Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed:

The arrangement is thematic, or by association: the same person, or type of person, appears in adjoining anecdotes, a similar topic or motif recurs, and so on. Thus, a way of life is illustrated, rather than a career followed. (p. 296)

That reminds us of the gospels, of course, especially the Gospel of Matthew — with an exception. The sections in Matthew’s gospel do not illustrate a way of life but do address different topics: miracles, sayings, parables.

As in the gospels we read of short, witty sayings of Demonax embedded within a “concrete situation, however rudimentary”, typically responding to someone who comes to him or responding to something he observes.

Demonax life comes to an end in an idealized manner, too. After having completed his “scornful treatment of high and low in Athenian society” he fulfils his plan to depart this life when he is no longer capable of caring for himself.

His godlike quality is again evoked (p. 297)

But I quote not from Hagg’s translation but offer a slightly edited copy of the passage on the sacred-texts site:

At the end of his long life he would go uninvited into the first house that [he happened to pass], and there get his dinner and his bed, the household regarding it as the visit of some heavenly being which brought them a blessing. When they saw him go by, the baker-wives would contend for the honour of supplying him, and a happy woman was the actual donor. Children too used to call him father, and bring him offerings of fruit.

We read a “truly philosophical way of ending one’s life” and here I quote from Hägg’s text, but with my own formatting:

He abstained from food altogether and departed from life as cheerful … as he had always appeared to anyone he met.

Shortly before the end someone asked him, ‘What are your instructions about your funeral?’

‘Don’t go to any trouble’, he said, ‘the stench will cause me to be buried.’

The man went on to say, ‘But surely it would be shameful to expose to the birds and dogs the body of such a man?’

‘No, I see nothing inappropriate … in it’, Demonax replied, ‘if even in death I will be of use to living creatures.’

However, the Athenians gave him a splendid public funeral and mourned for him a long time; and as a mark of honour to him they would bow before and put garlands on the stone seat where he used to rest when he was tired, thinking that even the stone on which he sat was sacred. Absolutely everyone attended the funeral, especially the philosophers. Indeed, it was they who carried him on their shoulders to the grave. (p. 298)

So what do we have here in the Life of Demonax?

Hägg sees the text as an amalgam of different types of biography. I set out his view in a dot-point form and highlighting:

  • After the Plutarchian proem,
  • there follows an encomiastic description of the philosopher’s character and lifestyle, explicitly aimed at emulation by the young;
  • but some traditional components of encomia, namely patris, genos, and childhood description, are left with the barest of mentions.
  • The main part, in turn, is a fairly unordered collection of his witty ‘sayings’ … in a style that scholars tend to define as typical for Cynic Lives …. [T]he collection of unconnected sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas [is] a [close] analogue ….
  • The concluding account of Demonax’ death again smacks of encomium.
  • The character of personal recollections … comes to the fore in the proem and epilogue: the author implies he was himself a student of Demonax … and at the end he adds that he has related part of what he himself remembers about him.
  • Yet — paradoxically — in the other parts of his Life Lucian never appears himself as a witness, interlocutor, or agent, as he does in Alexander and Peregrinus.
  • The formal mixture … also leads to contradictions in characterization:
    • the unassuming saint of the encomiastic beginning and end, a champion of philanthrōpia and silence,
    • has little in common with the arrogant offender of the trial or the free-spoken Cynic depicted in the middle part.
  • These incongruities make questions of historicity and aim urgent. (pp. 298f)

So is Demonax Historical?

The most that Hägg commits to is:

There seems to be little doubt that a philosopher by the name of Demonax lived in Athens in the second century AD. (p. 299)

That sounds like a politician’s non-answer to me.

A footnote refers to a 1907 German reference and states that a scholar D. Clay “seems to believe in the historicity of Demonax, but calls Lucian’s Life ‘a philosophical fiction in the tradition familiar from Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia”‘. Hägg choosing to footnote a scholar who does believe Demonax to be historical is a commentary on Hägg’s own doubts, I submit.

Hägg adds:

But, apart from Lucian’s work, the evidence for him is so scarce that he can hardly have had the importance and standing that Lucian claims for him; so the encomiastic parts must, unsurprisingly, be greatly exaggerated. (p. 299)

There does exist a collection of sayings attributed to a Demonax,

but strangely without overlap with Lucian’s collection. 

Hägg looks for a way to rescue Demonax. Perhaps there were so very many sayings of Demonax in circulation that Lucian chose only the ones he found most witty, while the other collections preferred the more serious moralizing sayings. Or perhaps Lucian invented the sayings himself. But then Hägg points out that some of the sayings are so dull that some scholars believe they could not have been made up by Lucian but must be authentic, while others reply that Lucian may have made up dull sayings to create the illusion of “authenticity”. My own observation is that the dullness of some of the sayings contradicts the initial suggestion that Lucian selected only the wittiest of the sayings from the vast corpus available.

For Hägg a more important question is what Lucian meant by portraying

this model philosopher of nondescript creed: a Cynic light, with famous Stoics like Epictetus among his teachers, with Socrates as his role model beside Diogenes, and traits of Neopythagoreanism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism in his lifestyle. Perhaps he really wished to propound, for the common good, the ideal of a Hellenic philosophical koine and embodied it in an unpretentious, honest, and witty humanist, to counter the vulgar type of Cynicism as represented by Peregrinus, the widespread religious superstition that figures like Alexander exploited, as well as the other social and intellectual vices that he attacked in his satirical works. (p. 300)

Such is the approach of a classicist who takes on the question of the historicity of a figure he studies in an ancient biography by one who claims to be an eyewitness.


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?”

  1. With a name like Demonax you have to hope he existed.

    It wasn’t as common a name as Yeshus but still….

    “There does exist a collection of sayings attributed to a Demonax,
    but strangely without overlap with Lucian’s collection. ”

    Of course the same thing can be said about Jesus and the Gospel of Thomas.

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