112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Lucianic Satire and the Invention of America

Owen Staley, California Baptist University

This paper suggests that the satirical dialogues of Lucian of Samosata exercised shaping influence on Erasmus and More, who showed their reception to Lucian’s ideas by imitating both his style and substance in their own works, including Utopia, which in turn has exercised significant shaping influence on current social formations.


In 1505-6, Thomas More and Erasmus each turned several of Lucian of Samosata’s Greek satires into Latin, each also writing replies to Tyrannicida in their only literary competition.  In this essay, I suggest that Lucian, whom More names twice and quotes at least once in his 1516 Utopia, plays a more decisive role in shaping its remarkably modern outlook than simply providing a model for the “wit and pleasantry” under which it is concealed.  As a native of Syria (in modern eastern Turkey) making his way in a Greek world, Lucian was much given to exposing the vices and pretensions of his day while feigning an effort to better understand its leading lights.  In Alexander for example, he calls such specimens  μωρόςσοφός, or foolishly wise, translated in Utopia as morosophi (“wiseacres” in Surtz) to describe French nobles who, imitating the English, support peacetime garrisons of mercenaries and are thus inclined to start wars.

The exasperation expressed by More’s renegade mariner Hythlodaeus with English injustice, avarice, and inequity mirrors sentiments expressed by the title characters of Lucian’s dialogues, for example Timon the Misanthrope, who prevails on a corrupt and lazy Zeus to inflict upon humanity the righteous smiting of his younger days, and Menippus the Cynic, who professes perplexity at the gap between Greek laws forbidding “adultery, sedition, and rapacity” and the Greek deities portrayed by Homer and Hesiod as “violent, litigious, usurping, [and] incestuous.”  Similar perplexity is expressed by Hytholdeaus, who marvels for example at the eagerness of English lords to deprive others of pleasure in order to secure their own.

I conclude that both the self-exiled Hythlodeaus and his foil, the unimaginative civil servant “More,” are Lucianic characters deployed for the purpose of critiquing the parochialism of More’s English and continental contemporaries, including the sectarians More joined ranks with in his later years.  Utopia is described as fiercely ecumenical, its laws frowning equally on atheism and sectarianism, and in this latter aspect of religious freedom More’s satirical New World has exercised a civilizing influence on the states that later came into being there, not least the U.S., which in its kingless governance and constitutional freedoms more faithfully reflects the Lucian ideals of Utopia than the Old World impulses that launched it.

Selected Sources: 

Erasmus, Desiderius. "Letter To Thomas More." Collected Works of Erasmus.  Vol. 2.  Ed. Ferguson. Toronto, 1975.   161-4. Print..

----- and Thomas More.  Luciani Erasmo interprete Dialogi & alia ernuncta. . . .   Ascensianus, 1513.   Web.

Fowler, trans.  The Works of Lucian of Samosata.    Oxford, 1905.  Web. 

More, Thomas.  Utopia.  Ed. Surtz.  New Haven, 1964.   Print.

Nelson, Eric. "Greek Nonsense in More’s Utopia." Historical Journal 44.4 (2001).   889-917.  Web.

Thompson, Craig. "Introduction to Translations of Lucian." Collected Works of Sir Thomas More.  Vol. 3.1.   New Haven, 1974.  xvii-lxxii.   Print.

Wooden, Warren.  “Anti-Scholastic Satire in Sir Thomas More's Utopia.”   Sixteenth Century Journal 8.2  (1977).  29-45.   Web. 

Topic Area: