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26 June, 2013
Letters To Dead Authors
LETTER--To Lucian of Samosata
by Lang, Andrew


In what bower, oh Lucian, of your rediscovered Islands Fortunate are you now reclining; the delight of the fair, the learned, the witty, and the brave? In that clear and tranquil climate, whose air breathes of "violet and lily, myrtle, and the flower of the vine,"

Where the daisies are rose-scented,
And the Rose herself has got
Perfume which on earth is not,

among the music of all birds, and the wind-blown notes of flutes hanging on the trees, methinks that your laughter sounds most silvery sweet, and that Helen and fair Charmides are still of your company. Master of mirth, and Soul the best contented of all that have seen the world's ways clearly, most clear-sighted of all that have made tranquillity their bride, what other laughers dwell with you, where the crystal and fragrant waters wander round the shining palaces and the temples of amethyst?

Heine surely is with you; if, indeed, it was not one Syrian soul that dwelt among alien men, Germans and Romans, in the bodily tabernacles of Heine and of Lucian. But he was fallen on evil times and evil tongues; while Lucian, as witty as he, as bitter in mockery, as happily dowered with the magic of words, lived long and happily and honoured, imprisoned in no "mattress-grave." Without Rabelais, without Voltaire, without Heine, you would find, methinks, even the joys of your Happy Islands lacking in zest; and, unless Plato came by your way, none of the ancients could meet you in the lists of sportive dialogue.

There, among the vines that bear twelve times in the year, more excellent than all the vineyards of Touraine, while the song-birds bring you flowers from vales enchanted, and the shapes of the Blessed come and go, beautiful in wind-woven raiment of sunset hues; there, in a land that knows not age, nor winter, midnight, nor autumn, nor noon, where the silver twilight of summer-dawn is perennial, where youth does not wax spectre-pale and die; there, my Lucian, you are crowned the Prince of the Paradise of Mirth.

Who would bring you, if he had the power, from the banquet where Homer sings: Homer, who, in mockery of commentators, past and to come, German and Greek, informed you that he was by birth a Babylonian? Yet, if you, who first wrote Dialogues of the Dead, could hear the prayer of an epistle wafted to "lands indiscoverable in the unheard-of West," you might visit once more a world so worthy of such a mocker, so like the world you knew so well of old.

Ah, Lucian, we have need of you, of your sense and of your mockery! Here, where faith is sick and superstition is waking afresh; where gods come rarely, and spectres appear at five shillings an interview; where science is popular, and philosophy cries aloud in the market-place, and clamour does duty for government, and Thais and Lais are names of power--here, Lucian, is room and scope for you. Can I not imagine a new "Auction of Philosophers," and what wealth might be made by him who bought these popular sages and lecturers at his estimate, and vended them at their own?

HERMES: Whom shall we put first up to auction?

ZEUS: That German in spectacles; he seems a highly respectable man.

HERMES: Ho, Pessimist, come down and let the public view you.

ZEUS: Go on, put him up and have done with him.

HERMES: Who bids for the Life Miserable, for extreme, complete, perfect, unredeemable perdition? What offers for the universal extinction of the species, and the collapse of the Conscious?

A PURCHASER: He does not look at all a bad lot. May one put him through his paces?

HERMES: Certainly; try your luck.

PURCHASER: What is your name?

PESSIMIST: Hartmann.

PURCHASER: What can you teach me?

PESSIMIST: That Life is not worth Living.

PURCHASER: Wonderful Most edifying! How much for this lot?

HERMES: Two hundred pounds.

PURCHASER: I will write you a cheque for the money. Come home, Pessimist, and begin your lessons without more ado.

HERMES: Attention! Here is a magnificent article--the Positive Life, the Scientific Life, the Enthusiastic Life. Who bids for a possible place in the Calendar of the Future?

PURCHASER: What does he call himself? he has a very French air.

HERMES: Put your own questions.

PURCHASER: What's your pedigree, my Philosopher, and previous performances?

POSITIVIST: I am by Rousseau out of Catholicism, with a strain of the Evolution blood.

PURCHASER: What do you believe in?

POSITIVIST: In Man, with a large M.

PURCHASER: Not in individual Man?

POSITIVIST: By no means; not even always in Mr. Gladstone. All men, all Churches, all parties, all philosophies, and even the other sect of our own Church, are perpetually in the wrong. Buy me, and listen to me, and you will always be in the right.

PURCHASER: And, after this life, what have you to offer me?

POSITIVIST: A distinguished position in the Choir Invisible; but not, of course, conscious immortality.

PURCHASER: Take him away, and put up another lot.

Then the Hegelian, with his Notion, and the Darwinian, with his notions, and the Lotzian, with his Broad Church mixture of Religion and Evolution, and the Spencerian, with that Absolute which is a sort of a something, might all be offered with their divers wares; and cheaply enough, Lucian, you would value them in this auction of Sects. "There is but one way to Corinth," as of old; but which that way may be, oh master of Hermotimus, we know no more than he did of old; and still we find, of all philosophies, that the Stoic route is most to be recommended. But we have our Cyrenaics too, though they are no longer "clothed in purple, and crowned with flowers, and fond of drink and of female flute-players." Ah, here too, you might laugh, and fail to see where the Pleasure lies, when the Cyrenaics are no "judges of cakes" (nor of ale, for that matter), and are strangers in the Courts of Princes. "To despise all things, to make use of all things, in all things to follow pleasure only:" that is not the manner of the new, if it were the secret of the older Hedonism.

Then, turning from the philosophers to the seekers after a sign, what change, Lucian, would you find in them and their ways? None; they are quite unaltered. Still our Peregrinus, and our Peregrina too, come to us from the East, or, if from the West, they take India on their way--India, that secular home of drivelling creeds, and of religion in its sacerdotage. Still they prattle of Brahmins and Buddhism; though, unlike Peregrinus, they do not publicly burn themselves on pyres, at Epsom Downs, after the Derby. We are not so fortunate in the demise of our Theosophists; and our police, less wise than the Hellenodicae, would probably not permit the Immolation of the Quack. Like your Alexander, they deal in marvels and miracles, oracles and warnings. All such bogy stories as those of your "Philopseudes," and the ghost of the lady who took to table- rapping because one of her best slippers had not been burned with her body, are gravely investigated by the Psychical Society.

Even your ignorant Bibliophile is still with us--the man without a tinge of letters, who buys up old manuscripts "because they are stained and gnawed, and who goes, for proof of valued antiquity, to the testimony of the book-worms." And the rich Bibliophile now, as in your satire, clothes his volumes in purple morocco and gay dorures, while their contents are sealed to him.

As to the topics of satire and gay curiosity which occupy the lady known as "Gyp," and M. Halevy in his "Les Petites Cardinal," if you had not exhausted the matter in your "Dialogues of Hetairai," you would be amused to find the same old traits surviving without a touch of change. One reads, in Halevy's French, of Madame Cardinal, and, in your Greek, of the mother of Philinna, and marvels that eighteen hundred years have not in one single trifle altered the mould. Still the old shabby light-loves, the old greed, the old luxury and squalor. Still the unconquerable superstition that now seeks to tell fortunes by the cards, and, in your time, resorted to the sorceress with her magical "bull-roarer" or turndun. {1}

Yes, Lucian, we are the same vain creatures of doubt and dread, of unbelief and credulity, of avarice and pretence, that you knew, and at whom you smiled. Nay, our very "social question" is not altered. Do you not write, in "The Runaways," "The artisans will abandon their workshops, and leave their trades, when they see that, with all the labour that bows their bodies from dawn to dark, they make a petty and starveling pittance, while men that toil not nor spin are floating in Pactolus"?

They begin to see this again as of yore; but whether the end of their vision will be a laughing matter, you, fortunate Lucian, do not need to care. Hail to you, and farewell!

{1} The Greek [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], mentioned by Lucian and Theocritus, was the magical weapon of the Australians-- the turndun.

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