Athenian humor on orators and prophets

Savage-1703-titleThis comical and thought-provoking letter by the stoic philosopher Diogenes narrates how he bested three men in arguments, 1) a philosopher/orator, 2) a poet/prophet, and 3) a rich young citizen/host.

In each case, the comedy is situational as well as verbal, involving socially indiscreet behaviors on Diogenes’ part: interrupting, striking with a stick, and spitting. Diogenes’ words seem to justify and explain his behavior to auditors and/or the reader and he comes across as the trickster/victor. In the narrative, calling each person by two descriptive terms (i.e. philosopher, orator) emphasizes the variability and change in character based on their words or behavior.

Savage-1703-LetterCC-p435a[Diogenes] to Monemus; telling him some pleasant Adventures of his at Athens

Whilst you continue in Olympia, expecting every Day the Games should be celebrated, I am come to Athens, where I pass my time in another manner.

Walking the other Day about the Forum, with my Cup in my Hand, after my usual Custom, and viewing both the Sellers and Talkers of all Sorts, I at length happen’d to light upon a Philosopher, who was discoursing concerning the Quality and Efficacy of the Sun. Coming up to him, and crowding in among his Auditors, I ask’d him,

Pray Sir, How long is it since you dropt from Heaven?

The poor Orator not a little surpriz’d at my Question, answer’d not a Word, which his Audience observing, and thinking I had confounded his Arguments, departed; leaving him to contemplate the rest upon the Ground, and me to pursue my Frolick.

Savage-1703-LetterCC-p435Quitting this Numskul, I accosted another, a Poet, who sitting crown’d with a Lawrel in the mid’st of a Throng, and pretending not a little to Divination, I demanded of him,

Whether he were a good, or a bad Prophet.

Perceiving me to hold up my Stick, he answer’d,

He was a good One.

Guess then, quoth I, Whether I intend to strike thee or not.

I believe you dare not, reply’d he.

Taking that for an Argument of his Ignorance, I struck him. The mob immediately made a great Clamour, whereupon returning to them, I ask’d what they meant by all that Noise.

Is it, quoth I, because I have beaten a false Prophet?

Hereupon the People being convinc’d of their Error, forsook him, and follow’d me. I began to discourse to them upon several Subjects, all of which they relish’d so well, that some offer’d me Gold and Silver; others Things of equal Value, and most of them invited me to Supper. Keeping nevertheless to my Profession of Poverty, I refus’d all but a few Necessaries.

Supper ’tis true, I accepted, but that only from one, a rich Young Citizen: When I came into his Dining-room, I found it nicely adorn’d in every Part: Even the Pavement shone with Riches, and the Walls and Cieling likewise reflected theirs upon it.

After I had been there for some time, having occasion to spit, I look’d round about me, and finding no place more proper, I spit upon my Host. He immediately demanding the reason of my Proceeding, I told him, he ought to blame himself not me, for since I saw no Place besides unadorn’d in his whole House, I thought he was the fittest to bestow that Excrement upon. To which he reply’d,

You shall hereafter have no such occasion to find fault with me,

and therefore next Day selling all he had, he became one of our Fraternity. This is what has happen’d to me, since I left you at Olympia. Farewel.

SOURCE: “Letter CC.” from Savage, J. (ed.) (1703). A select collection of letters of the antients. Written originally by Phalaris, Solon, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euripedes, Xenophon, Aristotle, K. Philip, Alexander the Great, Democritus, Heraclitus, Diogenes the Cynick, Isocrates, Hippocrates, The Emp. Julian, &c. Greeks. Cicero, Seneca, Augustus Caesar, Mark Anthony, Brutus and Cassius, Pompey, Mithridates, Germanicus, K. Herod, Agrippina, Poppaea, Caracalla, M. Aurelius, Aurelian, Qu. Zenobia, &c. Romans. Whereby is discover’d the Morality, Gallantry, Wit, Humour, Manner of Arguing, and in a Word, the Genius both of the Greeks and Romans. By Mr. Savage. London: printed for J. Hartley, next door to the King’s-Head Tavern in Holborn; F. Coggan, in the Inner Temple-Lane; W. Davis, at the Black-Bull in Cornhill; R. Gibson, at the Roe-Buck between the two Temple Gates in Fleet-Street; and T. Hodgson, over against Grays-Inn-Gate in Holborn.

(pp. 435-436)


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