The Human Comedy: Lucian of Samosata, the View from Above, and Stoicism as a Way of Life by Matthew Sharpe

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We’re continue this year’s sequence of posts with an excellent talk from Stoicon, provided by Matthew Sharpe, which follows below – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

When some years ago I told a close friend that I was interested in Stoicism, she responded with ancient concerns: that Stoicism is about having a “stiff upper lip”.  It has no sense either of the beauty or the comedy of life, turning its followers into emotionless human statues.  In this paper, I’d like to offer a response to my friend, and to the old charge that Stoicism is humorless, so practicing it as a way of life will make you joyless and dour.

 Things aren’t quite that simple.  The great Stoic Epictetus tells us expressly that we are not to become statues, but men and women with private and civic relationships and responsibilities.  And if you are anything like me, you will have found yourself laughing out loud, LOL, again and again as you read his Discourses and dealing out, deadpan, difficult ‘truth bombs’, as my students say.  Seneca in On Tranquility of Mind likewise stresses that “it is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it”.

 So what is the role of humor, at least humor of some types, in Stoicism as a way of life?  And, given that trying to become a Stoic really is a serious affair, what could be the ‘serious’ function of humor within a Stoic life?

In order to throw light on these questions, I want to explore the old link between Stoicism and its more ‘fractious’ cousin, ancient Cynicism.  From Zeno to Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus, Stoics always honored “the way of the dog” (for that is roughly what Cynicism means) as a “shorter”, in some senses more difficult way to virtue, and the two schools remained closely aligned, especially in ethics.  Yet, starting from Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous Cynic, who used to beg before statues to practice patience, masturbate in public without shame, or walk around Athens’ streets with a lamp in broad daylight looking for an honest man, one of the most patent features of Cynical philosophical practice is its openly comical dimension.

 So what I want to do today is look firstly at the work of a Cynic who may not be known to all of you, Lucian of Samosata, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, to help us understand how humor could be invaluable in being a Stoic.  In Lucian’s comedies, we will see (1), many spiritual exercises used by the Stoics, led by the “view from above”, are given hilarious satirical presentations.  The comedy in Lucian’s staging of this spiritual exercise in particular, I will then show (2), helps us catch sight of the comic dimension in Stoicism, and the need for a sense of humor in the Stoic life.

1. Lucian and the view from above

Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 CE) was trained first as a sculptor, next as a public speaker, before coming here to Athens around 165 CE, receiving a philosophical education, and beginning to write the works for which he remains famous. 

There is overwhelming evidence, including a sympathetic dialogue The Cynic, to support the idea that Lucian was philosophically a Cynic.  Like Diogenes and the Cynic Menippus whom Lucian makes his hero in several comedies, Lucian clearly took his public role to have been to fractiously ‘call out’ the idiotic pretentions of all of the pretenders of his time: from would-be oracles and magi, to orators, tyrants, climbers, and self-professing philosophers.  The Cynics were like ancient ‘situationists’ or ‘life hackers’, as we say in the internet age.  In this capacity, Lucian indeed did not hold back from attacking Stoicism itself in several key texts: notably his Symposium, in which philosophers of all schools are depicted brawling over the most petty things; and in his Lives for Sale, wherein the god Hermes shamelessly auctions off Chrysippus, Plato and other philosophers as commodities to the highest bidders.

Yet it is important to recognise from the start, if we are going to understand Lucian, why he satirises the Stoics and other philosophers of his day.  Because it is very relevant to our gathering here today.  Lucian’s charge is that Stoicism by the end of the 2nd century CE had become unrelated to life.  It had morphed into a kind of “scholastic” pursuit, preoccupied with recondite logical paradoxes like “the Reaper, the Owner—… the Electra and the Masked Man” or the fearsome “Indemonstrable syllogism” (Selected, 326, 328).  Yet, put simply, Lucian wonders how mastery of such subjects relates to wisdom or living the good life.  It is just as if he had already read his Pierre Hadot, or knew about Modern Stoicism.  As Lucian depicts Zeus lamenting in his Icaromenippus:

These ‘philosophers’ have divided themselves into bands, each dwelling in a separate word-maze of its own construction … Then they take to themselves the holy name of Virtue, and with uplifted brows and flowing beards exhibit [only a] deceitful semblance [of wisdom] that hides immoral lives.[1] 

This may sound familiar.

It is in this light that we need to understand the recourse within Lucian’s comical dialogues to spiritual exercises shared by the Stoics, like the view from above—he too is interested in the truly philosophical life.  As you will know, this exercise of the view from above involves imaginatively reviewing one’s life, and one’s concerns, as if from far above—from whence they appear quite differently, and as much less all-consuming, than we usually take them to be.  As Hadot discerned in Philosophy as a Way of Life, this exercise forms the central premise in not one but two of Lucian’s satires: first, the Icaromenippus, in which the Cynic Menippus constructs wings for himself like Icarus, and flies to the moon to discover the truth, after becoming completely disillusioned by the squabblings of competing philosophers; and second, Charon, or the Overseers, in which the god of the underworld, Charon, piles entire mountains on top of each other to look down upon the lives that human beings experience on earth, whose losses they so lament when they come down to Hades.

What reveals itself to Menippus in Icaromenippus is exactly the kind of disordered mélange that Marcus Aurelius’ use of the view from above reveals, for instance in Meditations IX, 30 and XII, 24: “adulteries, murders, treasons, robberies, perjuries, suspicions, and monstrous betrayals … Not to mention the multitude of burglars, litigants, usurers …; oh, it was a fine show!”  Seen from the moon, Greece itself measures about four inches.  The largest landholdings of the richest proprietors are no bigger than an Epicurean atom: hardly worth angsting, killing and dying for in great numbers.  As for human cities, as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius will echo in their versions of the view from above exercise:

you must often have seen a community of ants, some of them a seething mass, some going abroad, others coming back to town … At any rate, what men and cities suggested to me was just so many anthills …

In Charon, when the God of the underworld perches besides Hermes atop the twin peaks of Parnassus over Delphi, a different sequence of human follies unfolds itself beneath them.  Charon, unlike the world-weary Menippus, is wholly new to human affairs.  His naive astonishment, as he looks at our affairs for the first time, highlights how strange­—Stoics say ‘indifferent’many of the pursuits and values people ordinarily take for granted are—especially when viewed from the perspective of human mortality, in which trade Charon works.

First, the two gods make out the Olympic wrestling hero Milon at the height of his fame, blithely unaware how soon death will arrive, and “pin him to the mat without his even realising he was knocked off his feet.”  Next they eavesdrop on the ancient sage Solon’s famous exchange with the proud monarch Croesus’ pride in his legendary riches (so, after fame, money).  This exchange also affords Charon his first glimpse of gold, about which he has heard so much lamenting from the dead in Hades. But he just can’t see what all the fuss is about:

Ch. Oh, so that is gold, that glittering yellow stuff, with just a tinge of red in it. I have often heard of gold, but never saw it before …

Her. Ah, you do not know what it has to answer for; the wars and plots and robberies, the perjuries and murders; for this, men will endure slavery and imprisonment; for this they traffic and sail the seas.

Ch. For this stuff? … What fools men must be, to be enamoured of an object of this sallow complexion; and of such a weight!

Next, Hermes is able to reveal the futures of human beings puffed up with pride at their worldly power (so, after fame and riches, power) and see just how transient and fragile their careers are.  He has recently been chatting with Clotho, the Fate who weaves the invisible fabric of human destinies.  The great King Cyrus, hero of Xenophon, is as blithely unaware as Milon that Tomyris, a Russian girl, will soon murder him; just as the great happiness of Polycrates, ruler of Samos, will very soon end with his bloody death, effected by a lowly servant.  And so on.  “It’s so ridiculously funny,” Charon interjects: “Yet, at this very moment, who would dare to look them in the face?  Such an air of contempt they have for everyone else.”

Finally, the two gods’ preternatural vision reveals very fine, intertwined threads of fate attached to each persons’ heads: all equally fragile, and all able to be severed by death at any time.  “This is terribly funny, Hermes”, Charon repeats.  “You couldn’t possible describe how funny it is and do it all justice,” replies Hermes.  Especially when you consider—as he now directs Charon—just “how well supplied” death is “with messengers and agents” to do his work: “chills, fever, consumption, pneumonia, swords, bandits, hemlock juries, despots …” 

The result of the entire spectacle is that Charon feels moved to shout down to we mortals, like some heavenly Epictetus:

‘Fools,’ I might say, ‘why so much in earnest? Rest from your toils. You will not live for ever.  Nothing of the pomp of this world will endure; nor can any man take anything hence when he dies.  He will go naked out of the world, and his house and his lands and his gold will be another’s, and ever another’s.’[2]

2. Comedy, the view from the Acropolis, and Stoicism

There is a great difference in tone and perspective between a raucous Cynic like Lucian and the serenity of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.  The latter, we can feel, are close to attaining access to that “inner citadel” or akropolis Marcus describes in Meditations VIII, 48, as a high retreat into which the sage can retreat at a moment’s notice (see IV, 3).  The Cynics can seem, as it were, to be still roughing their way up the side of this acropolis, throwing down bolts of irritated invective at their fellows below, urging them to ‘wake up!’[3] 

Yet the view from above has deeply similar functions for both Cynics and Stoics.  The exercise serves to vividly remind us[4] that ‘externals’ like gold, riches, beauty, fame, and power are truly ‘indifferent’: unnecessary for, and unable to bring us lasting flourishing or serenity, since they properly don’t belong to us, but to Nature.  What Lucian’s stagings of this philosophical exercise in Icaromenippus and Charon make especially clear, however, is that there is something deeply comic about this view from above exercise—or rather, about what this exercise reveals about ordinary human affairs.  We can miss this dimension in Seneca’s or Marcus’ texts.  So, where is it?

Almost all philosophical theories of comedy have noted the role that the disjunction between two perspectives plays in the human sense of humor or the comic.    What we do when we practice the view from above is exactly cultivate a different, second perspective on what we usually take for granted.  This missed promotion, that person’s betrayal, the pettiness and mendacity of colleagues, whatever, can fill our minds, shock, preoccupy, or depress us.  When we adopt the second philosophical perspective in the view from above, though, we remember that such things are not exceptional, novel, unpredictable, and hence potentially traumatic.  They are laughably common, as old as humanity, so that no matter how capacious your historical perspective may be, as Marcus reminds himself:

You will see all these things: people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power (Meds. IV, 32; cf. VIII, 31; XI, 27; X1, 1).

Same ‘stuff’, different day.  Different actors, same scripts.

The comic side of this comes from the contrast between things as they truly are and the perspective of the agents themselves.  Since our particular experiences are ‘first for us’, each of us treats the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as if they were unprecedented, and we the most important player on the world’s stage.   As Hermes observes in Lucian’s Charon, what is so laughable about this is the “ignorance (agnoia) and deceit (apatê)”, including forms of self-deceit, that this usually involves.  Because of our usual failure to step back and see things steadily and whole, we:

look forward to having what they have forever, and so when death’s agents come calling to clap them in irons of fever or consumption and lead them away, they get angry at being hauled off because they never expected to be torn from the world. 

Likewise, as Epictetus will mock, we imagine that the famous, powerful or rich are truly important and happy, that our loved ones, unlike jugs—or even our household jugs—will last forever.  Then stuff happens.  So it goes. 

In a deeply interesting sequence in Charon, Lucian’s gods discern from above a “swarm” of spectral forms hovering around the little humans.  These are the pathê (passions): “hopes, fears, follies, pleasures, greeds, hates, grudges, and such like.”  It is above all our pathê, led by our hopes and fears, and each predicated on the “ignorant” overvaluation of externals, that render us unable to see things as they are, the Cynics agree with their Stoic comrades. 

Perhaps the most famously comic Stoic example of the disjunction between the physical realities of human life, and the enchanting aspects our passionate imaginingsadorn them with comes at Meditations VI, 13.  It is a matter of Marcus’ famous ‘disrobing’ of fine dining, as well as the sexual act:

How important it is to represent to oneself, when it comes to fancy dishes and other such foods: ‘This is the corpse of a fish, this other thing the corpse of a bird or a pig.’  … When it comes to sexual intercourse, we must say, ‘This is the rubbing together of abdomens, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid.’

‘What a come down!’, someone might exclaim in this age of celebrity chefs-come-orators: ‘who is this killjoy?’  And as for this description of erotic love: ‘way to kill the mood, man!?’  It is as if Marcus, for a minute, had channelled (across the seas of time) John Cleese’s teacher in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, boring his students silly by staging in grotesque details the unerotic mechanics of his own marital bed.

When Lucian in one dialogue defends his introduction of comedy into the elevated genre of the philosophical dialogue, his argument is that philosophers who imagine themselves as elevated sages wrestling with the highest mysteries often “cannot see the things that lie before [their own] feet.”  To enable philosophy and philosophers to again learn to see what is right before their eyes, Lucian explains—this is why he made Comedy the “yokefellow” of philosophy—in doing so also making his own dialogues attractive to many readers “who until then would as soon have thought of picking up a hedgehog as of venturing into the thorny presence of [philosophical] Dialogue.”

Following Lucian, I put it to you, the vital place, or places, for comedy in pursuing Stoicism as a way of life comes from how a sense of irony and humor helps us not to lose sight of what is right before our feet, even as we strive to become sages or sage-like.  The mundane, hard work of trying to make progress, especially when this daily grind is compared to the lofty flights of philosophical theory, could itself well be viewed as intrinsically comic.  It is after all surely a funny thing to do to get up every morning and remind yourself that you will be meeting angry, bitter, envious, jealous, plotting, scheming, dishonest, petty … people.  Likewise, reviewing your day, every evening, and confronting all of your own shortcomings will appear to many non-philosophers as a species of torture, or the patently bizarre. 

In any case, we can certainly imagine a comic poet having fun with these, and almost any Stoic spiritual exercises, like Lucian has fun with the view from above, and from the perspective of mortality.  But a sense of humour is also intrinsic to, and needed within, the practices themselves, or so I think Lucian helps us also to see.  To take on philosophy as a work of ascesis, personal spiritual training, can after all only really work if one remains lucidly self-aware about how wide the gap is between the philosophical ideal, that of being an apathic sage, and the realities of one’s own present conduct and make-up.  Of course, one can always be discouraged, lament, and get hung up on one’s failures to achieve the goal, when one is reminded of this gap: a kind of philosopher’s tragedy, with weeping and the covering of faces.  But here is where humour can intercede.  By giving way to despair, we are after all forgetting the deeply funny Stoic saying that a sage is as rare as a phoenix in Egypt, let alone in the modern ‘burbs.  For there never has been a phoenix in Egypt (spoiler alert), whereas imperfect people are everywhere, as the view from above vividly reminds us.

To make progress, says Marcus, is to be able to fortify one’s inner acropolis, the hegemonikon, against everything beyond one’s control.  But this includes one’s slips and failings.  These belong to the past, and must be at once owned up to, and worked through. 

The ability to see oneself as an imperfect student doing their best, not a hopelessly failed sage, and so to laugh at one’s own shortcomings, is surely essential if one is not to lose one’s faith in the entire project.  Such humbling laughter, as if looking down on oneself from above like a Menippus, Charon, or Marcus Aurelius, is also necessary if one is ever to forgive oneself and others for their vices and imperfections: something which is absolutely vital if we are to move onwards and upwards. 

For it is true, as the great Voltaire scholar Charles Kors once observed, that one never quite looks at things the same way, once one has seen them as comic.  This is surely the insight that lies behind Seneca’s bon mot that no one who can laugh at themselves can be truly laughable.  By contrast, those who cannot laugh at themselves—and at the mundane undersides of all our loftier pretentions—are frequently laughable, when they are not dangerous.  We should beware of philosophers, politicians, even Presidents—why not?—who only know how to laugh at everyone else, for (to parody a biblical saying) ‘they should merit our mirth’.

So, to close at the start: pursuing Stoicism is amongst the most serious thing you can do, if the ancient sense of philosophy as a way of life is at issue.  But we should not confuse being serious with taking ourselves too seriously, lest we become censorious (and a bore) to others and closed to the possibility of real transformation ourselves.  As Seneca reflects in On Tranquillity of Mind:

We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.

[1]  Indeed, he will mock even the famous Stoic paradoxes concerning the Sage as the “only one in the world who’s wise, good, just, brave, the only king, rich man …”: “then he’s the only cook.  And, damn it all, the only tanner, carpenter, and so on,” responds Chrysippus’ bemused prospective buyer (Selected, 325).  In any case, a good man to have around the place.

[2] Human lives, he concludes, are like the bubbles that rise up to the surface in springs, some growing quite large, others disappearing immediately, all dissipating before too long: “for everyone the bubble of life must burst.”

[3] Lucian’s Fisherman will thus end with pseudo-philosophers, hauled up to the Athenian Acropolis on fishing lines hooked with gold, being comically cast down the great rock’s side by the true philosophers as the unworthy pretenders who they are. 

[4] Whose representatives Lucian positions as fighting side by side in the comedic eris or mythomachy between the philosophers in his Symposium.  They are fighting the Peripatetics and Epicureans, with the Platonic philosopher in the middle.

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).

One thought on The Human Comedy: Lucian of Samosata, the View from Above, and Stoicism as a Way of Life by Matthew Sharpe

  1. Seneca also said that we must integrate with the crowd and not be as your friend replied:
    “I warn you, however, not to act after the fashion of those who desire to be conspicuous rather than to improve, by doing things which will rouse comment as regards your dress or general way of living. Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided. The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men? Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society. Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga. One needs no silver plate, encrusted and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life. Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve. We also bring it about that they are unwilling to imitate us in anything, because they are afraid lest they might be compelled to imitate us in everything.” Seneca Epistulae Mōrālēs V.1-3.

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