a man of letters of almost the highest rank. Having as their aim nothing less than a forcible recovery of the productive Greek genius, the sophists followed a vigorous propædeutic in the works of the great masters. A critical knowledge of the vocabulary of Plato, of the Attic orators, and of the Old Comedy, was the foundation of every sophist’s skill. This erudition, in itself respectable and helpful, was however put to foolish use. The difference between using the language of Demosthenes and being one’s self an orator was overlooked. Famous sentences of great writers were worked over, rearranged, and presented as a fresh creation,—as Virgilian tags to-day coldly furnish forth the English schoolboy’s verses. It was probably the influence of Rome that determined the revival as oratorical in form; the empire furnished it with endowed chairs of rhetoric, with a royal audience, and with political importance: yet it was held a solecism by the sophists to introduce a Roman name or an allusion to Rome into a Greek composition.  1
  Worldly ambition, then, and literary tastes pulled in the same direction; and for a clever lad, growing up in a far Syrian village, conscious of great gifts, and of a tumultuous egoism, there was no alternative. Breaking away from the handicraft to which he was apprenticed, Lucian betook himself, still a boy of fifteen, to the study of Greek and to the profession of rhetoric. Asia Minor was full of sophists. It is not likely that Lucian was able to afford a course under any of the great masters, and he nowhere speaks of any such thing. But the air was so full of their theories, and their public performances were so frequent, that an apt student could easily learn what their art was like. At any rate, we know that Lucian’s ambition was successful: that he acquired what culture the sophistic had to offer, won a share of its prizes,—and then broke with it, laughing at its methods and pretensions with the detachment of a critic of to-day. The modern reader of Lucian is impressed by no quality more strongly than by his spontaneity; an adequate estimate of his talent must be based on the reflection that this spontaneity is inclosed in stereotyped forms and expressed in an acquired language. His fair structure is raised on made ground. He owed the tools he worked with, as well as the designs he followed, to the sophistic; and the weapons that he turned on his preceptress were from her own anvil. A man cannot, by criticizing his early education, rid himself of the effects of it; and in spite of Lucian’s conscious originality, scorn of pedantry, and apparent disregard of convention, we must realize that he is after all but the most favorable example of what the sophistic training could do.  2
  Possessed of a sense of humor that permitted even his irritable vanity no illusions, and of a deep conviction of the unimportance of serious matters, Lucian would have been delighted to hear that the theologians and moralists of a new era were destined to take him seriously. It is undeniable that he spoke slightingly of the Christians on the one hand, and on the other took liberties with Olympus; but it can hardly be proved that he was interested either in hastening the end of the old order or in deferring the installation of the new. In the extraordinary spiritual conditions of the second century of our era, Lucian’s attitude finds a background so striking as to produce a feeling that in some way, contrary to the general laws of things, he stood alone, unrelated to the spirit of his age, and without sympathy as without peers. Religion was under the protection of the empire and of Stoicism; strange new doctrines were freely taught and followed with fanaticism; the soul was not only held immortal, but was believed to revisit the earth after its liberation from the body; new oracles made themselves heard; philosophy leaned to mysticism. And in this heyday of error a great writer appeared, distinguished next to his literary gifts by a coolness of judgment in such matters, and a taste for the truth, that would have been remarkable in any age.  3
  The ‘Dialogues of the Gods,’ probably the most famous of Lucian’s works, from which the first two selections in this collection are made, were written to be delivered by him in person before a popular audience. When an author under these circumstances devoted his talents to parodying the popular religion, what idea are we to form as to his own attitude, that of his hearers, and the effect he hoped to produce? It seems idle to imagine either that Lucian’s audience was a band of atheists, drawn together primarily by the spirit of philosophic controversy; or that Lucian himself, without being sure of the temper of his hearers, was willing to risk unpopularity, if need be, in the interests of truth as he conceived it. The second alternative was Friedlander’s view, and is indeed generally held. But we may be sure, from Lucian’s own account of the genesis of the new form of comic dialogue, that his interest in its workings was chiefly literary; it was the literary possibilities of Olympus that inspired the ‘Dialogues of the Gods.’ There is no trace in them of the bitterness of polemic, or the forcing of the note that we should expect to find if he relied on his irreverence as his chief charm. And next to satisfying his own high standard of literary excellence, his chief preoccupation was to recommend himself to the public. When his attacks on contemporary philosophy passed the limit of what the public wanted in that line; when his praise of a great person, or the variance between his theory and practice in the matter of taking salaries, were the subject of unflattering comment,—he was at pains to meet objections and explain them away. Half a dozen passages betray his sensitive vanity and his desire that men should speak well of him. With these evidences of his temperament and his methods, it is impossible to believe in him as an apostle.  4
  The revival of orthodoxy which marked the religious thought of the second century was a voluntary reaction against the skepticism of the preceding age; men agreed to believe in the gods because they could not bear to do without them. The literature of the day shows a conscious surrender of the rights of the intellect, a willingness to blink the truth if error satisfied the heart; a desire to marshal the hopes and fears connected with the supernatural among the motives toward right conduct, and a bewilderment in scientific matters that left room for the existence in heaven and earth of many things inexplicable by any philosophy. The difference between an artificial religious attitude like this, and the uncritical faith of men who believe in the gods on grounds that they have never thought of questioning, must be taken into account before we can estimate the effect of Lucian’s parodies. Though Aristides might write a hymn to Zeus, and Dion celebrate him in all his functions, still each man had his own complex of ideas represented by the name; and it is hardly possible that to thoughtful minds it still called up with moving force the Homeric husband of Hera. The laborious task was not to throw off the phraseology and demeanor of orthodoxy, but to preserve them; and Lucian declined to make the effort.  5
  His parody, then, of the Homeric gods, though it undoubtedly produced in many of his hearers a pleasurable thrill of misgiving, a sense of almost perilous audacity in the light use of words once sacred, derived its effect primarily from its literary quality. We may safely say that the substitution of everyday prose for the epic style in the mouths of the gods was more striking to the audience than the ethical and theological inferences to be drawn from the dialogues. That is to say, the inferences must have been tolerably familiar to men’s minds before such an entertainment could be risked by a popular performer. In these dialogues Lucian keeps to the authorities. He takes each situation as he finds it, and holds tradition sacred, showing a literary preoccupation obviously incompatible with a serious tendency. Most of them show little of the malice of caricature; the scene between Aphrodite and Selene, included here, with its charming pictures of the sleeping Endymion, would not have shocked the Theocritean worshipers of Adonis. Those in which the comic element is stronger, still stand on their own merits as character studies; and the fact that the persons concerned were once held to be divine seems to have been less before the author’s mind than the fact that Homer once treated of them in the grand manner, clothing even undignified situations in a majesty which it was Lucian’s delight to tear away.  6
  Most handbooks of the history of ancient philosophy include Lucian’s name, though with some vagueness in the statement of their grounds for so doing. It is true that he had a great deal to say about philosophers, and something about philosophy; but this was the result of two accidental circumstances. One of these was the fact of Plato’s style, which had an irresistible claim on him as a man of letters; the other was the prevalence of philosophers as a picturesque element in that contemporary society which he was interested in describing. The Platonic system as a lesson in expression, and contemporary systems as social phenomena, occupied him greatly; with the fortunate result that we know how each affected a man of the world. In close relation to the literary hold of Plato himself on Lucian, we must take into account the attraction that existed for his taste in the decency of the contemporary Platonic discipline and the exclusiveness of the Platonic temper. The Platonist in Lucian’s Symposium is the type of propriety in appearance and conduct, and exhibits a strained and scornful courtesy. Plato himself remains aloof, even beyond the grave, and is found neither in Hades nor in the Isles of the Blest, preferring to dwell in his own Polity. But this exclusiveness was too congenial to Lucian to be dwelt on with any vigor of sarcasm, and indeed he reflects part of it in his remarks on the shoemaker in philosophy. For physical theory and metaphysics he never had a serious word, rejecting them with an easy assumption of superiority on the ground that their advocates differed among themselves and used terms unintelligible to a layman; and it was not only the contemporary presentation to which he objected, but that of the originators as well, Plato among the rest.  7
  Besides these two feelings for Platonism,—indifference to its metaphysics and enthusiasm for its form,—Lucian had a deep distrust of it in a practical matter that interested him greatly; viz., the question of the marvelous and its credibility. The Platonic doctrine of the future state of the soul had expanded into a variety of fantastic beliefs, developed by the Stoics for ethical purposes into a doctrinal basis for ghost stories. In one aspect the “dæmon” was an underling and emissary of the supreme godhead, immortal but subject to sensation, working with men in all ways, and appearing to them in visible shape as this god or that. In another aspect it was man’s own soul, divine in essence though conditioned by the limitations of bodily life, which when freed from its earthly hamper came freely among men out of pity for their impotent condition, which it once shared. These two conceptions of the dæmon converged in the general notion of innumerable supernatural agencies, corporeal and therefore of like passions with men, who spoke through the oracles, possessed epileptics, haunted houses, and conveniently accounted for the inexplicable in general.  8
  The manifestations of this belief and the unscrupulous use made of it by impostors constituted a burning question with Lucian; and in his travels through the world, this phase of folly moved him to more than disinterested literary treatment. We have seen how little odium theologicum he brought to bear on Olympus, even contriving to give his readers a fresh impression of the ineffable beauty of goddesses and the petulant grace of nymphs. And even when his quick and impatient mind was playing with the philosophers,—whether selling them at auction in pure frolic, or as a man of the world telling a friend with innuendo how they dine, or ranging himself with the great dead and haranguing his contemporaries with a rhetoric at which he smiled himself,—it is plain that in his eyes the literary opportunities they gave him excused their existence. After all, he did not excite himself about them. But one set of persons and ideas so stirred him as to break through his serenity, and bring him down from his seat as a spectator to try a fall himself. In the ‘Philopseudes,’—the third of the selections here given,—a Stoic, a Platonist, a Peripatetic, and a Pythagorean, meeting at the bedside of a sick friend, exchange tales of the marvelous, and try to persuade Tychiades, the champion of common-sense, that dæmons exist, and phantasms, and that the souls of the dead walk the earth, appearing to whom they will. Of the sects represented, it was the Platonists and Pythagoreans who were chiefly responsible for the degradation of the dæmon theory; and Lucian’s feeling toward them is expressed in the dialogue with successful malice. Apart from this consideration, the most significant passage for Lucian’s philosophy expresses his approval of Democritus’s steadfast conviction that souls do not exist after they leave the body. His agreement with Democritus and the Epicureans in this matter, more fully expressed in his remarkable pamphlet on Alexander the charlatan of Abonotichas, seems to be the nearest approach he made towards seriously adopting the tenets of a sect.  9
  The selections given here, and this commentary on them, cover the chief ground of debate in regard to Lucian. Neither a theologian nor a philosopher, he contrived by means of his literary gift so to clothe ideas in themselves unimportant as to give them a goodly chance of immortality. The Christian scholiasts of the Byzantine age read him with anathemas; the scholars of the Renaissance recovered him with delight; Erasmus and Sir Thomas More used him as a literary model; Raphael and Dürer illustrated him. In recent days Mr. Pater has given him a fresh vogue with the general reader; and scholars are busy with his text, his style, and his antiquities. Interest in him is not likely to fail: he lived in a period of vital historic issues. By birth a Syrian, politically a Roman, intellectually the last of the Hellenes, he stands as an epitome of the most momentous of international episodes.  10
  BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—There is a translation of the complete works of Lucian by H. W. and F. G. Fowler (1905); and a second version with a revised text by A. M. Harmon is in course of publication in the Loeb Classical Library. Translations of selected works have been done by Howard Williams (London, 1888); Emily James Putnam (New York, 1892); and Sidney T. Irwin (London, 1894). Partial translations of ‘Hermotimus’ and ‘The Halcyon’ occur in Walter Pater’s ‘Marius the Epicurean,’ pages 245–248 and 291–310. An English commentary on Lucian’s life and works is to be found in the volume entitled ‘Lucian’ of the ‘Ancient Classics for English Readers’ Series, by the Rev. W. L. Collins. ‘Selections from Lucian,’ in the original Greek, have been edited with English notes by Evelyn Abbott, London, 1872. Several other editions of one or more works of Lucian are included in the ‘Pitt Press’ and ‘Clarendon Press’ series.  11

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