Lucian of Samosata (c. 115–c. 200)
LUCIAN OF SAMOSATA
(c. 115–c. 200)
Lucian of Samosata, the philosophical satirist and satirist of philosophy, was born at Samosata (Samsat) on the Euphrates and was educated there. He then studied rhetoric in Asia Minor, after which he was a lawyer for a while, toured Greece and Italy as a lecturer, and held a chair of literature in France. In middle age he settled in Athens, where he wrote and gave public readings of his most successful dialogues, many of which were on philosophical themes. Late in life he joined the staff of the Roman governor of Egypt. Nothing is known of his death except that it occurred after 180.
Lucian's philosophical position is not easy to define because he expresses contradictory attitudes, and his persistent irony and his obvious wish to entertain make it hard to know how seriously to take his statements. The contradictions have been used as a basis for several different theories of his intellectual development, but the chronological order of his works is too uncertain for any such interpretation to be wholly convincing.
In The Fisher, Lucian claimed to be a champion of philosophy, which he described elsewhere as a civilizing and morally improving study; however, he constantly criticized pseudo philosophers for their greed, bad temper, sexual immorality, and the general inconsistency between their preaching and their practice. The historical occasion for such attacks was the encouragement of philosophy by Marcus Aurelius, which had made philosophers almost as numerous as monks and friars were in the Middle Ages.
Lucian's favorite target was the Stoic, but he also savagely attacked such Cynics as Peregrinus, and in The Sale of Lives he made fun of every school. However, he sometimes wrote approvingly of individual philosophies. The Nigrinus appears to be a eulogy of Platonism, although this may be ironical or simply an excuse for satirizing Roman society. The Cynicus is a less ambiguous defense of Cynicism, and in several dialogues Lucian speaks through a character called Cyniscus or through that of the Cynic Menippus. Diogenes is once mentioned favorably, and in the Alexander there is enthusiastic praise for Epicurus, "a really great man who perceived, as no one else has done, the beauty of truth."
The Hermotimus rejects all philosophical systems on the grounds that they are mutually contradictory and thus cannot all be right, and life is too short to discover which of them is nearest to the truth. The wisest course is to get on with the business of living, guided by common sense. Tiresias in the Menippus gives the same advice.
In general, Lucian disliked philosophies that encourage superstition, such as Platonism and Stoicism, and preferred materialists like Democritus and Epicurus. Although he made fun of the Skeptics, he was temperamentally inclined to skepticism, or to an eclecticism of the kind described in the Life of Demonax.
His own positive ideas included a conception of society free from racial, social, and economic distinctions. He valued such human qualities as sincerity, courage, cheerfulness, and kindness; and he continually stressed the importance of facing facts, especially the fact of death.
Lucian's influence on later thought was exerted largely, but not entirely, through the medium of literary technique. He facilitated the spread of humanism in the sixteenth century by suggesting one of the basic themes (the absurdity of plutocracy) and some of the incidental jokes in Thomas More's Utopia, but his main contributions were the lighthearted manner, the form (a fantastic journey described in a familiar dialogue), and the trick of using proper names that etymologically imply nonexistence or nonseriousness. He also aided in the Reformation by providing literary precedents and humorous devices for the satire on ecclesiastics, theologians, monks, and superstitions in Desiderius Erasmus's Encomium Moriae and in the work of François Rabelais. Voltaire's Candide is Lucianic in both manner and theme (the refutation of philosophical theory by reality), and its final moral is identical with that of the Menippus. The Conversation between Lucian, Erasmus and Rabelais in the Elysian Fields shows that Voltaire regarded Lucian as one of his masters in the strategy of intellectual revolution.
Bacon called Lucian a contemplative atheist, and as such Lucian evidently interested David Hume, who described him as a very moral writer, quoted him with respect when discussing ethics and religion, and read him on his deathbed. Since then, professional philosophers have tended to ignore him, but perhaps his spirit is still alive in those who (as Bertrand Russell did), are prepared to flavor philosophy with wit.
See also Cynics; Diogenes of Sinope; Epicurus; Erasmus, Desiderius; Humanism; Hume, David; Leucippus and Democritus; More, Thomas; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Rabelais, François; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Skepticism; Stoicism; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.
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Paul Turner (1967)
Bibliography updated by David Konstan (2005)