Nicholas Jeeves

Graphic designer, writer, Ruskin Arts editor and associate editor at The Public Domain Review. Leading MA Graphic Design at Cambridge School of Art.

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‘Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier’ and ‘In Spite of Your Art’

From Visions of Lucian Vol. 3
Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier / In Spite of Your Art

Mulita Small Editions, 2020

‘Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier’
Lucian of Samosata

Lucian, Assyrian emigrant and now the supreme literary stylist of his generation, addresses a countryman of his acquaintance in Athens.

Let me tell you:

You are choosing the worst way to attain your object. You think that by buying up all the best books you can lay your hands on, you will pass for a man of literary tastes. Not a bit of it; you are merely exposing your own ignorance of literature. Why, you cannot even buy the right things. Any casual recommendation is enough to guide your choice. You are as clay in the hands of the unscrupulous amateur, and as good as cash down to any dealer. How are you to know the difference between genuine old books that are worth money, and rubbish whose only merit is that it is falling to pieces? You are reduced to taking the worms and moths into your confidence; their activity is your sole clue to the value of a book. As to the accuracy and fidelity of the copyist, that is quite beyond you.

And supposing even that you had managed to pick out such veritable treasures as the exquisite editions of Callinus, or those of the far-famed Atticus, most conscientious of publishers, what does it profit you? Their beauty means nothing to you, my poor friend. You will get precisely as much enjoyment out of them as a blind lover would derive from the possession of a handsome mistress. Your eyes, to be sure, are open; you do see your books, goodness knows, see them till you must be sick of the sight. You even read a bit here and there, in a scrambling fashion, your lips still busy with one sentence while your eyes are on the next. But what is the use of that? You cannot tell good from bad. You miss the writer’s general drift, you miss his subtle arrangements of words: the chaste elegance of a pure style, the false ring of the counterfeit, ‘tis all one to you.

Are we to understand that you possess literary discernment without the assistance of any study? And how should that be? Perhaps, like Hesiod, you received a laurel-branch from the Muses? As to that, I doubt whether you have so much as heard of Helicon, the reputed haunt of those Goddesses. Your youthful pursuits were not those of a Hesiod; take not the Muses’ names in vain. They might not have any scruples about appearing to a hardy, hairy, sunburnt shepherd: but as for coming near such a one as you (you will excuse my particularising further just now, when I appeal to you in the name of the Goddess of Lebanon) they would scorn the thought. Instead of laurel, you would have tamarisk and mallow-leaves about your back. The waters of Olmeum and Hippocrene are for thirsty sheep and stainless shepherds, they must not be polluted by unclean lips. I grant you a very creditable stock of effrontery. But you will scarcely have the assurance to call yourself an educated man. You will scarcely pretend that your acquaintance with literature is more than skin-deep, or give us the names of your teacher and your fellow students.

No; you think you are going to work off all arrears by the simple expedient of buying a number of books. But there again: you may get together the works of Demosthenes, and his eight beautiful copies of Thucydides, all in the orator’s own handwriting, and all the manuscripts that Sulla sent away from Athens to Italy — and you will be no nearer to culture at the end of it, though you should sleep with them under your pillow, or paste them together and wear them as a garment. An ape is still an ape, says the proverb, though his trappings be of gold. So it is with you: you have always a book in your hand, you are always reading. But what it is all about, you have not an idea. You do but prick up asinine ears at the lyre’s sound. Books would be precious things indeed, if the mere possession of them guaranteed culture to their owner. You rich men would have it all your own way then; we paupers could not stand against you, if learning were a marketable commodity. As for the dealers, no one would presume to contest the point of culture with men who have whole shopfuls of books at their disposal. However, you will find on examination that these privileged persons are scarcely less ignorant than yourself. They have just your vile accent, and are as deficient in intelligence as one would expect men to be who have never learnt to distinguish good from bad. Now you see, you have merely bought a few odd volumes from them: they are at the fountain-head, and are handling books day and night. Judge from this how much good your purchases are likely to do you, unless you think that your very book-cases acquire a tincture of learning from the bare fact of their housing so many ancient manuscripts.

Oblige me by answering some questions. Or rather, as circumstances will not admit of your answering, just nod or shake your head. If the flute of Timotheus, or that of Ismenias, which its owner sold in Corinth for seven talents, were to fall into the hands of a person who did not know how to play the instrument, would that make him a flute-player? Would his acquisition leave him any wiser than it found him? You very properly shake your head. A man might possess the instrument of a Marsyas or an Olympus, and still he would not be able to play it if he had never learnt. Take another case: a man gets hold of Heracles’ bow and arrows. But he is no Philoctetes; he has neither that marksman’s strength nor his eye. What do you say? Will he acquit himself creditably? Again you shake your head. The same will be the case with the ignorant pilot who is entrusted with a ship, or with the unpractised rider on horseback. Nothing is wanting to the beauty and efficiency of the vessel, and the horse may be a Median or a Thessalian or a Koppa. Yet I take it that the incompetence of their respective owners will be made clear, am I right? And now let me ask your assent to one more proposition: if an illiterate person like yourself goes in for buying books, he is thereby laying himself open to ridicule. You hesitate? Yet surely nothing could be clearer. Who could observe such a man at work, and abstain from the inevitable allusion to pearls and swine?

There was a wealthy man in Asia, not many years ago, who was so unfortunate as to lose both his feet. I think he had been travelling through snow-drifts, and had got them frost-bitten. Well, of course, it was a very hard case, and in ordering a pair of wooden feet, by means of which he contrived to get along with the assistance of servants, he was no doubt only making the best of a bad job. But the absurd thing was, that he would always make a point of having the smartest and newest of shoes to set off his stumps — feet, I mean. Now are you any wiser than he, when for the adornment of that hobbling, wooden understanding of yours you go to the expense of such golden shoes as would tax the agility of a sound-limbed intellect?

Among your other purchases are several copies of Homer. Get someone to turn up the second book of the Iliad, and read to you. There is only one part you need trouble about; the rest does not apply to your case. I refer to the harangue of a certain ludicrous, maimed, distorted creature called Thersites. Now imagine this Thersites, such as he is there depicted, to have clothed himself in the armour of Achilles. What will be the result? Will he be converted there and then into a stalwart, comely warrior, clearing the river at a bound, and staining its waters with Phrygian blood? Will he prove a slayer of Asteropaeuses and Lycaons, and finally of Hectors, he who cannot so much as bear Achilles’ spear upon his shoulders? Of course not. He will simply be ridiculous: the weight of the shield will cause him to stagger, and will presently bring him on to his nose; beneath the helmet, as often as he looks up, will be seen that squint; the Achillean greaves will be a sad drag to his progress, and the rise and fall of the breast-plate will tell a tale of a humped-back. In short, neither the armourer nor the owner of the arms will have much to boast of. You are just like Thersites, if only you could see it. When you take in hand your fine volume, purple-cased, gilt-bossed, and begin reading with that accent of yours, maiming and murdering its contents, you make yourself ridiculous to all educated men. Your own toadies commend you, but they generally get in a chuckle too, as they catch one another’s eye.

Let me tell you a story of what happened once at Delphi. A native of Tarentum, Evangelus by name, a person of some note in his own city, conceived the ambition of winning a prize in the Pythian Games. Well, he saw at once that the athletic contests were quite out of the question; he had neither the strength nor the agility required. A musical victory, on the other hand, would be an easy matter — so at least he was persuaded by his vile parasites, who used to burst into a roar of applause the moment he touched the strings of his lyre. He arrived at Delphi in great style. Among other things, he had provided himself with gold-bespangled garments, and a beautiful golden laurel-wreath, with full-size emerald berries. As for his lyre, that was a most gorgeous and costly affair — solid gold throughout, and ornamented with all kinds of gems, and with figures of Apollo and Orpheus and the Muses, a wonder to all beholders. The eventful day at length arrived. There were three competitors, of whom Evangelus was to go second. Thespis the Theban performed first, and acquitted himself creditably. Then Evangelus appeared, resplendent in gold and emeralds, beryls and jacinths, the effect being heightened by his purple robe, which made a background to the gold. The house was all excitement and wondering anticipation. As singing and playing were an essential part of the competition, Evangelus now struck up with a few meaningless, disconnected notes, assaulting his lyre with such needless violence that he broke three strings at the start; and when he began to sing with his discordant pipe of a voice the whole audience was convulsed with laughter, and the stewards, enraged at his presumption, scourged him out of the theatre. Our golden Evangelus now presented a very queer spectacle, as the floggers drove him across the stage, weeping and bloody-limbed, and stooping to pick up the gems that had fallen from the lyre; for that instrument had come in for its share of the castigation. His place was presently taken by one Eumelus of Elis. Elis’ lyre was an old one, with wooden pegs, and his clothes and crown would scarcely have fetched ten drachmas between them. But for all that his well-managed voice and admirable execution caused him to be proclaimed the victor, and he was very merry over the unavailing splendours of his rival’s gem-studded instrument. “Evangelus,” he is reported to have said to him, “yours is the golden laurel — you can afford it: I am a pauper, and must put up with the Delphian wreath. No one will be sorry for your defeat; your arrogance and incompetence have made you an object of detestation. That is all your equipment has done for you.” Here again the application is obvious, Evangelus differing from you only in his sensibility to public ridicule.

I have also an old Lesbian story which is very much to the point. It is said that after Orpheus had been torn to pieces by the Thracian women, his head and his lyre were carried down the Hebrus into the sea. The head, it seems, floated down upon the lyre, singing Orpheus’ dirge as it went, while the winds blew an accompaniment upon the strings. In this manner they reached the coast of Lesbos. The head was then taken up and buried on the site of the present temple of Bacchus, and the lyre was long preserved as a relic in the temple of Apollo. Later on, however, Neanthus, son of the tyrant Pittacus, hearing how the lyre had charmed beasts and trees and stones, and how after Orpheus’ destruction it had played of its own accord, conceived a violent fancy for the instrument, and by means of a considerable bribe prevailed upon the priest to give him the genuine lyre, and replace it with one of similar appearance. Not thinking it advisable to display his acquisition in the city in broad daylight, he waited till night, and then, putting it under his cloak, walked off into the outskirts. And there this youth, who had not a note of music in him, produced his instrument and began jangling on the strings, expecting such divine strains to issue therefrom as would subdue all souls, and prove him the fortunate heir to Orpheus’ power. He went on till a number of dogs collected at the sound and tore him limb from limb. Thus far, at least, his fate resembled that of Orpheus, though his power of attraction extended only to hostile dogs. It was abundantly proved that the charm lay not in the lyre, but solely in those peculiar gifts of song and music that had been bestowed upon Orpheus by his mother. As to the lyre, it was just like other lyres.

But there: what need to go back to Orpheus and Neanthus? We have instances in our own days. I believe the man is still alive who paid three thousand drachmas for the earthenware lamp of Epictetus the Stoic. I suppose he thought he had only to read by the light of that lamp, and the wisdom of Epictetus would be communicated to him in his dreams, and he himself assume the likeness of that venerable sage. And it was only a day or two ago that another enthusiast paid a talent for the staff dropped by the Cynic Proteus when he leaped upon the pyre. He treasures this relic, and shows it off, just as the people of Tegea do the hide of the Calydonian boar, or the Thebans the bones of Geryon, or the Memphians Isis’ hair. Now the original owner of this precious staff was one who for ignorance and vulgarity would have borne away the palm from yourself. My friend, you are in a bad way: a stick across the head is what you want.

They say that when Dionysius took to tragedy-writing he made such sad stuff of it that Philoxenus was more than once thrown into the quarries because he could not control his laughter. Finding that his efforts only made him ridiculous, Dionysius was at some pains to procure the tablets on which Aeschylus had been wont to write. He looked to draw divine inspiration from them: as it turned out, however, he now wrote considerably worse rubbish than before. Among the contents of the tablets I may quote:

‘Twas Dionysius’ wife, Doridion.

Here is another:

Most serviceable woman! thou art gone!

Genuine tablet that, and the next:

Men that are fools are their own folly’s butt.

Taken with reference to yourself, by the way, nothing could be more to the point than this last line. Dionysius’ tablets deserved gilding, if only for that.

What is your idea, now, in all this rolling and unrolling of scrolls? To what end the gluing and the trimming, the cedar-oil and saffron, the leather cases and the bosses? Much good your purchases have been to you, one sees that already. Why, your language — no, I am wrong there, you are as dumb as a fish — but your life, your unmentionable vices, make every one hate the sight of you. If that is what books do, one cannot keep too clear of them. There are two ways in which a man may derive benefit from the study of the ancients: he may learn to express himself, or he may improve his morals by their example and warning. When it is clear that he has not profited in either of these respects, what are his books but a habitation for mice and vermin, and a source of castigation to negligent servants? And how very foolish you must look when any one finds you with a book in your hand (and you are never to be seen without) and asks you who is your orator, your poet, or your historian. You have seen the title, of course, and can answer that question pat. But then one word brings up another, and some criticism, favourable or the reverse, is passed upon the contents of your volume. You are dumb and helpless; you pray for the earth to open and swallow you; you stand like Bellerophon with the warrant for your own execution in your hand.

Once in Corinth, Demetrius the Cynic found some illiterate person reading aloud from a very handsome volume — the Bacchae of Euripides, I think it was. He had got to the place where the messenger is relating the destruction of Pentheus by Agave, when Demetrius snatched the book from him and tore it in two. “Better,” he exclaimed, “that Pentheus should suffer one rending at my hands than many at yours.”

I have often wondered, though I have never been able to satisfy myself, what it is that makes you such an ardent buyer of books. The idea of your making any profitable use of them is one that nobody who has the slightest acquaintance with you would entertain for a moment. Does the bald man buy a comb, the blind a mirror, the deaf a flute-player? The eunuch a concubine, the landsman an oar, the pilot a plough? Are you merely seizing an opportunity of displaying your wealth? Or is it just your way of showing the public that you can afford to spend money even on things that are of no use to you? Why, an Assyrian like myself knows that if you had not got your name foisted into that old man’s will, you would have been starving by this time, and all your books must have been put up to sale.

Only one possible explanation remains: your toadies have made you believe that in addition to your charms of person you have an extraordinary gift for rhetoric, history, and philosophy; and you buy books merely to countenance their flatteries. It seems that you actually hold forth to them at table, and they, poor thirsty frogs, must croak dry-throated applause till they burst, or there is no drink for them. You are a most curiously gullible person: you take in every word they say to you. You were made to believe at one time that your features resembled those of a certain Emperor. We had had a pseudo-Alexander, and a pseudo-Philip, the fuller, and there was a pseudo-Nero as recently as our own grandfathers’ times. You are for adding one more to the noble army of pseudos. After all, it was nothing for an illiterate fool like you to take such a fancy into his head, and walk about with his chin in the air, aping the gait and dress and expression of his supposed model. Even the Epirot king Pyrrhus, remarkable man that he was in other respects, had the same foible, and was persuaded by his flatterers that he was like Alexander — Alexander the Great, that is. In point of fact, I have seen Pyrrhus’ portrait, and the two — to borrow a musical phrase — are about as much like one another as bass and treble. And yet he was convinced he was the image of Alexander. However, if that were all, it would be rather too bad of me to insult Pyrrhus by the comparison. But I am justified by the sequel; it suits your case so exactly. When once Pyrrhus had got this fancy into his head, everyone else ran mad for company, till at last an old woman of Larissa, who did not know Pyrrhus, told him the plain truth, and cured his delusion. After showing her portraits of Philip, Perdiccas, Alexander, Casander, and other kings, Pyrrhus finally asked her which of these he resembled, taking it as a matter of course that she would fix upon Alexander. However, she considered for some time, and at length informed him that he was most like Batrachion the cook, there being a cook of that name in Larissa who was very like Pyrrhus. What particular theatrical pander you most resemble I will not pretend to decide: all I can state with certainty is that to this day you pass for a raving madman on the strength of this fancy. After such an instance of your critical discernment, we need not be surprised to find that your flatterers have inspired you with the further ambition of being taken for a scholar.

But I am talking nonsense. The cause of your bibliomania is clear enough; I must have been dozing, or I should have seen it long ago. This is your idea of strategy: you know the Emperor’s scholarly tastes, and his respect for culture, and you think it will be worth something to you if he hears of your literary pursuits. Once let your name be mentioned to him as a great buyer and collector of books, and you reckon that your fortune is made. Vile creature! and is the Emperor drugged with mandragora that he should hear of this and never know the rest, your daylight iniquities, your tipplings, your monstrous nightly debauches? Know you not that an Emperor has many eyes and many ears? Yet your deeds are such as cannot be concealed from the blind or the deaf. I may tell you at once, as you seem not to know it, that a man’s hopes of the Imperial favour depend not on his book-bills, but on his character and daily life. Are you counting upon Atticus and Callinus, the copyists, to put in a good word for you? Then you are deceived: those relentless gentlemen propose, with the Gods’ good leave, to grind you down and reduce you to utter destitution. Come to your senses while there is yet time. Sell your library to some scholar, and whilst you are about it sell your new house too, and wipe off part of your debt to the slave-dealers.

You see, you will ride both these hobbies at once; there is the trouble. Besides your expensive books you must have your superannuated minions. You are insatiable in these pursuits, and you cannot follow both without money. Now observe how precious a thing is counsel. I recommend you to dispense with the superfluous, and confine your attention to your other foible; in other words, keep your money for the slave-dealers, or your private supplies will run short, and you will be reduced to calling in the services of freemen, who will want every penny you possess. Otherwise there is nothing to prevent them from telling how your time is spent when you are in liquor. Only the other day I heard some very ugly stories about you — backed, too, by ocular evidence. The bystanders on that occasion are my witnesses to how angry I was on your account. I was in two minds about giving the fellow a thrashing. And the annoying part of it was that he appealed to more than one witness who had had the same experience and told just the same tale. Let this be a warning to you to economise, so that you may be able to have your enjoyments at home in all security. I do not suggest that you should give up these practices: that is quite hopeless. The dog that has gnawed leather once will gnaw leather always.

On the other hand, you can easily do without books. Your education is complete; you have nothing more to learn. You have the ancients as it were on the tip of your tongue. All history is known to you. You are a master of the choice and management of words, you have got the true Attic vocabulary. The multitude of your books has made a ripe scholar of you. (You love flattery, and there is no reason why I should not indulge you as well as another.)

But I am rather curious on one point: what are your favourite books among so many? Plato? Antisthenes? Archilochus? Hipponax? Or are they passed over in favour of the orators? Do you ever read the speech of Aeschines against Timarchus? All that sort of thing I suppose you have by heart. And have you grappled with Aristophanes and Eupolis? Did you ever go through the Baptae? Well then, you must surely have come on some embarrassing home-truths in that play? It is difficult to imagine that mind of yours bent upon literary studies, and those hands turning over the pages. When do you do your reading? In the daytime, or at night? If the former, you must do it when no one is looking: and if the latter, is it done in the midst of more engrossing pursuits, or do you work it in before your rhetorical outpourings? As you reverence Cotytto, venture not again into the paths of literature; have done with books, and keep to your own peculiar business. If you had any sense of shame, to be sure, you would abandon that too. Think of Phaedra’s indignant protest against her sex:

Darkness is their accomplice, yet they fear not,
Fear not the chamber-walls, their confidants.

But no: you are determined not to be cured. Very well: buy book upon book, shut them safely up, and reap the glory that comes of possession. Only, let that be enough. Presume not to touch nor read; pollute not with that tongue the poetry and eloquence of the ancients. What harm have they ever done to you?

All this advice is thrown away, I know that. You will go on buying books that you cannot use — to the amusement of educated men, who derive profit not from the price of a book, nor from its handsome appearance, but from the sense and sound of its contents. You think by the multitude of books to supply the deficiencies of your education, and to throw dust in our eyes. Did you but know it, you are exactly like the quack doctors, who provide themselves with silver cupping-glasses, gold-handled lancets, and ivory cases for their instruments. They are quite incapable of using them when the time comes, and have to give place to some properly qualified surgeon, who produces a lancet with a keen edge and a rusty handle, and affords immediate relief to the sufferer. Or here is a better parallel: take the case of the barbers. You will find that the skilled practitioners have just the razor, scissors, and mirror that their work requires. The impostors’ razors are numerous, and their mirrors magnificent. However, that does not serve to conceal their incompetence, and the result is most amusing. The average man gets his hair cut by one of their more capable neighbours, and then goes and arranges it before their glasses. That is just what your books are good for — to lend to other people; you are quite incapable of using them yourself. Not that you ever have lent any one a single volume; true to your dog-in-the-manger principles, you neither eat the corn yourself, nor give the horse a chance.

There you have my candid opinion about your books: I shall find other opportunities of dealing with your disreputable conduct in general.

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In Spite of Your Art: A Word with Lucian
Nicholas Jeeves


Nicholas Jeeves, writer and small publisher, interrupts Lucian’s afterlife in Asphodel to address him regarding the exceptionable

In spite of your art, this.

With these worthless remarks you have done yourself an injury, Lucian; not to your body, now less than a memory, but to your reputation, which is all that remains of you in the world of the living.

I can see you are no longer the man you were. You were thin even in life, but in this ghostly place the word takes on new meaning: I can see right through you.

Well, do not float away. We have matters to discuss. They are not insubstantial.

Let me remind you.

The year: 175, or thereabouts, and you are in Athens. Commodus is your emperor — you remember him? I should not be surprised. He is appreciative of your talents, though for poor reason: he sees his own wickedness reflected in you. (A few years hence, once your hair has fallen away and your toes are crunching with gout, Commodus will reward you with a nice legal position in Egypt, for which you will be paid very well to do very little. All in all, a perfect retirement for a writer: well kept, and with just as many administrative duties to justify your creative decline in fair conscience. Nice bit of sophistry, that.)

But already I am wandering away from the point. Let us wander back to it — to Athens, the city that has given you such fame, such riches, such a reputation as the most eloquent and learned of your kind that you want for nothing. You have made your home and your name here. In glorious middle-age you are at the peak of your powers, among the most highly regarded humourists and literary stylists of the age. No mean achievement: when it comes to talented artists, Athenians are spoiled for choice.

Today, as you wander the byways of your adopted city, you find yourself in the company of a fellow Assyrian, already known to you but not quite a friend. The man generously invites you into his home: he is the one extending the hand of friendship. Good heavens, what a fine library this fellow has! Over here, yard upon yard of the most valuable books; there, tall racks of scrolls and tablets. You run your thumb along the bindings in wonder. He is a man after your own heart: devoted to letters and making the most of Athens’ literary treasures.

Beloved compatriot!

His servants prepare refreshments, and together you toast your homeland. Fond memories are invoked, idle dreams of a return one day to the shimmering banks of the Euphrates, where you might cool your aching feet. In among the fine Greek, which in your sophistication you speak perfectly, you find yourself uttering the occasional word in your native Aramaic. It has been a long time since you formed such words and to your great surprise they feel good in your mouth. As good as the wine.

But you are about to make a shocking discovery. In discussing this fellow’s collection of fine books — really, it is quite impressive — you begin to suspect that his passion for buying them is matched only by his disinterest in reading them. They serve, you soon realise, not as evidence of his wisdom, but as a demonstration of his wealth, a facsimile of good taste. Nothing of them has stuck to him; his ignorance is revealed to be exactly as large as his library. The whole thing is a pose, a gaudy display, a monstrous affectation.

Shameful swine!

Throwing your wine to the ground and your host’s hospitality in his face, you march home, maddened and revolted. In a gathering fury you fling open your front door, storm the stairs, and take up the tools of your trade: a clutch of reeds, a vessel of ink, a fistful of papyrus. It is time to work. With restored purpose you sit down to repay your host for his insult: with fine words, sharpened to wound.

Now: you look puzzled. You recognise the outlines of my little sketch, but the particulars — not quite how you remember them? I don’t wonder at it. I confess I have had to imagine the beginnings of this disagreeable affair, but no matter: for the rest of it we have the evidence of your own words to condemn you with. For the long letter you spew out in response to this offensive gentleman begins as a justifiable admonishment, develops into a diatribe, and by the end has expanded into an out-and-out tongue-lashing. Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier (for that is the title we sometimes give it; perhaps you had another in mind; you shall have to learn to live with the ideas of your translators) is a stream of poison, designed to destroy. Worse, it is a sweet-tasting poison — as vomit is sweet-tasting. True, it is in keeping with your style, as arch and as eloquent as any of your great plays. There in abundance is your wit, your articulacy, and your splendid way with an allusion. But it is devoid of those things that have given those works their enduring charm: compression, humanity, morality, comedy — those things that make the meat of your wise and wicked prose so palatable — nowhere to be seen. This time, the meal is off: it looks fine, but is tasteless.

But the coup de grâce, struck with purest spite: you decide not to send this diatribe directly to your enemy but to publish it, for the amusement of others. Worse, and most cunning of all, you decline to identify your  target by name— and then have the gall to think this a generosity! The tradition, of course, is that poison pen letters are sent anonymously by the writer to the victim, and they alone. No point in that, you reason: the fellow would know you straightaway, and most likely throw it on the fire before he had reached the bottom of the first paragraph. You have a better idea: with your false gift of anonymity you may eviscerate him all the more fully. That leaves you in the clear, by the way, so that you might avoid the charge of libel, while affording anyone who knows your man the opportunity to take up the mockery from there. All in all, a crafty piece of work: you exploit your own name while denying him his, and let others do the running for you.

I suppose we might have expected nothing more of you: writers wish to be read, and an audience of one is no fit reward for your efforts. But this low business, though it pretends to save a fragment of your victim’s dignity, is beneath you, and beneath your art. It is the work of a superior bully. The poor fellow’s only trespass, from what you allege: indulging in a harmless hobby — and possibly being a bit ostentatious about it. We have seen it all before. At the worst, folly, and one as common as muck. Hardly worth your time, we might think. I am not sure the book-sellers of Athens appreciated it very much either.

As your advocate I suppose I should at least attempt to defend your Remarks; I am not sure it is worth bothering. You make your point as surely as ever, but it is made dull: gone is the sharp needle of your art, brought to a fine point by the whetstone of your wit, readied to prick and puncture swollen egos; in the Remarks it has become a cudgel, wielded by a maniac, to club your subject, and your readers, senseless. The teacher that gave us the lessons of the Dialogues, of Peregrinus and Demonax, is gone with it. Here you teach us nothing but the meanest of lessons: don’t buy books you might not understand. If we were to follow that rule there would be no hope for any of us. No bookshops, either.

Now, you are bridling. You think your points were necessary, and well made? As essential to our learning as those of Timon or Nigrinus? Perhaps you think I have somehow missed the lesson. Which — that hypocrisy can be found anywhere? No lesson there, except the one we have learned even before we leave the nursery. You feel that it is the small hypocrisies that harm us most, that we should guard most carefully against? Hardly, and now you are being disingenuous. Each of us are guilty of a hundred a day; that is how we know them when we find them in others. We might be thankful for their small protections.

No — I ask you: where is the art in your Remarks? Not in the fine words: they are the product of your skill. Not in the span of your argument: where is the economy in this long complaint? Not in all the learned citations: with those you are just showing off, justifying your superiority.

It is all coming back to you, I see. If ghosts could flush, we might see some colour in your cheeks. Or is that the flush of pride? You are incorrigible. There is nothing else for it: we will examine what brought you to this, and what damage your actions have wrought on your name. You oughtn’t complain — what else have you to do in this pale place but think on the past?

Think on the years before you met your enervating countryman. You are rich, celebrated, and admired, your works are read and performed all over the city. You would like to know which of them still today? Oh, very well. Among them: A True Story. It is perhaps the most famous, still talked about today in high terms. That disappoints you, I see. Well, none of us likes to think our best work was made before we were wise, but there it is. What else? Timon the Misanthrope, of course. That one went on to have a life of its own even a thousand years after you wrote it —we know him better as Timon of Athens. And The Lover of Lies: you would scarcely believe how that one has matured over the centuries: today we call it The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And others? Really, your modesty is failing you. We may say that a large number of your works are still much admired. Does that satisfy you?

You are beginning to fill out just a little, if only with self-satisfaction. Allow me to puff you up some more: you had your money, and you had your influence, but fame had not corrupted you. You had not grown fat, being wary of greed in any form. Your clothes: carefully chosen, perhaps, but not showy — you were, to your credit, disinclined to parade in quite that way. You could hardly be called modest, let alone humble — shall we say, merely conscious of your achievements.

But above all you had remained honest, forever on the lookout for cupidity, hypocrisy, and double-dealing. When you found it — and in the high circles you moved in, you didn’t always have to look so very far — you sat down to write. And it is there that you revealed your other self, baring your tiny teeth and pouncing on your victims like a polecat, eviscerating their reputations with neat movements of your pen, each stinging, slashing stroke another blow to your victim’s life-force. Your dance was so nimble and so entertaining that, once completed, people would queue up to see it enacted again and again. And how they laughed! If ever we needed evidence of the pen being mightier than the sword, we need look no further than you: a barbed wit, forged in humanism, gilded with humour, and burnished to perfection with your art. Your targets, named and shamed, almost always worthy of your asperity, were deflated and defeated, rarely recovering from their wounds.

In Philosophies for Sale you picked at the hems of the famous philosophers’ garments and, pulling gently at the thread, revealed their hidden parts before they could think to cover themselves. Pythagoras, Diogenes, Socrates, and Heraclitus all felt the draft. But you didn’t stop there. In Dialogues of the Dead you extended your reach to Hades, working to unpick the legends of the heroes. Croesus, Midas, Paris, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Hannibal, Scipio, Achilles: no hiding from you, even in death. And then, of course, in Dialogues of the Gods, the whole dumb pack of deities, the cosmic bullies themselves, embarrassed and embarrassing each other with the words you put in their mouths.

And with it all you uplifted your audience. They adored you. They relied on you, too, not just to make them laugh, but to point up the shortcomings of those who claimed superiority, to hobble feet of clay with a scattering of well placed pebbles. You elevated them, celebrated the virtues of common sense, and reminded them of the pleasures to be found in the small, unchanging realities of their daily lives — no mean feat, and perhaps the largest part of your legacy.

There, we have settled your virtues. We return now to your vices, and your ghastly Remarks. It’s plain to see that the writing of them exhausted you, just as they exhaust the reader. Your barely concealed rage, of that particular variety we reserve for countrymen who have embarrassed us while abroad — that, at least, we can all understand. What is harder to bear is the interminable racket you make of it. You labour your point as the gods always labour theirs, to our bored cost. We are neither uplifted nor illuminated by the lesson. For who among us has not bought some few books which, stuffed in our bookshelves as though evidence of our accumulated wisdom, remain unread? There is hardly any shame in it.

Later there was a bishop — an admirer of yours by the name of Arethas, himself a book-collector — who wondered whether your Remarks were inspired by your victim’s jealous objection to lending you a volume or two. This bishop was more charitable than I am inclined to be. For so slight an insult to your sensibilities the attack is too severe, the damage done in revenge too great. And there, in a nutshell, the satirist’s devilment: in contriving to publish your assaults, the injuries you inflict may last forever. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me” — a piece of advice you always knew to be absolute rubbish.

Certainly your book-fancier was a hypocrite. And, in all likelihood, pompous, arrogant, shallow, ignorant; a snob, a fraud, a poseur, and all those other things. But you go too far. He may have deserved your mockery, but no victory was won by broadcasting it. He was a man of short power: his influence extended little beyond the margins of his home and his few “toadies”. He was no Alexander.

Ah — him you remember straightaway! Just the sound of that name alarms you, I see. A bell has been rung; it may help to ring it louder if we are to understand your strong reaction. Let’s venture again into your past, to the very moment, in fact, that your hatred of hypocrisy was born. Perhaps there we will better understand what brought you here.

Only a few years before your meeting with the book-fancier we find you as an emigrant, transporting your life from Assyria to Athens. There you are: your wagon packed high, your elderly parents in tow, your joints and muscles complaining as you crash over another of those accursed ruts that litter these rural pathways.

As the road to Athens shortens and the miles slowly accumulate, you are thinking seriously on your future. You have it in mind to become a comic writer, abandoning the profession of rhetorician — a job that has helped you to refine your skills and brought you considerable wealth, but that you have since learned to hate. As one of your later biographers would remark — yes, you have had a great many — you perhaps felt that rhetoric should be “left to legal persons, whose object is not truth but victory.” 

Now: what you had in mind on that long journey was philosophy — but a new kind of philosophy, delivered to your audience with laughter, the quickest route to the heart and the brain. If you could make them laugh, you reasoned, you could make them think. Your vision: comedy with a purpose.

Driving through the dust, your parents dutifully uncomplaining, and with these new thoughts of comedy bubbling away inside you, you stop for respite in Paphlagonia. And there you meet your devil: the false prophet Alexander of Abonoteichus. It is no wonder that you remember him: he makes a strong impression.

The encounter would nearly cost you and your family your lives, though little did you know it at the time. What you did know was that the “sheep” of Paphlagonia — for that is what you called Alexander’s multitude of followers — were typical of the area. No people had so great a reputation for credulity as the Paphlagonians: they would follow any old prophet to the edge of the world. Even so, with Alexander they had gobbled up the rotten bait even more enthusiastically than usual. His uncommon beauty, his compelling personality, his intellect and powers of organisation — exceptional even for the times, which were daft with healers, quacks, and other charlatans offering cures for everything. He had all the best tricks: suitably mystical robes, elaborate headgear, and a great snake whose head he covered with a finely carved mask, painted with the face of the ancient divine healer Asclepius, topped off with a splendid blond wig — all very convincing.

Sitting on his throne with the snake coiled about him, Alexander would receive his audiences and deliver his nonsensical pronouncements — by the hundreds of thousands, they say. Prophesies for sale, a drachma a throw. Not bad, when you do the sums. And the gullible Paphlagonians were falling over themselves to hand over their wages.

The vast quantities of money Alexander accumulated had swiftly extended his power and influence. Even Marcus Aurelius, famed for his wisdom, fell for the con. Seeking a victory in his war with the Marcomanni, Marcus received from Alexander the advice that the kingdom would fall if only he would throw a couple of lions into the Danube. It didn’t work, of course — but then Alexander had the old oracle’s defence ready to hand: You have misinterpreted the prophesy.

But you — you saw what was going on straightaway. The robes, the languorous pose, the ludicrous snake — all a villainous imposture. So you insulted the old fraud in public, revealed his tricks, embarrassed him in front of his acolytes — and bit him, too.

Alexander, his true character revealed and his livelihood imperilled, could hardly be blamed for wanting you punished. Hiring an assassin to kill you was perhaps an over-reaction. But the assassin was not a very good assassin. He was the venerable captain of the ship you had chartered to take you to Athens, paid a nice bonus by Alexander to heave you and your family overboard at the half-way mark. Thank goodness for an old man’s wish to retire with a clear conscience: he could not go through with the deed and instead confessed his cowardice to you immediately you were at sea.

After that, hypocrisy was as catnip to you, and you could sniff it out anywhere. Once you had detected it, you inhaled deeply. You had to go away from it to begin writing — to escape some of its intoxicating effects — but there you crafted your vengeance. And it was total. You would leave behind you some of the cruellest, most elegantly pointed challenges in literature, and each of them found its target so surely that, these two thousand years later, many of our impressions of your victims are formed around your indictments — including Alexander. Thanks to you — there, another compliment — all the world knows that the famous Alexander of Abonoteichus, leader of the great snake-cult of Glycon, was just a trickster.

You have small reason to gloat about it, for all the good it did at the time. You waited until his death and your retirement to write Alexander’s biography, and your memoir of your encounter with him. He lived a full life in-between, and died at a respectable age — of gangrene, in case you don’t remember. Still we might be grateful for your efforts. If not for you he may well have been remembered more favourably by history. But I could point out that you might also have attacked the hypocrisy of your ship’s captain, your cowardly would-be assassin, his pockets bulging with Alexander’s gold — had it not been to your benefit, and therefore easier to overlook. Or did you only ever turn your gaze on those who injured you? We will come to that in a moment; for now all we need remember is that you would not forget Alexander’s wickedness. It spurred you on, gave you new purpose. From now on you would rootle out duplicity and set it right with your writer’s talent — a war on two fronts, indeed, with you set between hypocrisy on one side and credulity on the other.

All of which brings us back to your hypocritical book-fancier, and your horrible letter. What, we wonder, can the fellow have done — in truth — to have driven you to work so furiously against your better self? Surely it was not just his ignorance, or his small hypocrisy. Was the bishop right — that he refused to lend you one of his books, and that his dog-in-a-manger principles were like a splinter under your toenail? It can’t be that: we have agreed the insult is too insignificant to warrant such a gross attack. Or did you perhaps already know of his dark reputation in other regards but, not wishing to be sued for libel, focused your wrath on this relatively innocent crime? We are getting closer to it: now your blushes give you away. You waited thirty years, until Alexander was dead and his influence long spent, before you dared to eviscerate him in print. You were ashamed of that, perhaps, and seeing that your book-fancier was not nearly as much of a threat to your health as Alexander turned out to be, made up for lost time, and lost opportunity.

Another possibility, more shameful still: your mention of his “vile accent”, one you claim he shares with the booksellers. This really takes the biscuit. Where to even begin? Just because you had managed to lose the chewy fricatives and glottal stops of your native Syriac, swapping them for the precise vowels and crisp consonants of Athenian Greek, you condemn him for not having done the same: he dares to carry his origins with him. Mocking a man for an accent that was once yours is a new low even for you. You go further: next you swing your aim toward the booksellers. It is obvious to anyone that, if not for them, your own education might have been less successful. For what better way for a man interested in the arts, but finding himself unable to contribute to their creation, to otherwise take part by means of trade?

I note too that you do not chastise your nameless book-fancier for owning slaves, merely for owning too many. You do criticise him for his wealth — funny, that: you might have been just as wealthy as him. You accuse him of wheedling his way into an old man’s favours, and into his will. If that’s true, then we might begin to see a case against him, I agree. You make brief mention too of his other crimes — his “daylight iniquities”, his “tipplings”, his “monstrous nightly debauches,” his “unmentionable vices” that, you claim, make everyone hate the sight of him. Why then, if you knew of these already, did you accept his hospitality? I say that you were spoiling for the fight — seeking the barely perceptible touch of the final straw, with your attack already in mind but lacking some direct insult that might justify your actions to your worshipful audience. In which case the whole affair is a trick: you accuse him of being a dog in a manger, but your petty scheme is of a different order altogether: a dog who, in his jealous fixation with the horse, purposefully sets himself up in the beast’s lodgings just so that he may look — to quote your Timon —  “fixedly at the seal and the bolt”, ready to begin his snapping and snarling the moment his ignorant enemy appears.

We might wonder at such obsessive enmity. Still, the evidence against you is mounting up. Here comes the clincher: you confess you had heard some additional “very ugly stories” about your countryman and, having once defended him in public, were embarrassed to have found yourself corrected by a number of eyewitnesses. Ah — and there we have it! This fellow was already well known to you, and the matter of the unexamined books is just a smokescreen, a shroud to cover your black intentions.

You may well shrink away. This amounts to an unsightly stain on your record of honesty, Lucian. You thought your poison pen letter would teach your book-fancier a lesson. Too late: he had already poisoned you. There is no need to pout; we can be fair about it. If he reminded you in some small, private way of Alexander, pretending to be that which he was not, yet still managing to fool those who believed in his merits, then we might make some small allowance for your feelings, considering your history. There — a defence, or a sliver of one. And it is certain that only you know the whole truth of your meeting — his words, his manner, the quality of his character. Still the case against you remains. Your exhausting obsession, so poorly controlled, does not suit you. Until then you had always followed the philosophies of common sense and plain speaking, “serious only in your desire to please” — and, as you liked to say, “ready to answer all charges but that of dullness.” We may take any other of your great works and examine them in the minutest detail, and still there would be no need for you to draw on such a defence. But with your Remarks the charges stick. You have not answered them yet, though I have tried to pluck answers from you. It is my fault for providing you with just enough of an excuse to merit some small pardon. I have given you an inch and you have taken a mile. I had no idea that a ghost might prove so unyielding: in your weakened state I had thought I might just waft you around to my will.

But I see you are drifting off; I shall break for now. I have matched you for length, and nearly for bile. No doubt we shall speak further of your talents another day. You don’t move as quickly as you did, and so are easier to catch; the dead are the easiest of quarries, as you well know.

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