The scholar Desiderius Erasmus, coming as a young man to England to seek his fortune, achieved his first great literary success with a bestselling translation of selections from the works of Lucian of Samosata (and when they say translation, I’m assuming they mean, into Latin, not English). Times have changed, however. When I spent four years studying Classics at university, the only time I was ever pointed in the direction of Lucian was as it were by accident: I was studying Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and it so happened that Lucian had also written a (much shorter, unsurprisingly less religious and, as far as I remember, far more boring) version of this tale. Nobody ever recommended reading him for his own sake. I even took a course called Greek Comedy; but by that they only meant Aristophanes and Menander.
For a time though during the Renaissance Lucian was up there with such classical writers as Homer, Virgil, Cicero and Helidorus of Emesa; and it was at the back of my mind, reading through this first volume of his work, what it was exactly which might have appealed to people in the c15th – and indeed to Erasmus himself, whom frankly I’d not naturally have associated with Lucian (I’ve tried and failed to read The Praise of Folly on a few occasions: – perhaps that might hold a clue). Of course, Erasmus was trying to promote the newly re-discovered concept of learning Greek, as part of the education of a gentleman (perhaps, say, a future monarch, whom he might tutor), so perhaps he was merely looking for something interesting and off-beat. Another possibility would be more on the Enlightenment side of things: the forensic attack which Lucian’s works launch on religion and philosophy.
Most (if not all) the information we have about Lucian’s life derives from his work; but for once this is actually quite extensive, because Lucian was inclined to talk about himself a lot. In one of his pieces he says that he used to be a lawyer, but sick with the hypocrisy of the profession, he seems to have started instead a sort of Monty-Pythonesque sketch show which toured the ancient world. This is only, of course, what I piece together from the texts: certainly he gave public performances of some of these pieces, since there are pieces which discuss these performances and audience reaction; but the pieces are divided between a sort of stand-up routine, in which it is just him addressing the audience (by far the minority), and what are essentially comic sketches (by far the majority). One must remember, I suppose, that all literature was public performance in the ancient world; I’m not sure people did, as such, read books. I long pondered what form the dialogues might have taken, presuming they were delivered on stage: did Lucian simply read them out, taking all the parts himself; or were they actually acted? But as with most things in the ancient world, it’s a question, I suspect, with no answer.
Metafiction is the basis of everything in Lucian (and this is no po-faced metafiction; like all good metafiction, it is played for laughs). All his work, more or less, is engaged in a dialogue with the literature of the past, whether that be Greek myth or the teachings of the philosophical schools. Lucian himself is the hero, though he may at times take on the forms of Menippus or Diogenes; the stories and dialogues he recounts are the “everyday” things which happened to him (as with any observational comic). He has a host of recurring characters: Socrates; most of the Greek Gods, especially Hermes; – a particular favourite is Charon, the ferryman of the dead. Much of this metafiction, with regard to Greek myth, is to point out its absurdity. To take one example: he demands, in a dialogue with Zeus, that he explain how, on the one hand, he is said to be all-powerful, but on the other, that fate is entirely predetermined; – is Zeus then able to alter fate?
Poking fun at myth is one thing; but it was Lucian’s philosophical position which I found myself wondering about the most. You’d be inclined to say that he’s simply against everything – so long as it leads to amusement; but there’s a definite strain in Lucian’s writing. I mentioned already that Lucian likes to use the characters Charon and Hermes, and this is essentially to do with their connection to death. There’s a lot of stories about death in this collection; to give two examples: in one story, Charon wonders why it is that humans are always so upset when they die, and so decides to take a holiday in the world above to find out what life is all about; in another, Menippus (the archetypal teller of tall tales) recounts his own descent to the underworld, where he’s gone (in manner of Odysseus) to consult with Teiresias on the question of the best way to live one’s life. His fondness for Diogenes should also give a clue to his philosophical position, the man who was of course the most famous cynic in the ancient world, the man who was notoriously faithful to his stated views. I suppose if I could characterise his philosophy as anything it would be as anti-materialism – something which, of course, might easily have appealed to Christians, particularly of a reformist bent, who saw the everyday corruption in ecclestiastic office; who saw the wealth of the Church in contrast to its teaching; – for this is what Lucian sees: a world which professes the denial of material things while at the same time striving in every way to attain them. In by far the most sustained piece in this collection, a two-parter, Lucian’s first satirically “sells” philosophies to people as slaves in the market-places; and then, when the “real” philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes etc) gang up on him and try to stone him to death for bringing their trade into disrepute, delivers as his defence that it is not they who are the target of his satire, but all their modern followers who are hypocritical in their use of philosophy. Essentially then Lucian’s philosophy seems to be that material matters are of no concern and the only way to approach death is to be spiritually prepared for it. His heroes are those who do not weep in the ferry for the life they’ve left behind.
Is it all good stuff? – Well, no, not entirely. There’s a whole section in this volume called “Dialogues of the Gods”, the point of which escaped me: I suppose what I had in mind in the end was a sort of unfunny sitcom set on Mount Olympus; but perhaps this is something that’s just completely lost in a translation of cultures; – but there’s lots of amusement to be had elsewhere: I enjoyed (those others might not) the legal case which the Greek letter Sigma brought against the Greek letter Tau (this is about changes in pronunciation over time, so that – for instance – the reasonably famous Greek word “thalassa” had by this time become “thalatta”); and at times there is some brilliant writing, some of which seems to have attracted another Renaissance literary figure, one William Shakespeare: the source for Timon of Athens (and also, in my opinion, the explanation for the weak second half of it) can be found in this collection; and maybe too that bit in Hamlet about skulls was lifted from here: – the reduction of humans to mere bones is another of Lucian’s recurrent ideas.
And this collection (thankfully) doesn’t even contain the tedious story of Menippus’ about journeying to the moon with which Lucian invented sci-fi.