Isn’t it better to have no possessions at all than to have millions of them and then lose them? According to ancient Cynic philosophy: Absolutely Yes!
I’ve been discussing how this view comes to be embodied in Lucian’ of Samosata’s humorous dialogue Downward Journey, about a rich tyrant who abused his power and wealth and then ended up completely miserable in the afterlife. I begin here with the paragraph that ended the last post, to provide a bit of context for the humorous passage that follows. (All this is taken from my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell, with Yale University Press, due out in April)
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.
He then explains why he has no qualms about going on to his destiny. People like him are not “like the rich”; on the contrary, their lives are “poles apart.” He explains: this tyrant, Megapenthes, seemed happy his entire life, feared and respected by all, having everything a person could desire: gold, silver, wardrobes, horses, feasts, beautiful servants, and gorgeous women. It is no wonder he was distressed and vexed when dragged away from it all. People like that get attached to such things like “birdlime” (ἰξός) (glue) and it is very difficult for them to break away. It is as if they that are bound by an unbreakable chain (ἄρρηκτός…ὁ δεσμός) but are taken away by force, wailing and begging. Bold about everything in life, “they are found to be cowards on the path that leads to Hades.” The rich simply cannot help clinging to their possessions and pleasures: material birdlime and chains (Cataplus 14).
He himself stands in sharp contrast: a cobbler who
Christians, too, often argued that people should not be concerned about material things. But for different reasons, perhaps? To get a fuller take on this non-Christian perspective, join the blog so you can keep reading! Click here for membership options