Friday, September 8, 2023

Lucian's satires - Frankly he's a blamed nuisance

The great 2nd century satirist Lucian was a great shock to me at one point, twenty-five years ago when I got serious about classical literature.  I had never heard of him, partly because of the odd historical artifact where what he writes is called “Menippean satire” even though nothing by the Cynic satirist Menippus has survived.  Menippus himself largely survives as a character in Lucian’s stories.  Confusing.

Thomas More’s Utopia, Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub and my childhood favorite Gulliver’s Travels are all direct, conscious descendants of Lucian.  Most of fantasy and science fiction literature is at least distantly Lucianic.  When I read Arisosto’s Orlando Furioso and watched a character fly to the moon, I knew where I was in literary history.

Not that I recommend reading Lucian to learn about literary history.  The outrageous, inventive “A True Story”; the sharp “Dialogues of the Dead”; the various angry attacks on philosophers Lucian thinks are con artists, as in “The Death of Peregrinus” – these all stand on their own.  He’s still pretty funny.

Lucian was not himself a Cynic, but I thought he would be instructive because his heroes are so often Cynics.  Menippus, across a number of pieces, travels to heaven and hell, reacting as a Cynic might.  Menippus often features in the “Dialogues of the Dead” as the voice of uncommon sense, although sometimes Diogenes fills the role, as here where the dead Diogenes is sending messages back to the living, to Menippus, for example:

DIOGENES: Tell him that Diogenes says, “Menippus, if you’ve had enough of poking fun at things up there, come on down here; there’s much more to laugh at…  Especially when you see how the millionaires and the pashas and the dictators have been cut down to size and look just like everyone else – you can only tell them apart by their whimpering and the way they’re so spineless and miserable at the memory of all they left behind.” (194)

As for the rest of the philosophers:

DIOGENES: You can tell them I said they could go to the devil. (195)

The Cynics enjoy Hades because they had nothing to lose in the first place but can still wander around mocking everyone’s pretenses.

CROESUS: We keep remembering what we left behind, Midas here his gold and Sardanapalus his life of luxury and I my treasure, and we moan and groan.  Whenever we do, he [Menippus] laughs at us and sneers and calls us slaves and scum.  And sometimes he interrupts our moaning with songs.  Frankly he’s a blamed nuisance.  (212)

Wealth and pleasure are not just of no value in Lucian’s dialogues, but are actually (future) punishments. 

I haven’t touched on “Philosophies for Sale” or the fierce assaults on phony philosophers.  I will just say that it has been useful to have read some of these people.  As with any satirist, Lucian is funnier when I know what the heck he is talking about.

The Selected Satires of Lucian translated by Lionel Casson was my go-to Lucian (and the source of the page numbers), not that there is anything wrong with Paul Turner’s Satirical Sketches.  I also poked around in the old Loeb volumes, in particular reading the rest of the journeys of Menippus and finishing up the “Dialogues of the Dead,” all well worth reading.


  1. As I said before, I'm a bit behind as a resultof family problems, happily resolved now. I had a problem finding the Plutarch's "Essay's and Dialogues" and once found I discovered it won't arrive until 29th September. I have dound an ebook dor the time being. I have a fancy new ereader which has colour and the same sort of scene as a Kindle Paperwhite, but not tied to Amazon. You can write in the margins, split the screen and have the book one side and a note app on the other for annotation. It has the added advantage that the screen is readable in full sun. It was an investment, but it has a 10" screen and works well. Anyway, that is what I will be using to get into both Lucian and Plutarch after lunch. It is a treat to be back and reading your posts. Each time I start a new book from your list, I bless the day I found your blog.

  2. Another nuisance! But I will not write about Plutarch until October sometime. If I get to it, I will put up some links to some of his relevant pieces in the Loeb volumes mentioned by Peter Adamson.

    Nice to hear the Kindle is working out. I had to train myself a bit to read electronic books. Worth it, but a little bit of work.

  3. I have a Boox Ultra C ereader it has its own native ereader thatgobbles up Gutenberg diesel like sweeties. I have Kobo and Kindle apps too on it. I have a Kindle Oasis for travel too

    You are spot on about learning the knack of ereading. The one thing I like is just clicking on the footnote number and up it comes. However, I ha e a rpreference fot real books in hardback. I have downloaded the Plutarch to start now, but wanted a "real book" as I like having a library of books that I reread.