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One of the very best dialogues of the satirist Lucian (c. 125–180 AD) (of whom we made mention here a couple months ago) is his "Vitarum Auctio" ("Philosophies of Life for Sale.") Not only is it among his most humorous works, but allowing for comical exaggeration and distortion, furnishes quite useful sketches and profiles of some the great philosophers of classical antiquity. These sketches should by no means taken as the last word on these seminal thinkers (either on the thinkers themselves or Lucian’s own last word on them, see for instance his subsequent dialogue “Piscator,” i.e. “Fishing for Phonies”), yet they are extremely helpful in giving a rounded out and enhanced, if cursory, perspective of their subjects. The ensuing is taken from the translation by William Lucas Collins; for which the original, with explanatory footnotes, can be found, by way of Google Books, here.

Scene, a Slave-mart; Jupiter, Mercury, PhilosoPhers in the garb of slaves for sale; audience of Buyers.

Jupiter. Now, you arrange the benches, and get the place ready for the company. You bring out the goods, and set them in a row; but trim them up a little first, and make them look their best, to attract as many customers as possible. You, Mercury, must put up the lots, and bid all comers welcome to the sale.— Gentlemen, we are here going to offer you philosophical systems of all kinds, and of the most varied and ingenious description. If any gentleman happens to be short of ready money, he can give his security for the amount, and pay next year.

Mercury (to Jupiter). There are a great many come; so we had best begin at once, and not keep them waiting.

Jup. Begin the sale, then.

Merc. Whom shall we put up first?

Jup. This fellow with the long hair,—the Ionian. He's rather an imposing personage.

Merc. You, Pythagoras! step out, and show yourself to the company.

Jup. Put him up.

Merc. Gentlemen, we here offer you a professor of the very best and most select description—who buys? Who wants to be a cut above the rest of the world? Who wants to understand the harmonies of the universe to and to live two lives?

Customer (turning the Philosopher round and examining him). He's not bad to look at. What does he know best?

Merc. Arithmetic, astronomy, prognostics, geometry, music, and conjuring—you've a first-rate soothsayer before you.

Cust. May one ask him a few questions?

Merc. Certainly—(aside) and much good may the answers do you.

Cust. What country do you come from?

Pythagoras. Samos.

Cust. Where were you educated?

Pyth. In Egypt, among the wise men there.

Cust. Suppose I buy you, now—what will you teach me?

Pyth. I will teach you nothing—only recall things to your memory.

Cust. How will you do that?

Pyth. First, I will clean out your mind, and wash out all the rubbish.

Cust. Well, suppose that done, how do you proceed to refresh the memory?

Pyth. First, by long repose, and silence—speaking no word for five whole years.

Cust. Why, look ye, my good fellow, you'd best go teach the dumb son of Croesus! I want to talk, and not be a dummy. Well,—but after this silence and these five years?

Pyth. You shall learn music and geometry.

Cust. A queer idea, that one must be a fiddler before one can be a wise man!

Pyth. Then you shall learn the science of numbers.

Cust. Thank you, but I know how to count already.

Pyth. How do you count?

Cust. One, two, three, four—

Pyth. Ha! what you call four is ten, and the perfect triangle, and the great oath by which we swear.

Cust. Now, so help me the great Ten and Four, I never heard more divine or more wonderful words!

Pyth. And afterwards, stranger, you shall learn about Earth, and Air, and Water, and Fire,—what is their action, and what their form, and what their motion.

Cust. What! have Fire, Air, or Water bodily shape?

Pyth. Surely they have; else, without form and shape, how could they move?—Besides, you shall learn that the Deity consists in Number, Mind, and Harmony.

Cust. What you say is really wonderful!

Pyth. Besides what I have just told you, you shall understand that you yourself, who seem to be one individual, are really somebody else.

Cust. What! do you mean to say I'm somebody else, and not myself, now talking to you?

Pyth. Just at this moment you are; but once upon a time you appeared in another body, and under another name; and hereafter you will pass again into another shape still.

[After a little more discussion of this philosopher's tenets, he is purchased on behalf of a company of professors from Magna Grecia, for ten minae. The next lot is Diogenes, the Cynic.

Merc. Who'll you have next? That dirty fellow from Pontus?

Jup. Ay—he'll do.

Merc. Here ! you with the wallet on your back,— you round-shouldered fellow! come out, and walk round the ring.—A grand character, here, gentlemen; a most extraordinary and remarkable character, I may say; a really free man here I have to offer you—who'll buy?

Cust. How say you, Mr Salesman? Sell a free citizen?

Merc. Oh yes.

Cust. Are you not afraid he may bring you before the court of Areopagus for kidnapping?

Merc. Oh, he doesn't mind about being sold; he says he's free wherever he goes or whatever becomes of him.

Cust. But what could one do with such a dirty, wretched-looking body — unless one were to make a ditcher or a water-carrier of him?

Merc. Well, or if you employ him as door-porter, you'll find him more trustworthy than any dog. In fact, 'Dog' [i.e. Cynic] is his name.

Cust. Where does he come from, and what does he profess?

Merc. Ask him—that will be most satisfactory.

Cust. I'm afraid of him, he looks so savage and sulky; perhaps he'll bark if I go near him, or even bite me, I shouldn't wonder. Don't you see how he handles his club, and knits his brows, and looks threatening and angry?

Merc. Oh, there's no fear—he's quite tame.

Cust. (approaching Diogenes cautiously). First, my good fellow, of what country are you?

Diogenes (surlily). All countries.

Cust. How can that be?

Diog. I'm a citizen of the world.

Cust. What master do you profess to follow?

Diog. Hercules.

Cust. Why don't you adopt the lion's hide, then ? I see you have the club.

Diog. Here's my lion's hide,—this old cloak. Like Hercules, I wage war against pleasure; but not under orders, as he did, but of my own free will. My choice is to cleanse human life.

Cust. A very good choice too. But what do you profess to know best? or of what art are you master?

Diog. I am the liberator of mankind, the physician of the passions; in short, I claim to be the prophet of truth and liberty.

Cust. Come now, Sir Prophet, suppose I buy you, after what fashion will you instruct me ?

Diog. I shall first take and strip you of all your luxury, confine you to poverty, and put an old garment on you: then I shall make you work hard, and lie on the ground, and drink water only, and fill your belly with whatever comes first; your money, if you have any, at my bidding you must take and throw into the sea; and you must care for neither wife nor children, nor country; and hold all things vanity; and leave your father's house and sleep in an empty tomb, or a ruined tower,—ay, or in a tub: and have your wallet filled with lentils, and parchments closewritten on both sides. And in this state you shall profess yourself happier than the King of the East. And if any man beats you, or tortures you, this you shall hold to be not painful at all.

Cust. How! do you mean to say I shall not feel pain when I'm beaten? Do you think I've the shell of a crab or a tortoise, man?

Diog. You can quote that line of Euripides, you know,—slightly altered.

Cust. And what's that, pray?

Diog. "Thy mind shall feel pain, but thy tongue confess none." But the qualifications you will most require are these: you must be unscrupulous, and brazen-faced, and ready.

Cust. (recovering from some astonishment). Get out with you! what abominable and unnatural principles!

Diog. But very easy to carry out, mind you, and not at all difficult to learn. One needs no education, or reading, or such nonsense, for this system; it's the real short cut to reputation. Be you the most ordinary person,—cobbler, sausagemonger, carpenter, pawn, broker, — nothing hinders your being the object of popular admiration, provided only that you've impudence enough, and brass enough, and a happy talent for bad language.

Cust. Well, I don't require your instructions in that line. Possibly, however, you might do for a bargeman or a gardener, at a pinch, if this party has a mind to sell you for a couple of oboli,—I couldn't give more.

Merc. (eagerly). Take him at your own bidding; we're glad to get rid of him, he is so troublesome, — bawls so, and insults everybody up and down, and uses such very bad language.

Jup. Call out the next—the Cyrenaic there [Aristippus], in purple, with the garland on.

Merc. Now, gentlemen, let me beg your best attention. This next lot is a very valuable one— quite suited to parties in a good position. Here's Pleasure and Perfect Happiness, all for sale! Who'll give me a bidding now, for perpetual luxury and enjoyment! [A Cyrenaic, bearing traces of recent debauch, staggers into the ring.]

Cust. Come forward here, and tell us what you know: I shouldn't mind buying you, if you've any useful qualities.

Merc. Don't disturb him, sir, if you please, just now—don't ask him any questions. The truth is, he has taken a little too much; that's why he doesn't answer—his tongue's not quite steady.

Cust. And who in their' senses, do you suppose, would buy such a debauched and drunken rascal? Faugh! how he stinks of unguents! and look how he staggers and goes from side to side as he walks! But tell us, now, Mercury, what qualifications he really has, and what he knows anything about.

Merc. Well, he's very pleasant company—good to drink with, and can sing and dance a little— useful to a master who is a man of pleasure and fond of a gay life. Besides, he is a good cook, and clever in made dishes—and, in short, a complete master of the science of luxury. He was brought up at Athens, and was once in the service of the Tyrants of Sicily, who gave him a very good character. The sum of his principles is to despise everything, to make use of everything, and to extract the greatest amount of pleasure from everything.

Cust. Then you must look out for some other purchaser, among the rich and wealthy here; I can't afford to buy such an expensive indulgence.

Merc. I fear, Jupiter, we shall have this lot left on our hands—he's unsaleable.

Jup. Put him aside, and bring out another. Stay, —those two there, that fellow from Abdera who is always laughing, and the Ephesian, who is always crying; I've a mind to sell them as a pair.

Merc. Stand out there in the ring, you two.—We offer you here, sirs, two most admirable characters, the wisest we've had for sale yet.

Cust. By Jove, they're a remarkable contrast! Why, one of them never stops laughing, while the other seems to be in trouble about something, for he's in tears all the time. Holloa, you fellow! what's all this about? What are you laughing at?

Democritus. Need you ask? Because everything seems to me so ridiculous—you yourselves included.

Cust. What! do you mean to laugh at us all to our faces, and mock at all we say and do?

Dem. Undoubtedly; there's nothing in life that's serious. Everything is unreal and empty—a mere fortuitous concurrence of indefinite atoms.

Cust. You're an indefinite atom yourself, you rascal! Confound your insolence, won't you stop laughing? But you there, poor soul (to Heraclitus), why do you weep so? for there seems more use in talking to you.

Heraclitus. Because, stranger, everything in life seems to me to call for pity and to deserve tears; there is nothing but what is liable to calamity; wherefore I mourn for men, and pity them. The evil of to-day I regard not much: but I mourn for that which is to come hereafter—the burning and destruction of all things. This I grieve for, and that nothing is permanent, but all mingled, as it were, in one bitter cup, —pleasure that is no pleasure, knowledge that knows nothing, greatness that is so little, all going round and round and taking their turn in this game of life.

Cust. What do you hold human life to be, then?

Her. A child at play, handling its toys, and changing them with every caprice.

Cust. And what are men?

Her. Gods—but mortal.

Cust. And the gods?

Her. Men—but immortal.

Cust. You speak in riddles, fellow, and put us off with puzzles. You are as bad as Apollo Loxias, giving oracles that no man can understand.

Her. Yea; I trouble not myself for any of ye.

Cust. Then no man in his senses is like to buy you.

Her. Woe! woe to every man of ye, I say! buyers or not buyers.

Cust. Why, this follow is pretty near mad!—I'll have nought to do with either of them, for my part.

Merc. (turning to Jupiter). We shall have this pair left on our hands too.

Jup. Put up another.

Merc. Will you have that Athenian there, who talks so much?

Jup. Ay—try him.

Merc. Step out, there!—A highly moral character, gentlemen, and very sensible. Who makes me an offer for this truly pious lot?

Socrates. I live in a certain city of mine own building, a new model Republic, and I make laws for myself.

Cust. I should like to hear one of them.

Soc. Listen to my grand law of all, then, about wives—that no man should have a wife of his own, but that all should have wives in common.

Cust. What! do you mean to say you have abrogated all the laws of marriage?

Soc. It puts an end, you see, to so many difficult questions, and so much litigation in the divorce courts.

Cust. Grand idea that! But what is the main feature of your philosophy?

Soc. The existence of ideals and patterns of all things in nature. Everything you see—the earth, and all that is on it, the heavens, the sea—of all these there exist invisible ideals, external to this visible universe.

Cust. And pray where are they?

Soc. Nowhere. If they were confined to any place, you see, they could not be at all.

Cust. I never see any of these ideals of yours.

Soc. Of course not: the eyes of your soul are blind. But I can see the ideals of all things. I see an invisible double of yourself, and another self besides myself—in fact, I see everything double.

Cust. Bless me! I must buy you, you are so very clever and sharp-sighted. Come (turning to Mercury), what do you ask for him?

Merc. Give us two talents for him.

Cust. I'll take him at your price. I'll pay you another time.

Merc. What's your name?

Cust. Dion, of Syracuse.

Merc. (makes a note). Take him, and good luck to you. Now, Epicurus, we want you. Who'll buy this lot? He's a disciple of that laughing fellow, and also of the other drunken party, whom we put up just now. He knows more than either of them, however, on one point—he's more of an infidel. Otherwise, he's a pleasant fellow, and fond of good eating.

Cust. What's his price?

Merc. Two minae.

Cust. Here's the money. But just tell us what he likes best.

Merc. Oh, anything sweet—honey-cakes, and figs especially.

Cust. They're easily got; Carian figs are cheap enough.

Jup. Now then, call another—him with the shaven crown there, and gloomy looks—the one we got from the Porch [Stoa] yonder.

Merc. You're right. I fancy a good many of our customers who have come to the sale are waiting to bid for him.—Now I'm going to offer you the most perfect article of all—Virtue personified. Who wants to be the only man who knows everything.

Cust. What do you mean?

Merc. I mean that here you have the only wise man, the only handsome man, the only righteous man, the true and only king, general, orator, legislator, and everything else there is.

Cust. The true and only cook then, I conclude, and cobbler, and carpenter, and so forth?

Merc. I conclude so too.

Cust. Come then, my good fellow—if I'm to purchase you, tell me all about yourself; and first let me ask, with all these wonderful qualifications, are you not mortified at being put up for sale here as a slave?

Chrysippus. Not at all: such things are external to ourselves, and whatever is external to ourselves, it follows must be matters of indifference to us. [The Stoic proceeds to explain his tenets, in the technical jargon of his school—which his listener declares to be utterly incomprehensible.]

Cust. Tell me, now, what do you know?

Pyrrho. Nothing.

Cust. What do you mean?

Pyrrho. That nothing seems to me certain.

Cust. Are we ourselves nothing?

Pyrrho. Well, that is what I am not sure of.

Cust. Don't you know whether you are anything yourself!

Pyrrho. That is what I am still more in doubt about.

Cust. What a creature of doubts it is! And what are those scales for, pray?

Pyrrho. I weigh arguments in them, and balance them one against another; and then, when I find them precisely equal and of the same weight, why, I find it impossible to tell which of them is true.

Cust. Well, is there anything you can do in any other line of business?

Pyrrho. Anything, except catch, a runaway slave.

Cust. And why can't you do that?

Pyrrho. Because, you see, I've no faculty of apprehension.

Cust. So I should think—you seem to me quite slow and stupid. And now, what do you consider the main end of knowledge?

Pyrrho. Ignorance—to hear nothing and see nothing.

Cust. You confess yourself blind and deaf then?

Pyrrho. Yea, and void of sense and perception, and in no wise differing from a worm.

Cust. I must buy you. (To Mercury.) What shall we say for him?

Merc. An Attic mina.

Cust. Here 'tis. Now, fellow, have I bought you or not—tell me?

Pyrrho. Well, it's a doubtful question.

Cust. Not at all—at least I've paid for you.

Pyrrho. I reserve my opinion on that point; it requires consideration.

Cust. Follow me, at all events—that's a servant's duty.

Pyrrho. Are you sure you're stating a fact?

Cust. (impatiently). There's the auctioneer, and there's the money, and there are the bystanders to witness.

Pyrrho. Are you sure there are any bystanders?

Cust. I'll have you off to the grinding-house, sir, and make you feel I'm your master by very tangible proofs.

Pyrrho. Stay—I should like to argue that point a little.

[The doubting philosopher is hurried off, still unconvinced, by Mercury and his new owner, and the sale is adjourned to the next day, when Mercury promises the public that he shall have some cheaper bargains to offer.]