Essays and Addresses/Lucian
Lucian, a native of Samosata in northern Syria, lived in the middle and latter part of the second century; the date of his birth and of his death is unknown. Early in life he adopted the calling of a rhetorician, or "sophistes," lecturing in Ionia, Syria, Greece, Italy, and Gaul. Afterwards he settled at Athens, and devoted himself to the literary work which made his fame. It is his peculiar distinction in the history of letters that he was the first to employ the form of dialogue, not on grave themes, but as a vehicle of comedy and satire. He intimates this claim in the piece entitled The Twice-accused, which is so called because Lucian is there arraigned by personified Rhetoric on the one part and by Dialogue on the other. Rhetoric upbraids him with having forsaken her for the bearded Dialogus, the henchman of philosophy; while Dialogus complains that the Syrian has dragged him from his philosophical heaven to earth, and given him a tragic instead of a comic mask. Lucian's dialogoies blend an irony, in which Plato had been his master, with an Aristophanic mirth and fancy. His satire ranges over the whole life of his time. And he has been an originating force in literature. His True History is the prototype of such works as Gulliver's Travels; his Dialogues of the Dead were precursors of Landor's Imaginary Conversations. A man of letters in Lucian's day might have said with Virgil, but in a yet wider sense, "Omnia iam vulgata." Lucian always tried, in his own phrase, to keep out of the ruts (ἁρματοτροχίας ἀλεείνειν, Δημ. Ἐγκ., 23). Thus in his Encomium on Demosthenes he lends freshness to a well-worn theme by the ingenious fiction of an old manuscript containing a journal of the Macedonian Court, and recording, among other things, a conversation between the Regent Antipater and the man Archias, whom he sent to arrest the Athenian orator. But the present lecture cannot attempt to deal with the whole range of Lucian's writings. Its scope will be confined to three points—(1) Lucian's testimony to the state of pagan religion in his own day; (2) his view of contemporary philosophy; (3) his references to Christianity.
It will be remembered that Lucian's time—the second half of the second century—was a critical moment in the history of the Church. The dilemma which then confronted Christians has been thus stated by Professor Harnack:—
"Should the Church take the decisive step into the world—consent to its arrangements, conform to its customs, acknowledge as far as possible its authorities, and satisfy its requirements? Or ought she, on the other hand, to remain, as she had been at first, a society of religious devotees, separated and shut out from the world by a rigorous discipline, and working on it only through a direct propaganda?"
The Church, as a whole, took that step, while Montanism was the protest of a minority against it. The Church—
"Marched through the open door into the Roman State, and settled down there for a long career of activity, to Christianize the State along all its thoroughfares by the word of the Gospel, but at the same time leaving it everything except its gods."
A special interest therefore belongs to such literature as can help to illustrate the intellectual and moral conditions of the pagan world at the moment when the Church was about to take this step. And there is, perhaps, no pagan writer of precisely that time who is more suggestive in this respect than Lucian. We will consider first, then, what he has to tell us concerning the condition of the old polytheism and the superstitions which engrafted themselves upon it. Here a concrete example, with details, will be more illuminating than any abstract statement. We may begin with one of his most instructive pieces, that which is entitled Alexander, or the False Prophet—an account of a person whom he had known and of a career which he had watched.
This Alexander entered on his course of imposture with many personal advantages. He was tall, well-looking, and of a commanding presence; his fair complexion, his brilliant eyes, and the comely locks to which he added a profusion of false curls, gave him an Olympian air in the eyes of the multitude; and his voice was singularly melodious. In youth he apprenticed himself to a magician who had himself been a disciple of that renowned impostor, Apollonius of Tyana; and from this man he acquired a smattering of medicine which he afterwards turned to good account. His master having died, Alexander entered into partnership with an unsuccessful writer of comedy at Byzantium, and the worthy pair went about the neighbouring regions, fleecing the ignorant country people. At Pella, in Macedonia, they happened to notice a species of large serpents, tame and harmless, which were domestic pets with the inhabitants; and they bought a fine specimen of this creature for a few pence. An idea had occurred to them. The old oracles of Delphi and other places were decaying, or already dumb; they would set up a new oracle. Where was it to be? The Byzantine suggested Chalcedon; but Alexander insisted that no seat for the oracle could be so suitable as his own birth-place, an obscure little town on the coast of Paphlagonia, called Abonoteichos, where the population was grossly superstitious. They laid their plans accordingly. In a half-ruined temple of Apollo at Chalcedon they buried a pair of brass tablets, with this inscription: "Aesculapius and his father Apollo will presently pass into Pontus, and fix his abode at Abonoteichos." Alexander took care that these tablets should soon be dug up; and the fame of the discovery spread quickly through northern Asia Minor. At Abonoteichos itself—the favoured town designated in the inscription—the inhabitants immediately set about digging the foundations of a temple. Alexander now went thither, provided with an oracle which declared him to be descended from the Homeric physician, Podaleirius, and connected with the hero Perseus. He wore a white robe, striped with purple, and carried a scimitar such as that which was usually given to Perseus in works of art. At intervals he was seized with a prophetic frenzy, when he seemed to foam at the mouth, an appearance which he produced by chewing the root of soap-wort. It was now time that the expected deity himself, Aesculapius, should appear. One night, therefore, Alexander stole out of his house and went to the spot where the foundations of the new temple were being excavated. Some water was collected in the diggings. Alexander had previously scooped out a goose's egg and enclosed a new-born little snake in the shell, carefully overlaying the seam with wax. He now buried the goose's egg in the mud at the bottom of the diggings, and went home again. Next morning he rushed into the town with an embroidered apron about his loins and the scimitar in his right hand, shaking his dishevelled locks like one inspired, sprang upon an altar, and greeted the people with the glad tidings that Aesculapius was about to appear among them. Then he ran to the new temple with the whole town at his heels. On reaching the pool of water at the diggings he sang a hymn to Apollo and Aesculapius. He then asked for a cup, with which he carefully extricated the goose's egg from the mud. "Here," he cried, holding up the &gg, "I have him; I will show you Aesculapius." The people, already astonished by the discovery of the egg, watched intently to see what would happen next. When he broke the shell, and received the little snake into the hollow of his hand, and when they saw the creature moving and twisting about his fingers, they shouted for joy, welcomed the god, and congratulated their town. Alexander hastened back to his house, carrying with him the infant Aesculapius. After a few days of seclusion he announced that Aesculapius was prepared to receive his votaries. The crowd who flocked to Alexander's house passed through a dimly lighted room, in which Alexander was seated. The large tame serpent—that which he had bought at Pella—was twined round his neck and breast. A linen mask had been prepared, representing a large serpent's head, but with some resemblance to a human face, and provided with a contrivance of horse-hairs for opening the mouth, and thrusting forth a black, forked tongue. This head peeped from under the prophet's right arm. People came from all parts of the country to see the newly arrived Aesculapius. Alexander next made it known that the divinity was ready to give oracles. Any one who wished to consult the god must write his question on a little scroll, seal it up, and give it to the prophet, who would take it into the temple, and on coming out report the god's answer. The fee for an oracle was about tenpence, and so enormous was the demand that even at this modest price the prophet was soon making an income equivalent to about £500 a year. And now comes what is, perhaps, the most instructive part of the story. Thus far Alexander had been dealing with simple provincials, mostly rustics, in Asia Minor. But his renown had now spread to Italy. Romans of the highest position sent messengers to consult him. Some of the questions asked by these eminent persons would, if published, have endangered their fortunes or lives. In all such cases Alexander was careful to retain the papers. He thus held their wealthy writers in his power. A remarkable illustration of his prestige was afforded about the year 166, when a pestilence was ravaging large portions of the empire. An oracle given by Alexander was at that time displayed on the front of innumerable houses as a charm against the plague. A few years later, when Marcus Aurelius was engaged in his Germanic wars, Alexander sent a ridiculous oracle to the Roman camp, promising victory if two lions were thrown into the Danube; and it was actually done. But the next advantage, unfortunately, was gained by the Germans; and Alexander had to explain, like Apollo to Croesus, that he had not said which side was to win. On another occasion a whole household of slaves was cast to the wild beasts, because Alexander had accused them of murdering their young master, who reappeared a few years later. Emboldened by success, Alexander instituted new mysteries, in which the birth of Aesculapius was one of the principal features, and another was the prophet's own marriage with the Goddess Selene. On the first day of these mysteries the following proclamation was made:—"If any atheist, Christian, or Epicurean has come to espy our holy rites, let him flee hence." Alexander then cried, "Turn out the Christians"; and the crowd responded in chorus, "Turn out the Epicureans." Lucian—who himself was friendly to the Epicureans—laid some ingenious traps for Alexander's oracle, and records some of the absurd answers which he received. On one occasion he personally visited Alexander at Abonoteichos:—
"On coming into the room," he says, "I found a throng of people about Alexander; but luckily I had brought two soldiers with me. He extended his hand for me to kiss, as usual; I pressed it to my lips, and gave it such a bite that I nearly maimed him. The bystanders were ready to beat or strangle me for the sacrilege; they had already been annoyed by my addressing him as 'Alexander,' and not as 'Prophet.' He, however, bore it right manfully, pacified them, and promised to render me quite docile, so as to illustrate the goodness of his god in softening the roughest natures. Then he ordered the rest to withdraw, and proceeded to remonstrate with me. 'What motive can you have,' he said, 'for treating us thus, when I could do so much to help you?' For my part," says Lucian, "I was only too glad to meet these advances, when I saw how narrow my escape had been; and presently I came out of the room on amicable terms with him—a fresh miracle in the eyes of his admirers."
In another of Lucian's pieces—the Philopseudes, or "lie-fancier"—there is, I think, an allusion to this interview. A person asks what it is that makes so many people take a positive pleasure in telling untruths; and his friend suggests the motive of self-interest. The other speaker explains that he is thinking only of objectless falsehoods, and adds:—
"Indulgence, or, in some cases, commendation, may be granted to ruses practised on an enemy, or to people who tell an untruth to save themselves in peril—as Ulysses often did, 'guarding his own life, and his comrades' return.'"
Lucian may well have been thinking of his feigned reconciliation with Alexander, by which alone, as it seemed, he could save himself and the companions of his journey. He relates that, shortly after this reconciliation, Alexander plotted to have him drowned at sea, and that he escaped only by a change of purpose in the captain of the vessel, who had been bribed to do the murder, but at the last moment recoiled from such a villainy.
The portrait of this Alexander, which Lucian has drawn with so much detail, is interesting for the vivid light which it casts on the condition of declining paganism. The extreme crudeness of the charlatan's methods did not prevent his having an immense and prolonged success. His dupes were not found only among ignorant rustics, but also among people of good education, and even in the high places of the empire. We may be sure, too, that this Alexander was no solitary phenomenon, but a type. Apollonius of Tyana, in the first century, was doubtless a man of different calibre from the prophet of Abonoteichos; but the state of mind to which he appealed was much the same, and his claims were of a kindred order. The normal forces of the old polytheism were well-nigh spent. It was only by some startling novelty—such as that which this Alexander provided in the new birth of Aesculapius—that the flagging interest of the populace could be revived. The general deadness of the pagan world in regard to religion, and the dearth of higher intellectual interests, made an opening for every kind of superstition, which could not be too gross or too stupid if only it furnished excitement.
In the satire which Lucian directs against the pagan gods, irony is blended with Aristophanic mockery; but the tone of the whole is far removed from that of the old comedy. It is not the tone of the Attic Dionysia, a festival at which the gods themselves were deemed to permit and enjoy raillery; it is that of an age in which the divinities of the old popular faith were no longer seriously taken by the majority of intellectual men, even though such men might acquiesce or participate in the ceremonies of a cult still upheld by the State. The pervading idea of Lucian's satire in this province is exceedingly simple. Pagan polytheism was anthropomorphic. Be it so, says Lucian; your gods are men and women; let us then represent them consistently as men and women. His device consists merely in pushing bare anthropomorphism to its extreme logical result; much as Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, deduces all the marvels, with logical precision, from the relative scales and properties of certain given creatures. As an example, we may take a passage from that ingenious piece, Zeus Tragoedus, "Jupiter in Buskins." At the opening of the scene Zeus is surrounded by the deities who form the inner circle of his court. In great agitation he confides to them that, the day before, he had overheard a Stoic and an Epicurean philosopher arguing about the gods before a large and able audience. The Epicurean maintained that the gods, if they existed at all, had no concern with human affairs. The Stoic maintained that the gods cared for men. "You see our danger," says Zeus to his advisers; "we depend on a single man." A general council of gods is then summoned. As they arrive, Hermes, bearing his wand of office, shows them to their appointed places. While this is being done, the following conversation proceeds:—
"Zeus—Good, Hermes, good; here they come: place them in order of merit, according to their material and workmanship—the golden gods first—then, the silver—next, the ivory—last, the bronze or stone; and among these let the works of good artists have precedence. As to the clumsy rabble, they must be packed together and hold their peace at the end of the hall.
"Hermes—Yes, sire. But may I ask one question? If a heavy golden fellow comes, is he to sit before the bronze gods of Myron and Polycleitus and the stone gods of Pheidias and Alcamenes? Or is art to have precedence?
"Zeus—It should have, by rights; but, as things are, gold must have the front seats.
"Hermes—I see; we are an aristocracy of wealth. This way, golden gods! This way to the reserved seats! (Aside.) Zeus, the barbarian gods will have the front seats all to themselves! You see what the Greek gods are like—graceful, comely, artistically dressed—but all stone or bronze, or ivory at the best, with perhaps a little surface gleam of gilding, and a body of wood, and whole troops of mice in their interiors. But here is Bendis, and Anubis, and Attis beside him, and Mithras and Mên—all of sterling bullion, and really worth their weight in gold. "Poseidon— Do you mean to say, Hermes, that you are going to put this dog-faced Egyptian above me, Poseidon?
"Hermes—Yes, my Earth-shaker; but Lysippus made you of poor bronze, as the Corinthians had no gold at the time, and this god is whole mines richer. So you must pocket the indignity, and not be put out if you have to sit below the possessor of such a splendid golden nose.
"Aphrodite—Now, Hermes, me a place in the front seats; I am golden.
"Hermes—Madam, I really cannot perceive it. Unless I am very purblind, you are of white marble, from the quarry of Pentelicus, a goddess by the grace of Praxiteles, and the property of the good people of Cnidus by contract...."
After several other protests—including one from the Colossus of Rhodes on the score of his weight—all the members of the assembly are seated. Silence is proclaimed, and all are waiting for Zeus to open the proceedings, when he whispers to Hermes, in great agitation, that he has forgotten every word of an elaborate exordium which he had prepared:—
"Hermes (aside, to Zeus)—Do as the orators do—take the opening of one of the Philippics, just changing a word or two.
"Zeus—Yes, a very good suggestion.
"Hermes—Begin, then, do.
"Zeus—Few things, I believe, would be more gratifying to the honourable deities in this House than to learn the nature of the business for which it has now been convoked. Such being the case, I may venture to ask for your close attention. The present crisis, I would tell this House, has almost an articulate voice, with which it proclaims that we must lay a vigorous grasp on the opportunity which will else elude us. To this opportunity, I fear, honourable members are but too indifferent......I cannot remember any more Demosthenes......Well, I want to tell you plainly what alarmed me into calling this meeting. Yesterday, as you know. Captain Goodman, the skipper, offered a thanksgiving sacrifice for the safety of his ship, which had narrowly escaped being wrecked, and we were his guests in the Peiraeus—I mean, as many of us as he invited. When it was over, and I was taking my evening stroll in the Peiraeus, I meditated on the shabbiness of Captain Goodman, who asked sixteen gods to his table, and gave them nothing but one cock, a very old and fusty bird too, and four grains of frankincense, which were so mouldy that they were smothered at once by the coals, without gratifying our noses with the faintest whiff—and this, though the fellow had promised us roast oxen by the hundred, when he was drifting on to the rock inside the reefs. Well, as I was pondering these things, I came opposite the Painted Porch, and saw a great crowd of people, some of them within the porch itself, others in the open verandah, others on the benches, shouting and gesticulating. I guessed the state of the case—that these were philosophers of the disputatious sort—and I felt desirous to draw nearer and to hear what they were saying. So, as I happened to be wearing one of my thick clouds, I draped it in philosopher's fashion, pulled down my beard a little, till I looked just like one of themselves, and elbowed my way through the crowd without being recognised. I found that rascally Epicurean Damis, and Timocles, the Stoic, a thoroughly good fellow, engaged in a fierce dispute. Timocles was perspiring, and had almost lost his voice from bellowing; Damis was smiling with sardonic derision, and exasperating him still more. Now, their whole talk was about us. That blessed Damis said that we took no care of men, and did not regard what happens on earth—in short, he denied our existence, for that was really what his argument came to. Timocles was on our side, and stood up for us, and protested, and battled for us in every possible way, praising our care, and explaining how we conduct and dispose every province of affairs in an orderly and fitting manner. He had some few supporters, but, in fact, he was utterly exhausted, and was speaking indistinctly, while the crowd was all in favour of Damis. I saw our peril; so I ordered Night to lower her veil and break up the meeting.... The people separated, agreeing to meet again to-morrow and conclude the discussion....This is why I have convened you. It is very serious, if you reflect that all our honour and glory and revenue depend on mankind....You must all devise some means of making Timocles win, and having Damis laughed down by his hearers. For I do not feel quite sure that Timocles can win by himself, unless some aid is given to him by you."
Zeus having thus opened the debate, it is taken up by Momus, the spirit of censure, who tells the assembly some truths. Honourable members must not be surprised, says Momus, to hear that such opinions prevail on earth. What are mortals to think when they see the best men perishing in poverty and sickness and slavery, while the worst men are loaded with riches and honours? "If the truth must be told," Momus concludes, "we sit here, indifferent to everything except the sacrifice and the savoury steam from the altars. Everything else goes with wind and tide, and as chance may waft it." This avowal scandalises the assembly, and Momus is reproved. But no one has anything practical to suggest. Poseidon proposes that Zeus should strike Damis with a thunderbolt, but is bluntly told that the idea is worthy only of a sea-pig; how could it be done without the consent of Destiny? Apollo intervenes with a criticism on Timocles. Timocles, he observes, is a worthy man, of good repute as a professor, and has large classes; it is only when he goes on a platform that he is apt to lose his head and flounder. The great point is to secure that he shall speak clearly. Here Momus interrupts:—
"Quite right, Apollo, to commend clearness—though your own oracles are not everything that might be desired in that respect. But what do you propose?" Apollo suggests that they might provide Timocles with an orator to put his ideas into words. But Momus rejoins that it would certainly make the crowd laugh, if Timocles merely acted as prompter to a rhetorician who, perhaps, would not understand the thoughts which he was putting into fine language. Apollo is now called upon to prophesy the result of the pending encounter between Stoic and Epicurean. After some excuses about not having a tripod or a fountain at hand, Apollo gives a very cautious and obscure oracle; whereupon Momus laughs aloud, and, on being called to order by Zeus, says roundly that Apollo is a humbug, and that they are no better than asses or mules for believing in him. At this awkward moment Hercules comes forward with a suggestion. He is for leaving the two philosophers to fight it out as best they can; but offers, if Timocles is vanquished, to pull down the Painted Porch on the head of the victorious Damis. Zeus protests, in the first place, against destroying such good frescoes, and adds that the thing cannot be done: a god can kill no one without the leave of the Fates. Hercules retorts:—
"I am a plain fellow, who calls a spade a spade (τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγων), and, if that is what your Olympian estate means, farewell to it; I will go to Hades, and chase the shades of the monsters which I slew on earth."
Zeus exclaims that such a speech as that of Hercules would be a splendid argument for their enemy the Epicurean. But just then a messenger arrives from earth to announce that the discussion between Timocles and Damis has recommenced. The gods suspend their own debate and listen anxiously to the mortals. What need to describe the course of the controversy? Timocles storms; Damis blandly presses his points; Timocles is hopelessly discomfited, amid the jeers of the multitude; and Damis runs away in fits of laughter, followed by Timocles, pouring forth a torrent of insulting language, and threatening to break his head with a potsherd.
Lucian's mockery of the pagan gods is an unrestrained exercise of wit and humour. He does not affect to do more than deal with the surface of the old polytheism in its most obvious and popular aspects. It can hardly be said that there is any controversial purpose in this department of his satire. In the eyes of most people who were sufficiently cultivated to read Lucian's writings, the crude anthropomorphism of pagan legend had long ago been discounted. When Lucian mocked the Zeus or Apollo of the popular mythology he was, for such readers, merely slaying the slain; and, for himself, the effort was purely sportive. Polytheism was a field abounding with comic as well as pathetic material, where he could revel in the indulgence of his fancy—at the same time blending this diversion with strokes of satire on the foibles of mankind. But there is more pungency in his treatment of contemporary philosophies. It is true that even here, as a rule, he only touches the surface. There is no evidence that he had deeply studied the tenets of any school, still less that he was qualified to institute a comparison of any scientific value between the various schools to which he refers. Still, it is interesting to note the general results of the survey taken by such a mind as his—thoroughly sceptical indeed, but ready to honour the search for truth wherever he was convinced that it was sincere; while, on the other hand, he was earnest, and even fierce, in his hatred of shams. In the dialogue called Hermotimus one of the speakers bears a name resembling his own—Lucinus—and may probably be understood as expressing Lucian's own view, so far as the subject of that piece is concerned. Lucinus maintains, in effect, that there is no criterion of absolute truth. He is a pure sceptic, and he further holds that life is too short for the purpose of sifting all the guesses at truth. In order to acquire a fair elementary acquaintance with the leading philosophies, and so become qualified to make an intelligent choice among them, Lucinus computes that it would be necessary to study the subject, with undivided attention, for a period of two hundred years. On the whole, then, Lucinus concludes, it seems better to let speculation alone and to be satisfied with trying to do one's unquestionable duties as a citizen. This negative conclusion doubtless represents Lucian's general attitude; but from other passages in his writings it appears that he at least discriminated degrees of merit as between some of the philosophies known to him. In the Auction of Lives Zeus offers a series of great thinkers for sale, while Hermes, acting as auctioneer, extols each new lot as it is put up. Socrates fetches far the highest price—nearly £500—while Diogenes the Cynic goes for twopence. But, except as regards these two, we cannot assume that the valuation represents Lucian's opinion, since Chrysippus fetches much more than Epicurus—which is in flat contradiction to Lucian's own estimate. There is another piece, called The Fisherman; or, the Dead come to Life, in which Lucian vindicates himself from a misapprehension. The philosophers who have come to life again—such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato, with Socrates at their head—attack Lucian as the enemy of philosophy. Socrates proposes that he should be tried, and that Philosophy herself should preside over the court. Lucian declares that he does not know where to find such a being, though he has long been in search of her. At last, however, she appears, and Lucian then delivers his defence. He pleads that he is on the same side as the real philosophers: they and he alike are in search of truth; only truth is so difficult to find. His enemies are the enemies of truth and wisdom, who degrade or misrepresent the doctrines which they profess. "I am the foe," he says, "of pretension, quackery, falsehood, and conceit"—μισαλάζων, μισογόης, μισοψευδής μισότυφος. These words, indeed, well describe the most general characteristics of the mind which appears in his writings. The trial is held on the Acropolis of Athens. Philosophy is judge, with the goddesses Truth, Virtue, and Modesty among her assessors. Plato, Aristotle, Chrysippus—all have grievances against Lucian; but the cynic Diogenes is chosen as spokesman for the prosecution, while the accused pleads his own cause, giving his name as Parrhesiades—"Outspoken." In the result he is triumphantly acquitted, receiving compliments not only from the august judges, but from the true philosophers, who had formerly been prepossessed against him. Here it may be remarked, in passing, that a writer less skilful than Lucian would scarcely have escaped ridicule if, after proclaiming his hostility to all pretension, he had made himself the recipient of such eulogies; but Lucian uses the comic element in a manner which just screens him from this objection, without turning the edge of his satire; it is a good example of tact in the use of irony. The piece ends with a droll fancy, from which it takes its title of The Fisherman. Parrhesiades—i.e., Lucian—with the sanction of his late judges, dangles a fishing-rod from the Acropolis, so that the line falls into the streets of Athens below; the hook is baited with a bunch of figs and a purse of gold. Hungry philosophers, who are wandering in the neighbourhood, rush at the bait—are hooked one after another, landed on the Acropolis, and then thrown from the cliff. This is savage, and quite in the manner of Swift. But the jest quickly takes a gentler turn. At the bidding of the goddess Truth, Parrhesiades descends into Athens, accompanied by Elenchos— "Examination"—for the purpose of distinguishing the true philosophers from the false. They are authorised to bestow an olive-crown on any thinker who deserves it; while those who fail to pass the scrutiny of Elenchos are to be branded in the forehead with the stamp of a fox or an ape. As they are setting out on this errand Parrhesiades remarks to his companion, "Wherever we go, we shall not need many olive wreaths; but we shall require plenty of branding irons."
Of all the philosophical sects the Cynics are the objects of Lucian's greatest aversion. He is also severe on the Stoics, whose methods of reasoning are satirised in the Auction of Lives. There are fewer hints of his positive preferences; but it may be said that there are two thinkers for whom, on different grounds, he felt a genuine admiration. In the Fisherman (22) he pays Chrysippus an unwonted compliment by making him the mouthpiece of his own feeling for the literary genius of Plato. In Plato, it is there said, we find a wonderful greatness of thought, a beauty of language which is typically Attic, a charm of style which is singularly persuasive, in alliance with insight, precision, and the faculty of clinching an argument at the right moment. But while Lucian thus appreciated Plato as a consummate artist, as a brilliant master of dialectical fence, and as a comrade in the war upon sophistry, there is another whom he ranks even higher. His fullest sympathy is given to Epicurus. That teacher's writings, he says, have virtue to free the soul from vain terrors—from spectres of supernatural beings called up by the imagination, from deceptive hopes and excessive desires; arming it with reason, and purifying it not by mystic tapers or the like, but by sound ideas, by truth, and by fortitude. The Roman Lucretius hails Epicurus as one who, amid thick darkness, raised a beacon on high and lit up the real interests of life. In a similar spirit, but in a still higher strain, this Hellenised Syrian extols Epicurus as a truly sacred name, a man of gifts indeed divine, the only one who has rightly perceived and handed on the truth, and has so become the emancipator of his votaries. (Ἀλέξανδρος, 61.)
Among the genuine writings of Lucian there are only two pieces which allude to Christianity. One of these has already been noticed. It is the memoir of Alexander. As we have seen, the mysteries of the false prophet were prefaced by a proclamation—"If any atheist, Christian, or Epicurean has come to spy out the sacred rites, let him flee" (Ἀλέξ. 38). In an earlier passage of the same piece we learn that at one time there was a movement against Alexander on the part of the more intelligent people in Asia Minor, who saw through his impostures, and that in this reaction the Epicureans, a numerous body, took the lead. Alexander met this danger with a bold front. He proclaimed that—
"All Pontus was full of atheists and Christians, who dared to utter the vilest blasphemies concerning him; and he exhorted the people to stone them out of the country if they wished to have the favour of his god." (Ἀλέξ, 25.) It appears, then, that in the large regions of Asia Minor over which this Alexander operated, Christians and Epicureans were the two sects to which the charge of atheism—i.e., of rejecting the pagan gods—could be attached with most popular effect. We see also that the Christians must then have been numerous in those regions, as we know, on Lucian's own testimony, that the Epicureans were. Some sixty or seventy years had then elapsed since the younger Pliny, as propraetor in the Asiatic province of Pontica, had consulted Trajan about Christianity—that new superstition which he described as having spread not only through cities, but through villages and country districts also. Pliny thought, however, that the taint could still be arrested and cured, while Trajan's brief reply indicates that he regarded the matter as of small importance. Lucian's words suggest—what, indeed, we know to be the fact—that the Christian community in Asia Minor, besides having increased numerically, had now more of corporate influence. But it is in another piece of Lucian's that we find by far the most important of his references to Christianity. This is the treatise on the death of Peregrinus, a native of Parium on the Hellespont, a charlatan who, after playing so many parts as well to justify his assumption of the name Proteus, finally succeeded in making a sensation by publicly burning himself to death at Olympia. The insane passion for notoriety which prompted his last act was the ruling motive in every phase of his career. At one time Peregrinus was a Christian, and, according to Lucian, prominent among Christians:—
"He had thoroughly learned," says Lucian, "the wondrous philosophy of the Christians, having consorted in Palestine with their priests and scribes. What would you expect? He speedily showed that they were mere children in his hands; he was their prophet, the chief of their religious fraternity (θιασάρχης), the convener of their meetings (συναγωγεύς)—in short, everything to them. Some of their books he interpreted and elucidated; many of them he wrote himself. They regarded him as a god, made him their law-giver, and adopted him as their champion (προστάτην ἐπεγράφοντο)."
Here we may pause to observe that the mention of "priests and scribes" is suggestive of some confusion in Lucian's mind between Christianity and Judaism; while the alleged concern of Peregrinus, as interpreter or as author, with the Christian Scriptures looks like a statement derived from an anti-Christian, possibly a Jewish, source. With regard to the words describing the pre-eminence of Peregrinus among the Christians—θιασάρχης, συναγωγεύς, προστάτης—they are merely such terms as a pagan writer might naturally employ to describe leadership in a religious community of which the organisation was not accurately known to him. They do not warrant, for example, the inference which has been drawn from the word προστάτην that Peregrinus at one time held the office of Bishop. Then Lucian goes on to relate how Peregrinus was imprisoned by the Roman Governor of Syria, and how the Christians behaved on that occasion. They looked on his imprisonment as a common misfortune, and tried every means to obtain his release. Failing in that, they ministered to him in prison. From early dawn widows and orphans might be seen waiting at the prison-doors. (In the widows here mentioned commentators recognise deaconesses.) The rulers of the Christian community (οἱ ἐν τέλει αὐτῶν) made interest with the jailors that they might pass the night within the prison. They brought choice meals (δεῖπνα ποικίλα) in to him. (This has been taken, somewhat rashly perhaps, as an allusion to the "love-feasts" of the Church.) They read their sacred books with him. Christians came from some of the cities in Asia, as delegates from the community (ἀπὸ τοῦ κοινοῦ), to aid and encourage him. There is much in this account which brings to mind the imprisonment of St Paul, and the "prayer that was made of the Church" for him—when Philemon and Onesiphorus "ministered to him in his bonds," and some of the chief men of Asia "were his friends." As to this episode, at least, Lucian seems to have been well-informed. But more criticism has been provoked by his account of the man's death at Olympia, which he professes to have witnessed. One night, at the end of the Olympic festival, Peregrinus—or, as he then called himself, Proteus—moved, with an escort of friends, towards a great pyre which had been erected near the Hippodrome. Laying aside the coarse cloak, wallet, and staff of the Cynic—for such he had lately been—he mounted the pile clothed only in a squalid linen tunic. He threw some frankincense on the flames; then turned his face to the south, crying, "Spirits, maternal and paternal, receive me"; sprang into the fire, and was seen no more. Lucian adds that, on his way home, he met some persons, who questioned him, and that for their benefit he added some touches to the story—how the earth shook, and how a vulture was seen soaring from the pyre. We remember the Christian legend that a dove flew upward from the funeral-pile of Poly carp, whose martyrdom occurred probably a few years before the death of Peregrinus. Was Lucian glancing at that legend? Possibly; but there is no other trait in his narrative which warrants the notion that it was meant as a travesty of Christian martyrdoms—an hypothesis in which Bishop Pearson has had some followers. There is no doubt that Peregrinus, alias Proteus, is an historical character: Aulus Gellius speaks of him from personal knowledge, and the fact that he burned himself at Olympia does not rest on the statement of Lucian only; it is recorded also by Tatian, by Tertullian, and by Eusebius.
But let us now briefly consider what Lucian says in this piece concerning the tenets of the Christians:—
"They still reverence," he says, "that great one (τὸν μέγαν...ἐκεῖνον), the man who was crucified in Palestine, because he brought this new mystery (τελετὴν) into the world....The poor creatures have persuaded themselves that they will be altogether immortal, and live for ever; wherefore they despise death, and in many cases give themselves to it voluntarily. Then their first Lawgiver [i.e., Christ] persuaded them that they were all brethren, when they should once have taken the step of renouncing the Hellenic gods, and worshipping that crucified one, their sophist, and living after his laws. So they despise all things alike [i.e., all dangers and sufferings], and hold their goods in common; though they have received such traditions without any certain warrant. If, then, an artful impostor comes among them, an adroit man of the world, he very soon enriches himself by making these simple folk his dupes."
The first point to be noted in this passage is that, though the general tone is disdainful towards Christianity as a creed, there is nothing which indicates hostility or malice. At the time when Lucian wrote, the term σοφιστής which he applies to the Founder of Christianity, had not necessarily a bad sense. It had become a quasi-professional designation, analogous to "professor" or "doctor." Under Hadrian and the Antonines, the Sophists reached a high degree of dignity and influence. The chair of Sophistic—concerned with the theory and art of rhetoric—held an honourable place among the professorships which Marcus Aurelius founded in the University of Athens. But the title "sophist," like "professor" or "doctor," could be tinged with irony by the context; and, when Lucian speaks of "their crucified sophist," that tone is apparent, just as when he calls the religion of Christians their θαυμαστὴν σοφίαν. He also refers to Christ as "that great one," τὸν μέγαν ἐκεῖνον. It has been proposed to change μέγαν into μάγον: but this, though specious at first sight, is not really probable. Lucian would not have used the word μάγον unless he had meant to suggest trickery and fraud; but nothing else in the passage suggests that he would have gone so far. On the other hand, we seem precluded by the tenour and tone of the passage as a whole from regarding the phrase τὸν μέγαν ἐκεῖνον as a serious tribute to a greatness of soul and character which Lucian could recognise in one whose teaching he rejected. The words are not derisive, but they are mildly ironical: "the Christians still reverence that person who (to them) is so great."
Next, we should observe the characteristics which Lucian ascribes to Christians collectively. These are chiefly three:—(i) Their belief that immortality is assured to them; (2) their consequent indifference to earthly things, and readiness to meet death; (3) their sense of brotherhood—leading them to hold their goods in common, and to spare no effort or sacrifice in aid of a suffering fellow-Christian. Lucian has not a word of moral disparagement for Christianity. On the other hand, he regards Christians as simple-minded people, who believe without proof, and who fall an easy prey to imposture. Christian writers of a later age denounced Lucian as a blasphemer. The author of the short article on him in the lexicon of Suidas supports this charge by reference to the very passage which we have just been considering. There would be better ground for such a charge, if Lucian were indeed the writer of a piece called the Philopatris, which is traditionally included among his works. That piece contains two distinctly anti-Christian passages: one refers to the doctrine of the Trinity; the other mentions "a Galilaean who, having soared to the third heaven and learned precious things, renews us by water." This has been explained as a confused reference to St Paul. But few who have studied Lucian's style and mind will question the conclusion of modern criticism that the Philopatris is the production of a different hand and of a later age. The real Lucian was no more an enemy of Christianity than he was a friend. He would never have called it, as Tacitus does, a detestable superstition. Having, apparently, only a slight and distant knowledge of it, he regarded it merely as one of those new philosophies or cults which illustrated the credulity of mankind. But he would have allowed that the hope associated with this enthusiasm was lofty, that the impulses which it fostered were amiable, and that the efforts which it could evoke were extraordinary. On the other hand, it did not appeal to his intellectual curiosity; evidently he had not felt moved to examine its doctrines more closely. From that point of view it interested him probably less than some of the philosophies which he had studied just enough to reject them.
It is Lucian's attitude as a detached and somewhat cynical observer that constitutes much of his value as a witness to the character of his age. His impartial satire—more often sportive than bitter—plays on the old popular faith that was decaying, on the new superstitions that blended themselves with it, and on the various schools of philosophy which divided the higher thought of the time, while not one of them was satisfactory to more than a limited circle. A writer of great seriousness and depth could doubtless have given us a better insight into the measure of good or evil which was to be found in one or another part of that vast field. But Lucian's keen intelligence, with its wide outlook, sheds a vivid light on the general situation. The broad fact which Lucian brings out is that the pagan world, in the latter half of the second century, contained no central and commanding force, religious, intellectual, or moral. Such forces as existed were moribund, mutually conflicting, and either wholly ineffectual, or effective only within small areas. Christianity, now about to exchange the aloofness of the primitive Church for a more active position in the Roman world, had yet to undergo a struggle with the State. But, though pagan festivals could still delight the populace, and though philosophic or mystic sects could still claim ardent disciples, Christianity had no longer a rival in its power to quicken the spiritual life of men, to satisfy their higher aspirations, to give life a zest which would have been incomprehensible to the Epicurean, to inspire a fortitude in the presence of suffering and death which transcended the teaching of the Porch, to concentrate unselfish energies on noble aims, and to sustain them by an ideal loftier than any which had been presented to the ancient world by religion, by patriotism, or by speculative thought.
- One of a series of "Lectures to Clergy at Cambridge," July, 1900.—Published in The Guardian, August 29, 1900, and next number.