Satire is a rhetorical strategy in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, ideally with an intent to bring about improvement. In the strict sense satire is a literary genre, but the larger notion of satire, poking fun at the foibles of others, is also found in the graphic and performing arts.
Although satire is usually intended to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humor as much as criticism, using the weapon of wit. A very common, almost defining feature of satire is its strong vein of irony or sarcasm, using parody, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre.
Satire is often aimed at hypocrisy in social institutions or used for political commentary, but great satire often takes as its target human self-deception in one form or another. Satire can vary in tone from bemused tolerance to bitter indignation. Voltaire's Candide (1759) gleefully poked fun at the fashionable optimism associated with the philosopher Leibniz and is among the most recognized satires in the Western literary canon. George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), in contrast, savagely criticized the totalitarian machinery of government that emerged in the Soviet Union following the Utopian promises of the Russian Revolution.
Like most criticism, satire can be constructive and salutary or motivated by an intent to draw opprobrium on the object of criticism. As a literary genre, it is generally didactic. It rarely aspires to hold up a mirror to life or to explore universal aspects of human experience as a primary objective.
The word satire comes from Latin satura lanx, meaning "medley, dish of colorful fruits," and was held by Quintilian to be a "wholly Roman phenomenon." This derivation properly has nothing to do with the Greek mythological satyr. To Quintilian, satire was a strict literary form, but the term soon escaped from its original narrow definition. Princeton University scholar Robert Elliott wrote that
"[a]s soon as a noun enters the domain of metaphor, as one modern scholar has pointed out, it clamours for extension; and satura (which had had no verbal, adverbial, or adjectival forms) was immediately broadened by appropriation from the Greek word for “satyr” (satyros) and its derivatives. The odd result is that the English “satire” comes from the Latin satura; but “satirize,” “satiric,” etc., are of Greek origin. By about the 4th century AD the writer of satires came to be known as satyricus; St. Jerome, for example, was called by one of his enemies 'a satirist in prose' ('satyricus scriptor in prosa'). Subsequent orthographic modifications obscured the Latin origin of the word satire: satura becomes satyra, and in England, by the 16th century, it was written 'satyre.'" "Satire" Encyclopaedia Britannica 2004
Satire (in the modern sense of the word) is found in many artistic forms of expression, including literature, plays, commentary, and media such as song lyrics. The term is also today applied to many works other than those which would have been considered satire by Quintilian - including, for instance, ancient Greek authors predating the first Roman satires. Public opinion in the Athenian democracy, for example, was remarkably influenced by the political satire written by such comic poets as Aristophanes for the theatre.
The so-called Satire of the Trades dates to the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. and is one of the oldest texts using hyperbole in order to achieve a didactic aim. It describes the various trades in an exaggeratedly disparaging fashion in order to convince students tired of studying that their lot as scribes will be far superior to that of their less fortunate brethren. Some scholars think that, rather than satirical, the descriptions were intended to be serious and factual.
The Papyrus Anastasi I (late 2nd millennium B.C.E.) contains the text of a satirical letter in which the writer at first praises the virtues but then mercilessly mocks the meager knowledge and achievements of the recipient of the letter.
The Greeks had no word for what later would be called "satire," although cynicism and parody were common techniques. In retrospect, the Greek playwright Aristophanes is one of the best known early satirists; he is particularly recognized for his political satire, for example The Knights, which criticize the powerful Cleon for the persecution the playwright underwent.
The oldest form of satire still in use is the Menippean satire named after the Greek cynic Menippus of Gadara. Menippean satire is a term broadly used to refer to prose satires that are rhapsodic in nature, combining many different targets of ridicule into a fragmented satiric narrative similar to a novel. The term is used by classical grammarians and by philologists mostly to refer to satires in prose (cf. the verse satires of Juvenal and his imitators).
Menippus, whose works are now lost, influenced the works of Lucian and Marcus Terentius Varro; such satires are sometimes termed Varronian satire, although Varro's own 150 books of Menippean satires survive only through quotations. The genre continued in the writings of Seneca the Younger, whose Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) is the only near-complete classical Menippean satire to survive. The Menippean tradition is later evident in Petronius's' Satyricon, especially in the banquet scene "Cena Trimalchionis," which combines epic, tragedy, and philosophy with verse and prose. In Apuleius' Golden Ass, the form is combined with the comic novel.
Menippean satire moves rapidly between styles and points of view. Such satires deal less with human characters than with the single-minded mental attitudes, or "humors," that they represent: the pedant, the braggart, the bigot, the miser, the quack, the seducer, etc. Critic Northrop Frye observed that "the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect"; he illustrated this distinction by positing Squire Western (from The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling) as a character rooted in novelistic realism, but the tutors Thwackum and Square as figures of Menippean satire.
Menippean satire plays a special role in Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the novel. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Bakhtin treats Menippean satire as one of the classical "serio-comic" genres, alongside Socratic dialogue and other forms that Bakhtin claims are united by a "carnival sense of the world," wherein "carnival is the past millennia's way of sensing the world as one great communal performance" and is "opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change." Authors of "Menippea" in Bakhtin's sense include Voltaire, Diderot and E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Contemporary scholars including Frye classify Swift's A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, François Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman as Menippean satires.
The two most influential Latin satirists from Roman antiquity are Horace and Juvenal, who lived during the early days of the Roman Empire. Other Roman satirists include Lucilius and Persius. In the ancient world, the first to discuss satire critically was Quintilian, who invented the term to describe the writings of Lucilius. Pliny reports that the 6th century B.C.E. poet Hipponax wrote satirae that were so cruel that the offended hanged themselves.
Criticism of Roman emperors (notably Augustus) needed to be presented in veiled, ironic terms - but the term "satire" when applied to Latin works actually is much wider than in the modern sense of the word, including fantastic and highly colored humorous writing with little or no real mocking intent.
Examples from the Early Middle Ages include songs by goliards or vagants now best known as an anthology called Carmina Burana and made famous as texts of a composition by the twentieth century composer Carl Orff. Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular, although little has survived. With the advent of the High Middle Ages and the birth of modern vernacular literature in the twelfth century, it began to be used again, most notably by Chaucer. The disrespectful tone of satire was considered "un-Christian" and discouraged, with the exception of "moral satire," which criticized misbehavior from a Christian perspective. Examples include Livre des Manières (~1170) as well as some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Epic poetry as well as aspects of feudal society were also satirized, but there was hardly a general interest in the genre.
After the reawakening of Roman literary traditions in the Renaissance, the satires Till Eulenspiegel (a cycle of tales popular in the Middle Ages) and Reynard the Fox (a series of versified animal tales) were published. New satires, such as Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, (Narrenschiff) (1494), Erasmus's' Moriae Encomium (1509), and Thomas More's Utopia (1516) were also widely disseminated.
The English writers thought of satire as related to the notoriously rude, coarse and sharp "satyr" play. Elizabethan "satire" (typically in pamphlet form) therefore contains more straightforward abuse than subtle irony. The French Huguenot Isaac Casaubon discovered and published Quintilian's writing and thus presented the original meaning of the term. He pointed out in 1605 that satire in the Roman fashion was something altogether more civilized. Wittiness again became more important, and seventeenth-century English satire again increasingly aimed at the "amendment of vices."
Farcical texts such as the works of François Rabelais tackled more serious issues (and incurred the wrath of the crown as a result). In the Age of Enlightenment, astute and biting satire of institutions and individuals became a popular weapon of such writers as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. John Dryden also wrote an influential essay on satire that helped fix its definition in the literary world.
Swift was one of the greatest of Anglo-Irish satirists, and one of the first to practice modern journalistic satire. For instance, his "A Modest Proposal" suggested that poor Irish parents be encouraged to sell their children as food, a program he disingenuously argued would benefit both society and parents. His essay "The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters"' satirically argued that dissenters from established Church doctrine should be vigorously persecuted. And in his best-known work, Gulliver's Travels Swift examined the flaws in human society and English life in particular through a traveler's encounter with fanciful societies compromised by familiar human foibles. Swift created a moral fiction in which parents do not have their primary responsibility to protect their children from harm, or in which freedom of religion is reduced to the freedom to conform. His purpose was to attack indifference to the plight of the desperately poor, and to advocate freedom of conscience.
The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire was perhaps the most influential figure of the Enlightenment and his comic novella Candide (1759) remains one of the most entertaining and widely read satires in the Western literary canon. The book pillories the fashionable optimism associated with the philosopher Leibniz, but was widely banned because of its political and religious criticisms and scandalous sexual content. In the book, Dr. Pangloss teaches Candide that, despite appearances, they live in the "best of all possible worlds." Following a horrific series of misadventures, including the destruction of Lisbon by the great earthquake, tsunami, and fire in 1755, and imprisonment by the Portuguese Inquisition, Pangloss is left as a beggar infected with syphilis. Yet the philosopher remains unshaken in is principles. "I still hold to my original opinions, because, after all, I'm a philosopher, and it wouldn't be proper for me to recant, since Leibniz cannot be wrong, and since preestablished harmony is the most beautiful thing in the world, along with the plenum and subtle matter." "Panglossian" has since entered the lexicon as an expression of simple-minded optimism.
Several satiric papers competed for the public's attention in the Victorian era and Edwardian period, such as Punch and Fun. Perhaps the most enduring examples of Victorian satire, however, are to be found in the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. In fact, in The Yeomen of the Guard, a jester is given lines that paint a very neat picture of the method and purpose of the satirist, and might almost be taken as a statement of Gilbert's own intent:
Mark Twain was a perhaps the greatest American satirist. His novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set in the antebellum South, uses Huck's naive innate goodness to lampoon prevailing racist attitudes. His hero, Huck, is a rather simple but good-hearted lad who is ashamed of the "sinful temptation" that leads him to help a runaway slave. His conscience—warped by the distorted moral world he has grown up in—often bothers him most at the moment that he seeks to follow his good impulses against what passes for morality in society.
Twain's younger contemporary Ambrose Bierce gained notoriety as a cynic, pessimist and black humorist with his dark, bitterly ironic stories, many set during the American Civil War, which satirized the limitations of human perception and reason. Bierce's most famous work of satire is probably The Devil's Dictionary, (begun 1881 to 1906), in which the definitions mock cant, hypocrisy and received wisdom.
In nineteenth century autocratic Russia, literature, especially satire, was the only form of political speech that could pass through censorship. Aleksandr Pushkin, often considered the father of Russian literature, satirized the aristocratic conventions and fashions of the day in his colloquial tales of Russian life, such as the novel in verse Eugene Onegin. The works of Nikolai Gogol, especially his short stories "The Nose" and "The Overcoat" as well as his play "The Inspector General" and his great black comic novel, Dead Souls, lampooned the bureaucracy as well as the brutishness of provincial life. Gogol's works operate on a more profound level as well, addressing not only the hypocrisy of a country obsessed with social status, but the foibles of the human soul.
In the early twentieth century, satire was put to serious use by authors such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to address the dangers of the sweeping technological and social changes as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the development of modern ideologies, such as communism. Huxley's Brave New World is a grim, in many ways prescient story of a futuristic society in which free will has been virtually extirpated. Citizens are monitored for "antisocial" tendencies; sex is ubiquitous recreation, even among children, and drugs are administered as part of a policy to ensure that people remain docile. George Orwell's novel 1984, written in 1947/1948 as a result of the Spanish Civil War's atrocities, describes a much harsher and punitive dystopia in which every action is monitored by all-knowing Big Brother, a god-like authority recalling the cult of personality of communist rulers such as Joseph Stalin. Orwell's Animal Farm is a political parable in which animals overthrow the authority of the farmer and take power. The novel satirizes the rise of political tyranny after the Russian Revolution and communist promise of proletarian power, freedom from authoritarian rule, and the eventual withering away of the machinery of the state.
In film, similar uses of satire included Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times about the dehumanization of modern technology, and The Great Dictator (1940) about the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Many social critics of the time, such as Dorothy Parker and H. L. Mencken used satire as their main weapon, and Mencken in particular is noted for having said that "one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms" in the persuasion of the public to accept a criticism. Novelist Sinclair Lewis was known for his satirical stories such as Babbitt, Main Street, and It Can't Happen Here. His books often explored and satirized contemporary American values.
Later in the century, Joseph Heller's great satiric novel, Catch-22, (first published in 1961) lampooned the mentality of bureaucracy and the military, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century. The title of his novel has become the very expression used to convey a situation in which a desired outcome is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical conditions.
The Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb from 1964 was a popular black comedy in the vein of Catch-22 that satirized the Cold War. A more humorous brand of satire enjoyed a renaissance in the UK in the early 1960s with the Satire Boom, led by such luminaries as Peter Cook, John Cleese, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, David Frost, Eleanor Bron and Dudley Moore and the television programme That Was The Week That Was.
Tom Wolfe's late novels, such as Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, presented panoramic pictures of modern life using many of the standard devises of satire while consciously utilizing the realistic novel form of such nineteenth-century literary masters as Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Elliot, and Honore Balzac.
Satire continues to be a popular and relevant form of political and social criticism. American television program Saturday Night Live's mockery of the mild press scrutiny of the Barak Obama presidential campaign, for example, led to an almost immediate reevaluation of press coverage and much harsher questioning by reporters and debate moderators. Other popular programs, such as the mock right-wing Colbert Report and John Stewart Show, present stinging, generally one-sided critiques of conservative policies. The popular, long running animated comedy The Simpsons playfully satirizes virtually every aspect of modern society by presenting exaggerated caricatures of modern character types, lifestyles, and even celebrity personalities.
Because satire is criticism usually cloaked in humor, it frequently escapes censorship. Periodically, however, it runs into serious opposition. In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift and the Bishop of London George Abbot, whose offices had the function of licensing books for publication in England, issued a decree banning verse satire. The decree ordered the burning of certain volumes of satire by John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Joseph Hall, and others. It also required histories and plays to be specially approved by a member of the Queen's Privy Council, and it prohibited the future printing of satire in verse. The motives for the ban are obscure, particularly since some of the books banned had been licensed by the same authorities less than a year earlier. Various scholars have argued that the target was obscenity, libel, or sedition. It seems likely that lingering anxiety about the Martin Marprelate controversy, in which the bishops themselves had employed satirists, played a role; both Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, two of the key figures in that controversy, suffered a complete ban on all their works. In the event, though, the ban was little enforced, even by the licensing authority itself.
In the early years of the United States, the press engaged in vicious satirical attacks on many of the leading statesmen of the founding era, notably Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. The immoderate attacks by crude pamphleteers such as James Callendar during the Adams administration led in part to the ill-advised Alien and Sedition Acts, which censored political speech as seditious. The Acts were soon nullified, but Adams suffered politically as a result and lost the election of 1800 to his arch rival Jefferson.
More recently, in Italy the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi threatened to sue RAI Television for its satirical series, Raiot, Satyricon, and Sciuscià, and even a special series on Berlusconi himself, arguing that they were vulgar and full of disrespect to the government. RAI stopped the show, but in legal proceedings won the right to broadcast. However, the show never went on air again.
Perhaps the most famous recent example occurred in 2005, when the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark caused global protests by offended Muslims and violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. It was not the first case of Muslim protests against criticism in the form of satire, but the Western world was surprised by the hostility of the reaction in which embassies were attacked and 139 people died. Leaders throughout Europe agreed that satire was a protected aspect of the freedom of speech, while Muslims and many ecumenical leaders of other faiths denounced the inflammatory cartoons as gratuitously insulting to people of faith.
Satire has often been used to mock sincerely held religious beliefs, moral convictions, and traditional values. Much modern theater, film, and music have satirized moral and religious beliefs as hopelessly dated, anti-progressive, and motivated by hate or ignorance. Through such extreme caricature—which is how satire achieves its biting effect—ever more boundary-breaking types of entertainment and behavior have avoided censorship and criminal prosecution, at least in the Western world where freedom of speech and freedom of expression are held sacred.
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