August 2, 2021

Lucien from Samosate laughs at a suicide

Lucien de Samosate (v. 120-v. 180) is Voltaire in the Roman Empire. He shamelessly claims to have been born ” among the barbarians “. It is true that Samosata, in the south of present-day Turkey, near the Euphrates river, is far from Athens and that Lucien’s mother tongue is not Greek. Yet he handles Athenian prose to perfection and becomes an inventive and caustic writer, with devastating humor. He slams superstition like the author of Candide, unmasks the deceptions of the literati and the postures of everyone – in particular those of the philosophers.

To make fun of them, Lucien’s verve never fails. He imagines a slave market where thinkers are sold. Aristotle, too boring, does not find a taker … Or he sketches the silhouette of a disciple in search of school, who does not know where to turn and bravely tries to try them all, going from disillusionment to disappointment. He still paints the great anger of Philosophie, daughter of Zeus, who returns to Olympus very disappointed with the behavior of men: they do not listen to him, do what they want.

Read also (2009), by Maurice Sartre: The Paradoxical Modernity of Lucien de Samosate

His sour imagination injects a heavy dose of humor into ancient thought. As it turns out that most philosophers are severely lacking in this quality, the work of Lucien of Samosata is a bliss. Almost always. Because it also contains stridences, false notes and tensions which question the very nature of laughter and the limits of the laughable.

Lucien’s contempt

Best example: the suicide by fire of the philosopher Peregrinus Proteus, in AD 165. This character really existed, but we have very few details of his biography. He seems to have been a Christian, then to have abandoned Christianity to join the school of cynics. Although these forms of defector are still little known, his case is not unique. At the Olympics, he announced that he would kill himself at the next Olympics, and he kept his word four years later. He therefore had a pyre built away from Olympia, because the place could not be defiled by a corpse. And, on the day set, once the fire crackled, entered it resolutely.

One can think what one wants of the motivations of this ascetic, judge them obscure, find them respectable or ridiculous, but it is difficult to be as contemptuous as Lucien. This one laughs at the foul smell of the pyre, its stench of charred meat, which is not in the best taste. Above all, he accuses Peregrinus of bragging and inordinate love for glory. If he got burned, it was only to make people talk about him! The false sage would have ended up in the fire, “Held by the love of glory”, emphasizes Lucien. In our vocabulary, he would probably say that this suicide is just a hit.

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