“What’s old is new again”*…
Toward the end of the 1800s, an insane asylum physician in Zurich discovered a surprising tendency among his patients. One, an Austrian maid, had spent years wandering the countryside, claiming to be royalty. A second, an hysterical epileptic, habitually convinced strangers that she was their distant relative. A third, a chronic masturbator, posed as Catholic (he was in fact Protestant), and compulsively pilfered items which he then discarded unused. In 1891, Anton Delbrück summarized his discovery in Die pathologische Lüge, christening the condition pseudologia phantastica, or, as we now say in English, pathological lying. And with that came the emergence of a public health issue requiring large-scale study, and somewhat improbably, widespread concern about an epidemic of dishonesty and even fake news…
As Mark Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”– the tale of the late 19th century “pathological” lying and fake news that plagued the nation: “Shameless Liars.”
See also: “The Great ‘Fake News’ Scare of 1530.”
* proverbial gloss on Ecclesiastes 1:9
As we deliberate with Diogenes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1764 that English radical, journalist, and politician John Wilkes was declared an outlaw and expelled from the British House of Lords. Wilkes and Thomas Potter had written a pornographic poem dedicated to the courtesan Fanny Murray entitled “An Essay on Woman,” a parody of Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man.” Wilkes’s political enemies– foremost among them our old friend John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich— obtained the parody. Sandwich had a personal vendetta against Wilkes that stemmed in large part from embarrassment caused by a prank of Wilkes involving the Earl at one of the Hellfire Club‘s meetings; he was delighted at the chance for revenge. Sandwich read the poem to the House of Lords, which declared the poem obscene and blasphemous. The Lords moved to expel Wilkes. He fled to Paris to avoid a hearing, but was tried and found guilty, in absentia, of obscene and seditious libel.