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The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.
Nigrinus, a Roman, or Greek philosopher (for the commentators are divided about that matter), had most likely given some lectures which Lucian in the course of his travels attended. In gratitude for the instructions received by him, wrote this dialogue, which he sent before publication, with the short letter prefixed, to Nigrinus himself. The philosopher is here described as a perfect master of the science which he professed, instructing scholars in everything that was good and great with a spirit and freedom becoming the advocate of truth and virtue. In his ridicule of the reigning vices of his age, Lucian put into the mouth of Nigrinus no inconsiderable share of his own wit and humor. This dialogue is admirable written, in a fine flowing agreeable style, and, perhaps, one of Lucian's best serious pieces
- Based on Francklin
[Lucian to Nigrinus. Health.
There is a proverb about carrying ‘owls to Athens’— an absurd undertaking, considering the excellent supply already on the spot. Had it been my intention, in presenting Nigrinus with a volume of my composition, to indulge him of all people with a display of literary skill, I should indeed have been an arrant ‘owl-fancier in Athens.’ As however my object is merely to communicate to you my present sentiments, and the profound impression produced upon me by your eloquence, I may fairly plead Not Guilty, even to the charge of Thucydides, that ‘Men are bold from ignorance, where mature consideration would render them cautious.’ For I need not say that devotion to my subject is partly responsible for my present hardihood; it is not all the work of ignorance. Farewell.]
Lucian. A Friend
Fr. What a haughty and dignified Lucian returns to us from his journey! He will not vouchsafe us a glance; he stands aloof, and will hold no further communion with us. Altogether a supercilious Lucian! The change is sudden. Might one inquire the cause of this altered demeanour?
Luc. ’Tis the work of Fortune.
Fr. Of Fortune!
Luc. As an incidental result of my journey, you see in me a happy man; ‘thrice-blest,’ as the tragedians have it.
Fr. Dear me. What, in this short time?
Luc. Even so.
Fr. But what does it all mean? What is the secret of your elation? I decline to rejoice with you in this abridged fashion; I must have details. Tell me all about it.
Luc. What should you think, if I told you that I had exchanged servitude for freedom; poverty for true wealth; folly and presumption for good sense?
Fr. Extraordinary! But I am not quite clear of your meaning yet.
Luc. Why, I went off to Rome to see an oculist — my eyes had been getting worse —
Fr. Yes, I know about that. I have been hoping that you would light on a good man.
Luc. Well, I got up early one morning with the intention of paying a long-deferred visit to Nigrinus, the Platonic philosopher. On reaching his house, I knocked, and was duly announced and admitted to his presence. I found him with a book in his hand, surrounded by various statues of the ancient philosophers. Before him lay a tablet, with geometrical figures described on it, and a globe of reeds, designed apparently to represent the universe.
Fr. This is not drunkenness, but sobriety and temperance. But I should like to hear what Nigrinus actually said, if that may be. It is only right that you should take that trouble for me; I am your friend, and share your interests.
Luc. Enough! You urge a willing steed. I was about to bespeak your attention. You must be my witness to the world, that there is reason in my madness. Indeed, apart from this, the work of recollection is a pleasure, and has become a constant practice with me; twice, thrice in a day I repeat over his words, though there is none to hear.
In every heart he left his sting.
Fr. Stay, gentle enthusiast. Take a good breath, and start again; I am waiting to hear what Nigrinus said. You beat about the bush in a manner truly exasperating.
Luc. True, I must make a start, as you say. And yet... Tell me, did you never see a tragedy (nay, the comedies fare no better) murdered by bad acting, and the culprits finally hissed off the stage for their pains? As often as not the play is a perfectly good one, and has scored a success.
Fr. I know the sort of thing; and what about it?
Luc. I am afraid that before I have done you will find that I make as sad work of it as they do,— jumbling things together pell-mell, spoiling the whole point sometimes by inadequate expression; and you will end by damning the play instead of the actor. I could put up with my own share of the disgrace; but it would vex me indeed, that my subject should be involved in my downfall; I cannot have it discredited for my shortcomings.
Fr. Bless me; here is quite a professional exordium! You are about to add, I think, that ‘your consultation with your client has been but brief’; that you ‘come into court imperfectly instructed’; that ‘it were to be desired that your client were here to plead his own cause; as it is, you are reduced to such a meagre and inadequate statement of the case, as memory will supply.’ Am I right? Well then, spare yourself the trouble, as far as I am concerned. Imagine all these preliminaries settled. I stand prepared to applaud: but if you keep me waiting, I shall harbour resentment all through the case, and hiss you accordingly.
Luc. I should, indeed, have been glad to avail myself of the arguments you mention, and of others too. I might have said, that mine would be no set speech, no orderly statement such as that I heard; that is wholly beyond me. Nor can I speak in the person of Nigrinus. There again I should be like a bad actor, taking the part of Agamemnon, or Creon, or Heracles’ self; he is arrayed in cloth of gold, and looks very formidable, and his mouth opens tremendously wide; and what comes out of it? A little, shrill, womanish pipe of a voice that would disgrace Polyxena or Hecuba! I for my part have no intention of exposing myself in a mask several sizes too large for me, or of wearing a robe to which I cannot do credit. Rather than play the hero’s part, and involve him in my discomfiture, I will speak in my own person.
Fr. Will the man never have done with his masks and his stages?
Luc. Nay, that is all. And now to my subject. Nigrinus’s first words were in praise of Greece, and in particular of the Athenians. They are brought up, he said, to poverty and to philosophy. The endeavours, whether of foreigners or of their own countrymen, to introduce luxury into their midst, find no favour with them. When a man comes among them with this view, they quietly set about to correct his tendency, and by gentle degrees to bring him to a better course of life.
Nor do they scruple to confess their poverty. He mentioned a sentence which he heard pronounced unanimously by the assembled people at the Panathenaic festival. A citizen had been arrested and brought before the Steward for making his appearance in coloured clothes. The onlookers felt for him, and took his part; and when the herald declared that he had violated the law by attending the festival in that attire, they all exclaimed with one voice, as if they had been in consultation, ‘that he must be pardoned for wearing those clothes, as he had no others.’
He further commended the Athenian liberty, and unpretentious style of living; the peace and learned leisure which they so abundantly enjoy. To dwell among such men, he declared, is to dwell with philosophy; a single-hearted man, who has been taught to despise wealth, may here preserve a pure morality; no life could be more in harmony with the determined pursuit of all that is truly beautiful.
Such was Rome; such were the blessings she taught men to enjoy. ‘As for me,’ he continued, ‘on returning from my first voyage to Greece, I stopped short a little way from the city, and called myself to account, in the words of Homer, for my return.
Ah, wretch! and leav’st thou then the light of day — the joyous freedom of Greece, And wouldst behold —
the turmoil of Rome? slander and insolence and gluttony, flatterers and false friends, legacy-hunters and murderers? And what wilt thou do here? thou canst not endure these things, neither canst thou escape them!
Far from the scene of slaughter, blood and strife,
and resolved henceforth to keep my house. I lead the life you see — a spiritless, womanish life, most men would account it — holding converse with Philosophy, with Plato, with Truth. From my high seat in this vast theatre, I look down on the scene beneath me; a scene calculated to afford much entertainment; calculated also to try a man’s resolution to the utmost.
‘But I said that there was entertainment also to be derived from the scene; and I will maintain it. Our rich men are an entertainment in themselves, with their purple and their rings always in evidence, and their thousand vulgarities. The latest development is the salutation by proxy; they favour us with a glance, and that must be happiness enough. By the more ambitious spirits, an obeisance is expected; this is not performed at a distance, after the Persian fashion — you go right up, and make a profound bow, testifying with the angle of your body to the self-abasement of your soul; you then kiss his hand or breast — and happy and enviable is he who may do so much! And there stands the great man, protracting the illusion as long as may be. (I heartily acquiesce, by the way, in the churlish sentence which excludes us from a nearer acquaintance with their lips.)
‘But if these men are amusing, their courtiers and flatterers are doubly so. They rise in the small hours of the night, to go their round of the city, to have doors slammed in their faces by slaves, to swallow as best they may the compliments of “Dog,” “Toadeater,” and the like. And the guerdon of their painful circumambulations? A vulgarly magnificent dinner, the source of many woes! They eat too much, they drink more than they want, they talk more than they should; and then they go away, angry and disappointed, grumbling at their fare, and protesting against the scant courtesy shown them by their insolent patron. You may see them vomiting in every alley, squabbling at every brothel. The daylight most of them spend in bed, furnishing employment for the doctors. Most of them, I say; for with some it has come to this, that they actually have no time to be ill.
All this he treated as a jest. But he had much to say on the subject of those paid philosophers, who hawk about virtue like any other marketable commodity. ‘Hucksters’ and ‘petty traders’ were his words for them. A man who proposes to teach the contempt of wealth, should begin (he maintained) by showing a soul above fees.
There are other points in which he sets an admirable example to the serious followers of philosophy: his frugal life, his systematic habits of bodily exercise, his modest bearing, his simplicity of dress, but above all, gentle manners and a constant mind.
Leaving the philosophers to themselves, he reverted to more general subjects: the din and bustle of the city, the theatres, the race-course, the statues of charioteers, the nomenclature of horses, the horse-talk in every side-street. The rage for horses has become a positive epidemic; many persons are infected with it whom one would have credited with more sense.
Then the scene changed to the pomp and circumstance attendant upon funerals and testamentary dispositions. ‘Only once in his life’ (he observed) ‘does your thoroughbred Roman say what he means; and then,’ meaning, in his will, ‘it comes too late for him to enjoy the credit of it.’ I could not help laughing when he told me how they thought it necessary to carry their follies with them to the grave, and to leave the record of their inanity behind them in black and white; some stipulating that their clothes or other treasures should be burnt with them, others that their graves should be watched by particular servants, or their monuments crowned with flowers;— sapient end to a life of sapience!
Proceeding to the gentlemen who make such a serious work of their dinner, he was exceedingly merry over their painful elaborations of sauce and seasoning. ‘Here again,’ he cried, ‘these men are sore put to it, to procure the most fleeting of enjoyments. Grant them four inches of palate apiece —’tis the utmost we can allow any man — and I will prove to you that they have four inches of gratification for their trouble. Thus: there is no satisfaction to be got out of the costliest viands before consumption; and after it a full stomach is none the better for the price it has cost to fill it. Ergo, the money is paid for the pleasure snatched in transitu. But what are we to expect? These men are too grossly ignorant to discern those truer pleasures with which Philosophy rewards our resolute endeavours.’
The Baths proved a fertile topic, what with the insolence of the masters and the jostlings of their men;—‘they will not stand without the support of a slave; it is much that they retain enough vitality to get away on their own legs at all.’ One practice which obtains in the streets and Baths of Rome seemed to arouse his particular resentment. Slaves have to walk on ahead of their masters, and call out to them to ‘look to their feet,’ whenever there is a hole or a lump in their way; it has come to this, that men must be reminded that they are walking. ‘It is too much,’ he cried; ‘these men can get through their dinner with the help of their own teeth and fingers; they can hear with their own ears: yet they must have other men’s eyes to see for them! They are in possession of all their faculties: yet they are content to be spoken to in language which should only be addressed to poor maimed wretches! And this goes on in broad daylight, in our public places; and among the sufferers are men who are responsible for the welfare of cities!’
This he said, and much more to the same effect. At length he was silent. All the time I had listened in awestruck attention, dreading the moment when he should cease. And when it was all over, my condition was like that of the Phaeacians. For a long time I gazed upon him, spellbound; then I was seized with a violent attack of giddiness; I was bathed in perspiration, and when I attempted to speak, I broke down; my voice failed, my tongue stammered, and at last I was reduced to tears. Mine was no surface wound from a random shaft. The words had sunk deep into a vital part; had come with true aim, and cleft my soul asunder. For (if I may venture to philosophize on my own account) I conceive the case thus:— A well-conditioned human soul is like a target of some soft material.
So aim; and thou shalt bring (to some) salvation.
For as it is not every man that is maddened by the sound of the Phrygian flute, but only those who are inspired of Cybele, and by those strains are recalled to their frenzy,— so too not every man who hears the words of the philosophers will go away possessed, and stricken at heart, but only those in whose nature is something akin to philosophy.
Fr. These are fearful and wonderful words; nay, they are divine. All that you said of ambrosia and lotus is true; I little knew how sumptuous had been your feast. I have listened to you with strange emotion, and now that you have ceased, I feel oppressed, nay, in your own language, ‘sore stricken.’ This need not surprise you. A person who has been bitten by a mad dog not only goes mad himself, you know, but communicates his madness to any one whom he bites whilst he is in that state, so that the infection may be carried on by this means through a long succession of persons.
Luc. Ah, then you confess to a tenderness?
Fr. I do; and beg that you will think upon some medicine for both our wounded breasts.
Luc. We must take a hint from Telephus.
Fr. What is that?
Luc. We want a hair of the dog that bit us.