In my previous post I discussed the radical views of Cynic philosophy – to be happy you must give up everything that can be lost, including all your possessions and your attachments to them. That was a set-up for what I really wanted to discuss, a “Journey to the Afterlife” (technical term: Katabasis) found in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, one of the great writers of Satire in the Roman world, writing in the second century CE.
Here I introduce Lucian and begin to talk about his very funny dialogue, The Downward Journey. (Again, this is taken from a draft of my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, to come out from Yale University Press in April)
Born in Samosata on the Euphrates, outside the centers of intellectual power and not known for its cultural icons, Lucian originally would have spoken Aramaic but he came to be trained in Greek rhetoric. He eventually abandoned law for a literary career. Some eighty of his prose pieces survive, many of them attacks on charlatans and hucksters (Alexander of Abonuteichos; Peregrinus); mockery of philosophers (“Philosophies for Sale,” “Fisherman”); and satirical dialogues with sundry purposes, one of which was to ridicule the affluent by revealing the devastating harm of wealth (e.g., “Dialogues of the Dead,” “Mennipus,” “Charon,” “Dream of the Cock,” and “Timon”).
Lucian had a complicated relationship with philosophy. A good deal of his work parodies it, not from a specific philosophical perspective of his own but in general and on principle. He never undercuts philosophical positions by espousing a better one: on the contrary, even in antiquity he was notorious for never espousing any view at all.
As a rule, Lucian maligns the philosophers rather than their views per se: they contradict each other, propose all kinds of nonsense, and engage in endless and rather pointless debates. Moreover, they are hypocrites who cannot be trusted, urging actions they do not take, and propounding views of no use to anyone else, simply to line their own pockets.
But in several of his dialogues Lucian does put forth a decidedly Cynic understanding of wealth (see my previous post). Almost everywhere this was acknowledged as a radical view, at odds with moral philosophy as endorsed, for example, by traditional Stoics and Platonists. It nonetheless seems to be the view endorsed by Lucian – not in his own life, but in his writings, as he maligns wealth as a great evil that will lead to abject misery, a view that stands precisely counter to the one endorsed, whether explicitly or implicitly, by most of the rest of his world. So much becomes clear in a number of his dialogues that could yield to fruitful analysis along this line, especially Menippus and Timon. But here I have chosen to focus on Cataplus – The Downward Journey.
In some ways it is not quite right to call the work a katabasis (= a journey to the afterlife). It is less a guided tour of the realm of the dead than an account of people journeying to it as a permanent residence. It is the reader who is given the tour, to see the wealthy go in abject misery, having lost all they cherished in life, their possessions in particular; whereas others – including a Cynic and an impoverished cobbler — go down rather merrily, finding that an afterlife with no poverty, hunger, and injustice provides a pleasant prospect indeed.
The Downward Journey
The account beings with a discussion between one of the Fates, Clotho, and Charon, ferryman of the dead. Charon is upset that the god Hermes, “conductor of the dead” (νεκροπομπός), who guides the recently deceased down to Hades, has not yet arrived with his first batch of souls for the day, and Charon has so far not earned a single obol. He suspects that since the underworld is not exactly a place of high entertainment, Hermes has found more interesting things to do. But eventually the god shows up with 1004 of the deceased in tow and in a very bad mood. One of his charges has repeatedly been trying to escape back to the land of the living, and Hermes has constantly been having to make chase. The deceased miscreant is set in contrast with one other, a fellow with a pack over his shoulder and a club in his hand – equipment traditionally associated with Cynics — who not only is happily coming to the River Styx but has also proved helpful in securing the run-away. We later learn this person is called Cyniscus.
And the run-away? He is a fabulously wealthy tyrant, aptly named Megapenthes (“Great Grief”), out of his wits with anger and frustration for having just lost his fabulous wealth, power, and pleasure, desperate to get it all back. When he arrives at the river, he begs Clotho: surely the Fate could reverse her decision, if just for a day. He needs to complete the palace he has been building, instruct his wife about the treasure he has buried, finish his municipal building projects, subdue his warring enemies, learn how his death has been received, and take vengeance on his manservant who abused his corpse. He offers significant bribes, pleads the injustice of it all, and argues that as a tyrant he should be above the law of the dead. Is it all to no avail. His life is over, his fate has been decided, and Rhadamanthus will soon render his verdict. Having everything he desired in the world above, Megapenthes will now be perpetually miserable, having lost it all simply by experiencing the fate common to all mortal flesh.
The dialogue shifts then to another of the deceased, an impoverished cobbler, Micyllus. He too is upset, but not for being removed from the world of the living but for being delayed from crossing the Styx. He cannot get to the underworld fast enough, and is perturbed that Charon’s boat has filled up without him and he has to wait on shore. Clotho is surprised that Micyllus does not welcome the delay, but he replies by referencing Homer: unlike Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops he is not at all pleased by the promise that “I will devour ‘Noman’ last” (πύματον ἐγὼ τὸν Οὖτιν κατέδομαι; Odyssey 9.369; quoted in Cataplus 14). That is, Micyllus sees no advantage to being the final one to cross, and he says so with a striking witticism: ἄν τε γοῦν πρῶτον, ἄν τε πύματον, οἱ αὐτοὶ ὀδόντες περιμένουσιν: “Whether [I am] first or last, the same teeth are waiting.” Yes indeed.
I’ll continue with the story in my next post.