Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.02
Fabio Berdozzo, Götter, Mythen, Philosophen: Lukian und die paganen Göttervorstellungen seiner Zeit. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd 106. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. x, 332. ISBN 9783110254594. $165.00.
Reviewed by James Jope (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Taking M. Caster’s Lucien et la pensée religieuse de son temps (1937) as a point of departure, Berdozzo aims to reach a better understanding of Lucian’s attitude toward religion and philosophical theology by close reading and comparisons with contemporary figures like Pausanias and Galen. In particular, he seeks an understanding based on Lucian’s own personality and subjective beliefs, rather than, as some earlier scholars proposed, his sources.
Berdozzo’s findings are—as perhaps they must be—largely negative: Lucian, he argues persuasively, had no spiritual feelings and was simply not interested in theology.
Part One reviews Lucianic works relating to religion. Lucian’s real interest in On Funerals is not the afterlife but the theatricality of his presentation. On Sacrifices expresses pessimism about reforming public opinion, but offers no alternatives. The debate between a Stoic and an Epicurean in Zeus Rants is only a rhetorical display, offering no theological critique. Prometheus, likewise, is an ironic rhetorical courtroom performance. Every work examined is eliminated in this way. Lucian, Berdozzo concludes, fails to engage in religious thought, not because it is not in his sources, but because his own personality and interests were strictly “sublunar”, down-to-earth.
Turning to philosophy (Part Two), Berdozzo partially accepts the view that Lucian’s knowledge of philosophy was superficial, but sees an exception in the case of Plato, whose dialogues Lucian read. As Berdozzo sees it, Lucian’s satire of Plato is bitter, hateful, and personal, and a radical rejection of his entire philosophy; but even in this case, Lucian was not interested in metaphysical issues. The Nigrinus might have been expected to reveal Lucian’s attitude toward philosophy, but its real purpose is only to praise Athens and Hellenism, so it is not a reliable source on religion and philosophy. Lucian hated Stoics especially because of their association with the rich and powerful and with social climbers; his sparse attention to Stoic theology shows his lack of interest.
In closing, Berdozzo illuminates Lucian’s attitude to religion through a lengthy comparison of Galen. Both were agnostic and eclectic, but Galen, who respected at least some aspects of Platonism, developed a positive spirituality and openness to religion. The comparison is sensitive and instructive regarding both ancient authors.
The above, albeit an accurate summary of the findings, does not adequately describe this book, which is replete with digressions and supplementary material, as the author strives to update the scholarly background for each work studied.
Some of these sections are very interesting: For example, Berdozzo examines the school exercises of Theon, a typical rhetorician, and shows how this kind of training—which Lucian also experienced—encouraged students to revise and re-invent myths freely and creatively for their own ends. This casts light on Lucian’s literary innovations by showing how they can be understood as evolving from his own rhetorical training.
However, in other cases Berdozzo’s priorities seem strange and his argumentation seems to ramble. The chapter on the Assembly of the Gods (Part one, chapter 5) may serve as an example. It opens with some tantalizing leads for interpretation: the evident hellenocentric bias of the satire (is Lucian, a hellenized Syrian, in sympathy with this, or satirizing it?), and the character of the protagonist Momos, here a sharp critic with reasoned arguments frankly expressed (παρρησία; does he represent Lucian?) However, instead of following these leads, Berdozzo turns to a detailed rebuttal of Householder’s (1940) 1 thesis that the Assembly follows Magnesian procedures and must have been delivered at Magnesia, even though, as Berdozzo points out, it offers nothing toward interpreting the work and would find few advocates today (105). The chapter closes rather abruptly by suggesting that because Sleep moves the adoption of the assembly’s decree, the entire scene is a dream. Later, however, in the summary of Part One, we are told that the Assembly of the Gods shows that Lucian did believe in the existence of the gods and their ability to communicate with men.
Berdozzo’s preface reveals that this is a dissertation, which was only “geringfügig űberbearbeitet” for publication (v). Perhaps it should have been revised more assiduously, tightening the focus on the central theme and leaving some of the intriguing digressions to be published as separate papers.
Another shortcoming is the surprising omission of works so seemingly relevant for religious criticism as Alexander the False Prophet, The Passing of Peregrinus, and The Syrian Goddess, as well as any discussion of Epicurean philosophy. Berdozzo offers excuses for this in his conclusion, but I do not find them satisfactory. The Epicureans, he says, had little to offer regarding theology. But Lucian evidently did like them more than Stoics, and there are traces of their influence in his work. When Berdozzo describes Lucian’s implicit belief in On Funerals that man’s condition after death is one in which “der Schmerz und die Not, welche dem Leben anhaften, nicht mehr existieren” (70), he is skirting an important example. And a reading of Alexander might have shown what real Lucianic hatred looks like, possibly modifying Berdozzo’s slightly exaggerated estimate of Lucian’s (admitted) dislike of Plato.
I caught only one or two trivial typographical errors (such as “gen” for ‘gegen’ 114). The production is excellent—as it should be given the price.
The detailed table of contents (shown in the Preview) will make it easy to find useful material on topics of interest; but one may find reading this book from cover to cover a little exasperating.
1. Householder, F.W. Jr., Mock Decrees in Lucian in TAPhA 71 (1940) 199-216