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Lucian's Philopseudeis as Metaliterary Satire

Alessandra Migliara

The Graduate Center, CUNY

The contemporary spread of dangerous fake news raises questions about the human inclination to believe in the truthfulness of invented stories, but also about the rhetorical strategies used to make this news credible. The same questions are posed by Lucian in his Philopseudeis, which I read as a metaliterary satire on literary mystifications. I argue that this dialogue critiques contemporary and traditional ancient literary genres (poetry, the ancient novel, paradoxography) by imitating and exposing the techniques of authentication used in these works to contrive the appearance of authenticity, thereby disguising their fantastic and unrealistic features and giving their stories the semblance of truth. 

Prior scholarship on Lucian's Philopseudeis has largely treated this text as an anthology of fantastic stories (Aguirre Castro 2000, Möllendorff 2006), a collection of traditional tales (Ogden 2007) or fairy-tales (Anderson 2000) whose interest lies in their literary antecedents (Bompaire 1958, Anderson 1976), or a satire of philosophical (Georgiadou-Larmour 1998) and popular beliefs (Stramaglia 1999). Ní Mheallaigh 2014 suggested a metaliterary reading, focused on the psychological implications of the reception process of these stories. Proceeding from an opposite, but complementary, perspective, I read the Philopseudeis as a satire on authorial choices rather than a simple re-telling of the stories themselves.

In order to demonstrate my claim, I first analyze the narrative frame of the stories, where the main narrator describes the attitude of the narrators of the fantastic stories and provides specific stylistic information, pointing to the rhetorical techniques they use (Phil. 5). I thus show that the main focus of the dialogue is actually on the way in which the stories are told, rather than on the stories themselves.

I then proceed to identify examples of these techniques of authentication in the stories themselves and to provide parallels from different literary genres. Accumulation of details (Phil. 12, 22), as well as claims for the authoritativeness of the sources (Phil. 32), were used in novels (Morgan 1993), in pseudo-documentary texts (Hansen 2003) and in paradoxography (Schepens-Delcroix 1996). Admissions of unlikelihood (Phil. 13, 38) were common in paradoxography (Schepens-Delcroix 1996) and novels (Morgan 1993). Oaths (Phil. 27) were used not only in juridical practices, but also by poets (Torrance 2014). Reports of eye-witnesses (Phil. 13, 30, 33) were strategic in Herodotus (II.99.2) and Thucydides (I.22) and used by the historians criticized by Lucian in De Historia Conscribenda (29). I argue that these rhetorical techniques, employed in many literary genres to persuade the readers of the truthfulness of the speech, are the main object of Lucian’s satire.

I conclude by situating this dialogue in the context of the development of the idea of literary fiction: Lucian opposed not only the intellectual and philosophical mystifications of his time, but also the literary ones, according to which a text was valuable and enjoyable only as long as it was true, or at least plausible and as good as true. As in his Verae Historiae, Lucian shows that the only possible authenticity is to admit and recognize the untruthfulness of much literature.

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