Lucian of Samosata and Max Weber on the sociology of philosophers


Lucian of Samosata and Max Weber on the sociology of philosophers

                                                                                                     copyright James Jope

The Lucianic portion of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Classical Association in 2012. I decided to publish it here after learning of Max Weber’s relevance.


Lucian satirised philosophers of every school. Attempts to determine his own philosophical leanings—for example, by positing a diachronic development— have been unconvincing (Hall 35 ff.), and it is now widely believed, with some truth, that he would take whatever stance suited him. After all, Lucian did not identify with philosophy as much as with rhetoric; and scholars like Michael Trapp and Fabio Berdozzo have been exploring this rhetorical background as a clue to other aspects of his work.

Although he claims not to favour any school’s doctrine, he is especially averse to Stoicism, and more sympathetic with the Cynics, whose values he espouses in his ‘Menippean’ satires, and the Epicureans, who are always the winners when he stages a debate between them and Stoics (Philosophies for Sale, The Downward Journey, and The Double Indictment). He accuses philosophers of various faults; but most often of hypocrisy. And the hypocrisy often masks greed. In The Parasite (52) he admits that rhetoricians too can be greedy, but still insists it’s worse for philosophers. It is this particular criticism that I wish to examine more closely. Lucian levels it chiefly at Stoics and Peripatetics, but I will be focussing on the Stoics.

It has been claimed that Lucian’s acquaintance with the doctrines of the schools is shallow; but his jokes are never wrongly targeted. It is a Stoic, for example, that he shows in Philosophies for Sale as comically deploying logic to extort arrears of fees, clubbing his students over the head, as it were, with weighty syllogisms (23-4). The Stoics were in fact the leading school in logic. And the crude individualist who terrorizes the banqueters in the Lapiths is appropriately a Cynic.  

Significantly, Lucian joins condemnation of the Stoics’ pursuit of rich and powerful patrons with disapproval of their tuition fees (Symposium 36 and The Fisherman 34). In his Nigrinus and Demonax, he shows us what he would presumably regard as an authentic philosopher. Charging for instruction, Nigrinus says, is selling virtue; and the lecture rooms of such philosophers are like factories; whereas Nigrinus gives free instruction to anyone who asks (25). We are told-- almost incidentally-- that Nigrinus is a Platonist. But there are no traces of Platonic doctrines: no mention of forms, of political constitutions, of eros, no trace either of the skepticism of the later Academy, and of course no attack on rhetoricians or sophists; only a diatribe against wealthy Romans and their decadent morals and values. And the credit for escaping from these is given simply to a generic ‘Philosophy’, inspired through Nigrinus’s charismatic harangue. Demonax, who is said to be an eclectic, also reveals few traces of serious philosophy in his mix. His character and behaviour are extolled, although most of the book is padded with a collection of the sort of anecdotal encounters with clever retorts that were common in doxographies.

It is seldom appreciated that Lucian is not just condemning excessive fees, but any fees at all. Fees were practically universal by that time, and Marcus Aurelius’ endowment of chairs of philosophy in Rome and Athens in the year 176 CE is lauded today as a step toward public higher education. Yet when Lucian discusses this in the Eunuch, he does not praise the initiative, but remains silent in that regard—which is about as close as we can expect to open disapproval of an emperor’s initiative. Instead, he accuses everyone who even applied for these positions of avarice.

As a public speaker, Lucian travelled around the empire amassing wealth from fees for public display speeches. His criticism of philosophers undoubtedly reflects the rivalry between rhetoric and philosophy. Trapp, in his book on philosophy in the Roman Empire, cites Quintilian’s contention that philosophers should not offer higher education themselves, but only provide reading material for rhetoricians’ courses. This would mean that only those who were financially independent could philosophize; but that would not have fased the imperial elite who comprised Lucian’s audience. And we must remember that while rhetoricians trained for political activity and social leadership, philosophers trained for virtue and personal happiness. Trapp (2007, 13) aptly describes a second-century philosopher as part scientist and part clergyman. I should like to add that a rhetorician was part lawyer and part star entertainer. Our own society reluctantly tolerates lawyers’ greed and rewards entertainment celebrities exorbitantly, but regards scientists’ financial ambitions with ambivalence and expects clergymen to live in genteel poverty-- exactly as Lucian expected of philosophers.

In the centuries after Plato, the social role of philosophy changed. We are told by Marrou, for example, in his Histoire de l’education dans l’antiquite, that the Hellenistic schools became more professionalized. They adopted from their rivals, the rhetoricians, the practice of lecturing for fees, and what they promised in exchange for the fees was knowledge of how to live happily in the existing society. Yet, this was not consistent with the attitude of Plato and Socrates, who saw a conflict of interest in charging for teaching virtue.

Apparently, this ambivalence regarding money persisted even as philosophy became increasingly commercialized. The source book on ancient education by Mark Joyal and his colleagues has some interesting items in this connection. Imperial subsidies to education did not always include philosophers. Indeed, philosophy students had not always been charged. Speusippus, who succeeded Plato as head of the Academy, was the first to charge, and he felt obliged to offer excuses (Joyal et al. 2009 111). Aristippus pointed out defensively that Socrates had received ample gifts (Joyal et al. 2009 87). He did not mention that Socrates also worked for a living. Alberto Maffi studied the philosophers’ wills recorded by Diogenes Laertius. They do not mention tuition fees, but they make arrangements obliging the property heirs to collaborate with the school’s participants. Maffi found no clear institutional model, only makeshift attempts to somehow keep the school going. In 2009 Matthias Haake studied Hellenistic municipal inscriptions involving philosophers and found that in business and politics, they were often prepared to stretch their principles for gain; for example, Epicurean priests are recorded, although Epicurus believed that the gods do not intervene in human affairs, making sacrifice cruel and pointless. Priesthood was not a vocation, but a public office, and a remunerative one at that. As such, it may have been regarded as ‘fair play’ for any member of the elite, regardless of his personal beliefs. Nevertheless, Lucian duly satirizes an Epicurean priest (Hermon) in the Lapiths.

Plato was independently wealthy and free to take unpopular political and social stances, as he did in the Republic. Indeed, the city-state environment of early Greece had enabled radical intellectual experiments. Percy (1996) and Davidson (2007) have documented bold experiments in the social organization of homosexual relations in Archaic Greece, and Solon’s cancellation of debts and redistribution of property actually carried out the kind of radical social changes envisioned by Plato. Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, also was wealthy when he arrived in Athens, coming from a prosperous commercial family; and according to Schofield’s reconstruction of his ideal state, he too advocated radical changes like Plato’s. In particular, philosophers would be motivated to teach by love, not money.

When city-states fell under the suzerainty of less flexible monarchies, the Hellenistic schools seeking peace of mind (ataraxia) had to adopt survival strategies. Cynics and Epicureans withdrew from society. The Cynics withdrew individually and sought a meagre living by begging. Epicureans withdrew collectively into an alternative community which was subsidized by its wealthier members and could also court wealthy patrons. Stéphane Toulouse reconstructed a telling incident from correspondence between the emperor Hadrian and Heliodorus, head of the Epicurean community at Athens and a personal friend of the emperor. His school was in financial trouble, and he asked Hadrian for help. The emperor gave him a grant, but only after gently reminding him that philosophers were not supposed to be interested in money. Stoics, on the other hand, chose collaboration instead of withdrawal. They sought wealthy patrons and students, they charged high fees, and eventually they became the principal, and prosperous, philosophical educators of the Roman ruling class.

Lucian does not accuse philosophers of shaping their doctrines to please their patrons. A rhetorician could scarcely object to that. Like most ancient intellectuals, Lucian was aware of the dangers of patronage. But his point of view, as a rhetorician, is rather that of a social critic than of a seeker of truth. He wants philosophers to play their proper role and not interfere in civil areas like education and politics.

In his Fisherman and Runaways, Philosophy herself explains that her purpose is only good living. She and Lucian are relatively uninterested in theory; not only all of the Greek schools, but even the Brahmans of India are said to offer viable paths to happiness, provided only that they practice what they preach. This attitude seems naively simplistic, but it was probably not uncommon in Lucian’s day.

For us, however, the possibility of patronage influencing philosophical doctrine is important, so that we should reflect upon the implications of Lucian’s social criticism. Since the turn of this century there has been some renewed awareness of this, particularly as regards the Stoics. Martha Nussbaum’s critique of what she calls the “incomplete” feminism of the Roman Stoic Musonius is an excellent example; she finds that Musonius was constantly aware of the expectations of a Roman aristocratic audience. Chrysippus, an early Stoic, was aware of the danger. He warned against trying to live off philosophy: Dependence on a king, he said—in other words, patronage-- meant that the king must be humoured; and charging tuition commercialized wisdom itself (Diogenes Laertius vii 189). Cicero too was aware. In a speech attacking Piso, the patron of the Epicurean community in Italy led by Philodemus—where Virgil and Horace acquired their exposure to Epicureanism-- he charges that Piso cajoled a reluctant Philodemus into composing erotic poems which, according to Cicero, celebrated the debaucheries of his patron. He portrays Philodemus as a shy and squeamish “graeculus” (poor little Greek) intimidated into writing what Piso wanted by the persistent demands of the lordly “imperator populi Romani” (Roman generalissimo) (In Pisonem 69-70).

We need not believe the factious details of this story. But Cicero could not have argued this way if it weren’t plausible to his audience. Finally, we have Lucian’s own disheartening portrayal of the miserable life of a Greek intellectual client residing with a powerful Roman patron in the treatise On salaried posts in great houses. Not coincidentally, the man is a Stoic.

Some scholars used to call Hellenistic and Imperial philosophers ‘professors’, and if they had enjoyed tenure in an ivory tower, their positions might have been driven solely by argumentation (and of course by personal animosities against other professors); but their financial position was much less secure; we should rather imagine a kind of freelance instructor whose income is tied directly to his popularity among wealthy students and their fathers. Such situations might not seriously affect his teaching in physics or logic, or even ethics, as long as his ethical pronouncements remained, like some maxims of Roman Stoics, noble, hortatory and vague. But concrete radical political and social proposals would hardly be tolerated.

Later Stoics were embarrassed by the radical views of Zeno and Chrysippus, who, like Plato, advocated such reforms as the abolition of marriage, and erotic relationships between philosophers and their students.

As the philosophical schools morphed into educational establishments, even Greek patrons may have already brought conventional values to bear; but intolerance for radical social views was intense and pervasive among the Romans. They were tough customers for philosophy. Even those who, like Cicero, did interest themselves in philosophy were critical and selective, and regarded it only as a cultural enhancement which was not to be permitted to threaten traditional Roman values.

Consider for example Panaetius, who was a critical figure in the transition to Roman Stoicism.

His main innovation, according to Diogenes Laertius (vii 128), was to compromise the principle at the heart of Stoic ethics, viz., that virtue alone is good, and wealth, health, etc. are ‘indifferent’ in ethical value. He conceded that virtue alone is not sufficient for happiness unless it is accompanied by health and an adequate living. Panaetius lived and traveled for years with an active Roman political and military leader, Scipio Aemilianus. Earlier scholars, like R.D. Hicks in 1965, did not hesitate to infer that his concession on virtue was to sweeten the pill for Roman consumption: “The introduction of Stoicism at Rome”, he wrote, “was the most momentous of the many changes that it saw… Soon the influence of the pupils reacted upon the doctrines taught” (Hicks 1965 363). However, later in the twentieth century, scholars of ancient philosophy became more inclined to interpret philosophical developments exclusively in terms of philosophical theory; thus Panaetius’ concession was seen only as a response to the keen Skeptic critic Carneades, who questioned the sufficiency of virtue alone.

But Panaetius also defended property rights against Zeno (Rist 1969 199) and even subscribed to the sycophantic view that the ideal constitution was actually the Roman one (Cicero De Republica i 21). Apparently, at least when sensitive areas like politics were concerned, he was eager to cater to Roman patronage.

Sexual ethics is certainly one area where conformity to conventional values reversed progressive views. I have mentioned Nussbaum’s disappointment with Musonius, whose vision of women’s liberation amounted to little more than instruction in Stoic philosophy in order to better fulfil their domestic role as wives and mothers. Lucian did deal with the repressive strain of Roman Stoic sexual philosophy in the Erotes. In the rhetorical contest supervised by Lucian’s stand-in Lycinus, Charicles, who is the loser, represents this type of Stoicism. He advocates companionate marriage, but is mainly interested in condemning any non-reproductive sex, especially between males. Like Musonius, the only positive content that he can imagine for women in a life of companionate marriage is domestic: enjoying dinner with their husbands. In characteristic Stoic fashion, he bases his argument on Nature (physis), which he equates with Providence. Lucian portrays Charicles as an irate fanatic, and Lycinus rejects his position as un-Hellenic, favouring his opponent, who defends Greek tradition and associates physis with barbarian and nomos with Greek.

The financial aspect of Lucian’s dislike of the Stoics, and their own doctrinal compatibility with the conventional values of wealthy Roman patrons complement each other and suggest that Lucian, however superficial his own philosophical sophistication may have been, was a perceptive social critic.

And this analysis is corroborated by a comparative study of the social role of Hellenistic philosophies and other belief systems throughout the ancient world offering a path to happiness through a release from ignorance.


Max Weber

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the best known work by the pioneering sociologist Max Weber, but it is also his most controversial. Later he studied the history of religions and traced a historical development  from magic through several stages to Protestantism, and sought to understand the social and economic correlations of different religions. These studies were unfinished at his death, but are included, under the title Religiöse Gemeinschaften, in an extensive posthumous compilation. Certain aspects of this work are relevant for understanding the social role of philosophers in Lucian’s time and Lucian’s motivation for his austere and simplistic attitude towards philosophy.

The historical stage most important for our purpose is the development of Erlösungsreligionen. These religions usually begin with a prophet, but as they become established they form some kind of community or ‘congregation’ controlled by professional priests. The concept of Erlösung and this distinction between prophets and priests are the features which can inform our understanding of Lucian.

Weber’s concept of Erlösung has been translated in English as ‘salvation’-- and this fits some religions, such as Christianity, well—or even ‘mystical’, which certainly does not describe Weber’s aristocratic religions, which were more intellectual.  However, the German Erlösung has a broader meaning. It is a ‘release’ from some kind of evil. It can just as well be achieved in this life as in an afterlife, and different religions offer release from different evils and to different ends. The Jews, for example, expected to be compensated for their loyalty to Yahweh with a Messianic kingdom on Earth; meanwhile, they hoped only for a prosperous living. (301-304) Intellectual classes can determine the nature of Erlösung-- from what to what; for example, they determined Buddhism’s release from the tiresome cycle of existence into Nirvana. Weber includes here even Rousseau, whose resolution was Nature. But in every case, the path to release is through a specific ethical way of living. Clearly the Hellenistic goal of ataraxia and the ways of life set to attain it qualify.

Weber found that certain types of religion correlate with (are ‘carried’ or propagated by) specific social classes. The underprivileged classes are more inclined to salvation religions which promise release from their oppressed status. Less so the privileged class (aristocracy). They do not want release from the status quo, which suits them nicely, but rather legitimization of their own privileges, as well as the poorer situation of their inferiors. At an early stage, they are warriors (e.g. Homeric heroes), but when they are separated from political power either by imperial conquest or by their own decision to withdraw, they turn to intellectually fashioned Erlösungsreligionen marked by certain characteristic features: a systematic or ‘rationalized’ world view with peace and order now serves to legitimate their status. Weber mentions Chinese bureaucrats and Roman officials, as well as Hellenistic philosophies here. They are guided by intellectuals who define Erlösung and the necessary way of life, and who tend to ignore or re-interpret (‘rationalize’) popular religion. (269-271) Among Greek philosophies, Stoicism, with its deterministic divine Providence and allegorical interpretation of myths, best fits this model, even though it is not mentioned specifically by Weber.

Prophets initiate religious change. They may carry a divine message or revelation (‘ethical prophets’) or they may exert influence simply by their own life (‘exemplary prophets’, e.g. Buddha); and their message may be a new doctrine or it may be a renewal of old doctrine. But it is always a unified vision of Man and the World which entails a definite way of life. They are always charismatic and they are always unpaid.

Priests, by contrast, are an organized profession working with, and receiving remuneration from, an established community.

It may seem surprising to label any philosophers as prophets, but Weber explains:

...ist der Prophet durch Übergangsstufen verbunden

mit dem ethischen, speziell dem sozialethischen Lehrer, der, neuer

oder erneuten Verständnisses alter Weisheit voll, Schüler um sich

sammelt, Private in privaten Fragen, Fürsten in öffentlichen Din-

gen der Welt berät und eventuell zur Schöpfung ethischer Ordnun-

gen zu bestimmen sucht. 185:24 ff.


“Prophets are linked through a number of intermediate figures to ethics teachers, particularly teachers of social ethics, who, with their deep understanding of new or old wisdom, gather students together, counsel private individuals in private matters and princes in public affairs, and possibly try to create ethical systems.”

Weber names Pythagoras and Empedocles as prophets, and offers some reasons for excluding other philosophers. He excludes Socrates because he did not offer a positive system, and most Greek philosophers because they did not embark on a public mission or did not give emotional (i.e., charismatic) sermons.

Weber was perhaps less well acquainted with philosophy in Lucian’s day than with classical philosophy. Lucian’s Nigrinus is nothing if not charismatic, his diatribe is an emotionally charged sermon, and its effect is a powerful enlightenment, with Erlösung from ignorance and popular values and conversion to a ‘philosophic’ (read ‘ethical’) way of living. He falls short of prophecy only insofar as he does not have a public mission. Instead, he welcomes individual visitors who seek him out for counselling. And Demonax is very much like Weber’s ‘exemplary prophet’.

Lucian did have some knowledge of the doctrines of the different schools, and he had his preferences. But since he adamantly refuses to mention them in his accounts of ‘good’ philosophers, it seems reasonable to infer that he considered them irrelevant. One must look instead to their way of living. Weber, for his part, does attempt, very briefly, to relate the Hellenistic philosophies to his schemata. He admits that they are ‘close to’ Erlösungsreligionen, but his interest is the actual religions, and he wants to stress the differences. The similarities are more important for us.

Perhaps, for example, Weber did not fully appreciate the importance of Hellenistic and Imperial philosophies’  turning their main focus to ethics. Ethics may have been the only part of philosophy that the Romans took seriously. It was also most important for the educational role in which philosophers competed with rhetoricians. And it also made philosophy more like an Erlösungsreligion.

Lucian’s principle that philosophers should not be paid derived from Socrates. But his portrayal of an unpaid philosopher is more like a fiery religious counselor than Plato’s coy dialogic gadfly, more reminiscent of Weber’s teachers of social ethics.

Nigrinus, as a philosophic educator who charged no fees, and even as a charismatic speaker who did not go public but only engaged with individuals who came to him, posed no threat to rhetoricians.

Given Lucian’s attitude toward the other schools, he probably shared some sentiments with the Cynics, who posed only a minor threat. But his attacks on Cynics are not for their theories, but mainly for their crude manners and unconventional attire. Proud of his achievements as a public speaker whose first language had not been Greek (he came from Syria), he portrays himself in his writings as a polished gentleman who would not be impressed by the Cynics’ display.

The Epicureans themselves actually did regard their founder as a great prophet; yet the leaders of Epicurean communes were more like Weber’s priests, especially in view of their use of mnemonics and indoctrination. However, their apolitical way of living blunted their threat to rhetoricians, who were deeply invested in politics.

Whether cynically or sincerely, the Stoics had fashioned their system into a model of the kind of beliefs and ethics which Weber found to be characteristic for aristocratic bureaucracies. For a while, under the Republic, Roman literati had flirted with Epicureanism. But under the Empire, it was the Stoic Greeks who mastered their conquerors... or was it the other way around?



Berdozzo, Fabio (2011), Goetter, Mythen, Philosophen, 11-20

Davidson, James (2007), The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Hall, Jennifer (1981), Lucian’s Satire, 35 ff.

Hicks, R.D. (1962), Stoic and Epicurean, 363

Jope, James (2011), ‘Interpretation and Authenticity of the Lucianic Erotes’, Helios 38, 1, 103-120

Joyal, Mark, Iain McDougall, and J.C. Yardley (2009), Greek and Roman education: a sourcebook

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Weber, Max, posthumous.  Religiöse Gemeinschaften, vol. 2 of Die Wirtschaft und die gesellschaftlichen Ordnungen und Mächte. ed. Hans G. Kippenberg et al., Tübingen 2001 in Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, ed. Horst Baier et al., Section 1, vol. 22, fasc. 2 --eBook 2019




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