Lucian’s Satires and the Discursive Role of the Charlatan

By Philip L. Tite

I am continually fascinated with the discursive techniques that people use to discredit competing religious groups or cultic practices (especially as such language tends to reinforce the polemicist’s own group or worldview). Recently, while working on my next book, I bumped up into this type of narrative “positioning” (to evoke the theoretical work of Harré and Langenhove) in the motif of the charlatan in Late Antiquity, where “false” teachers or philosophers are re-presented in such a way as to not only call into question such philosophers’ teachings but also their motives (regardless of the veracity of such teachings). In this blog, I would like to share some of my thoughts on this topic (largely taken from that book manuscript).

Perhaps the best examples of such false teachers are found in the second-century satires of Lucian. In his delightful work Piscator, Lucian has Frankness draw the attention of Philosophy and the various great philosophers (temporarily brought back from the dead) to the false philosophers who merely use the title as a pretext for personal gain. We begin with the mistaken belief that Frankness (i.e., “frank speech” or parrhesia which embodies Lucian’s voice) has slandered Philosophy herself, yet it is Philosophy that corrects Plato’s accusation early on: “Careful! Perhaps his abuse was not directed against Philosophy, but against imposters who do much that is vile in our name” including setting “doctrines for sale at two obols apiece” (15) (translation from Loeb Classical Library). The rest of the text uncovers these false philosophers, calling them into judgment. In the process, we learn more about what motives define these charlatans. The primary motivations, which ironically stand in contradictions with the very doctrines being promoted, include an obsession with financial gain (“they teach these very doctrines for pay, and worship the rich, and are agog after money”) while trying to establish themselves within elite social relations that they have no just claim to (“and elbow one another at the portals of the rich and take part in great banquets, where they pay vulgar compliments” and act disorderly) (34). Greed drives these charlatans to not only demand gifts from others, but, in turn, refuse to give anything to others in need (35). Later in the text, when all the philosophers are summoned from the town by Philosophy, very few philosophers show up until, at Frankness’s suggestion, they are promised various gifts. Philosophy’s response sums up Lucian’s disdain: “The Acropolis is full in a trice as the noisily settle in place, and everywhere are begging-bags and flattery, beards and shamelessness, staves and gluttony, syllogisms and avarice,” to which Frankness adds, “These cheats are more convincing than the genuine philosophers” (42). Note especially Lucian’s use of antithesis to undermine these false philosophers. This polemical device demonstrates that these would-be philosophers only have the external visage of a philosopher, but lack the correct moral character – i.e., the internal motivations do not correspond, but rather abuse, the external appearance.

Later, when fishing for the false philosophers that flee, figs and gold are used as bait. Lucian highlights that charlatans are those who are out for sordid gain, in this case primarily wealth and social prestige (i.e., honorable places at elite banquets, thus abusing the patronage system).

Glycon Sock Puppet, by Mark Stafford (

Lucian’s polemical barbs are not limited to a generalized criticism of the degradation of “true” philosophy within the various schools, but are extended to specific cult leaders who were his contemporaries. In Alexander the False Prophet, Alexander the priest of Glycon is attacked as turning a quick profit from trumped up divinations (23). Indeed, Alexander is characterized as being motivated by wealth, specifically in pursuing the rich (16), as well as desiring a reputation (e.g., in his relations to Rutilianus) and, perhaps most vividly set forth by the narrative, his sexual appetites, including young boys and married women – with the praise of their husbands no less! (41-42). Noteworthy is the use of “the kiss” for both the boys and the women. Lucian claims that Alexander would “not … greet anyone over eighteen years with his lips, or to embrace and kiss him; he kissed only the young, extending his hand to the others to be kissed by them. They were called ‘those within the kiss’” (41). Similarly, those women that Alexander desired to have sexual relations with would be “deem[ed] … worthy of a kiss” (42). A ritualized kiss is incorporated into the prophet’s interactions with his followers, using the kiss to demarcate degrees of access or acceptance by Alexander. Lucian, of course, casts this ritual act into an immoral light. Under the pen of Lucian, Alexander becomes the quintessential representative of the charlatan trope, though he is not the only one to fall under Lucian’s polemic.

Closely related to early Christian circles is Lucian’s The Passing of Peregrinus. Here we find Proteus Peregrinus – a once Christian, once Cynic philosopher or teacher – that is castigated as a charlatan preying upon the ignorant masses. Evidently, Peregrinus gained a prestigious position within Christian circles. When he was imprisoned, these Christians seem to have viewed him as a martyr figure, rather than, as Lucian saw him, as a scoundrel. Peregrinus’s motivation is the “reputation … and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of,” which was nicely given him by these simple folk along with a great deal of money: “much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it.” While Peregrinus is not characterized as seeking sexual pleasures, he does fit the other two elements of the charlatan trope that we find addressed by ancient writers, both those outside and within early Christian circles: a desire for a lasting reputation (so significant in an honor/shame culture) and material wealth. Whether Lucian’s descriptions of such teachers were accurate or polemical distortion is beside the point. His barbs effectively illustrate the trope of the charlatan.

In the above examples, there are at least two insightful observations that can be made about this motif: (1) There is a humorous side to the polemic. Lucian (unlike, e.g., Irenaeus in Against Heresies 1.13.3, where the motif is applied to Marcus “the Magician”) is trying to make us laugh at those he is attacking. The humor itself functions to undermine the “false prophet”. I’ve included a delightful and humorous image of Glycon, as a sock puppet (by Mark Stafford), that I found on the Internet that nicely highlights the whimsical, humorous side of such rhetoric (Stafford also has some other wonderful art pieces using religious humor). (2) The focus is less on actual doctrines or practices, let alone the “authenticity” of the experiential moments of those “deluded” by such prophets/philosophers, and more on the motives of the leading figure. This is not a debate. Rather, it is an attack on the character of the person who is seen as a foundation of the group or movement. The motives of desiring financial gain, sexual exploitation, and establishing an enduring reputation or legacy do not appear in all instances of the charlatan motif, but they are common enough as focal points. To question the teacher’s character is to undermine the competing social group.

Discursive positioning such as we see in Lucian’s satires is not limited to the ancient world. The late 20th century is filled with examples of religious leaders who have been cast into the role of the charlatan. Whether a particular figure or group lives up to the role imposed on them is not the point, but rather that in-group/out-group social distinctions are effectively drawn up through the employment of such rhetorical techniques. Identifying and explaining such employment – asking for whose advantage is such language used, against whom is it applied, and for what hoped for benefits (materially, socially, ideologically) – is, in part, the task of the scholar. Not in a normative sense of justifying or countering such language use, but in the explanatory sense of elucidating processes of human conflict.

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