'M. Aurelius has for us moderns this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization. Trajan talks of "our enlightened age" just as glibly as The Times talks of it.' M. Arnold, Essays in Criticism, M. Aurelius.
The age of M. Aurelius is also the age of Lucian, and with any man of that age who has, like these two, left us a still legible message we can enter into quite different relations from those which are possible with what M. Arnold calls in the same essay 'classical-dictionary heroes.' A twentieth-century Englishman, a second-century Greek or Roman, would be much more at home in each other's century, if they had the gift of tongues, than in most of those which have intervened. It is neither necessary nor possible to go deeply into the resemblance here 1 all that need be done is to pass in review those points
of it, some important, and some trifling, which are sure to occur in a detached way to readers of Lucian.
The Graeco-Roman world was as settled and peaceful, as conscious of its imperial responsibilities, as susceptible to boredom, as greedy of amusement, could show as numerous a leisured class, and believed as firmly in money, as our own. What is more important for our purpose, it was questioning the truth of its religion as we are to-day questioning the truth of ours. Lucian was the most vehement of the questioners. Of what played the part then that the Christian religion plays now, the pagan religion was only one half; the other half was philosophy. The gods of Olympus had long lost their hold upon the educated, but not perhaps upon the masses; the educated, ill content to be without any guide through the maze of life, had taken to philosophy instead. Stoicism was the prevalent creed, and how noble a form this could take in a cultivated and
virtuous mind is to be seen in the Thoughts of M. Aurelius. The test of a religion, however, is not what form it takes in a virtuous mind, but what effects it produces on those of another sort. Lucian applies the test of results alike to the religion usually so called, and to its philosophic substitute. He finds both wanting; the test is not a satisfactory one, but it is being applied by all sorts and conditions of men to Christianity in our own time; so is the second test, that of inherent probability, which he uses as well as the other upon the pagan theology; and it is this that gives his writings, even apart from their wit and fancy, a special interest for our own time. Our attention seems to be concentrated more and more on the ethical, as opposed to the speculative or dogmatic aspect of religion; just such was Lucian's attitude towards philosophy.
Some minor points of similarity may be briefly noted. As we read the Anacharsis, we are reminded of the modern prominence of athletics; the question of football versus drill is settled for us; light is thrown upon the question of conscription; we think of our Commissions on national deterioration, and the schoolmaster's wail over the athletic Frankenstein's monster which, like Eucrates in The Liar, he has created but cannot control. The 'horsy talk in every street' of the Nigrinus calls up the London newsboy with his 'All the winners.' We think of palmists and spiritualists in the police-courts as we read of Rutilianus and the Roman nobles consulting the impostor Alexander. This sentence reads like the description of a modern man of science confronted with the supernatural: 'It was an occasion for a man whose intelligence was steeled against such assaults by scepticism and insight, one who, if he could not detect the precise imposture, would at any rate have been perfectly certain that, though this escaped him, the whole thing was a lie and an impossibility.' The upper-class audiences who
listened to Lucian's readings, taking his points with quiet smiles instead of the loud applause given to the rhetorician, must have been something like that which listens decorously to an Extension lecturer. When Lucian bids us mark 'how many there are who once were but cyphers, but whom words have raised to fame and opulence, ay, and to noble lineage too,' we remember not only Gibbon's remark about the very Herodes Atticus of whom Lucian may have been thinking ('The family of Herod, at least after it had been favoured by fortune, was lineally descended from Cimon and Miltiades'), but also the modern carrière ouverte aux talents, and the fact that Tennyson was a lord. There are the elements of a socialist question in the feelings between rich and poor described in the Saturnalia; while, on the other hand, the fact of there being an audience for the Dialogues of the Hetaerae is an illustration of that spirit of humani nihil a me alienum puto which is again prevalent today. We care now to realize the thoughts of other classes besides our own; so did they in Lucian's time; but it is significant that Francklin in 1780, refusing to translate this series, says: 'These dialogues exhibit to us only such kind of conversation as we may hear in the purlieus of Covent Garden--lewd, dull, and insipid.' The lewdness hardly goes beyond the title; they are full of humour and insight; and we make no apology for translating most of them. Lastly, a generation that is always complaining of the modern over-production of books feels that it would be at home in a state of society in which our author found that, not to be too singular, he must at least write about writing history, if he declined writing it himself, even as Diogenes took to rolling his tub, lest he should be the only idle man when Corinth was bustling about its defences.
As Lucian is so fond of saying, 'this is but a small selection of the facts which might have been quoted' to illustrate the likeness between our age and his. It may be well to allude, on
the other hand, to a few peculiarities of the time that appear conspicuously in his writings.
The Roman Empire was rather Graeco-Roman than Roman; this is now a commonplace. It is interesting to observe that for Lucian 'we' is on occasion the Romans; 'we' is also everywhere the Greeks; while at the same time 'I' is a barbarian and a Syrian. Roughly speaking, the Roman element stands for energy, material progress, authority, and the Greek for thought; the Roman is the British Philistine, the Greek the man of culture. Lucian is conscious enough of the distinction, and there is no doubt where his own preference lies. He may be a materialist, so far as he is anything, in philosophy; but in practice he puts the things of the mind before the things of the body.
If our own age supplies parallels for most of what we meet with in the second century, there are two phenomena which are to be matched rather in an England that has passed away. The first is the Cynics, who swarm in Lucian's pages like the begging friars in those of a historical novelist painting the middle ages. Like the friars, they began nobly in the desire for plain living and high thinking; in both cases the thinking became plain, the living not perhaps high, but the best that circumstances admitted of, and the class--with its numbers hugely swelled by persons as little like their supposed teachers as a Marian or Elizabethan persecutor was like the founder of Christianity--a pest to society. Lucian's sympathy with the best Cynics, and detestation of the worst, make Cynicism one of his most familiar themes. The second is the class so vividly presented in The dependent Scholar--the indigent learned Greek who looks about for a rich vulgar Roman to buy his company, and finds he has the worst of the bargain. His successors, the 'trencher chaplains' who 'from grasshoppers turn bumble-bees and wasps, plain parasites, and make the Muses mules, to
satisfy their hunger-starved panches, and get a meal's meat,' were commoner in Burton's days than in our own, and are to be met in Fielding, and Macaulay, and Thackeray.
Two others of Lucian's favourite figures, the parasite and the legacy-hunter, exist still, no doubt, as they are sure to in every complex civilization; but their operations are now conducted with more regard to the decencies. This is worth remembering when we are occasionally offended by his frankness on subjects to which we are not accustomed to allude; he is not an unclean or a sensual writer, but the waters of decency have risen since his time and submerged some things which were then visible.
A slight prejudice, again, may sometimes be aroused by Lucian's trick of constant and trivial quotation; he would rather put the simplest statement, or even make his transition from one subject to another, in words of Homer than in his own; we have modern writers too who show the same tendency, and perhaps we like or dislike them for it in proportion as their allusions recall memories or merely puzzle us; we cannot all be expected to have agreeable memories stirred by insignificant Homer tags; and it is well to bear in mind by way of palliation that in Greek education Homer played as great a part as the Bible in ours. He might be taken simply or taken allegorically; but one way or the other he was the staple of education, and it might be assumed that every one would like the mere sound of him.
We may end by remarking that the public readings of his own works, to which the author makes frequent reference, were what served to a great extent the purpose of our printing-press. We know that his pieces were also published; but the public that could be reached by hand-written copies would bear a very small proportion to that which heard them from the writer's own lips; and though the modern system may have the advantage on the whole, it is hard to believe that the unapproached
life and naturalness of Lucian's dialogue does not owe something to this necessity.
xviii:1 Footnote: Some words of Sir Leslie Stephen's may be given, however, describing the welter of religious opinions that prevailed at both epochs: 'The analogy between the present age and that which witnessed the introduction of Christianity is too striking to have been missed by very many observers. The most superficial acquaintance with the general facts shows how close a parallel might be drawn by a competent historian. There are none of the striking manifestations of the present day to which it would p. xix not be easy to produce an analogy, though in some respects on a smaller scale. Now, as then, we can find mystical philosophers trying to evolve a satisfactory creed by some process of logical legerdemain out of theosophical moonshine; and amiable and intelligent persons labouring hard to prove that the old mythology could be forced to accept a rationalistic interpretation--whether in regard to the inspection of entrails or prayers for fine weather; and philosophers framing systems of morality entirely apart from the ancient creeds, and sufficiently satisfactory to themselves, while hopelessly incapable of impressing the popular mind; and politicians, conscious that the basis of social order was being sapped by the decay of the faith in which it had arisen, and therefore attempting the impossible task of galvanizing dead creeds into a semblance of vitality; and strange superstitions creeping out of their lurking-places, and gaining influence in a luxurious society whose intelligence was an ineffectual safeguard against the most grovelling errors; and a dogged adherence of formalists and conservatives to ancient ways, and much empty profession of barren orthodoxy; and, beneath all, a vague disquiet, a breaking up of ancient social and natural bonds, and a blind groping toward some more cosmopolitan creed and some deeper satisfaction for the emotional needs of mankind.'--The Religion of all Sensible Men in An Agnostic's Apology, 1893.