Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’

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by Neil Godfrey

“Rages” in the title is a bit of poetic licence. I don’t really think either of the two chapters by classicists discussing the arguments for and against the historicity of an ancient philosopher can be considered “rages”.

My point was to alert potential readers that this post is not a repeat of my post of less than a week ago about the historicity of Demonax : Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? That post addressed the views of Tomas Hagg as published in 2012 in The Art of Biography in Antiquity. I was really playing catch-up with that one since one year and two months ago I posted a more recent (published 2016) discussion of another classicist, Mark Beck, addressing the same thorny question: If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists. I was sharing my reading of “Lucian’s Life of Demonax”, a chapter in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen.

Would we have to deny the historicity of most other ancient persons if we reject Demonax?

It is interesting to compare the two different discussions of the question of Demonax’s historicity. How do non-biblical scholars, those dedicated to the study of ancient times, address questions of historicity in those cases where we lack the testimony of monuments, public inscriptions, coins, etc.? The question is of some interest, I suspect, to those who follow what biblical scholars might have to say about certain arguments of the historicity of, let’s say at random, Adam, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus.

Do independent contemporary sources decide the question?

In both discussions a primary and very weighty consideration is the absence of contemporary notices. If the person really was so influential as the biography claims, then how do we account for the absence of contemporary witnesses? Why do we have to wait for a person claiming to be a student and eyewitness of the famous person writing something long after the teacher was dead?

Does fictional storytelling decide the question?

It is also interesting that in both discussions the above question is of considerable import, while the fact that it is clearly evident that the extant biography of Demonax contains much fiction is not so important. If someone tells tall tales about a famous teacher, so what? That seems to be the approach. It’s to be expected. Fictional details do not mean the subject did not exist.

Does an eyewitness claim decide the question?

But we have a writing by one who clearly says he was an eyewitness and a student of Demonax! No dice, apparently. That does not count as decisive in either discussion. Anyone could say that about the person they were writing about.

Do independent references decide the question?

In both discussions, the one by Hãgg and the one by Beck, the independent testimony of sayings by Demonax is a significant point. The biographer of Demonax did not make use of what we know of an independent collection of sayings by Demonax. Beck considers these independent sayings attributed to Demonax as enough to tilt the scales in favour of the historicity of Demonax. Hägg is not convinced; for Hägg, such a collection only raises more questions than it answers with respect to the historicity question. Those independent sayings are just a little “too” independent and appear to have no real relevance to the person of Lucian’s biography, according to Hägg. So scholarly opinions differ — interestingly without any apparent need for abusive language and all sorts of ad hominem attacks.

Does a namesake at the right time and place decide the question?

But Hägg does concede that there was a historical Demonax in Athens at the right time. He just does not think that Demonax had much in common with Lucian’s portrait. Beck agrees with the problematic nature of Lucian’s portrait by adding that it is evident that a source for that portrait was Lucian’s own life. Lucian was writing about himself!

Does the function of the biography decide the question?

Both classicists acknowledge that the fact that Lucian’s biography had a clear purpose of teaching readers virtuous principles is itself a point against the historicity of any of the biography’s anecdotes. The author, they agree, wrote with the purpose of teaching virtue and creating a moral exemplar for readers, not with any specific intent to preserve genuine historical memories for posterity.

Back to that question about independent contemporary sources

So the bottom line is that the question of historicity stands or falls on the point of testimony independent of the biography and contemporaneous with the person of interest.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’”

  1. Let’s say that fifty years from now someone writes a “biography” of Sam Harris focusing on all the things he could have done better to avoid the reputation that he has. If this hypothetical book portrays the man as though his reputation is either deserved or undeserved there would be parties claiming that it was fiction.

    1. The context seems to be a thousand years later and there are no other surviving records. A man like Harris is contemporarily popular, with even cult like followers, but 50 years after his death probably no one would actually care about anything he said.

  2. All a historian seeks is some form of independent corroboration. All the historian would need would be some surviving contemporary document or record testifying to the historical Sam Harris, say an advertisement for a public speaking event, etc.

    Some people like Bauckham say “testimony” alone is all we need, and that’s all we rely upon in good faith in everyday circumstances. Example, a colleague tells me it’s raining outside. We believe until we are given a reason not to believe. But that’s only half the story. We believe the colleague because we know the colleague and the context. Historians do not know who is behind sources they read unless they apply certain tests or look for some form of independent verification.

    Bauckham is a good example because he points to Holocaust survivor testimony as always something to be believed prima facie. Nonsense, since the example he gives are of people known by independent evidence to have been Holocaust survivors; we all know that some people have since fabricated stories about being Holocaust survivors.

    Historians simply ask for independent corroboration not out of some spirit of “malicious or hostile suspicion” but simply out of establishing reasonable grounds and support for their claims.

  3. My interest in ‘Demonax’ was first piqued by the great philologist Elias Bickerman, who remarked that it was the closest parallel to the gospels. I assume this refers to the formal technique of answering questions with ‘smart’ replies, rather than appealing to law or custom, and was not a judgement on historicity.

    The fact remains that there are certain classical works whose ‘intention’ is impossible to fathom. The ‘Trojan Chronicle’ of Dictys Cretensis was read in mediaeval and renaissance times as history; whether it was originally written as (forged) history or as a novel, an entertainment, there is no ancient reception history to clarify. So with ‘Demonax’ , it is unclear whether it is a warm appreciation of a teacher or an obscure satire. It does not get you anywhere in any attempt to establish ‘rules’ for determining the historicity of figures in (pseudo-) historical narratives.

    1. We are not looking to establish “rules” but looking for consistency and validity of methods. Where we have uncertainty then we need to accept and embrace uncertainty and not use our ignorance as a justification for leaping to unfounded conclusions.

      When we have before us evidence (a source) that explains the narrative we have, it is not a valid method to speculate on additional sources we do not have in order to arrive at a conclusion we want and that our current evidence does not indicate.

      1. This is a very important point. Another way to describe the quest for certainty is faith. Living with uncertainty is hard, faith is actually the easy way out.

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