Science Fiction Studies

#10 = Volume 3, Part 3 = November 1976

Roy Arthur Swanson

The True, the False, and the Truly False: Lucian’s Philosophical Science Fiction

Lucian of Samosata, the Greco-Syrian satirist of the second century A.D., appears today as an exemplar of the science-fiction artist. There is little, if any, need to argue that his mythopoeic Milesian Tales and his literary fantastic voyages and utopistic hyperbole comport with the genre of science fiction;1 but much remains to be observed of the substance of his contribution to this genre, particularly with regard to his estimates of fiction as potentially, and often actually, superior to scientific cognition (the "philosophy" of the ancient world) in the elucidation of truth and as a check upon the excesses of introverse cognition. The following essay proposes a view of Lucian’s "true fictions" as truth-serving fiction, of his manner of exposing false values and misdirections in "philosophy," and of his warranting identification as a writer of philosophical science fiction. Clarification of the phrase "true fictions" will include etymological comment on the word "true" in its Greek form and some attention to the proper translation of the title provided for his literary fantastic voyaging, a title variously rendered as "A True Story," "(The) True History," and "True Histories." The term "philosophical science fiction" is to be understood, not as referent to science fiction written by a philosopher, or in a philosophical vein, but as indicative of science fiction written by, in this case, a satirist about philosophy; an illustrative parallel would be Aristophanes’s Clouds as philosophical comedy.

1. Truth-serving Fiction. It is Lucian’s concept of truth-serving which the careful reader of the True Tales would do well to attend, and her or his attendance ought to be marked by an awareness of Lucian’s skill in the technique of inversion, by means of which he exposes a good many reversals of sensible value. An explanation of "True Tales" as a translator’s title preferable to those already mentioned will be offered below. Lucian prefaces his True Tales with a statement that he is submitting reading which provides, not only relaxing entertainment after the rigors of serious study, but also food for thought. He then notes that he presents falsehoods and that he deals with poets, historians, and philosophers who have done the same. The chiastic sequence in his note can be expressed in the form of a ratio: the pleasant (charíen) is to thought (phronésein) as falsehoods (pseúsmata) are to poetry/history/ philosophy. He concludes his preface with a claim that his own lying is superior to that of philosophers because it is not presented as though it were truth: to admit that one is lying is to be truthful. The comic paradox is that falsehood can be a form of truth (telling the truth that one is lying) just as Socratic ignorance can be a form of knowledge (knowing that one does not know).

Lucian’s tales are "true" in the sense that they are truly, or really, tales. They are true to their fiction. Poets, historians, and philosophers who pass tales off as factual truth are false to their own modes of expression. Lucian is less than profound in differentiating between obvious fiction which stimulates thought and fiction which elicits credibility by means of verisimilitude; but he does proffer the perennially necessary reminder that thinking and believing are different and distinct kinds of mental activity and that it is best not to confuse them. He tells us that his tales are utterly false to fact, and he makes them so blatantly false to fact that we are constantly secure from the tentacles of belief. Then, as we relax with the entertainment he provides, we are entirely free to think. We are not compelled to think, as readers of philosophy feel themselves to be; but we are free to do so if we choose. If we do so, there is much to provoke and enlarge our thought, as presumably there is not in the work of writers who offer entertainment exclusively for its own sake or in that of writers who place a stage of credibility under their entertainment or embellish their entertainment with realistic props and scenery, all by way of promoting, for its own sake, a willing suspension of disbelief. Lucian confronts us with a suspension of belief, to the end that we may obtain a pension of thought.

The adjective alēthēs means "true" in the sense of "genuine" as well as in the sense of "factual"; a genuine tale is not a factual narrative; and Lucian implicitly reminds us that there is no truth in a true tale, that is, in a tale that is truly a tale. The Greek adjective, moreover, is implicit with the sense of "awareness." It is derived from a combination of the words a (not) and lanthánein (to escape notice). Our English word "true" is etymologically inseparable from the area of "belief" and is at best merely a practicable translation of alēthēs. Real thought begins in awareness, and it may end in, or be cut short by, belief. Belief is, positively speaking, an acknowledgment of an inescapable fact or datum; negatively speaking, it is an acceptance of a fiction as a fact. When we read Lucian’s True Tales we are done with belief as soon as we acknowledge his fiction as inescapably fiction. We may then go on either to enjoy the fiction as fiction or to do this and to think about it as well.

We may, for example, simply regale ourselves with a picture of the Morning Star (Eosphorus) as a neutral colony between the ridiculous Sun people and the equally ridiculous Moon people; or we may go on to ponder the significance of the Morning Star as transversal to the day (Sun) and the night (Moon). Our thinking would then bring us to the scientific periphery of astronomy or to the literary periphery of allegory, or to both; if to both, then we would be in the world of science and fiction, to which the genre of science fiction is transversal.

Given the virtual synonymity of "science" and "philosophy" with respect to the ancient West, Lucian’s science fiction could rightly be called "philosophy fiction," except for the fact that, in modern context, the term is much more applicable to a work like Voltaire’s Candide. For this reason, among others, the most descriptive generic phrase relative to True Tales is "philosophical science fiction." As we shall see, Lucian presents philosophers as practitioners of cognition who serve their cognitive methods much more than they serve truth. From this and from his presentation of philosophy as the servant more of its own ends than of truth we can conclude that Lucian looks upon philosophy as predispositional to belief, which all too frequently breeds unawareness. Conversely, he looks upon fiction as serving truth by means of its constant sustenance of awareness. Were Lucian writing science fiction today, he would doubtless bring us to science, as we know it, through a fiction which would not let us remain complacent with the acknowledgment of data.

From a Lucianic perspective the staying power of a science fiction work like H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon consists in its invalid science, the incredible Cavorite, for example, or the assumption of vegetation and life on and in the moon. The validity of one-sixth G brings the Bedford-Cavor moonshot too close to credibility; but this bit of scientific accuracy proves only momentarily to distract us. We are brought to science and allegory as Lucian would bring us to them when we meet the concept of intelligent life tranSFormed into pure function and when we see science (Tsi-puff) and philosophy (Phi-oo) in the ultimate self-service to which Lucian saw science-philosophy tending to reduce itself. Serendipitously, perhaps, Wells’s novel is more effective today than when he wrote it because we of the Apollo and Viking Program years are much less likely than Wells’s contemporaries to be offset by credence and, accordingly, much more free to think.

In histories of philosophy and literature Lucian is never accorded the status of a great thinker. Plato’s distinctions between thought (diánoia) and belief (pístis)2 have never been, nor are ever likely to be, in danger of challenge or supersession by the works of the satirist, whose importance in intellectual history merits due recognition nevertheless. Lucian’s talent is in stimulating thought and in ridiculing the process by which thought is translated into or terminated by belief. His remedy for thought which, turned back upon itself, becomes belief is to invert belief and start anew. In True Tales he turns belief upside-down: "One must not believe [pisteúein] in any of the events about which I write," he says in his preface after insisting, "I shall state only one truth, and that is that I am lying [toûto alētheúso hóti pseúdomai]." Our belief, then, can be directed only to falsehood in his series of tales which are true, as tales, only because they are false.

In True Tales and in some of his dialogues Lucian exposes philosophy, ostensibly a mode of inquiry into truth, as being patently effective, once it has come to a terminus in belief, only to the degree that it serves falsehood. His subsumption of philosophy to fiction is to be equated with the science-fiction writer’s subsumption of science to fiction: science, ostensibly a mode of inquiry into truth, is literarily effective to the degree that it serves fiction. Lucian thrice asserts his veracity as he narrates his "true tales": "I hesitate to say, lest you call me a liar" (§1:25); "he will see that I am telling the truth" (§1:26); and "I knew that I had never been a liar" (§1:31). His assertions are false, and yet they are true to his prefatory admission of falsehood. The connotative dimensions of the title of his literary fantastic voyage are appreciable in proportion as we infer his comic sophistry, namely, the false is the true.

The textual tradition unfortunately attaches two titles to the piece. The earlier codices (tenth/eleventh centuries) have alētheîs historíai (true histories); later codices (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) have alēthê diēgēmata (true tales). "True tales" carries the connotation of "true fiction" that accords with Lucian’s oxymoronic distinction between true falsehood and false (or pseudo-) truth. "True histories" means literally "true narrations of what one has learned by inquiry" and accords with Lucian’s theme of intellectual exploration. Lucian’s most recent editor, M.D. MacLeod (Oxford, 1972) elects alēthê diēgēmata, the choice dictated by the remarks in this essay as well. In English the word "history" lacks virtually any connotation of "falsehood"; "story" retains the denotation of "true" as well as of "fictitious," but regularly means, in the context of literature, "a fictional composition"; "tale" retains fewer vestiges than "story" of the denotation "true" and is regularly "a deliberate lie" or "a falsehood." If we translate the title of Lucian’s work as "True Histories" or as "True Stories," we may savor the etymological cognition of "story" with historía and the fact that both share the root weid-, which means "wisdom."3 The translation "True Tales" is preferred in this essay because it does not preclude interpretations contrary to those presented herein; but the choice most in keeping with the interpretations presented here would be "True Fictions," a title than which one more suited to Lucian’s veritable genre of philosophical science fiction would, in the writer’s opinion, be exceedingly difficult to discover.

Immediately after concluding his preface with a caution that his readers must disbelieve him, Lucian begins the narration of his tales with an explanation that one of the reasons for his setting out on the journey which he is to recount was the officiousness of his intellect (hē tês dianoías periergía), that is, his intellectual curiosity. The other reason, apart from his desire to see what was at the end of the [Atlantic] Ocean, was his eagerness for new experiences (pragmátón kainôn epithumía). The statement of these reasons confirms the theme of intellectual exploration.

The fantastic voyage takes up somewhat more than thirty-two months. Specifically, Lucian accounts for one hundred and fifty-one days, twenty-seven months, and "some days." There are approximately thirty-five different adventures associated with at least twenty-one different locales. The umbilicus of the narration is the reported sojourn of twenty months and twenty days inside the whale. Part I concludes with the twenty months, plus eight days, in the whale; and part II begins with the twelve days during which the escape from the whale is finally made. Except for the initial visit to Wineland, eighty days beyond the Pillars of Heracles (Straits of Gibraltar), and the concluding imprisonment in the whale, the voyaging in part I is all celestial: Moon, Sun, Morning Star, Lychnopolis (Lamptown), and Nephelococcygia (Cloudcuckooland).

Nephelococcygia is the air-borne ornithic realm to which impressionable and hopeful humans and gods seek admission in Aristophanes’s comedy Birds, the first play of his utopian triad; the second and third plays in this triad are Thesmophoriazusai and Ecclesiazusai.4 Lucian and his shipmates cannot visit this bird-built utopia which they sight on the ninety-ninth day of their voyage, because of a crosswind; but Lucian expresses satiSFaction that Nephelococcygia actually exists and that doubts of its existence were unfounded: Aristophanes, he says, was "a wise and truthful man" (§1:29). Some twenty months later, in the narrative, Plato is discovered to be absent from the Elysian Field on the Island of the Blessed because of his residence elsewhere, namely, in the Republic which he had created. Lucian expresses no satiSFaction over the existence of Plato’s utopia, and he says nothing whatsoever to the effect that Plato was a wise and truthful man.

If, in accordance with his prefatory caution, nothing is to be believed in Lucian’s narrative, then we may want to assume that his actual views of Aristophanes and Plato are the reverse of those he presents or suggests. A careful reader will not leap to this assumption; he or she will recognize that it is the series of fantastic events which are incredible and not the narrator’s reactions to those series of events, or to those thoughts to which the events give rise in him, or to the character of individual or collective participants in the events. Lucian’s editorial or evaluative views, relevant to the fantastic and its thought-provoking accouterments, constitute a device by means of which he invites our evaluation of both the subject and objects of fantasy.

Our evaluation of philosophy as an enterprise of fantasy is invited by the event of the Heroes’ Banquet on the Elysian Field of the Island of the Blessed. At this banquet the heroes of fiction and the poets are in the company of the philosophers. We see Homer, Hesiod, Eunomus, Arion, Anacreon, Stesichorus, Aesop, Hyacinthus, Narcissus, Hylas, Rhadamanthus, Theseus, all of the demi-gods, Palamedes, Nestor, Odysseus, Achilles, and all of the Trojan Warriors except Ajax, along with Cyrus the Elder, Cyrus the Younger, Anacharsis, Zamolxis, Numa, Lycurgus, Phocion, Tellus, and all of the sages except Periander. The disparate assemblage reduces the philosophers to a contingent in an epic catalogue: Socrates, Aristippus, Epicurus, Diogenes, Empedocles, and Pythagoras. Lucian specifically calls our attention to Ajax’s absence from the company of Trojan Warriors and Periander’s absence from the company of sages. The overt exclusion of Ajax is a humorous deference to the notion that a warrior who commits suicide, as Ajax did, is déclassé. The overt exclusion of Periander honors the tradition that his place among the Seven Sages belonged properly to Myson of Chenae. Plato’s absence from the company of philosophers is explicitly accounted for, as has been noted. If, however, unworthiness is implicit in the absence of Ajax and Periander from their respective groups, the fact of Plato’s absence, despite the reason stated for it, must implicate Plato in an unworthiness which is concurrently established by the intimation of his inferiority to Aristophanes. In the comic epic catalogue the creators and creatures of fiction enjoy equal status with the philosophers except for the fact that the former quite outnumber the latter. This particular scene is a graphic tableau of philosophy-and-fiction. We cannot believe in the actual existence of the heroes of fiction, nor can we attach believability to the poets whose craft is fiction. More importantly, we cannot attach believability to the philosophers who form part of this assemblage, which is disparate in its mixture of historical with fictional personages and yet homogeneous in its common stratum of falsehood. Evaluating the significance of Lucian’s juxtaposition of fiction-creators, fiction-creatures, and philosophers is much the same thing that we do in pondering the significance of Samuel R. Delany’s mélange of mythmakers, myth-creatures, and mathematicians in The Einstein Intersection.

Lucian’s mélange brings philosophy within the sphere of fiction and evokes an evaluation of philosophy that is comically charted in a number of his dialogues. The substance of his philosophical satire—that is, his satire of philosophy—is to be discerned in at least four dialogues which are more complementary than ancillary to the context of True Tales.

2. False Values in Philosophy. Lucian’s caricatures of philosophers in Lives for Sale5 are consonant with Aristophanes’s caricature of Socrates in Clouds. Both writers satirically deride the exploitation of philosophers’ thoughts and methods; both writers use the philosophers themselves as representatives, not of the respective philosophers’ methods, but of what the philosophers’ efforts had spawned. Lucian identifies the real targets of his satire in The Resurrected, or, The Fisherman;6 they are, not Socrates, Aristotle, and the others, but the self-proclaimed Socratics, Aristotelians, Pythagoreans, and the like. These are the pseudo-intellectuals who, "to judge from their conduct, have read and contemplated" the philosophers "only to practice the reverse" of what the philosophers recommend (Fisherman 34).

The philosophers who are put on the market in Lives for Sale are, accordingly, representative of the "philosophies" which bear their names. The prices they bring indicate a scale of relative value or worth. Socrates is sold to the fifth customer for two talents (approximately a pre-inflationary twenty thousand dollars). Aristotle is sold to the eighth customer for twenty minas (about three thousand dollars, taking the mina to be roughly equivalent to one hundred and fifty dollars). Chrysippus and Pythagoras are purchased by the seventh and first customers for, respectively, twelve minas and ten minas. Then there is a huge drop in prices, proportional to the drop from Socrates’s sale figure to Aristotle’s. The sixth customer buys Epicurus for two minas and the ninth buys Pyrrho for one mina. In a third proportional price drop, the second customer gets Diogenes for two obols (about fifty cents). Aristippus, offered to the third customer, and Democritus and Heraclitus, both offered to the fourth, cannot even be sold.

The prices may represent a correspondence to Lucian’s evaluation of the propounded philosophies, but Lucian regularly shows an affinity with Cynicism (Diogenes’s school) and, given his penchant for the inverse, it is safer to view his prices here as inversely proportional to philosophical value. This need not mean that the unsold philosophers, or philosophies, would be more to Lucian’s liking than Diogenes, or Cynicism; instead, they would be the most valuable, on this scale, by reason of their having virtually no pseudo-proponents in Lucian’s time.

The Cynic Menippus of Gadara had a positive influence upon Lucian, who, like him, checked philosophy with satiric humor. The allegorical figure, Dialogue, who in Twice Accused7 is doubtless Lucian’s spokesman, acknowledges a debt to the old "dog" (a reference to the fact that kynikós, or "cynic," means "of or like a dog"), that is, to Menippus, whose bite is hidden in laughter. Menippus is Lucian’s spokesman in Menippus, or, Prophecies of the Dead:8 the Cynic berates pseudo-philosophers in almost the same words used by Lucian himself in Fisherman. Menippus also figures in other of the underworld dialogues as an exemplar of good sense.

The suggestion here is that, in Lives for Sale, Socrates is the most insidious of the marketed philosophers, bringing a price that corresponds to his detrimental influence, and that the unsold philosophers are the least insidious in that they have practically ceased to manifest any influence. False values are, at an inverse rate, falsely valued. Aristotle, Chrysippus, and Pythagoras are then much more costly to humankind than Epicurus, Pyrrho, and Diogenes, which last three remain mere nuisances.

In the order in which the philosophers are offered up to the buyers—(1) Pythagoras, (2) Diogenes, (3) Aristippus, (4) Democritus and Heraclitus, (5) Socrates, (6) Epicurus, (7) Chrysippus, (8) Aristotle, and (9) Pyrrho—the central, or focal, position is occupied by Socrates. He is showcased in a sale of commodities which are priced on a rising scale of negative values.

When, in Fisherman, the resurrected philosophers condemn Lucian for having denounced them in Lives for Sale and other dialogues, Diogenes, serving as an illustration of Lucian’s irony, complains that he was the most grossly insulted in being pictured as having a market value of only two obols. Philosophy herself presides over the trial to which the philosophers bring Lucian, and Truth serves as one of the jurors. Lucian is acquitted after appeasing the philosophers by insisting that he was ridiculing, not the philosophers themselves, but the false schools and the deceptive practitioners of their philosophies. The greater irony, however, consists in Lucian’s implication that what the pseudo-philosophers perpetrate in the names of the philosophers is similarly perpetrated by the philosophers themselves in the name of philosophy. The philosophers are taken in by Lucian, whose defense includes no explanation of his scale of prices; and it is Diogenes who, with his two obol selling price still unexplained, retracts his accusation and expedites the exoneration of Lucian. It is Diogenes, again, who joins Lucian in fishing for the philosophical charlatans: a Cynic is hooked and thrown back as worthless; subsequently a Platonist, an Aristotelian, and a Stoic are hooked and thrown back as small fish.

The fishing episode exposes the schools of Diogenes, Socrates, Aristotle, and Chrysippus as equally worthless in the presence of Philosophy and Truth. It is also to be noted that Philosophy and Truth are personified as two separate entities. Their being other than one and the same permits the further inference that Philosophy does in the name of Truth what the philosophers do in the name of Philosophy.

Diogenes is less costly to humankind than the other marketed philosophers, but, with regard to truth, he is as worthless as they are. The genuine practice of Cynicism, however, serves truth much better than Diogenes serves philosophy and much better than Diogenes’s adherents, with one exception, serve Diogenes. The exception is Menippus, who is not put up for sale in Lucian’s dialogue and whose writings have informed Lucian’s own practice of Cynical humor. Menippus neither appears nor is mentioned in Lives for Sale and Fisherman: Lucian is Menippus’s spokesman in these dialogues, just as Menippus is Lucian’s in others.

Lucian seeks to restore a scale of values by establishing the superiority of truth to philosophy, of philosophy to philosophers, and of philosophers to their adherents. In only the one case he reverses the direction of superiority: Menippus, the adherent, is superior to Diogenes, the philosopher.

In Fisherman Lucian satirizes the reversal of his scale of values. Philosophy, at best a servant of Truth, is personified not only as a peer of Truth but also as prima inter pares. She is the judge, and Truth is merely a juror. The reverse should prevail: Truth should be the judge, and Philosophy a juror. The philosophers, moreover, should serve, not Philosophy, as Diogenes does, but Truth, as we may infer that Menippus does. Finally, the philosophers’ adherents compound this deranged allegiance and falsify the values of inquiry by serving, neither the philosophers they represent nor Philosophy, but only themselves. Lucian’s Menippean Cynicism is to be interpreted as a direct service to Truth.

3. The Truly False in Philosophical Science Fiction. In the four dialogues cited, the satire on the false values and misdirections of philosophy is very broad. In True Tales the target of the satire is the same, but the satire becomes a subtle constituent of the very broad fantasy in the tales of voyaging. This shift, in concert with the structure of True Tales, exhibits a skillful rendition of philosophy as an inverse constituent of fiction.

Part II of True Tales comprises travels and adventures on the sea and on various islands and concludes with a shipwreck on a new land, or new continent (hetera gê). The narrative presents a dramatic inversion in its placement of the celestial voyage in part I and the terrestrial-marine adventures in part II. One would ordinarily expect the island adventures to stand as prelude to the awesome extra-terrestrial episodes. Lucian takes us directly and almost immediately to the moon and sun, and then brings us back to earth for the bulk of the narrative. As philosophical science fiction, this is an equivalent of philosophy’s abandonment of tangible human moorings for flights into the abstract. By counter-exaggeration satire can bring philosophy, or the philosophically inclined, back to concretion. Lucian assigns this role to satire as Menippus and Aristophanes before him had done and, with regard to modern science, as Samuel Butler, Eugene Zamyatin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Pynchon long after him would do. In his work, fiction redeems philosophy, as, in the work of many serious science-fiction writers, fiction redeems science.

Effective science fiction does not tranSForm science into fantasy, even though it may give the appearance of doing so; it brings us back to the limitations of science by means of fantasy or fiction, just as Lucian brings us back to the limitations of philosophy through satiric fiction and the fantastic voyage.

The voyage in True Tales is defined as one of exploration. The exploration is identified as both intellectual and entertaining, the entertainment being the satiSFaction of the desire for new experiences; this amounts to a restatement of the Roman satirist Horace’s utile et dulce. Lucian claims the intellectual stimulation and the entertainment for himself: he, the narrator, had undertaken his literary voyaging in these his own interests; but, at the same time, he is like that writer who, in Horace’s words, has blended the useful with the pleasant by equally delighting and instructing his reader ("qui miscuit utile dulci/lectorem delectando pariterque monendo," Ars poetica §§343-4). If the ratio, science:utile :: fiction:dulce, is valid, then the science-fiction writer is recognizably qui miscet utile dulci—the effective science-fiction writer, that is, like Lucian. In his satiric science fiction Lucian evinces the ratio in his own literary art while simultaneously offering to his reader the prescriptive ratio: science (or philosophy) should be to utile as fiction is to dulce. That the prescription has not been filled by philosophers is precisely what he satirizes; and his satire is itself an example of the proper blend of utility and entertainment.

The voyage of exploration does not end where Lucian’s narrative ends. He neatly inverts Virgilian epic by ending his narrative in mediis rebus. The Aeneid opens with a shipwreck on a strange coast; and True Tales concludes with a shipwreck on a strange coast.9 Lucian’s conclusion is anything but haphazard. It may strike us as abrupt, leaving us as it does with our unsatiSFied curiosity about the new land and with our wondering how the narrator returned to tell the tale which he falsely promises to finish. Actually, Lucian has entertained us and has given something to think about to those of us who are disposed to think. The entertainment is over, but the intellectual exploration goes on into the figuratively new land that has been discovered. The new land defines the total series of adventures, and the reader can find Lucian’s way back to the Pillars of Heracles by recapitulating the adventures in reverse.

A look at this conclusion, as an illustration of Lucian’s structural nicety, will incidentally provide an opportunity to observe the degrees to which translators can either guide or mislead us. Harmon translates the final period as follows:

Thus far I have told you what happened to me until I reached the other world, first at sea, then during my voyage among the islands and in the air, then in the whale, and after we left it, among the heroes and the dreams, and finally among the Bullheads and the Asslegs. What happened in the other world I shall tell you in the succeeding books.

Like Harmon, Casson breaks Lucian’s fluid period into two sentences; but he improves upon Harmon in clarity and by rendering hetéra gê as "new continent" instead of the almost extra-terrestrial sounding "other world":

You now know our story up to the moment we reached this new continent: our adventures on the sea, during our trip around the islands, in the air, and, after that, inside the whale; then, after escaping from there, our further adventures among the Heroes, the dreams, and, finally, the Bullheads and Asslegs. What happened to us on the new continent I will tell in the subsequent volumes.

Turner destroys the passage by rendering the whole of it in this decapitated version:

Thus we finally landed on the continent at the other side of the world; and what happened to us there, I will tell you in another book.

Turner, who has also deprived Latinless readers of their immediate opportunity individually to interpret Thomas More’s "Abraxa" by his translating it as "Sansculottia,"10 has here chosen for no defensible reason to delete the very important summary sequence in the concluding period.

The summary lists the objects of exploration in an intriguingly challenging order: (1) the new land, (2) the sea, (3) the islands, (4) the air, (5) the whale, (6) the heroes, (7) the dreams, (8) the Bullheads and Asslegs, (9) the new land. "The air" is referent to the celestial voyaging and should, chronologically, precede "the sea" in this catalogue, unless we constrain "the sea" to denote the area covered during the initial embarkation. Nonetheless, "the islands" should definitely follow "the whale" in a sequential list of the adventures. The chronological sequence would properly read (in a translation that is literal save for the rearrangement of the emphasized words and phrases):

These, then, up to [my reaching] the new land, are the things that happened to me in the air, and afterward in the whale, and, when we had escaped, on the sea, and in sailing to the islands, and among the heroes and the dreams, and finally among the Bullheads and the Asslegs, and I shall set down in subsequent books the things [that happened] on the new land.

What may appear to be a lack of care in Lucian’s closing period is in all probability the reverse of carelessness. The oddly arranged sequence affronts temporal order to no real purpose; but it affronts balance to significant purpose. If, in his unchanged text, we take "the new land" as a and "the sea/the islands" as b, then "the air" would be c, "the whale" d; "the heroes/the dreams/the Bullheads and Asslegs" (as part of the sea-and-island voyaging) would reiterate b; and, with the repeated "new land," the balance-sequence is identifiable as a b c d b a. The chiastic balance is upset by either c or d. Taking the focal episode of d ("the whale") as representing the pivot of the story, and taking c ("the air") as representative of an abortive flight, we may establish the intellectual, cognitive, or logical extraneity—and by the same token the crucial satirical importance—of c. The celestial voyaging, indicative of the flights of philosophy (science, or cognition in general), is clearly—with its grotesque wars, etc.—out of place in intellectual exploration. The philosophers come in for their specific ridicule at the Heroes’ Banquet on the Elysian Field; we have noted this ridicule to consist chiefly in their being classed with poets as producers of falsehoods. Philosophy itself is, in Lucian’s equation of it with celestial flight, ridiculed as falsehood itself. Philosophy is thereby that which lends imbalance and eccentricity to intellectual exploration; and Lucian stimulates us intellectually by moving us to think about philosophy in this way. He brings philosophy down to earth, where, in his opinion, it belongs, and recommends it to the service of truth against its apparently inevitable service to itself. The exploration of the new land is thereby the equivalent of the proper intellectual frontier; and that is where Lucian leaves us at the end of his narrative.

The interstitial subtlety of Lucian’s narrative eludes most of his commentators, who neglect attention to his structural precision, his imagistic and thematic sequences, and the thought that he spent on thinking as an activity susceptible of being inhibited by belief.11 He does not condemn philosophy unreservedly any more than Pynchon condemns science out of hand. It is appropriate to say that to Lucian there is a point at which philosophy tends to become worthless, a point whose co-ordinates are (1) philosopher-adherents serving themselves, (2) philosophers serving philosophy instead of truth, and (3) philosophy serving itself instead of truth.

Too many measurements of the depth of Lucian’s thought have been prompted by his persistent and quantitative ridicule of major philosophers instead of being drawn from his qualitative ridicule of excessively abstract philosophy and pseudo-philosophy and from his studious admiration of Menippus as a sensible philosopher.12 It does not follow from the very real possibility of Lucian’s being wrong, much less from his genius for entertainment, that his thought is no more than superficial. Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal are not great thinkers, but scholars and commentators show no inclination regularly to calibrate the profundity of these comedians’ and satirists’ thought. Aristophanes puts philosophy (the new science) up in the air by showing Socrates hoisted in a basket to get nearer to the clouds he studies. Aristophanes, however, like the others just mentioned, writes in verse and, except for Clouds in his case, directs no consistent ridicule at philosophy and its schools. Lucian is acclaimed as a prose artist, and yet the manner in which his art provides an experience of errant philosophy’s ineptness is seldom critically examined; appreciation is reserved for the stylish humor openly evident in the superficies of his work. There is substance beneath that polished surface in which hasty commentators see only their own reflection, just as there is a real concern for philosophy implicit in Lucian’s satire of it.

The episode of the Island of Dreams (§§2:32-5) is, for example, on the surface merely an elaborate personification of sleep and dreams. Beneath the surface, however, it is a complex allegory of the nature and effects of sleeping and dreaming and a subtle excursus on the true and the false. Lucian and his crew overtake the elusive Island of Dreams and sail into it through the Harbor of Sleep. In Classical myth, death and resurrection are transmuted into a journey to the Underworld; Lucian transmutes sleep and waking into a form of this journey, and the clue to his doing so is his inclusion of the Underworld’s gates of ivory and horn. He cites Homer as mentioning only these two gates—the ivory gate for the egress of false dreams and the gate of horn for the egress of true dreams—when, by his extension of the myth, there are in fact four. Virgil is not cited, although again there is an inversion of Virgilian epic as the sailors enter through the ivory gate, from which Aeneas makes his exit. Lucian’s additional two gates are those of iron and clay, egress for fears and for dreams of murder and violence. True dreams are not necessarily dreams that come true any more than true tales are necessarily true to fact; true dreams are real or actual dreams and are experienced only in sleep. A true dream, then, is as false to the facts of waking life as a true tale is false to actual fact. A false dream is a calculated or contrived dream, either a daydream deliberately indulged in while one is awake or a nurture of one’s fears and hopes. Lucian’s hoí te phoberoi kai phonikoi kai apēneîs (fear-filled, murderous, and violent dreams) is characteristically truncated by Turner and rendered simply as "nightmares." Casson has "nightmares and dreams of murder and violence." Harmon is superior to both of his successors in tran = Anxiety) as "Nightmare." Nightmares are real, orslation with "fearful, murderous, revolting dreams." Unfortunately, Harmon goes on to translate Taraxíēna (Taraxíēn true, dreams; and fears and anxieties are false dreams. Lucian’s gates of iron and clay open out from the Plain of Sloth (tÚ tês blakeías pedíon), the area of false sleep. They open on the idle dreams that are fostered by their germinal, sloth; these are the idle dreams that spread passivity, intensify introversion, and never lead to action. Lucian’s gates of horn and ivory face the coastal inlet and the sea. The ivory gate opens for the waking dreams of exploration, for the active imagination, and for dreams that foster quests in service to truth; it is neighbor to the horn gate of true dreams borne in sleep.

Lucian has differentiated the false dreams wrought by sloth from the false dreams that sustain action. The horn gate is the gate of true and earned repose, or pleasant dreams; it is the gate of entertaining fiction. The ivory gate is the gate of true exploration, the gate of utile fiction and sensible philosophy. The iron and clay gates are the gates of self-indulgent, dogmatic, and excessively abstract philosophy.

The two temples in Dream City are those of Night and Alektryon (the Rooster). The Rooster Temple is near the port; and behind it, to the right and left, are, respectively, the Temple of Night and the Palace of Sleep. The rooster, herald of dawn and wakefulness, is properly enshrined near the locale of embarkation and the ivory gate, that is, near the sources of wakeful action and of the false dreams concomitant with wakeful action.

The two great shrines in Dream City honor, respectively, Deceit (Apátē) and Truth (Alētheia). That they are twin shrines should go without saying. Their juxtaposition recalls the parity of philosophers and poets on the Island of the Blessed and further informs Lucian’s theme of fiction’s being as good a servant, if not a better servant, of truth than philosophy is: on the one hand, Deceit (fiction) is the complement of Truth; on the other hand, philosophy’s pilgrimage is to Deceit and Fiction’s is to Truth. That the two shrines complement each other, like the gates of ivory and horn and like the ivory-gated resolution of philosophy and fiction (or, science and fiction), says more about Lucian’s understanding and appreciation of philosophy than his translators and many of his readers are prepared to admit.

Lucian and his crew remain for thirty days and thirty nights,13 in sloth and sleep, on the Island of Dreams, which lies, significantly, between the Islands of the Damned and the island Ogygia. Then, aroused by a thunderclap, they leave the island and on a reverse odyssey make their way to Ogygia, just as Odysseus, aroused from his enervating sloth and slumber, had made his escape from Ogygia, and from the passive existence with which Calypso had tempted him, to new adventures.

Lucian’s philosophical science fiction imbues us with the sense that philosophy and fiction are complementary explorations into truth and that philosophy tends abortively to claim success in an exploration which fiction is content both to sustain and constantly to renew. He states in his preface that poets incur his reproach less than philosophers because those who profess philosophy do much the same thing as poets do, the implication being, as we have noted, that poets are faithful to their calling and philosophers are not. Casson takes this to be a "crack at Plato’s Myth of Er told in Book 10 of The Republic." Harmon likewise adjudged it a "slap at Plato’s Republic (x.614 A seq.), as the scholiast says." Actually, Lucian would be more likely to applaud Plato’s overt recourse to fiction in a philosophical work than to find fault with Plato’s commixture. Lucian could not but have approved Plato’s persistent use of poetic devices in the Republic along with his many citations from poets.14 By falling back on myth in the last book of the Republic, Plato tacitly admits the shortcomings of the philosophical exploration of truth and openly illustrates his ideas by means of a fable. Lucian’s prefatory statement is on the surface an expression of tolerance for the writers of fiction.15 Its deeper signification, adumbrated by the fact that Lucian is himself a writer of fiction, lies in its corollary: both fabulists and philosophers falsify, but philosophers are the more deserving of reproach because they generally affect not to do so.

"Philosophy’s task is not to resolve a contradiction through mathematical or logico-mathematical invention but to make clear the mathematical situation that bothers us, the situation that exists prior to the resolution of the contradiction":16 Lucian would consider this statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein to be one worthy of Menippus. He would find the statement congenial to his task of taking to task the philosophers and quasi-philosophers who have presumed to exceed their task. He would see in it his own fictionist’s preference of clarification by means of falsity to obfuscation created by a presumption to resolve. The opening proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist" ("The world is all that is the case"): Lucian’s early termination of his two weeks of celestial voyaging in True Tales is his way of saying the same.


1., For example, Brian W. Aldiss includes Lucian in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (US 1973 xiv+339; UK 1973), and the SF anthology Past, Present, and Future Perfect, ed. Gregory Fitz Gerald and Jack C. Wolf (Fawcett pb 1973) includes a selection from "A True Story." The title of Aldiss’s history may be something of a comic overture to Lucian and is, if so, a far more commendable note than his exceptionable statement, "We no longer expect anything but entertainment from Lucian..." (p 59). There are three convenient translations of Lucian: A.M. Harmon et al., Lucian with an English Translation (8 vols., UK-US 1913-1967); Lionel Casson, Selected Satires of Lucian (US 1962 pb & hb); Paul Turner, Lucian: True History and Lucius or The Ass (US 1958, pb 1974; UK 1958) and Lucian: Satirical Sketches (Penguin pb 1961).

2. See Republic §10.

3. In any case, the singular—"True History" (Turner), "True Story" (Harmon, Casson), or "True Tale"—is misleading. Lucian’s effort is a collection of tales or episodes, not a sequentially plotted story; the arrangement of the episodes is more important than any patent connection of events from episode to episode.

4. Patric Dickinson’s translation, Aristophanes: Plays (2 vols., UK-US 1970), is lucid and informative. His second volume includes the entire utopian triad.

5. In Harmon Vol. 2 and Casson as "Philosophies for Sale" and in Turner Penguin as "Philosophies Going Cheap" [! Some of them are far from "cheap."].

6. In Harmon Vol. 3 as "The Dead Come to Life, or The Fisherman," in Casson as "The Fisherman," and in Turner Penguin as "Fishing for Phonies."

7. In Harmon Vol. 3 as "The Double Indictment, or Trial by Jury."

8. In Harmon Vol. 4 as "Menippus, or The Descent into Hades" and in Turner Penguin as "Menippus Goes to Hell."

9. We need not beg Lucian’s familiarity with Horace or Virgil. Even if he had never heard of the Roman satirist or the Roman epic poet, an entirely unlikely supposition, given his travels in Italy and his patronage by the emperor Commodus, his artistic concerns would still have paralleled theirs in these matters. Those who object to the suggestion that Lucian inverts Virgilian epic may yet recognize an inversion of the Odyssean narrative which opens with the shipwrecked Odysseus on Ogygia, the details of which shipwreck are supplied in Odyssey §12.

10. Thomas More: Utopia (Penguin pb 1965), p 69. Turner explains his "rash conjecture" in his glossary, s.v., and notes the possibility of a connection of "Abraxa" with "Abraxas." The wiser course would be the retention of "Abraxa" in the main text. This would visibly sustain the possibility of a connection with "abrektos" (a + brachth-), the meaning of which Greek term ("unwetted") would describe the peninsular Abraxa before it became, in a kind of geographical baptism, the island Utopia.

11. Many Lucianologists, particularly Lucian’s translators, have automated their attitudes to Lucian’s thought and to his appraisal of philosophy. Casson says that "[t]o Lucian all philosophy is worthless," as though Cynicism were alien to philosophy and as though Lucian had not accepted Plato’s distinction between thought and belief. Harmon, disregarding the fact that Lucian had willfully abandoned his profession of rhetoric in favor of devoting his later life to his writings, cavalierly pontificates that Lucian "was not a philosopher nor even a moralist, but a rhetorician, that his mission in life was not to reform society nor to chastise it, but simply to amuse it." Turner insists that Lucian’s "main appeal must be as a writer, not a thinker." Casson, again, says, "Lucian as a thinker is consistent and honest (most of the time) but no great intellect." He also claims that Lucian’s treatment of philosophy "shows how superficial his thought can be."

12. For a valid and unprejudiced estimate of the depth of Lucian’s thought see S.C. Fredericks, "Lucian’s True History as SF," SFS 3 (1976):49-60.

13. Both Turner and Casson, but not Harmon, miss the imagistic sequence (horn-ivory, Night-Alektryon, sleep-sloth, night-day) by translating Lucian’s heméras...triákonta kai ísas nýkas (thirty days and as many nights) as "a month."

14. For details of Plato’s poeticisms see F. Blass, Die Rhythmen der attischen Kunstprosa (Leipzig, 1901): "On Attic Prose Rhythm," Hermathena 14.82, 1906; C.L. Brownson, Plato’s Studies and Criticisms of the Poets (US 1920).

15. Lucian’s statement, literally translated, reads: "Encountering all of these [i.e., Ctesias of Cnidus, Iambulus, Homer, and other writers of the fabulous (mythodē)], then, I have not zealously reproached the fellows for falsifying, noting indeed this kindred habit even among those professing philosophy." Turner’s rendition: "I do not feel particularly shocked by this kind of thing, on moral grounds, for I have found that a similar disregard for truth is quite common even among professional philosophers"; Casson’s: "Now, I’ve read all the practitioners of this art and I’ve never been very hard on them for not telling the truth—not when I see how common this failing is even among those who profess to be writing philosophy." Turner’s "on moral grounds" and Casson’s "failing" are extracontextual. Harmon’s translation of the passage remains the most reliable: "Well, on reading all these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy."

16. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen I.125: Es ist nicht Sache der Philosophie, den Widerspruch durch eine mathematische, logisch-mathematische, Entdeckung zu lösen. Sonden den Zustand der Mathematik, der uns beunruhigt, den Zustand vor der Lösung des Widerspruchs, übersehbar zu machen.



Today, it is generally agreed upon that Lucian of Samosota, the Greco-Syrian satirist of the second century A.D. who wrote literary fantastic voyages, is an important figure in the early history of science fiction. The substance of his contribution to this genre, however—particularly his estimates of fiction as potentially superior to philosophy and to scientific cognition—have not been much considered. I propose here a reading of Lucian’s "true fictions" as truth-serving fiction: he exposes false views and misdirections in "philosophy" and is in fact a writer of philosophical science fiction. (The term "philosophical science fiction" is to be understood, not as referring to SFwritten by a philosopher or in a philosophical vein, but as indicative, in this case, of SF written by a satirist about philosophy.) Clarification of the phrase "true fictions" will include commentary on the word "true" in its Greek form and some attention to the proper translation of the title provided for his voyages, variously rendered as "A True Story," "(The) True History," and "True Histories." Lucian’s philosophical science fiction suggests that philosophy and fiction are complementary explorations into truth, but philosophy tends to claim success where fiction is content to sustain and constantly to renew.

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