In Praise of Lucian

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

I had read Cassius’ mention of ‘striking a blow for Epicurus’ before but was unfamiliar with the source of this quote, as I had avoided the reading of Alexander the Oracle-Monger for fear that it would be too long and take too much time from my busy life, but it was a much more pleasant read than I expected. I underestimated his narrative abilities, his ability to make laugh and his sincere faith in Epicurus.

Lucian was a Greek-speaking Assyrian of the 2nd Century of Common Era. He tells the story of a false prophet of Apollo who was known as Alexander, in part as an act of vengeance, and in part in honor of Epicurus and the Epicureans whom Alexander hated for their frequent accusations of fraud.  The entire work was written as an act of Epicurean solidarity. It depicts the false prophet wearing snakes on his body and foaming in the mouth to impress people, a device which Lucian easily explains by saying he chewed saponin-rich herbs. It even contains the first historical reference to the notion of bull-shit, when the antics of the prophet are literally compared to “the manure of thousands of oxen”.

The hostility was, naturally, mutual. Epicureans never had tolerance for his ilk. When I wrote the piece Against the Charlatans, expanding on a fragment written by Philodemus, I confess I felt a bit uncomfortable with having to point the finger at frauds. Common (docile) society considers these accusations to be mean and insolent. I had no idea that my exposé of religious fraud had such noble and enjoyable precedent.

I must also express gratitude to Erik Anderson (RIP) of the webpage for making this work available online for everyone to read.

If we’re going to share the planet with false prophets, let’s name them as such in the intellectual company of sober thinkers like Lucian. The work is peppered with praise for Epicurus, his literature, his intellect, and his virtue. Below are some quotes from Alexander the Oracle-Monger.  May they serve as an invitation to read the entire narrative.

… human life is under the absolute dominion of two mighty principles, fear and hope, and … any one 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, tranquillity, 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.

– Lucian

Further Reading:

Lucian: Selected Dialogues (Oxford World’s Classics)

Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon

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