(from a web page contributed by Erik Anderson, reproduced with permission)
Zeus has called to order a meeting of the gods, in order to make them aware of an impending crisis precipitated by an Epicurean:
Gentlemen of Heaven, in preference to great riches, I am sure you would choose to learn why it is that you are now assembled. This being so, it behooves you to give my words an attentive hearing. The present crisis, gods, all but breaks out in speech and says that we must grapple stoutly with the issues of the day, but we, it seems to me, are treating them with great indifference. I now desire—my Demosthenes is running short, you see—to tell you plainly what it was the disturbed me and made me call the meeting.
Yesterday, as you know, when Mnesitheus the ship-captain made the offering for the deliverance of his ship, which came near being lost off Caphereus, we banqueted at Piraeus, those of us whom Mnesitheus asked to the sacrifice. Then after libations, you all went in different directions, wherever each of you thought fit, but I myself, as it was not very late, went up to town to take my evening stroll in the Potter's Quarter, reflecting as I went upon the stinginess of Mnesitheus. To feast sixteen gods he had sacrificed only a cock, and a wheezy old cock at that, and four little cakes of frankincense that were thoroughly well mildewed, so that they went right out on the coals and didn't even give off enough smoke to smell with the tip of you nose; and yet he had promised whole herds of cattle while the ship was drifting on the rock and was inside the ledges.
But when, thus reflecting, I had reached the Painted Porch, [Athen's “Painted Porch,” with its fresco representing the battle of Marathon, was home of the Stoic school] I saw a great number of men gathered together, some inside, in the porch itself, a number in the court, and one or two sitting on the seats bawling and straining their lungs. Guessing (as was indeed the case) that they were philosophers of the disputatious order, I decided to stop and hear what they were saying, and as I happened to be wrapped in one of my thick clouds, I dressed myself after their style and lengthened my beard with a pull, making myself very much like a philosopher; then elbowing the rabble aside, I went in without being recognized. I found the Epicurean Damis, that sly rogue, and Timocles the Stoic, the best man in the world, disputing madly: at least Timocles was sweating and had worn his voice out with shouting, while Damis with his sardonic laughter was making him more and more excited.
Their whole discussion was about us. That confounded Damis asserted that we do not exercise any providence in behalf of men and do not oversee what goes on among them, saying nothing less than that we do not exist at all (for that is of course what his argument implied), and there were some who applauded him. The other, however, I mean Timocles, was on our side and fought for us and got angry and took our part in every way, praising our management and telling how we govern and direct everything in the appropriate order and system; and he too had some who applauded him. But finally he grew tired and began to speak badly and the crowd began to turn admiring eyes on Damis; so, seeing the danger, I ordered night to close in and break up the conference. They went away, therefore, after agreeing to carry the dispute to a conclusion the next day, and I myself, going along with the crowd, overheard them praising Damis' views on their way home and even then far preferring his side: there were some, however, who recommended them not to condemn the other side in advance but to wait and see what Timocles would say the next day.
That is why I called you together, gods, and it is no trivial reason if you consider that all our honor and glory and revenue comes from men, and if they are convinced either that there are no gods at all or that if there are they have no thought of men, we shall be without sacrifices, without presents, and without honors on earth and shall sit idle in Heaven in the grip of famine, choused out of our old-time feasts and celebrations and games and sacrifices and vigils and processions. Such being the issue, I say that all must try to think out something to save the situation for us, so that Timocles will win and be thought to have the truth on his side of the argument and Damis will be laughed to scorn by the audience: for I have very little confidence that Timocles will win by himself if he has not our backing. Therefore make you lawful proclamation, Hermes, so that they may arise and give counsel.
Hark! Hush! No noise! Who of the gods in full standing that have the right to speak wants to do so? What's this? Nobody arises? Are you dumfounded by the greatness of the issues presented, that you hold your tongues?
"Marry, you others may all into water and earth be converted"; [A line from the Iliad; addressed to the Greeks by Menelaus when they were reluctant to take up the challenge of Hector.] but as for me, if I were privileged to speak frankly, I would have a great deal to say.
Speak, Momus, with full confidence, for it is clear that your frankness will be indebted for our common good.
Well then, listen, gods, to what comes straight from the heart, as the saying goes. I quite expected that we should wind up in this helpless plight and that we should have a great crop of sophists like this, who get form us ourselves the justification for their temerity; and I vow by Themis that it is not right to be angry at Epicurus or at his associates and successors in doctrine if they have formed such an idea of us. Why, what could one expect them to think when they see so much confusion in life, and see that the good men among them are neglected and waste away in poverty and illness and bondage while scoundrelly, pestilential fellows are highly honored and have enormous wealth and lord it over their betters, and that temple-robbers are not punished but escape, while men who are guiltless of all wrongdoing sometimes dies by the cross or the scourge?
It is natural, then, that on seeing this they think of us as if we were nothing at all, especially when they hear the oracles saying that on crossing the Halys somebody will destroy a great kingdom, without indicating whether he will destroy his own or that of the enemy; and again: “Glorious Salamis, death shalt thou bring to the children of women,” [From the famous oracle about the “wooden wall,” which Themistocles interpreted for the Athenians] for surely both the Persians and Greeks were the children of women!
And when the reciters tell them that we fall in love and get wounded and are thrown into chains and become slaves and quarrel among ourselves and have a thousand cares, and all this in spite of our claim to be blissful and deathless, are they not justified in laughing at us and holding us in no esteem? We, however, are vexed if any humans not wholly without wits criticize all this and reject our providence, when we ought to be glad if any of them continue to sacrifice to us, offending as we do.
I beg you here and now, Zeus, as we are alone and there is no man in our gathering—except Heracles and Dionysus and Ganymede and Asclepius, who are naturalized aliens—answer me truly, have you ever had enough regard for those on earth to find out who are the good among them and who are the bad? No you can't say that you have! In fact, if Theseus on his way from Troezen to Athens had not incidentally done away with the marauders, as far as you and your providence are concerned nothing would hinder Sciron and Pityocamptes and Cercyon and the rest of them from continuing to live in luxury by slaughtering wayfarers. And if Eurystheus, an upright man, full of providence, had not out of the love he bore his fellow men looked into the conditions everywhere and sent out this servant of his [Heracles], a hardworking fellow eager for tasks, you, Zeus, would have paid little heed to the Hydra and the Stymphalian birds and the Thracian mares and the insolence and wantonness of the Centaurs.
If you would have me speak the truth, we sit here considering just one question, whether anybody is slaying victims and burning incense at our altars; everything else drifts with the current, swept aimlessly along. Therefore we are getting and shall continue to get no more than we deserve when men gradually begin to crane their necks upward and find out that it does them no good to sacrifice to us and hold processions. Then in a little while you shall see the Epicuruses and Metrodoruses and Damises laughing at us, and our pleaders overpowered and silenced by them. So it is for the rest of you to check and remedy all this, you who have brought things to this pass. To me, being only Momus, it does not make much difference if I am to be unhonored, for even in bygone days I was not one of those in honor, while you are still fortunate and enjoy your sacrifices.
Let us ignore this fellow's nonsense, gods; he is always harsh and fault-finding. As that wonderful man Demosthenes says, to reproach and criticize and find fault is easy and anyone can do it, but to advise how a situation may be improved requires a really wise counselor; and this is what the rest of you will do, I am very sure, even if Momus says nothing.
For my part I am pretty much subaqueous, as you know, and live by myself in the depths, doing my best to rescue sailors, speed vessels on their course, and calm the winds. Nevertheless I am interested in matters here too, and I say that this Damis should be put out of the way before he enters the dispute, wither with a thunderbolt or by some other means, for fear that he may get the better of it in the argument; for you ay, Zeus, that he is a plausible fellow. At the same time we'll show them how we punish people who way such things against us.
Are you joking, Poseidon, or have you completely forgotten that nothing of the sort is in our power, but the Fates decide by their spinning that one man is to die by a thunderbolt, another by the sword and another by fever or consumption? If it lay in my power, do you suppose I would have let the temple-robbers get away from Olympia the other day unscathed by my thunderbolt, when they had shorn off two of my curls weighing six pounds apiece? Or would you yourself at Geraestus have allowed the fisherman from Oreus to filch you trident? Besides, it will look as if we were getting angry because we have been injured, and as if we feared the arguments of Damis and were making away with him for that reason, without waiting for him to be put to the proof by Timocles. Shall we not seem, then, to be winning by default if we win in that way?
Why, I supposed I had thought of a shortcut to victory!
Avast! A stockfish idea, Poseidon, downright stupid, to make away with your adversary in advance so that he may die undefeated, leaving the question still in dispute and unsettled!
If we young fellows without beards were permitted by law to take the floor, perhaps I might have made some useful contribution to the debate.
In the first place, Apollo, the debate is on such great issues that the right to speak does not go by age but is open to all alike; for it would be delicious if when we were in direst danger we quibbled about our rights under the law. Secondly, according to law you are already fully entitled to floor, for you came of age long ago and are registered in the list of the Twelve Gods and almost were a member of the council in the days of Cronus. So don't play the boy with us: say what you think boldly, and don't be sensitive about speaking without a beard when you have such a long-bearded, hairy-faced son in Asclepius. Besides, it would be in order for you to show your wisdom now or never, unless you sit on Helicon and talk philosophy with the Muses for nothing.
But it is not for you to give such permission, Momus; it is for Zeus, and if he lets me perhaps I may say something not without sweetness and light and worthy of my study on Helicon.
Speak, my boy: I give you permission.
This Timocles is an upright, god-fearing man and he is thoroughly up in the Stoic doctrines, so that he gives lessons to many of the young men and collects large fees for it, being very plausible when he disputes privately with his pupils; but he utterly lacks the courage to speak before a crowd and his language is vulgar and half-foreign, so that he gets laughed at for that reason when he appears in public, for he does not talk fluently but stammers and gets confused, especially when in spite of these faults he wants to make a show of find language. His intellect, to be sure, is exceedingly keen and subtle, as people say who know more then I about Stoicism, but in lecturing and expounding he weakens and obscures his points by his incapacity, not making his meaning clear but presenting propositions that are like riddles and returning answers that are still more unintelligible; hence the others failing to comprehend, laugh at him. But it is essential to speak clearly, I think, and beyond all else to take great pains to be understood by the hearers.
You were right, Apollo, in praising people who speak clearly, even though you yourself do not do it at all, for in your oracles you are ambiguous and riddling and you unconcernedly toss most of them into the debatable ground so that your hearers need another Apollo to interpret them. But what do you advise as the next step, what remedy for Timocles' helplessness in debate?
To give him a spokesman, if possible, Momus, one of those eloquent chaps who will say fittingly whatever Timocles thinks of and suggests.
Truly a puerile suggestion which shows that you still need a tutor, that we should bring a spokesman into a meeting of philosophers to interpret the opinions of Timocles to the company, and that Damis should speak in his own person and unaided while the other, making use of a proxy, privately whispers his ideas into his ear and the proxy does the speaking, perhaps without even understanding what he hears; wouldn't that be fun for the crowd! No, let's think of some other way to manage this thing. But as for you, my admirable friend, since you claim to be a prophet and have collected large fees for such work, even to the extent of getting ingots of gold once upon a time, why do you not give us a timely display of you skill by foretelling which of the sophists will win in the argument? Of course you know what the outcome will be, if you are a prophet.
How can I do that, Momus, when we have no tripod here, and no incense or prophetic spring like Castaly?
There now! You dodge the test when it comes to the pinch.
Speak up, my boy, all the same, and don't give this slanderer an chance to malign and insult your profession by saying that it all depends on a tripod and water and incense, so that if you didn't have those things you would be deprived of your skill.
It would be better, father, to do such business at Delphi or Colophon where I have all the necessaries at hand, in the usual way. However, even thus devoid of them and unequipped, I will try to foretell whose the victory shall be: you will bear with me if my verses are lame.
Do speak; but let it be clear, and not itself in need of spokesman or an interpreter. It is not now a question of lamb and turtle cooking together in Lydia, but you know what the debate is about.
What in the world are you going to say, my boy? These preliminaries to your oracle are terrifying in themselves; you color is changed, your eyes are rolling, your hair stands on end, your movements are frenzied, and in a word everything about you suggests demoniacal possession and gooseflesh and mysteries.
Hark to the words of the prophet, oracular words of Apollo,
Touching the shivery strife in which heroes are facing each other.
Loudly they shout in the battle, and fast-flying words are their weapons;
Many a blow while the hisses of conflict are ebbing and flowing
This way and that shall be dealt on the crest of the plowtail stubborn;
Yet when the hook-taloned vulture the grasshopper grips in his clutches,
Then shall the rainbearing crows make an end of their cawing forever:
Victory shall go to the mules, and the ass will rejoice in his offspring!
What are you guffawing about, Momus? Surely there is nothing to laugh at in the situation we are facing. Stop, hang you! You'll choke yourself to death with your laughing.
How can I, Zeus, when the oracle is so clear and manifest?
Well then, suppose you tell us what in the world in means.
It is quite manifest, so that we shan't need a Themistocles. The prophecy says as plainly as you please that this fellow is a humbug and that you who believe in him are packasses and mules, without as much sense as grasshoppers.
As for me, father, though I am but an alien, I shall not hesitate to say what I think. When they have met and are disputing, if Timocles gets the better of it, let's allow the discussion about us to proceed; but if it turns out at all adversely, in that case, if you approve, I myself will at once shake the porch and throw it down on Damis, so that he may not affront us, confound him!
In the name of Heracles! That was a loutish, horribly Boeotian thing you said, Heracles, to involve so many honest men in the destruction of a single rascal, and the Porch too, with its Marathon and Miltiades and Cynegirus!
If they should collapse how could the orators orate any more? They would be robbed of their principal topic for speeches. Moreover, although while you were alive you could have become a god you have found out, I suppose, that only the Fates can do such things, and that we have no part in them.
So when I killed the lion or the Hydra, the Fates did it through my agency?
And now, in case anyone affronts me by robbing my temple or upsetting my image, can't I exterminate him unless it was long ago settled that way by the Fates?
No, not by any means.
Then hear me frankly, Zeus, for as the comic poet puts it,
“I'm but a boor and call a spade a spade.”
If that is the way things stand here with you, I shall say good bye forever to the honors here and the odor of sacrifice and the blood of victims and go down to Hades, where with my bow uncased I can at least frighten the ghosts of the animals I have slain.
Bravo! Testimony from the inside, as the saying goes. Really you would have done us a great service if you had given Damis a hint to say that.
But who is this coming up in hot haste, the one of bronze, with the fine tooling and the fine contours, with his hair tied up in the old-fashioned way? Oh yet, it is your brother, Hermes, the one of the pubic square, beside the Painted Porch. At any rate he is all covered with pitch from the casts taken every day by the works in bronze for the sculptors. My lad, what brings you here at a run? Do you bring us news from earth, by any chance?
Important news, Zeus, that requires unlimited attention.
Tell me whether we have overlooked anything else in the way of conspiracy.
It fell just now that they who work in bronze
Had smeared me over with pitch on breast and back;
A funny corslet round my body hung, conformed by imitative cleverness
To take the full impression of the bronze.
I saw a crowd advancing with a pair
Of sallow bawlers warriors with words, Hight Damis, one—[A parody of Euripides]
Leave off your bombast, my good Hermagoras; I know the men you mean. But tell me whether they have been in action long.
Not very; they were still skirmishing, slinging abuse at each other at long range.
Then what else remains to be done, gods, except to stoop over and listen to them? So let the Hours remove the bar now, drive the clouds away and throw open the gates of Heaven.
Heracles! What a crowd has come together to list! Timocles himself does not please me at all, for he is trembling and confused. The fellow will spoil it all today; in fact, it is clear that he won't even be able to square off at Damis. But let's do the very utmost that we can and pray for him,
“Silently, each to himself, so that Damis may not be the wiser.” [A parody on the Iliad]
[At this point the scene becomes double; down below are the philosophers disputing in the Stoa, and up above are the gods, listening eagerly with occasional comments]
Damis, you sacrilegious wretch! Why do you say that the gods do not exist and do not show providence in behalf of men?
No, you tell me first what first what reason you have for believing that they do exist.
No, you tell me, you miscreant!
So far our man is much better and more noisy in his bullying. Good, Timocles! Pile on your abuse; that is your strong point, for in everything else he will make you as mute as a fish.
But I swear by Athena that I will not answer you first.
Well then, put your question, Timocles, for you have won with that oath of yours. But no abuse, please.
Very well. Tell me then, you scoundrel, don't you think the gods exercise any providence?
Not in the least.
What's that you say? Then is all that we see about us uncared for by any providence?
And the administration of the universe is not directed by any god?
And everything drifts at random?
Men do you hear that and put up with it? Aren't you going to stone the villain?
Why do embitter men against me, Timocles? And who are you to get angry on behalf of the gods, especially when they themselves are not angry? They have done me no harm, you see, though they have listened to me long—if indeed they have ears.
Yes, they have, Damis, they have, and they will punish you some day in the hereafter.
And when can they find time for me, when they have so many cares, you say, and manage all creation, which is unlimited in its extent? That is why they have not yet paid you back for all your false oaths and everything else—I don't want to be forced to deal in abuse like you, contrary to our stipulations: and yet I don't see what better manifestation for their providence they could have made than to crush your life out miserably, miserable sinner that you are! But it is clear that they are way from home, across the Ocean, no doubt, visiting the guileless Ethiopians. [another Iliad reference] At any rate it is their custom to go and dine with them continually, even self-invited at times.
What can I say in reply to all this impudence, Damis?
Tell me what I wanted you to tell me long ago, how you were induced to believe that the gods exercise providence.
In the first place the order of nature convinced me, the sun always going the same road and the moon likewise and the seasons changing and plants growing and living creatures being born, and these latter so cleverly devised that they can support life and move and think and walk and build houses and cobble shoes—and all the rest of it; these seem to me to be works of providence.
That is just the question, Timocles, and you are trying to beg it, for it is not yet proved that each of these things is accomplished by providence. While I myself would say that recurrent phenomena are as you describe them, I need not, however, at once admit a conviction that they recur by some sort of providence, for it is possible that they began at random and now take place with uniformity and regularity. But you call necessity “order” and then, forsooth, get angry if anyone does not follow you when you catalogue and extol the characteristics these phenomena and think it a proof that each of them is ordered by providence. So, in the words of the comic poet,
“That's but a sorry answer; try again.”
For my part I don't think that any further proof is necessary on top of all this. Nevertheless I'll tell you. Answer me this: do you think that Homer is the best poet?
Well, it was he that convinced me with his portrayal of the providence of the gods.
But, my admirable friend, everybody will agree with you that Homer is a good poet, to be sure, but not that he or any other poet whatsoever is a truthful witness in regard to such things. They do not pay any heed to truth, I take it, but only to charming their hearers, and to this end they enchant them with meters and entrance them with fables and in a word do anything to give pleasure. However, I should like to know what it was of Homer's that convinced you most. What he says about Zeus, how his daughter and his brother and his wife made a plot to fetter him? If Thetis had not summoned Briareus, our excellent Zeus would have been caught and put in chains. For this he returned thanks to Thetis by deceiving Agamemnon, sending a false vision to him, in order that many of the Achaeans might lose their lives. Don't you see, it was impossible for him to hurl a thunderbolt and burn up Agamemnon himself without making himself out a liar? Or perhaps you were most inclined to believe when you heard how Diomed wounded Aphrodite and then even Ares himself at the suggestion of Athena, and how shortly afterwards the gods themselves fell to and began dueling promiscuously, males and females; Athena defeated Ares, already overtaxed, no doubt by the wound he had received from Diomed, and
“Leto fought against Hermes, the stalwart god of good fortune.”
Or perhaps you thought the tale about Artemis credible, that, being a fault-finding person, who got angry when she was not invited to a feast by Oeneus and so turned loose on his land a monstrous boar of irresistible strength. Did Homer convince you by saying that sort of thing?
I say, gods! What a shout the crowd raised, applauding Damis! Our man seems to be in a fix. In fact he is sweating and quaking; it's clear he is going to throw up the sponge, and is already looking about for a place to slip out and run away.
I suppose you don't think that Euripides is telling the truth either, when he puts the gods themselves on the stage and shows them saving the heroes and destroying villains and impious fellows like yourself?
Why Timocles, you doughtiest of philosophers, if the playwrights have convinced you by doing this, you must believe either that Polus and Aristodemus and Satyrus are gods for the nonce, or that the very masks representing the gods, the buskins, the trailing tunics, the cloaks, gauntlets, padded paunches and all the other things with which they make tragedy grand are divine; and that is thoroughly ridiculous. I assure you when Euripides, following his own devices, says what he thinks without being under any constraint imposed by the requirements of his plays, you will her him speaking frankly then:
“Dost see on high this boundless sweep of air
That lappeth earth about in yielding arms?
Hold this to be Zeus, and believe it God.” [From a lost play, also quoted by Cicero]
“Twas Zeus, whoever Zeus is, for I know Him not, except by hearsay.” [From the lost Melanippe the Wise; according to Plutarch the line was unfavorably received and subsequently changed]
and so on.
Well then, all men and all nations have been mistaken in believing in gods and celebrating festivals?
Thank you kindly, Timocles, for reminding me of what the nations believe. From that you can discern particularly well that there is no certainty in the theory of gods, for the confusion is great, and some believe one thing, some another. The Scythians offer sacrifice to a scimitar, the Thracians to Zamolxis, a runaway slave who came to them from Sámos, the Phrygians to Men, the Ethiopians to Day, the Cyllenians to Phales, the Assyrians to a dove, the Persians to fire, and the Egyptians to water. And while all the Egyptians in common have water for a god, the people of Memphis have the bull, the people of Pelusium a wild onion, others an ibis or a crocodile, others a dog-faced god or a cat or a monkey. Moreover, taking them by villages, some hold the right shoulder a god and others, who dwell opposite them, the left; others, half a skull, and others an earthen cup or dish. Isn't that matter for laughter, good Timocles?
Didn't I tell you, gods, that all this would come out and be thoroughly looked into?
You did, Momus, and your criticism was just. I shall try to set it all right if we escape this immediate danger.
But, you god-hater, how about the oracles and predictions of coming events? Whose work can you call them except that of the gods and their providence?
Don't say a word about the oracles, my worthy friend, or else I'll ask you which of them you want to cite. The one that Apollo gave the Lydian, which was thoroughly double-edged and two-faced, like some of our Herms, which are double and just alike on both sides, whichever way you look at them; for what was there to show that Croesus by crossing the Halys would destroy his own kingdom rather that of Cyrus? And yet the luckless Sardian had paid a good many thousands for the ambidextrous verse.
Gods, the man keeps saying the very things I most feared. Where is our handsome musician now? [To Apollo] Go down and defend yourself to him against these charges!
You are boring us to extinction, Momus, with your untimely criticism.
Take care what you are doing, Damis, you miscreant! You are all but upsetting the very temples of the gods with your arguments, and their altars too.
Not all the altars, as far as I am concerned, Timocles; for what harm do they do if they are full of incense and sweet savor? But I should be glad to see the altars of Artemis among the Taurians turned completely upside down, those on which the maiden goddess used to enjoy such horrid feasts.
Where did he get this insufferable stuff that he is pouring out on us? He doesn't spare any of the gods, but speaks out like a fishwife and
“Takes first one, then the other, the guiltless along with guilty.” [From the Iliad]
I tell you, Zeus, you'll find few that are guiltless among us, and possibly as he continues the man will soon fasten on a certain person of prominence.
Then can't you even hear Zeus when he thunders, Damis you god-fighter?
Why shouldn't I hear thunder, Timocles? But whether it is Zeus that thunders or not, you no doubt know best, coming as you do from some place or other where the gods live! However, the people who come here from Crete tell us a different tale, that a grave is painted out there with a tombstone standing upon it which proves that Zeus cannot thunder any more, as he has been dead this long time.
I knew far in advance that the fellow would say that. But why have you become so pale, Zeus, and why do you tremble till your teeth chatter? You should be bold and despise such mannequins.
What's that you say, Momus? Despise them? Don't you see how many are listening, and how they have already been persuaded against us and he is leading them after him tethered by the ears?
But whenever you like, Zeus, you can let down a cord of gold and
“Sway them aloft, with the earth and the sea, too, into the bargain.” [Also from the Iliad]
Tell me, you scoundrel, have you ever made a voyage?
Yes, often, Timocles.
Well you were kept in motion then, were you not, either by the wind striking the main canvas and filling the other sails, or else by the rowers, but the steering was done by a single man in command, who kept the vessel safe?
Then do you suppose that while the ship would not sail if she were not steered, this universe keeps in motion unsteered and unofficered?
Good! Timocles put that very shrewdly, with a valid illustration.
Why, Timocles, you superlative admirer of the gods, in the one case you would have seen the captain always planning what had better be done and making ready beforehand and giving orders to the crew, and the ship would contain nothing at all that was profitless and senseless, that was not wholly useful and necessary to them for their voyage. But in the other case your captain, the one who, you say, is in command of this great ship, manages nothing in a sensible or fitting way, and neither do the members of his crew; the forestay is carried aft, maybe, and both the sheets forward, the anchors are sometimes of gold while the figurehead is of lead, and all the ship's underbody in painted while her upper works are unsightly. Among the sailors themselves you will see that one who is lazy and lubberly and has no heart for his work, has a warrant or even a commission, while another who is fearless at diving and handy in manning the yards and best acquainted with everything that needs to be done, is set to pumping ship. So too with the passengers: you'll see some gallows-bird or other sitting on the quarter deck beside the captain and receiving attentions, and another, a profligate, a parricide, or a temple-robber, getting inordinate honor and taking up the whole deck of the ship, while a lot of good fellows are crowded into a corner of the hold and trampled on by men who are really their inferiors. Just think, for example, what a voyage Socrates, Aristides, and Phocion had, without biscuits enough to eat and without even room to stretch their legs on the bare boards alongside the bilgewater, and on the other hand what favors Callias and Midias and Sardanapalus enjoyed, rolling in luxury and spitting on those beneath them!
That is what goes on in your ship, Timocles, you greatest of sages, and that is why the disasters are countless. But if there were really a captain in command who saw and directed everything, first of all he would not have failed to know who ere the good and who ere the bad among the men aboard, and secondly he would have given each man his due according to his worth, giving to the better men the better quarters beside him on deck and to the worse the quarters in the hold; some of them he would have made his messmates and advisers, and as for the crew, a zealous man would have been assigned to command forward or in the waist, or at any rate somewhere or other over the heads of the rest, while a timorous, shiftless one would get clouted over the head half a dozen times a day with the rope's end. Consequently, my interesting friend, your comparison of the ship would seem to have capsized for the want of a good captain.
Things are going finely for Damis now, and he is driving under full sail to victory.
Your figure is apt, Momus. Yet Timocles can't think of anything valid, but launches at him these commonplace, everyday arguments one after another, all of them easy to capsize.
Well then, as my comparison of the ship did not seem to you very valid, attend now to my sheet-anchor, as they call it, which you can't by any possibility cut away.
What in the world is he going to say?
See whether I frame this syllogism logically, and whether you can capsize it in any way. If there are altars, there are also gods; but there are altars, ergo there are also gods. What have you to say to that?
After I have laughed to my heart's content, I'll tell you!
Well, it looks as if you would never stop laughing; tell me, though, how you thought what I said was funny.
Because you do not see that your anchor is attached to a slender string—and it's your sheet anchor at that! Having hitched the existence of gods to the existence of altars, you think you have made yourself a safe mooring. So, as you say you have not better sheet-anchor than this, let's be going.
You admit your defeat, then, by going away first?
Yes, Timocles, for like men threatened with violence from some quarter or other, you have taken refuge at the altars. Therefore I vow by the sheet-anchor, I want to make an agreement with you now, right at the altars, not to dispute any more on this topic.
Are you mocking me? You ghoul, you miscreant, you abomination, you gallows-bird, you scum of the earth! Don't we know who your father was, and how your mother was a courtesan, and that you strangled your brother and you run after women and corrupt the young, you height of all that's lewd and shameless? Don't run away! Take a thrashing form me before you go! I'll brain you right now with this brickbat, dirty miscreant that you are!
One is going away laughing, gods, and the other is following him up with abuse, because he can't stand the mockery of Damis; it looks as if he would hit him on the head with the brickbat. But what of us? What are we to do no?
It seems to me that the comic poet hit it right when he said:
“No harm's been done you if none you admit.” [Menander, Epiterpontes]
What very great harm is it if a few men go away convinced of all this? The people who think differently are in large majority, not only the rank and file of the Greeks, but the barbarians to a man.
Yes, Hermes, but what Darius said about Zopyrus is very much in point too. I myself had rather have this man Damis alone on my side than possess a thousand Babylons.