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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Lucian (c. 125–after 180)

The Olympians Discuss the Philosophers

From “The Aerial Journey of Menippus”

I HAD scarcely flown a bow-shot, when Luna, in a delicate feminine voice, called after me, “Speed you well, Menippus! May this ascension of yours have a happy issue! Be so good as to take a small commission with you to Jupiter.”

“With all my heart,” answered I, “provided it be not too heavy.”

“Nothing more,” she replied, “than to convey for me a petition to Jupiter. I can no longer bear to be ill-treated by the philosophers. One would think they had nothing else to do but to meddle with my affairs, by asking who I am, and how big, broad, and long I am, and why at particular times I look like half a plate, or get horns. Some of them say I am inhabited, others that I hang like a looking-glass over the sea; in short, every one says of me what he pleases. The worst of it is, they spread a report among the common people that my light is not genuine, and that I steal it from the sun; so that no thanks to them if my brother is not suspicious of me, and mischief be created between us. As if it were not enough to cast obloquy upon the sun, by pretending that he is a stone or a glowing, hot mass. Yet, truly, the philosophers have no reason to treat me so scurvily! For what shameful doings in the night-time could I relate of them, though by day they look so serious and severe, walk along so gravely, and artfully win such profound respect from the ignorant! And yet I am content to be a silent spectator of all these matters, because I think it not decent to disclose and divulge the contrast of their nocturnal deeds with their public demeanor. On the contrary, when I spy them employed in acts of adultery, robbery, or any such like works of darkness, I immediately veil myself in a thick cloud, that it may not be manifest to the world how much these aged folks disgrace their long beards, and that virtue which they have ever at their tongues’ ends. They, notwithstanding, never cease speaking disparagingly of me, and abusing me in all manner of ways; so that I swear by old Night I have sometimes had it in my mind to retire as far as possible from hence, in order to avoid their impertinent remarks. Forget not, therefore, to acquaint Jupiter with all this, and to tell him, further, that it is impossible for me to remain longer at my post, unless he shatters the heads of these naturalists, stops the mouths of these logicians, blows up the Stoa, sets fire to the Academy, and puts an end to the disputations in the Peripatus—in a word, grants me some respite from the daily insults of the geometrical reasoners.”

I promised her to do all she desired, and shaped my course directly for heaven. In a little time even the moon appeared very small, and the earth was quite hid behind it. Leaving the sun on my right, and flying through the midst of the stars, on the third day I reached the roadstead of heaven. Because, on account of my vulture’s wing, I dared not hope to be taken for Jupiter’s eagle, I would not venture to fly directly into the empyreal castle, and therefore knocked at the door. Mercury presently came out, and having asked my name, went back with all speed and delivered it to Jupiter. I was soon called in. Trembling and quaking, I entered the hall of audience, where I found all the gods assembled, not much less alarmed than myself, talking of my extraordinary journey, probably suspecting that shortly the whole human race might in the same manner come flying to them. Jupiter then, looking at me with a stern, terrific countenance, asked:

  • “Tell, who
  • Art thou? Thy country, where? Thy parents, who?”
  • I thought I should have died upon the spot with affright. I stood abashed and stupefied, as if thunderstruck at his voice. After a little pause, however, I came to myself, and related the whole story from the beginning: how desirous I was to examine into superterrestrial affairs; how I had applied to the philosophers, and what contradictions I found among them; the distraction of my mind in consequence; my curious device thereupon; how I had fastened wings to my arms, and the whole history of my journey. In conclusion I delivered the message I had received from Luna. At this Jupiter smoothed his brow a little, and, smiling, said:

    “What shall we henceforth object against Otus and Ephialtes, since even Menippus has had the presumption to ascend to heaven? For this day, however,” continued his Majesty, “you are our guest. The business you are come upon we will take into consideration to-morrow and grant you a gracious dismissal.”

    At these words, rising up, he repaired to that part of Olympus where he customarily listens to the prayers of mortals. On the way he asked me how matters stood at present upon the earth. What was the price of wheat. Whether the last had been a hard winter, and whether the grass wanted more rain. Then, whether any one of the posterity of Phidias was still in being, and why the Athenians, who were wont annually to celebrate the Diasia, had of late years given up that custom. Again, whether they did not intend to construct their Olympic temple, and whether the thieves that robbed the temple at Dodona were taken.

    After I had answered these interrogations he proceeded:

    “Very well, Menippus, now tell me honestly what do mankind think of me?”

    “How should they think of you, gracious sovereign,” answered I, “but the most religiously that can possibly be conceived: that you are the king of all the gods!”

    “That you will never persuade me to believe,” replied Jupiter. “I know very well, however you may wish to conceal it, how inclined they are in all things to innovations. There was indeed a time when I was their soothsayer, their physician, their all in all; ‘when streets and fairs and all was full of Jove’; when Dodona and Pisa shone resplendent above all the temples in the world; when the eyes of all men were turned upon them, and burnt offerings were presented to me in such numbers that I could scarcely open my eyes for the smoke of them. But since Apollo has set up his office of intelligence at Delphi, and Æsculapius has opened his apothecary’s shop at Pergamus; since there has been a temple of Bendis in Thrace, of Anubis in Egypt, and of Diana at Ephesus; since all flock thither, the feasts celebrated in honor of them, and the hecatombs slaughtered are endless, I am considered as old and superannuated, and sufficiently honored if a yoke of bulls are sacrificed to me once in five years. Hence you see that even Plato’s laws and the syllogisms of Chrysippus are not colder than my altars.”

    While this conversation lasted we arrived at the place where he was to sit down and give audience to mankind. There were apertures, resembling the mouths of wells, at regular intervals, provided with covers, and by every one of them stood a golden chair of state. On the first chair Jupiter now seated himself, lifted up the cover, and gave ear to the supplicants. Many and diverse were the prayers that came up to him from every region upon earth, some of them impossible to be granted at the same time. I also, stooping down on the side contiguous to the opening, could distinctly hear:

    “Oh, Jupiter, let me be a king! Oh, Jupiter, let my onions and garlic thrive this year! Oh, Jupiter, let my father speedily depart hence!”

    Another cried out, “Oh, that I could soon be rid of my wife!”

    Another again, “Oh, that I might succeed in my plot against my brother!”

    A third prayed for a happy issue to his lawsuit; a fourth wanted to be crowned at Olympia; one seaman prayed for a north wind; another for a south wind; a husbandman for rain; a fuller for sunshine. Father Jupiter harkened to them all, and after having accurately examined every man’s petition, to some

  • “He nodded aye, to others answered no.”
  • The equitable requests were admitted through the aperture, and deposited on the right hand; the iniquitous and futile he puffed back ere they had reached the skies. With respect to one alone I perceived him very much puzzled. Two parties preferred petitions for favors in direct opposition to one another, at the same time both promising equal sacrifices. For want, therefore, of a decisive reason why he should favor either the one or the other, he was in the predicament of the Academics, not knowing to which he should say aye, but was forced with honest Pyrrho to suspend his judgment, and dismissed the matter by saying, “We shall see.” Having done with hearing prayers, he rose up, and seated himself in the second chair adjoining to the second aperture, to lend his attention to oaths, protestations, and vows. When it was over, and after having on this occasion smashed the Epicurean Hermodorus’s head with a thunderbolt, he went on to the third chair, where he gave audience to presages, prognostications, divinations, and auguries. That done, he proceeded to the fourth, through which the fumes of the victims ascended, wafting to him severally the names of the sacrificers. This business being despatched, the winds and storms were admitted, and orders given to each what it was to do; as, “To-day let it rain in Scythia, thunder and lightning in Africa, and snow in Greece. You, Boreas, blow toward Lydia. You, south wind, shall have a day of rest. The west wind will raise a tempest in the Adriatic. Let a thousand bushels of hail, or thereabouts, be scattered on Cappadocia”—and the like. All these affairs being now settled, it was just the time for going to table. Mercury, who officiated as grand marshal at the court of heaven, assigned me my place with Pan and the Corybantes, between Atys and Sabazius, as new-made gods of rather equivocal origin. I was regaled by Ceres with bread, by Bacchus with wine, by Hercules with meat, by Venus with myrtle-berries, and by Neptune with anchovies. I had a taste also by chance of nectar and ambrosia; for the beautiful Ganymede, from pure philanthropy, conveyed to me, at two several times, a cup of nectar, while Jupiter was looking the other way. But the gods, as Homer says, who probably had seen how they live as well as I,

  • “Neither eat bread nor drink the purple wine,”
  • but feed upon ambrosia, and get fuddled with nectar; their most palatable diet, however, is the relishing savor of a sacrifice, and the warm steam arising from the blood of the victims shed upon the altars. During the repast Apollo played upon the harp, Silenus did a comic dance, and the Muses stood up and sang to us the Theogony of Hesiod and the first hymn of Pindar. At last, having fared sumptuously, we stretched ourselves on the couches, well wined,
  • “And calmly slept, both gods and earthly men,
  • The whole night through. My wakeful eyes alone
  • Found no repose,”
  • so full of thought was I on the wonderful adventures that had happened to me.

    What principally ran in my head was how Apollo could live to that age and have no beard, and how it could be night in heaven, since the sun was present and had been carousing with us. At last, however, I fell into a gentle doze. Jupiter, getting up early in the morning, ordered the herald to summon a council of the gods; and as soon as it was assembled he began in the following manner:

    “I have long intended to consult you on the subject of the philosophers; but now being particularly incited to it by the complaints transmitted to us from Luna, I have resolved to defer the discussion of that affair no longer. Know, then, there has lately sprung up a set of people floating like scum upon human society, who arrogate to themselves that title, though, in fact, they are no better than a lazy, quarrelsome, vainglorious, splenetic, gluttonous, haughty, conceited, and ill-bred crew, and, to use an Homerical expression, a useless burden on the earth. These people, who, having nothing else to do, contrive labyrinths of argumentation wherein they mutually endeavor to entangle one another, have split themselves into sundry gangs, known under the appellations of Stoics, Academics, Epicureans, Peripatetics, and other still more ridiculous titles. Covering themselves with the venerable name of virtue, they strut about the world with elevated brows and pendulous beards, and hide the most despicable manners under a varnished outside, like a tragic actor, of whom, when stripped of vizor and embroidered robe, nothing remains but a miserable fellow who for seven drachmas is hired to play the hero.

    “Now, these are the men who look down upon others with contempt, babble insipid stuff respecting the gods, and cant about their far-famed virtue in a tone of tragical declamation to a crowd of simple, credulous youths, and teach them the vile art of confounding the common sense of mankind by captious sophistries. To their scholars, indeed, they preach up patience and temperance, and paint them in glowing colors, and speak of riches and pleasure with the utmost contempt and abhorrence; but who would not be ashamed to reveal in words what is done to them in secret? But the most insufferable of all is that these people, who neither in public nor in private life are of any use, but are in every respect the most supernumerary and unprofitable of all men, and, to speak with Homer, are

  • “‘Useless in council, as unfit for arms,’
  • that such people, I say, should be the bitterest revilers of their fellow beings, and, under the assumed character of moral censors, take the liberty to deal out their abuse upon all mankind; so that he is not a little proud of his superiority who can scold the loudest and calumniate the most unblushingly.

    “If you should ask one of these declaimers, ‘What, then, I beseech you, are you good for yourself? What in all the world do you contribute to the general emolument?’—if he would speak the truth he must answer, ‘Although I think it not necessary either to till the ground, or to carry on trade, or to perform military service, or to make profession of any other art, yet I roar out upon all men, live in dirtiness, bathe in cold water, go barefoot in winter, and carp like Momus at all that other men do. Has any rich man given a splendid entertainment, or does he keep a mistress, I blab it abroad and raise a terrible outcry upon it; whereas, if a friend is sick, and wants my assistance, I take no notice of him.’ Now, I should be glad to know, ye gods, why we should continue to fodder such cattle? And the set of them who call themselves Epicureans are unquestionably the most insolent of all; for they touch us to the quick by affirming that we are careless of human affairs, and have nothing to do in the events of the world. It is, therefore, high time to show them the contrary, for if they should succeed in bringing over the public to their side, you must soon accommodate yourselves to a meager diet. Who will be inclined to sacrifice if he has nothing to expect of you? What heavy complaints are brought against them by Luna you have heard from our guest that came yesterday. Consult, therefore, and take such order as best may tend to the benefit of mankind and to the safety of ourselves.”

    Jupiter had no sooner ended his speech when the whole assembly, with one voice, cried out:

    “Blast them! Burn them! Exterminate them! Dash them to pieces! Hurl them down to Tartarus, as you did the giants!”

    “Silence!” cried Jupiter. “Your will shall be done, ye gods! They shall all be gored to death—by the horns of their own dilemmas! I must, however, defer the execution of the sentence; for you know we keep the holidays which last the four months next ensuing, and I have already proclaimed the vacation to the courts of judicature. They have, therefore, a respite for this winter. At the beginning of next spring my holy thunderstorm shall strike the caitiffs to the earth.”