I was … concerned … to strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him. –Lucian, in Alexander the Oracle Monger
Lucian of Samosata (c. 125–180 CE) was a Greek-speaking Assyrian satirist. He’s particularly relevant to our generation in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the attacks on freedom of expression in recent years coming from religious fanatics who support global anti-blasphemy legislation and who take themselves too seriously to accept a joke. A world where one must think twice before sharing a joke would be an unbearable and dangerous place in which to live.
Lucian falls within the tradition of the laughing philosophers, and was the George Carlin or perhaps the Bill Maher of his day, eloquently mocking both the credulous masses and the charlatans who made a living off of them. He was a blissfully entertaining and engaging narrator who wrote in a style that was familiar, witty, and at times scornful. NewEpicurean.com calls him the Lion of Epicurus.
He was quite prolific, but some of his works stand out as Epicurean masterpieces: Alexander the Oracle-Monger and A True Story. His Sale of Creeds is also an enjoyable read. Its funniest moments are the sale of the Cynic (who acts like a dog) and the sale of Pyrrho the Skeptic (who refuses to accept the certainty that he’s been sold, even as he's being carried away by his new owner). There are many more other great works by him.
Alexander the Oracle-Monger
Alexander the Oracle-Monger was a detailed exposé of Lucian's contemporary, Alexander of Abonoteichus, who established an extremely profitable and fraudulent business giving obscure prophecies in the name of Apollo. Many of his clients were wealthy and influential.
Alexander hated the Epicureans for their frequent accusations of him being a fraud. The hostility was mutual, naturally. Epicureans never had tolerance for his ilk. In fact, Alexander once attempted to have Lucian killed by a mercenary for exposing him. Alexander the Oracle-Monger was written as an act of Epicurean solidarity, and of revenge, after the senators—many of whom were very generous with Alexander, who held great influence over them—convinced Lucian not to have Alexander prosecuted for attempted murder, as they did not want to be confronted by his many passionate devotees. Religious privilege was such in those days that Alexander got away with attempted murder, literally, and it wasn’t until after his death that Lucian was able to publish his exposé without getting into trouble with the authorities, or creating trouble for them.
Alexander the Oracle-Monger depicts the false prophet wearing snakes on his body and foaming at the mouth to impress people, a device that Lucian easily explains by saying he chewed saponin-rich herbs. It amusingly also contains the first historical reference to the notion of bullshit, in a passage where the antics of the prophet are compared to “the manure of thousands of oxen.” Therefore, it was probably Lucian who literally invented the tradition of calling bullshit by its name!
The narrative is peppered with passionate references to Epicurus and to the mutual hostility between Alexander and the Epicureans. Here are some quotes.
Human life is under the absolute dominion of two mighty principles: fear and hope, and… anyone who can make these serve his ends may be sure of rapid fortune.
Well, it was war to the knife between him and Epicurus, and no wonder. What fitter enemy for a charlatan who patronized miracles and hated truth, than the thinker who had grasped the nature of things and was in solitary possession of that truth? As for the Platonists, Stoics, Pythagoreans, they were his good friends; he had no quarrel with them. But the unmitigated Epicurus, as he used to call him, could not but be hateful to him, treating all such pretensions as absurd and puerile.
Alexander once made himself supremely ridiculous. Coming across Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines, the most admirable of his books, as you know, with its terse presentment of his wise conclusions, he brought it into the middle of the marketplace, there burned it on a figwood fire for the sins of its author, and cast its ashes into the sea. He issued an oracle on the occasion: “The dotard’s doctrines to the flames be given.” The fellow had no conception of the blessings conferred by that book upon its readers, of the peace, tranquility, and independence of mind it produces, of the protection it gives against terrors, phantoms, and marvels, vain hopes and insubordinate desires, of the judgment and candor that it fosters, or of its true purging of the spirit, not with torches and squills and such rubbish, but with right reason, truth, and frankness.
Alexander the Oracle-Monger is the result of a lifetime of gathering anecdotes about the prophet and, like True Story, contains a long list of adventures, which he claimed were merely the tip of a huge iceberg.
True Story: A Book of Lies
True Story has been called the first work of science fiction ever written. For this reason, I expected to find the inventor of the sci-fi genre weaving an exploration of the ancient atomist doctrine of innumerable worlds, but this is not what one should expect from Lucian. Instead, what I found was a sci-fi comedy, and a fantasy, and one of the most entertaining reads I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.
Two books survive, and a third was announced at the end of the second, but is not extant. The work begins by justifying its name with a confession that he is lying. This is done to make the point that poets, historians, and philosophers of old—some of whom he mentions by name—have also lied, but unlike them, Lucian tells us that he is lying from the outset. His lies and exaggerations are a satirical critique of these fable-weavers.
… wherein not only the novelty of the subject, nor the pleasingness of the project, may tickle the reader with delight, nor to hear so many notorious lies delivered persuasively and in the way of truth, but because everything here by me set down doth in a comical fashion glance at some or other of the old poets, historiographers, and philosophers, which in their writings have recorded many monstrous and intolerable untruths, whose names I would have quoted down, but that I knew the reading would bewray them to you.
In the second book, when he enters the island of the cursed, he finds people being tormented for having told lies.
… there I saw Cinyras tied by private members, and hanging up in the smoke. But the greatest torments of all are inflicted upon them that told any lies in their lifetime, and wrote untruly, as Ctesias the Cnidian, Herodotus, and many others …
True Story follows Lucian on a journey to the Moon, where he participates in an epic battle between the Heliotans (people of the Sun) and the Selenitans (people of the Moon). The battle begins not with trumpets, but with asses braying on both sides, and included bean-slinging, turnip missiles, shields made of mushrooms, spears made of stalks of asparagus, bean-hull helmets… you get the idea.
The world into which we are abducted includes frequent shipwrecks in fantasy islands. We find the heroes sailing in a huge river of wine that flows, not from a stream, but from trees in a magical vineyard whose tops were dangerous, seductive, inebriating women and whose roots distilled pure wine; in the river we find inebriating fish. The richness and detail of the fantasy are reminiscent of surreal films like Pan’s Labyrinth.
The sailing adventurers are taken to the skies by a great wind and eventually land in the moon, whose King is preparing to go to war with the King of the Sun over matters related to ambitions to colonize Venus. The battle scenes involve men who ride upon monstrous three-headed vultures or giant gnats, men with dogs’ faces from the Dogstar, and other giant and magical creatures, all riding to battle in numbers unimaginable to the ancients.
The rich, fantastic depictions of the people of the Moon—whose nose-drips were "more sweet than honey"—what they ate and how they lived, make the entire book worth reading.
Early in the story, the author insinuates that we will be reminded of big lies that are told by the historians and poets that his audience was familiar with, and which provide the raw material for his satire. The “Belly of the Whale” portion must have been inspired in the Biblical legend of Jonah.
Lucian may not be a prophet, but he is the Jonah of the Gentiles. In True Story, he relates how he spent one year and eight months living in a continent-sized whale. Inside the animal there was an island with races of savages and half-men, and what might be called antiquity’s Jurassic Park.
Many other journeys and adventures follow, prominent among them a trip to the Isle of the Blessed, where the brilliant Lucian gives us a glimpse of what an Epicurean afterlife might be like.
From his amusing description of an Epicurean paradise, he excluded Plato, who had removed himself to live in his own Republic; and the Stoics, who were still trying to climb the hill of virtue; as well as the Academics, who were “unable to comprehend how there could be such an island,” and therefore “turned back in the midst of their way to it.” In other words, a naturalist’s paradise is unavailable to those who seek virtue or an arbitrary goal other than the one established by nature—pleasure—or to those who rationalize things too much (Aristotelians); Platonists won’t even seek it.
The hedonic paradise that the author conjures up exudes scents of cinnamon and flowers. Banquets are held in its gardens at all times. The pavement is all ivory, and the temples are built out of beryl with altars made of amethyst. Their baths are glass houses warmed with cinnamon. Residents don’t age and summer is the only season they know. Of course, there are rivers of honey and milk, and also wells of laughter and of pleasure. Their wheatgrass bears bread already baked. Clouds rain down sweet ointment and birds place garlands on the residents’ necks.
Lucian also considers carefully who deserves to dwell in the Isle of the Blessed. Like Mormons, Christians, and Muslims, he takes the time to sort out who can enter his paradise and who can’t.
Aristippus and Epicurus are prime men amongst them, because they are the most jovial good fellows and the best companions.
There was not one Stoic in company but were still busied in ascending the height of virtue’s hill: and of Chrysippus we heard that it was not lawful for him by any means to touch upon the island until he have the fourth time purged himself with helleborus.
The activities of the blessed include public orgies, but these were not considered scandalous. The two best men in the island, the heroes Achilles and Theseus, openly had sex in public with boys and women, and according to Lucian, “no man holds it for any dishonesty.”
No Epicurean can joke about the other schools without including Pythagoras’s antics. Frances Wright dedicates a whole chapter to cracking Pythagorean jokes in A Few Days in Athens. The sage resided on the island, but half his body was made of gold and he had changed shape seven times–a reference to Pythagoras's superstitious belief in the transmigration of souls. In one episode, he was unable to partake of a feast that included beans, as these were arbitrarily forbidden in his creed.
Lucian and his company were only able to stay on the Isle of the Blessed for a few months. His adventures continued with visits to a few other islands, an attack by 20 pirates riding monstrous dolphins, and a visit to the island of Cabbalusa, where there lived only man-eating women who on closer inspection had animal legs and hooves.
True Story ends with the promise that there are more adventures to tell after they arrive at the continent in future books, but these books either were never written or did not survive.
Death of Peregrine
Death of Peregrine is another exposé of a fraud, but this one slithered into the Christian community and won its favor in order to escape jail—after having killed his own father by asphyxiation—and to become wealthy. The fascinating thing about Peregrine is that it gives details about the early Christians, their credulity, how easy it was to win their favor, and how eager they were to be used by manipulative charlatans. Lucian—perhaps mirroring an attitude common among second-century Epicureans—seems to take pity on primitive Christians.
It was now that he came across the priests and scribes of the Christians, in Palestine, and picked up their queer creed. I can tell you, he pretty soon convinced them of his superiority; prophet, elder, ruler of the Synagogue—he was everything at once; expounded their books, commented on them, wrote books himself. They took him for a God, accepted his laws, and declared him their president. The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.
You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.
Death of Peregrine is intriguing and insightful both on its own right, and in light of how history turned out: with the gullible who were being made fun of taking over the Roman Empire and eventually dismantling all the philosophical schools, including the Epicurean one. Power favors docility, and in turn docility favors power.
After Peregrine is put in jail, Lucian relates how the Christians immediately dedicated themselves to the cause of his innocence, visited him in jail and brought him sumptuous feasts, bribed the jailers so they could sleep with him, and collected money for legal advice and to send messengers to offer sympathies and assistance. Eventually, the Christians saw him for what he was and the entire love affair ended in legal disputes.
The Christians were meat and drink to him; under their protection he lacked nothing, and this luxurious state of things went on for some time. At last he got into trouble even with them; I suppose they caught him partaking of some of their forbidden meats. They would have nothing more to do with him, and he thought the best way out of his difficulties would be, to change his mind about that property, and try and get it back. He accordingly sent in a petition to the emperor, suing for its restitution. But as the people of Parium sent up a deputation to remonstrate, nothing came of it all; he was told that as he had been under no compulsion in making his dispositions, he must abide by them.
After his Christian deconversion, Peregrine made a name for himself as a Cynic. People in those days had great reverence for poor wandering sages, and he already had experience making a living passing for a sage, gaining the people’s respect and enjoying certain privileges. He carried a staff and was quickly taken for a saint. In the end, he planned and announced his own death by suicide in order to be taken for a sort of demigod by his followers. Like some Buddhist monks have done in recent years, he chose public self-immolation for his death. He did this during the Olympic Games, after which a statue was dedicated to him at the site, which became the object of reverence and was believed to give oracles.
From what we’ve seen, we can glean that Lucian of Samosata was, among other things, a sincere and devoted Epicurean. But his main attributes were his witty style, his wild imagination, and his captivating power of narrative. He painted for us an Epicurean heavenly paradise, and like the Charlie Hebdo victims and many other contemporary cartoonists and comedians, he nearly gave his life for the crime of mocking religion.
He invented sci-fi and was the man behind the use of the term “bullshit," yet in spite of his humor, we find an underlying indignation at charlatans and credulity, which fueled his desire to make case studies of Alexander and Peregrine. No doubt, like many sci-fi authors that would come after him, he was thinking about and writing for the future. He was warning us.