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Hermotimos, or The Rival Philosophies , by Lucian of Samosata

Lucian of Samosata (c. 120 - c. 200) was born in the Roman province of Syria. His mother tongue was probably some form of Aramaic, but he wrote his works in a Greek influenced by the Attic classics. He was a rhetorician, a philosopher of sorts and, after the age of approximately 40, a man of letters, writing in a form of his own - a kind of comedic dialogue meant to be read instead of performed, though he did travel around reading his dialogues to audiences (after all, a man must eat). Lucian had a real interest in philosophy, but the Hermotimos was his farewell to philosophy. Thereafter, he developed his comedic dialogues and viewed himself as a writer, though many of these dialogues do involve philosophy one way or another.


In Lucian's oeuvre, the Hermotimos is exceptional: it is his longest piece, and the tone and attitude reflect sincerity, not irony or sarcasm. 


The Hermotimos is a true dialogue between Lycinus, a stand in for Lucian, and Hermotimus, a longtime student of Stoic philosophy, in which one can see some of the reasons why Lucian abandoned the dream of the life of a philosopher. The dialogue quickly establishes that the path to wisdom is long and onerous and that Hermotimus' own teacher does not fulfill the ideals of wisdom espoused by him. Lycinus wants to know how, in light of the many different schools of philosophy with their various and mutually contradictory teachings, can those who are not already wise reliably choose the school under whose aegis one should undertake such a lengthy study. All of Hermotimus' answers are wittily reduced ad absurdum


But then comes worse:


Lycinus: I hardly dare tell you - even that is not exhaustive; I am afraid, after all, the solid basis we thought we had found was imaginary. You know how fishermen often let down their nets, feel a weight, and pull them up expecting a great haul; when they have got them up with much toil, behold, a stone, or an old pot full of sand. I fear our catch is one of those. 


Hermotimus: I don't know what this particular net may be; your nets are all round me, anyhow.


Lycinus: Well, try and get through; providentially, you are as good a swimmer as can be. Now, this is it: granted that we go all round experimenting, and get it done at last, too, I do not believe we shall have solved the elementary question, whether any of them has the much-desired; perhaps they are all wrong together.


Hermotimus: Oh, come now! not one of them right either?


Lycinus: I cannot tell. Do you think it impossible they may all be deluded, and the truth be something which none of them has yet found?


Shortly thereafter:


Lycinus: In the same way, all philosophers are investigating the nature of Happiness; they get different answers one Pleasure, another Goodness, and so through the list. It is probable that Happiness is one of these; but it is also not improbable that it is something else altogether. We seem to have reversed the proper procedure, and hurried on to the end before we had found the beginning I suppose we ought first to have ascertained that the truth has actually been discovered, and that some philosopher or other has it, and only then to have gone on to the next question, which of them is to be believed.


But even this is not the last of the obstacles to wisdom that Lucian parades before the poor Hermotimus' eyes. As the latter is approaching despair, Lucian takes another tack:


Lycinus: Virtue is manifested, of course, in action, in doing what is just and wise and manly; but you - and when I say you, I mean the most advanced philosophers - you do not seek these things and ensue them, but spend the greater part of your life conning over miserable sentences and demonstrations and problems; it is the man who does best at these that you hail a glorious victor. And I believe that is why you admire this experienced old professor of yours: he nonplusses his associates, knows how to put crafty questions and inveigle you into pitfalls; so you pay no attention to the fruit - which consists in action -, but are extremely busy with the husks, and smother each other with the leaves in your debates...


Hermotimus renounces philosophy and claims "Henceforth, if I meet a philosopher on my walks (and it will not be with my will), I shall turn aside and avoid him as I would a mad dog."


Hmm, perhaps a bit extreme. Lucian had some experience with professional philosophers and later wrote a piece entitled "Philosophers for Sale" in which he was in his fully developed mode of acidic sarcasm. Reasoned discourse was at an end.


Lucian's alternative for Hermotimus: ordinary life guided by common sense. Well, to each his own...


Read in the English translation by H.W. and F.G. Fowler.


The Lucian of Samosata Project, where one can find his collected works online in English and Greek, is here: