Hermotimus: A dialogue on Common Sense

Unlike all the many philosophers he names, Lucian is not defined by any institution. He does not need a school, an Academy, an allegiance, a club, a team, a credential, to make his mark on the world. His brain and pen alone suffice. He is the original independent thinker.

His independence shows through most clearly in the dialogue Hermotimus – the theme of which is sapere aude, think for yourself (hence the traditional subtitle, De Sectis).

As I’ll eventually argue, Lucian’s Hermotimus is the ultimate Enlightenment dialogue. When I do, I’ll probably give it the new subtitle On Common Sense. This will not only be homage to Tom Paine; it’s also an accurate summary of the dialogue’s central theme.

(On a personal note, I should add that my serious interest in Lucian’s influence on the Enlightenment was first sparked by a suggestion made to me by Jules Mattes (1948-2022), a great and independent thinker. I will miss him.)

Hermotimus helped inspire Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, but, interestingly, neither Erasmus nor Thomas More, his partner, ever translated it.


The first translation into any language was made by the hilarious Renaissance scholar Vincent Obsopoeus, as he makes clear on the last page of the preface to his 1527 translation:

illorum ergo fastum et arrogantiam hoc dialogo egregie ridet Lucianus, quem nos, quod esset summe elegans, et hactenus a nemine versus (quantum quidem nobis ea de re compertum est) per haec Dionysia, ne totum me traderem poculis, latinitate donavimus…

Lucian skewers those [dunderheads’] disdain and arrogance deliciously in this dialogue. Because it’s supremely elegant and because, till now, it hasn’t been translated by anyone (at least to my knowledge), and, so that I wouldn’t be giving myself entirely over to drinking during this carnival season, I’ve enriched it with a Latin translation.

Nuremberg, February 15, 1527.

True to form, Obsopoeus can’t resist his running joke about drinking too much.

Even better, Obsopoeus composed a nice epigram to grace his work. Since the 1527 translation was quickly replaced by a 1529 revision that omits it, I doubt anyone’s read it in 500 years.

They should. The epigram zeroes right in, correctly, on the “common sense” theme of the Hermotimus. The key phrase in line 5 is taken straight from Lucian’s paragraph 72 — τὰ κοινὰ ταῦτα φρονοῦντα, “using common sense”).

Here’s the epigram, freed up of its ligatures and presented in lightly edited form[**]:

τοῖς φιλοσόφοις Ὀψοποιός
ὦ πωγωνόφορον σεμνόντε σοφῶν γένος ἀνδρῶν,
τΐφθ’ οὕτως ἀσαφῇ* εὐδοκιμεῖς σοφίᾳ;
ἥ περὶ ῥηματϊῶν μάλα δυστήνων μελεδῶνας
τείρει μὲν πολλοῖς ἄλγεσιν ὑμετέρας.
κοῖνα φρονεῖτ' ἀπορίψαντες φληναφούστε** τυφούστε.
ἐν μὲν τοῖς ἔργοις, οὐκ ἔπεσ’, ἔστ’ ἀρετή.
Ζεῦς δὴ τῆς ζωῆς οὐ πείρατα μακρὰ δίδωσι,
μὴ λάθετ’, εἰς λήρους ταῦτ’ ἀναλωσάμενοι.
Obsopoeus to the philosophers,
O bearded and revered species of wise men,
     why are you so celebrated for obscure wisdom?
Your "wisdom" oppresses your researches about miserable 
     little words with many pains.
Ditch the nonsense and silliness, and start using common sense;
     virtue consists of actions, not words.
Seriously, God doesn’t grant long spans of life;
     don’t spend them on foolishness without realizing it.

[**My thanks to Jeff Rusten for help with this. As he intuited, ἀσοφῆι is a printer’s error for ἀσαφῆι; the accent makes it clear it’s not a blunder by Obsopoeus for ἀσόφῳ. By contrast, φληναφούστε in line 5 doesn’t scan, so that one’s on him.]

(For another Greek epigram by Obsopoeus about Lucian, see here.)

One final point (for now). The climax of Hermotimus comes in paragraphs 75-6. That’s where Lucian explains the cult mentality most clearly. Here’s Fowler’s translation:

Just so you, when you have granted the principles of any school, believe in the deductions from them, and take their consistency, false as it is, for a guarantee of truth. Then with some of you, hope travels through, and you die before you have seen the truth and detected your deceivers, while the rest, disillusioned too late, will not turn back for shame: what, confess at their years that they have been abused with toys all this time? so they hold on desperately, putting the best face upon it and making all the converts they can, to have the consolation of good company in their deception; they are well aware that to speak out is to sacrifice the respect and superiority and honor they are accustomed to; so they will not do it if it may be helped, knowing the height from which they will fall to the common level.

In his irreverent book Mind Control: The Ancient Art of Psychological Warfare, Haha Lung makes the same point:

Yet, even when a brainwashed cult member suspects he’s been duped, rather than fleeing the cult, he all too often redoubles his efforts to recruit others into the cult’s fantasy world. This is his way of proving everybody is as gullible as he was and still is.