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Myth, Satire, and Lucian’s “True History” ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Myth, Satire, and Lucian's "True History" ~ The Imaginative Conservative

For the traditional myth-maker, there’s something on the coronary heart of all of those human occasions that’s value preserving, one thing marvelous and worthy of renown, even when the account shouldn’t be completely true to life…

The second-century satirist, Lucian of Samosata, makes the next inflammatory assertion in his True Historical past:

[Historical accounts] are meant to have an attraction unbiased of any originality of topic, any happiness of basic design, any verisimilitude within the piling up of fictions.…I fall again on falsehood — however falsehood of a extra constant selection; for I now make the one true assertion you’re to anticipate — that I’m a liar. This confession is, I think about, a full defence towards all imputations. My topic is, then, what I’ve neither seen, skilled, nor been advised, what neither exists nor might conceivably achieve this.

For Lucian, the top of his personal peculiar historical past is to “loosen the mind so that it is in better form for hard study.” Whereas he mentions a number of “lying” authors by identify, and spends a majority of his time in A True Historical past lampooning their accounts; his major argument towards these historic poets, historians, and philosophers is that they “have written many monstrous myths,”[1] following within the custom of Odysseus, and meant to deceive and overawe the uneducated. In the meantime, he presents his personal narrative as a “new subject, in pleasing style,” with intelligent references to those similar historic poets, philosophers and historians, “in order that I would not alone lack in the of share myth-making”[2].

Lucian, in response to the poet’s fancy, intends to compose an account by which there isn’t a pretense at fact, and which can surpass the work of the poets as a result of he, no less than, has brazenly declared himself a liar. His aim is to offer a pleasing literary spectacle for the leisure of his extremely educated viewers, not in contrast to the varied gladiatorial matches that occurred in his personal day. However, by describing “myth-making” (mythologeo) on this approach, he has misunderstood and subsequently, unjustly butchered the objective of the poet, the historian, and the thinker. For the objective of the traditional myth-maker is to not create an entertaining story or a wonderfully correct description, however to discover and clarify elements of the human expertise.

Fable within the Historic World

Lucian (c. 120 AD – after 180 AD)

Nevertheless, earlier than we condemn Lucian too harshly, allow us to attempt to perceive what he means by “myth.” The troublesome phrase mythos inside its numerous classical contexts consists of definitions starting from merely “word” (near the which means of logos), to the extra trendy connotation of fable as purely false. Monica Gale, in her work on Fable and Poetry in Lucretius, describes this development all through Greek literature: “[Mythos] is frequently employed as a blanket term for anything about which the author is skeptical. Thus Herodotus criticizes the [muthoi] of Homer and the poets only to be reprimanded by Thucydides and Aristotle for his acceptance of [to mythodes] (‘that which resembles mythos’).” Lucian himself follows on this important custom, equating the historians’ legendary accounts with these of the traditional rhetoricians, who’re involved with the persuasive energy of their accounts, fairly than their veracity (puxagogiai). This distinct dilemma, as introduced by Lucian and different critics relating to the entire fact or falsity of an account is, in accordance with Gale, deceptive at greatest.

Whereas the time period “myth” itself falls into the class of mere falsehood (pseudees) in Lucian’s case, a classical understanding of mythos as its personal distinct style stays. There are two major criticisms that comply with the style as such: that fable is both impious or irrational. These are the idea of Plato’s objection to fable his Republic, saying that it causes confusion inside the soul due to its misrepresentation of actuality and that it ought to not be recited to any “listeners who do not possess, as an antidote, a knowledge of its real nature,” (Plato X.605c, 595b). Nevertheless, whereas Plato and Lucian condemn the myths of Homer, these similar myths however continued to perform as the essential supply of fact within the schooling of the Greek world, and even serve to encourage Socrates himself in his allegorical creation of the Metropolis in his Republic dialogue.

The Thinker’s Artwork of Fantasy-making

If the aim of myth-making lies outdoors of its accuracy, then it should serve another function. We now have already seen how Plato condemns the poets in his Republic; nevertheless, in excluding the poets from the perfect Metropolis, he “put[s] himself to shame and condemn[s] himself when he condemns by word, those who are indeed his fellow-workers and models,” as Carleton L. Brownson argues. Certainly, Strabo, a Roman historian who wrote in regards to the research of geography about 100 years earlier than Lucian, describes the poets themselves as “creative philosopher[s]” (philosophian teen poieetikeen). Strabo goes on to make the excellence between the “fable-making old wife” who invents “whatever she deems suitable for the purposes of entertainment,” and the poet who “’invests’ the hearer with special knowledge.” For instance this, he describes Odysseus as a person whose wiliness got here not from his skillful rhetoric however from the substance of previous expertise. In Strabo’s thoughts, the substance of a poet is just not his rhetorical talents, however the mixture of each knowledge and rhetoric; to cite Homer, “’But when he uttered his great voice from his chest, and words like unto snowflakes in winter, then could no mortal man contend with Odysseus.’” Odysseus is so persuasive as a result of he understands a deeper fact that exists in actuality and can’t be adequately expressed besides in fables.

However, Lucian views Odysseus as a charlatan,[3] who merely makes use of his rhetoric to enchant the Phaeacians and achieve their favor. His argument is that Odysseus couldn’t have had any expertise that might help or add substance to his story and that he was deliberately making an attempt to deceive his viewers. Lucian takes this extra secular view of fantasy all through his works, typically referring to it as a satisfying type of rhetoric, quite than a mode of conveying summary or abstruse realities. In Lucian’s Lover of Lies, he says that the widespread individuals “prefer a lie to the truth simply for its own merits… now what good can they get out of it?” Lucian, once more, berates the historians and poets as he did in his introduction to his True Historical past, blaming them for not solely deceiving their listeners however utilizing the facility of rhetoric to perpetuate ignorance within the individuals. He provides some protection of the poets, saying that these myths seize the eye of the viewers and add luster to the mundane; nevertheless, that is the one protection that he provides, and he doesn’t admit any further substance outdoors of this rhetorical attraction.

Historians Following within the Poetic Custom

Herodotus, the historian that Lucian mocks probably the most in his narrative, begins his personal accounts by stating two primary objectives: first, “that neither the deeds of men may be forgotten by lapse of time”; and second, that “the works great and marvelous, which have been produced some by Hellenes and some by Barbarians, may [not] lose their renown.” As Lucian and different later historians are so desperate to level out, if Herodotus, as a historian, meant to protect the accuracy of the tales, then he has sadly failed on this respect, as a result of his accounts are both utterly implausible or sadly misinformed. Nevertheless, that isn’t what he has advised us within the proem. Marc Bloch, in his e-book on the historic technique, describes the aspect of humanity that’s mandatory in any historic narrative: “There must be a permanent foundation in human nature and in human society or the very names of man or society become meaningless.” Whereas a wonderfully scientific account of any historic occasion is usually thought-about inconceivable—even Herodotus admits this in his investigations, quoting the accounts of quite a lot of sources—he, Herodotus, appears to consider that there’s something on the coronary heart of all these human occasions that’s value preserving, one thing marvelous and worthy of renown, even when the account shouldn’t be totally true to life. Herodotus’ concept of the central which means of the human existence or the human essence is one thing that can’t be defined by way of details; it’s defined within the “great deeds of men.” David Grene elaborates on this level in his introduction to his translation of The Histories: “Herodotus certainly believed in the universal characteristics of the human imagination… He is interested in the eccentricities of men’s beliefs and practices, [for] he is sure of a common core where men think and feel alike.” As Marc Bloch says: “The historian’s job is to make sense of the nearly infinite expanse of historical evidence, just as the poet’s is to make sense of the equally infinite expanse of human experience.”

In that sense, Herodotus, follows the identical literary custom as Homer and Hesiod. The chief distinction lies in who controls the actions of historical past: Whereas Homer and Hesiod give attention to the actions of gods, and invoke their help as they start their works, Herodotus seeks to know mankind and his deeds, as we noticed in his proem. He, subsequently, doesn’t invoke the gods for inspiration however fairly calls on his sources for assist in narrating his account, leaping straight from his proem to the numerous accounts given by the Persians as to the reason for the Persian struggle with the Assyrians. Truesdell S. Brown, in his work on The Greek Historians, describes Herodotus’ strategy, to historical past in a lot the identical phrases: “Herodotus’ methods cannot be easily reduced to a stylistic formula…[and] he lived well ahead of the formulation of specific rules for prose composition.” The cause why his fashion is so notoriously onerous to trace, as many classical critics of Herodotus have noticed, is that he’s not involved with the accuracy of his account; certainly, he typically casts doubts on his personal narrative. His objective is to meditate on and make sense of the “works great and marvelous, which have been produced some by Hellenes and some by Barbarians, [so that they] may [not] lose their renown.” He by no means makes the pretense at a very aleethee account, fairly, he intends to “publish his findings.”

Trendy Defenses of Fable

Inside any iteration of fact, the restrictions of language, time, and area act as rigorous editors. Nevertheless, to merely convey correct factual info is just not the identical as understanding what it means. The duty of the poet, the thinker, or the historian is to know and convey a which means that pulls from and explains the importance of the information. Lucian’s True Historical past serves neither of those ends, for he neither presents something constructive “[having] nothing true to tell,” nor does he have any expertise, “not having any adventures of significance.” In his narrative, he’s solely critiquing that which is already apparent to his readers, and fostering a sort mental satisfaction and chronological snobbery by rejecting the accounts of the ancients. Alexander Pope, a Neo-Classical poet, describes such a critic in his Essay on Literary Criticism:

The bookful blockhead, ignorantly learn,
With a great deal of learnéd lumber in his head,
Together with his personal tongue nonetheless edifies his ears,
and all the time record’ning to himself seems.

In Pope’s thoughts, the critic should possess “a knowledge both of books and human kind,” in addition to “a soul exempt from pride.” That is in line with the classical understanding of schooling as “encompass[ing] upbringing and cultural training in the widest sense,” with poetry and the poets on the middle. The poets within the historic world not solely served as a method information for different authors however as the inspiration for all the tradition, offering an understanding of the best way to discover the solutions from the number of human expertise.

C.S. Lewis, one other illustrious scholar within the classical vein, presents a protection of fable alongside a lot the identical line in his essay “On Stories.” Right here Lewis describes the objective of “story” as just like that of artwork, by which “we are trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive…. I think it is sometimes done—or very nearly done—in stories.” Moreover, J.R.R. Tolkien gives his personal protection of fable in his essay, “The Monsters and the Critics”: “The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet as done.” This concept is by no means restricted to the spiritual sphere, for each Friedrich Nietzsche in his Start of Tragedy and Albert Camus in his essay “On Sisyphus” have attested to the inimitable energy of fantasy to precise that which is inexplicable concerning the nature of the universe: “Whatever is profound loves masks,” Nietzsche writes. “Every profound spirit needs a mask.”


By decreasing these storytellers to this false dichotomy of pure fact and pure falsehood, Lucian has eviscerated philosophy and historical past, and left mankind with a meaningless string of information, dates, abstractions, and reflections. In daring to suppose himself above the gods, he has, deliberately or unintentionally, pitched himself from the peak of studying into the void of meaningless abstraction. He doesn’t foster an angle of studying, however somewhat a callous existentialism that may cauterize the pure affections of the human coronary heart, rotting the core from the middle of a society, and depart the human race, in the long run, completely blind, deaf, and dumb.

Lucian has a full understanding of what he was doing when he makes use of the phrases muthos and mythologeomai to explain the efforts of philosophers, poets, and historians. His concern is for many who have taken the mythos for aleethees (correct fact), and is talking up on their behalf. Nevertheless, this doesn’t justify his dismissal of fable as a style, nor does his satire constructively contribute to the dialogue of which means in poetry, philosophy, or historical past. Not solely that, however Lucian’s criticism is an indication of a deeper and extra troubling drawback: that’s, the good divorce of the intellectuals from a easy understanding of the world and human nature. Lucian thinks that he has seen by means of the poets to one thing larger when, in actuality, he has destroyed any hope of discovering which means within the tradition that surrounds him.

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[1 ] “πολλὰ τεράστια καὶ μυθώδη συγγεγραφότωv” (“putting these many lies and myths to paper”)

[2] “ἵνα μὴ μόνος ἄμοιρος ὦ τῆς ἐν τῷ μυθολογεῖν ἐλευθερίας” (“in order that I myself am not left out of this


[3] “διδάσκαλος τῆς τοιαύτης βωμολοχίας” (“the teacher of these mendicants”)

Works Cited:

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. Classic Guide, 1953.

Brown, Truesdell S. Greek Historians. D.C. Heath and Co, 1973.

Gale, Monica. Fable and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge College Press, 2007.

Grene, David. “Introduction,” Historical past of Herodotus. College of Chicago Press, 1987.

Herodotus. The Historical past of Herodotus, trans. G. C. Macaulay. 1890 version.

Lewis, C.S. On Tales and different Essays on Literature. ed. Walter Hooper. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1983.

Lucian. A True Historical past. Trans. A.M. Harmon. Loeb Classical Library: Harvard College Press, 1913.

Lucian. “A True History”. The Full Works of Lucian. Vol III. trans. H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. Oxford College Press, 1949.

Lucian. “The Liar (ΦΙΛΟΨΕΥΔΗΣ Η ΑΠΙΣΤΩΝ)”. The Full Works of Lucian. Vol III. trans. H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. Oxford College Press, 1949.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Eds. Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. Past Good and Evil. trans. Walter Kaufmann. Classic Books. 1989.

Plato. Republic. Plato, Full Works. ed. Cooper. Hackett, 1997.

Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. trans. Horace Leonard Jones. Loeb Classical Library: Havard College Press, 1913.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: On the Monsters and The Critics.” On The Monsters and The Critics and Different Essays. ed. Christopher Tolkien. Harper Collins, 2007. pp 103-120.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Penguin Classics, 2005.

Renehan, Robert, and Henry George Liddell. Greek Lexicographical Notes: A Crucial Complement to the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell-Scott-Jones. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. 1975.

Editor’s Notice: The featured picture is “Sapho embrassant sa lyre” by Jules Elie Delaunay (1828-1891), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The picture of Lucian is a speculative portrayal taken from a seventeenth-century engraving by William Faithorneis, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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