Friday, September 8, 2023

Lucian's satires - Frankly he's a blamed nuisance

The great 2nd century satirist Lucian was a great shock to me at one point, twenty-five years ago when I got serious about classical literature.  I had never heard of him, partly because of the odd historical artifact where what he writes is called “Menippean satire” even though nothing by the Cynic satirist Menippus has survived.  Menippus himself largely survives as a character in Lucian’s stories.  Confusing.

Thomas More’s Utopia, Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub and my childhood favorite Gulliver’s Travels are all direct, conscious descendants of Lucian.  Most of fantasy and science fiction literature is at least distantly Lucianic.  When I read Arisosto’s Orlando Furioso and watched a character fly to the moon, I knew where I was in literary history.

Not that I recommend reading Lucian to learn about literary history.  The outrageous, inventive “A True Story”; the sharp “Dialogues of the Dead”; the various angry attacks on philosophers Lucian thinks are con artists, as in “The Death of Peregrinus” – these all stand on their own.  He’s still pretty funny.

Lucian was not himself a Cynic, but I thought he would be instructive because his heroes are so often Cynics.  Menippus, across a number of pieces, travels to heaven and hell, reacting as a Cynic might.  Menippus often features in the “Dialogues of the Dead” as the voice of uncommon sense, although sometimes Diogenes fills the role, as here where the dead Diogenes is sending messages back to the living, to Menippus, for example:

DIOGENES: Tell him that Diogenes says, “Menippus, if you’ve had enough of poking fun at things up there, come on down here; there’s much more to laugh at…  Especially when you see how the millionaires and the pashas and the dictators have been cut down to size and look just like everyone else – you can only tell them apart by their whimpering and the way they’re so spineless and miserable at the memory of all they left behind.” (194)

As for the rest of the philosophers:

DIOGENES: You can tell them I said they could go to the devil. (195)

The Cynics enjoy Hades because they had nothing to lose in the first place but can still wander around mocking everyone’s pretenses.

CROESUS: We keep remembering what we left behind, Midas here his gold and Sardanapalus his life of luxury and I my treasure, and we moan and groan.  Whenever we do, he [Menippus] laughs at us and sneers and calls us slaves and scum.  And sometimes he interrupts our moaning with songs.  Frankly he’s a blamed nuisance.  (212)

Wealth and pleasure are not just of no value in Lucian’s dialogues, but are actually (future) punishments. 

I haven’t touched on “Philosophies for Sale” or the fierce assaults on phony philosophers.  I will just say that it has been useful to have read some of these people.  As with any satirist, Lucian is funnier when I know what the heck he is talking about.

The Selected Satires of Lucian translated by Lionel Casson was my go-to Lucian (and the source of the page numbers), not that there is anything wrong with Paul Turner’s Satirical Sketches.  I also poked around in the old Loeb volumes, in particular reading the rest of the journeys of Menippus and finishing up the “Dialogues of the Dead,” all well worth reading.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

"Socrates gone mad" - my hero Diogenes the Cynic

He lived in a jar, owned a staff and a cloak and nothing else, and was a sarcastic pain in the ass.  He took the example of Socrates to its limit.  Plato is the one who called him “Socrates gone mad,” but in a sense he is just the logical result of thinking through how Socrates lived.  It is the integrity of Diogenes the Dog, the Cynic, that is hard to distinguish from madness.

I am Athens’ one free man. (#13)

He often seems like a  proto-hippie.  The quotations are all from Guy Davenport’s Seven Greeks, which I find the most fun place to read about, or read, Diogenes, his surviving works in thirteen pages with no sources or doubts.  Some are likely jokes or misattributions from later Cynics.  There were never many Cynics, but it was clear enough who they were, ethical descendants of the legendary Diogenes.

In the rich man’s house there is no place to spit but in his face. (#56)

The curious thing is that Athens, perhaps feeling guilty about Socrates, seemed to like Diogenes.  In general, Roman Cynics would insult the emperor once too often (e.g., once) and be exiled to Greece, where they were adopted by one or another city.  I suppose they were thought of as holy fools, allowed to say and do things that other people could not.

I pissed on the man who called me a dog.  Why was he so surprised? (#73)

I love the performance art of Diogenes.  He would beg money from statues, since the result was the same as if he begged from people.  He wandered the marketplace in the daytime with a lamp, “looking for an honest man,” or more literally “a human being,” a hopeless task. He refuted the Platonic Academy’s definition of man as a “featherless biped” with his famous plucked chicken, a kind of deconstructionist joke.  I mean, he wasn’t the one who introduced the idea of feathers, which is what any comedian would latch onto.  People seemed to find Diogenes funny.

I am a citizen of the world. (#7)

Or perhaps a “cosmopolitan” is a citizen of the cosmos.  In context the concept is negative, a rejection of the narrow citizenship of Athens, but over time it has become something positive, if empty.  I worked for a while at a liberal arts college that actively encouraged students to think of themselves as citizens of the world.  It amused me that this was an idea that went back to crazy Diogenes.

I greatly enjoyed William Desmond’s Cynics (2008), a guide to the movement for college students, bizarrely well written for such a book.  The nine hundred years of Cynicism affords lots of good stories.  Eventually Christian asceticism, the hermits, stylites, and monks, replaced Cynicism for good.  Asceticism is a natural, if rare, human impulse, and a healthy society finds a role for its ascetics.  Mockery, prayer, something.

Diogenes and his followers did benefit from Mediterranean privilege.  I am thinking of the scene in Walden where semi-Cynic Henry David Thoreau spends a day desperately trying to recover the axe he dropped in the pond.  If all he had in Massachusetts were a jar and a cloak, he would freeze to death.  The New England Cynic has to own a lot more stuff.

Tomorrow I’ll turn to the great satirist Lucian.




Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Books I Read in August 2023

As I suspected my energy for writing in August was diverted to more important things.  Plenty of energy to read, though.

With a respite in September, I should soon be able to write a bit on the Greek philosophers I have been reading.  The Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics work well as a cluster.  Then later a bit on Plutarch and the little philosophy project is a wrap.



Meditations (c. 180), Marcus Aurelius    

Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (2015), Peter Adamson



A Universal History of Infamy (1935) &

The Aleph (1949), Jorge Luis Borges

Invitation to a Beheading (1936), Vladimir Nabokov

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead – all right I see why some readers can’t stomach this book, with its intensely annoying title character (and the mother is not much better).  I loved it, but I don’t blame anyone who gets a little ways in and says “No.”

The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Eudora Welty

The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), Katherine Anne Porter

If on a winter's night a traveler (1979), Italo Calvino – I may have mentioned an upcoming trip to Italy.  Well, that ain’t happening.    But I’ve had a great time pawing through Italian literature this summer, whether revisiting a masterpiece like this one or:

1934 (1982), Alberto Moravia – laughing through a piece of nonsense like this one, which may be a good-bad book, most enjoyable as it becomes increasingly crazy.  How are Moravia’s other books?  I picked this one because of the time period in the title.



You Will Hear Thunder (1912-66), Anna Akhmatova

Poems (1935) &

The Earth Compels (1938) &

Autumn Journal (1939) &

Plant and Phantom (1941) &

Springboard (1944) &

Holes in the Sky (1948), Louis MacNeice – I was going to read the superb Autumn Journal, and  then why not his other poems of the 1930s, and since I enjoyed those so much why not his poems of the 1940s.  This is not a great way to absorb a poet – my retention will likely be terrible – but I had a good time.  The dangers of a giant, unwieldy Complete Poems.

With Teeth in the Earth (1949-85), Malka Heifetz Tussman – many thanks to an anonymous commenter for recommending this charming Yiddish-American poet.



Journal, 1928-1932, André Gide

Le Képi (1943), Colette – four late, long short stories, all good, all in the English Collected Stories.  Always a pleasure to hang out with Colette.