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 närrischer Kerl! Er närrischer 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 1. 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' 1), 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
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.
[paragraph continues] 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
[paragraph continues] 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.
[paragraph continues] 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
[paragraph continues] 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
[paragraph continues] 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.
xxiv:1 Wahrheit und Dichtung, book iv.
xxvi:1 Gibbon, Decline and Fall, cap. xv.