SATIRE (Social Science)

The word satire is often thought to be derived from the Latin word satura, originally meaning the vessel used for carrying harvest produce. It came to mean a mixture, and then a mixed form of entertainment that people might have at harvest time, consisting of songs, jokes, and other kinds of humor. In its broadest sense, then, satire is a mixed kind of humorous entertainment related to comedy that focuses on people and their behavior.

In a more particular sense, satire is a literary form, traced back to the Romans and in particular to the works of Juvenal (c. 50/60-127 CE) and Horace (65-8 BCE), who both wrote about their own times, though in different tones. Horace is characterized as more urbane and witty, Juvenal as more savage and critical. For these writers, a satire was a particular sort of poem with a strict form and specific content. It was this definition that pervaded English literature in the work of John Donne (15721631), John Dryden (1631-1700), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

From the Renaissance onward, the works of Horace and Juvenal, together with works by other great Greek and Roman writers, including Homer (ninth to eighth century BCE), Virgil (70-19 BCE), and Ovid (43 BCE-c. 17 CE), were the basis of an educated person’s reading. The one hundred years from the Restoration in 1660 constituted the great age of satire in English literature, known as the Augustan Age, referring to the period in ancient Rome when Augustus Caesar (63 BCE-14 CE) was the first emperor. English writers produced their own translations or versions of such classical works. For example, the "Epistle to Arbuthnot" (1735) is Alexander Pope’s prologue to his own imitation of Horace’s satires, and Dr. Johnson based his London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) on Juvenal’s Satires 3 and 10.

The eighteenth century, however, also saw the rise of prose satire, especially in the works of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), whose Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country (1729) have influenced most satirical writers since.

One significant reason for the pervasiveness and popularity of satire in England during the eighteenth century may have been people’s reactions to the disorder and division that they experienced during the civil war of the 1640s. Satire became an effective method of drawing attention to the ways in which human behavior falls short of its ideal and of trying to correct that within an accepted political and social framework. The job of the satirist, therefore, became, as Jonathan Swift put it, "to cure the vices of mankind." It is this moral purpose that underlies great satirical achievements.

Along with this moral purpose, features that distinguish satire from other kinds of writing are its flexibility of tone and its consistent use of wit and irony. The most consistent target for satire in any period is hypocrisy, and the predominant method is irony, where the reader always has to be alert to the conflict between the literal and actual meanings of what is being said. Hence, although the golden age is perhaps the greatest age of satire in English and although writing is the dominant form of satire, nevertheless satire appears in many different periods and in many different forms: writing, painting, and more recently television and film.

It is often the case that effective satire can be ephemeral. Particular examples of hypocrisy come and go quickly, and so references can soon become dated as their occasion slips from memory. Obvious examples may be found in the contemporary television series South Park or The Simpsons or in political caricatures or cartoons.

There is also a sense in which satire is culture bound. Because it depends on wit and irony, it is neither accessible nor thriving in societies and groups where fundamentalism or literalism is the prevailing ethos. Throughout history there have been those who can only read literally and who have therefore missed the whole thrust of a satirical work. This was true of some readers of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, just as it has been true of some viewers of the satirical film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006).

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