University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
collapse sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 


Aristotle speaks in his Poetics of a kind of poetry
(iambics) which portrays “the actions of inferior men”
(IV, 9), but the word satura (originally an adjective
meaning “mixed” or “of various composition”) and the
conception of satire as a definite type of poetry with
a definable style first appears in Rome in the first
century B.C., most importantly in the writings of
Horace. When the first-century A.D. rhetorician
Quintilian writes, Satura... tota nostra est (“Rome is
preeminent in satire,” Institutio oratoria, X, 93), he
means, however, to claim Roman superiority only in
that kind of satiric writing now known as formal verse
satire—a collection of short verse satires in which the
satirist directly attacks and denounces a variety of men
and practices—written first by Lucilius, refined and
stabilized by Horace, and further developed by Juvenal
and Persius. The word “satire” has come, however, to
be the general term for any kind of writing which
attacks, directly or indirectly, something which is hated
or feared. In one direction the word expands into the
adjective “satiric,” vaguely referring to any slightly
muted expression of hostility; and in the other direction
it narrows to a particular literary genre or myth, like
comedy, tragedy, and epic, with a characteristic subject
matter, style, and structure. As a genre, it should be
distinguished from the perspectives or modes—lyric,
narrative, and dramatic—through which it is variously

The history of satire from its primitive beginnings
to its highest levels of development is a series of
attempts to manage and use a fundamental attitude
or human energy which is nakedly open in the crudest
satire and is still expressed in some fairly direct form
in even the most polished literary satires. Juvenal's Si
natura negat, facit indignatio versum
(“Though nature
says no, indignation shapes my poetry”; I, 79) reveals
precisely that quality of fury and outrage which drives
most satire. The desire to attack and overwhelm those
things which are hated and feared, for whatever reason,
comes through openly in Swift's “Drown the world!
I am not content with despising it, but I would anger
it, if I could with safety” (Letter to Pope, Nov. 26,
1725). It is there in Pope's “strong Antipathy of Good
to Bad” (Epilogue to the Satires, Dialogue II [1738],
198), and in John Marston's “I cannot chuse but bite”
(The Scourge of Villanie [1598], Satire VIII). Even
when the hostility is not openly expressed, it is latent
in the ugly ways in which satire characteristically
presents its victims, and in the imagery traditionally
associated with the satiric attack: biting, flaying,
throwing acid, whipping, administering purgatives, and
anatomizing. In those works where the author creates
a character embodying the pure satiric impulse and
develops the logic of this attitude to its absurd but
revealing extreme, the satiric figure ends isolated from
society, hating all that man does and is. Shakespeare's
Timon retires naked to the desert to curse man and
nature, to intrigue against Athens, and finally to kill
himself; Gulliver goes to live in the stable, preferring
the company of horses to that of men; Molière's Alceste
in Le Misanthrope leaves Paris, and the vital though
morally imperfect Célimène, for that “wild, trackless,
solitary place,” where he can “forget the human race”;
and Tod Hackett, the satiric painter in Nathanael
West's The Day of the Locust (1939), ends broken and
insane, wailing like a siren to announce all the disasters
past and to come.

Such direct and indirect revelations of motive permit
us to see the relationship of sophisticated literary satires
to cruder, more direct expressions of the same power
in primitive satiric spells and curses used to banish and
destroy the dark forces, human and natural, which
threaten the well-being of the community. In pre-
classical Greece, satire was used in various early fertil-
ity rituals to invoke the good and banish evil through
the imperative magic of the curse. Among the Arabian
tribes the satirist rode in the van of the army hurling
curses like spears at the enemies before him. The an-
cient Irish satirists, of whom particularly full records
exist, not only were capable of dealing with community
problems by means of satiric spells but were credited,
down to the seventeenth century, with the ability to
perform such useful but humble tasks as rhyming rats
to death.


This use of language like a fist and the belief in the
power of the curse have never died. Anthropologists
describe shame-cultures in which public ridicule will
cause a man to retire to his house and die, and we
hear of flyting contests in which two opponents stand
and hurl insults at one another until the weaker is
overwhelmed by sheer vituperation. The crude ener-
gies of satire are present even in what Benjamin
DeMott (“The Age of Overkill,” New York Times Mag-
May 19, 1968) has called “the mindless cycle
of super taunts” so characteristic of our own time of
“habitual irascibility” when—like the generals who
build enough weapons to kill every human being three
times over—men use the language of overkill: hundred-
megaton dirty weapons like, “The white race is the
cancer of history,” “The family is the American fas-
cism,” and, repeated like a primitive chant, “The mid-
dle class are just like pigs.”

Magical spells, incantations, curses, invective,
lampoons, verbal overkill, and the language of hard-
attack are not satire, in the sense that the word is
ordinarily used, but rather the substratum of satire, the
world of verbal anger and violence which always exists
in a multitude of extra-literary forms just beyond the
edges of art. Civilized societies, while aware of the
usefulness of invective and curse, have always been
nervously alert to the dangers of uncontrolled aggres-
siveness and unchained fury such as can still be felt
in the curse of the Greek satirist Archilochus (seventh
century B.C.) on one of his enemies: “Shivering with
cold, covered with filth washed up by the sea, with
chattering teeth like a dog, may he lie helplessly on
his face at the edge of the strand amidst the breakers—
this 'tis my wish to see him suffer, who has trodden
his oaths underfoot, him who was once my friend”
(Strassburg frag., 97A). Beyond this, there remains
always the danger that the satirist instead of employing
his skills for the good of the community may use them
for such personal ends as Archilochus did when he
cursed King Lycambes and his daughter, causing them
to hang themselves, simply because he had been denied
the hand of the princess. This same arbitrary use of
satiric power appears in a number of Irish stories about
groups of satirists who descend upon a kingdom and
make outrageous demands for food, money, and
women. If their requests are denied they blight the
king and his land with their curses. Even when the
anger is controlled and the attack directed at a socially
sanctioned target, satire still continues to generate
considerable uneasiness because it seems always to go
too far. An attack upon a corrupt lawyer becomes
inevitably an attack upon the law itself; an attack upon
excessive authority grows into a questioning of the very
principle of authority.

Another Irish story, The Great Visitation to Guaire,
suggests the way in which society has curbed and
channeled the power of satire. The satirist Dallan
demands from King Hugh a magic shield which makes
weak all those who look upon it. Hugh refuses to part
with his most precious possession, and Dallan then
proceeds to curse (satirize) him. But since the curse
of Dallan is unjust, used only for personal profit, and
without truth, it rebounds on the satirist, and Dallan
dies within three days, while King Hugh continues to
live and prosper. The point is clear: satire is required
to be both just and true if it is to work; if untrue, it
harms the man who speaks it. The same requirement
is imposed in legal terms in the Roman libel laws and
in the prohibition against Greek Old Comedy and its
scurrilous attacks in the plays of Aristophanes on such
historical figures as Socrates and Euripides.

Perhaps because our documents are from a period
when the process was far advanced, it is as impossible
to trace exactly the steps by which curses were trans-
formed into literary satire as it is to trace the parallel
social and psychological movement in which education,
religion, law, and the other powers of society gradually
exerted some degree of control and restraint on human
aggression in general. Both patterns are complicated
enormously, of course, by frequent regressions of such
severity as to make it doubtful if there has been any
change at all. But despite such slippages, satire has
evolved from curse to art, and many of the devices
and techniques which we take to be characteristic of
the genre function not merely to hide but to justify
and make socially acceptable and useful the enormous
powers of militant anger.

Most obviously the authors of satire have accepted,
though often with tongue in cheek, the requirement
that their attacks be true. Every satirist endeavors to
persuade in some manner that he has along with Pope
“stoop'd to truth, and moralized his song” (Epistle to
Dr. Arbuthnot,
line 341); that he is with Byron a
“Columbus of the moral seas” who will “show mankind
their Soul's antipodes” (Don Juan, XIV, line 101); that
his subject is with Juvenal quidquid agunt homines
(“the things men do,” I, 85); and that he deals like
Ben Jonson only in “deeds, and language, such as men
doe use” (Every Man In, Prologue, 21). Despite the
obvious exaggeration characteristic of the genre, satire
makes extensive use of an elaborate apparatus of
verisimilitude—maps are drawn, street names given,
genealogies drawn up, fantastic objects precisely named
and described—and solemn assurance is offered that
the language is plain and simple like the subject, that
truth replaces style because the satirist is only a
reporter of things that are. “Shocking though it may
seem,” the satirist is always saying, “this is the way


the world truly is,” and he then proves his point by
shifting from denunciation to description or pres-
entation of idiocy and vice in all their remarkable

This shift from denunciation to presentation, the
removal of the emphasis from the attacker to the thing
attacked, though it has not taken place steadily and
evenly, is still the most prominent line of development
in Western satire, and the major way in which satirists
have met the social requirement that any display of
aggression be based on truth. In Roman satura the
attack is managed by a speaker who denounces directly
the foolish and vicious world; and while it is possible
to argue that the speaker is not Horace or Juvenal
but a persona designed for the satiric purpose, the
effect is still to locate, despite all protestations of
objectivity, the point of view in the speaker himself,
and thereby to force on him sole responsibility for the
attack. The charge that the fault lies not in a corrupt
world but in the intemperate character of the satirist
was met in part in satura by portraying him in as
favorable a light as possible—the mild, tolerant,
amused “Horace” is the best example—and was
handled in Renaissance England by the construction
of a standard persona that the satiric poet was expected
to assume. Elaborating an old false etymology which
derived “satire” from “satyr,” the Elizabethans con-
structed a satyr-satirist who incorporated all the traits
thought appropriate to these rough, woodland gods and
all the traditionally feared psychic qualities underlying
uncontrolled attack: sadism, brutality, uncontrolled
anger, prurience, envy, frustration, and imbalance.
Under the cover of this persona several generations of
English satirists—chiefly Joseph Hall, Virgidemiarum
(1597-98), and John Marston, The Scourge of Villanie
(1598-99)—were able to attack the social ills and the
follies of Renaissance Englishmen with a savagery and
violence which would ordinarily be unacceptable. Isaac
Casaubon gave the true etymology of “satire” in his
De satyrica Graecorum poesi et Romanorum satira
(1605), but it was not generally understood and
accepted until nearly a century later.

The more usual way, however, of handling the prob-
lem of the satirist has been to portray him as a simple,
ordinary, humble figure who would never dream of
doing anything so unpleasant as writing satire if the
wickedness and stupidity of the world were not so
overwhelming as to make it inescapably necessary. The
prophet come down from the hills to the wicked cities
of the plains, the gawky medieval plowman stubbornly
and quietly speaking truth, the simple scholar nurtured
at the university experiencing the big world for the
first time, the fool too innocent to know that men do
not speak of what is plain for all to see: these are all
variants of the standard type of ironic satirist brought
to perfection by Alexander Pope in his Epistle to Dr.
Arbuthnot, Imitations of Horace,
and the two dialogues
of the Epilogue to the Satires. In these works he care-
fully constructs a charming picture of a modest and
gentle “Pope” raised in innocence by kind and harmless
parents, retiring from the world, mildly accepting
insults, until at last he is driven, reluctantly, into reply-
ing to his enemies. “Fools rush into my Head, and so
I write” (Imitation of “The First Satire of the Second
Book of Horace,” line 14).

The gap between author and satirist implicit in the
elaboration of fictitious personae in formal verse satire
grows wider in those narrative and dramatic works
where the author disappears and the satirist becomes
a character in his own right, responsible for the attack
and for any unpleasantness that may be associated with
it. Such a figure may be either an ironic simpleton like
Folly in Erasmus' Praise of Folly, Voltaire's Candide,
or Joseph Heller's Yossarian in Catch-22; or he may
be a hard attacker like Shakespeare's Thersites in
Troilus and Cressida, Ben Jonson's Macilente in Every
Man Out of His Humour,
or Alceste in Molière's Le

The master of the fictitious satirist is, however,
Jonathan Swift, who seems to have played all possible
turns on the device. His regular method is to construct
a satirist who attacks effectively some aspect of human
folly, as Gulliver attacks human pride, as the political
economist in A Modest Proposal attacks the wasteful
economic practices of the English in Ireland, or as the
amateur scientist in The Mechanical Operation of the
attacks religious dissent and enthusiasm. But as
the attack proceeds, the satirist gradually reveals him-
self as being at least as foolish and wicked as his vic-
tims. Usually he is guilty of the same sins in a more
intense, unsuspected way: Gulliver the misanthrope
living with horses is supremely proud and stupid, the
“Modest Proposer” who plans to reduce the Irish pop-
ulation and provide needed income by selling babies
for meat is more cruel and inhumane in his science
than the English in their indifference, and the fellow
of the Royal Society is more mechanical and lacking
in true spirit than the poor fanatics he castigates.

Swift's method for handling the satirist merges with
that variety of satire where the satirist disappears
altogether, and the fools and dunces are simply pre-
sented in the fullness of idiocy. This type of satire—
sometimes called Menippean or Varronian, but more
aptly called “situational satire” by Ricardo Quintana—
existed side by side with first-person satire from the
beginning, and has gradually become the dominant
satiric method. Its chief virtue in accommodating satire
to the restrictions placed by society on the display of


anger is, of course, that it permits the author to retire
altogether from the combat and leave the stage to fools
who convict themselves in words and actions, as do
the advocates of war and sophistry in Aristophanes'
plays, the vulgar merchant Trimalchio in The Satyricon
of Petronius, the philosophers in Lucian's satires, the
greedy dreamers in Jonson's Alchemist, the dunces of
Pope's Dunciad, George III and Southey in Byron's
Vision of Judgment, the pompous, muddle-headed
Englishmen of Evelyn Waugh's satiric novels.

The attempt to displace the responsibility for satiric
anger and attack has been paralleled by the develop-
ment of other techniques for making satire socially
acceptable. Society, while demanding that charges be
true, has also continued to insist that the expression
of anger be limited in intensity, qualified in some
manner, and that it be released only for specified rea-
sons on sanctioned occasions. Freud perceived that
aggression is acceptable when expressed indirectly in
the form of a joke, and wit has been the principal
means by which satire has made itself respectable. The
presence of wit in the midst of anger and attack per-
haps signals that the violent emotions are still under
control, restrained and organized by the rational
faculties, tempered by some self-awareness. Wit, in
Dryden's terms, is the “difference betwixt the slovenly
butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that
separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing
in its place” (Essay on Satire, 1693), and no literary
kind shows the exercise of such persistent ingenuity
in honing its cutting edge as satire. Wit, construed not
just as humor, but as cleverness, ingenuity, and style,
appears most obviously in the persistent efforts of
satirists to find a clever strategy, an unusual and sur-
prising angle of attack. Diatribe and denunciation are
avoided in favor of such devices as beast fables, letters
of obscure men, ships of fools, presentations of fantastic
schemes, praise of the ridiculous, attempts to enter
Heaven, trips through a looking-glass, auctions of
philosophers, and anti-utopias.

When Byron admits that “One should not rail without
a decent cause” (Don Juan, II, line 119), he speaks for
all satirists who have accepted society's view that
attack must be limited to those men and practices
which are dangerous and evil by generally accepted
standards. Satirists have thus been forced to prove that
their specific targets are indeed evil. This has been done
in the crudest way by delivering a sermon on wicked-
ness, as Juvenal frequently does, or it has been managed
by forcing the fools to condemn themselves from their
own mouths and bring about evil results by their ac-
tions. The required moral standard has been invoked
frequently as a lost age of innocence or departed
grandeur mocked by the ghastly and ludicrous preten
sions of the present. Mock fairy tale, pastoral, epic,
and other inverted forms are common satiric strategies.
In the very greatest satire the moral standard is em-
bedded in the texture of the work itself. The meaning-
ful and real world, which the fools are perverting, is
always present in the imagery of Ben Jonson's satiric
plays, in the steady, even, balanced couplets of Dryden
and Pope, and in the endless onward flow of verse and
events in Byron's Don Juan.

It has been proposed that the most inventive and
effective satire is written in times when the satirist is
in real danger for his attacks. While it is not at all
certain that the quality of satire increases directly with
the intensity of political, literary, and ethical censor-
ship, there is no question that the history of satire and
the development of some of its most prominent char-
acteristics can be understood as an uneven but contin-
uing process of making anger and attack morally and
socially acceptable. It would be a mistake to think,
however, that the many techniques used to accomplish
this end are mere disguises or concealments of human
aggressiveness; rather, the aggressiveness has been
shaped, ordered, and transformed into more meaningful
and useful forms.

But the history of satire can be viewed in another
way, contradictory at first but ultimately comple-
mentary. In the great continuing line of Western
literary satire extending from Aristophanes, through
the Roman and the great French and English neo-
classical satirists, to such moderns as Brecht, Huxley,
Waugh, Orwell, and Ionesco, the attack has been
directed at a great variety of men, ways of thought,
and institutions. Aristophanes attacks the war party of
Athens and the new sophistry; Horace slyly mocks the
frenzied busyness of the Roman status seekers; Juvenal
thunders at the corrupting influences of Asiatic customs
and luxury on the simple virtues of old republican
Rome; uncounted numbers of medieval satirists cata-
logue the foulness of women and the abominations of
a corrupt clergy; Ben Jonson attacks Renaissance ma-
terialism and the humanistic dream of the unlimited
powers of man; Swift reveals the dreadful truth be-
neath unrealistic beliefs in the goodness of human
nature and the inevitability of scientific progress;
Voltaire follows to its bitter end the remarkable belief
that this is the best of all possible worlds; Byron exposes
the lifelessness and stupidity which underlie the bright
surface of the early nineteenth-century establishment;
Gogol tracks the callous indifference to humanity and
the mechanical set of mind in Russian officialdom and
society; Huxley holds up to contempt the views of
modern sociology and science which seek utopia but
create a hell; Orwell reveals the terror implicit in
totalitarian, dictatorial government; and Ionesco makes


manifest the herd instinct, the savagery, and the stu-
pidity on which middle-class life and institutions rest.

On the surface, the objects of satire's attacks have
been wide and various, but beneath the variety a re-
markably similar world takes shape. The old gods of
light and order die, and their places are taken by idols:
Horace's Priapus (I, 8), the stupid deities of Lucian's
Icaromenippus, Golding's Lord of the Flies. The sacred
places are defiled: Jerome's description of the use of
Christ's birthplace for an assignation; the rites per-
verted: the ceremonies of bona dea transformed to an
orgy in Juvenal's Satire VI; theology becomes a
mockery: Swift's argument against the abolishment of
Christianity; piety a pretense: Molière's Tartuffe. His-
tory becomes a record of futility and loss in the in-
verted translatio studii in Book III of The Dunciad
where ignorance rather than light moves across the
world from east to west; the past is lost forever in the
colossal “dream dump” of Nathanael West's Day of
the Locust,
where the record of human struggle and
courage is reduced to the artificiality of Hollywood
sets jumbled together in meaningless chaos.

The scene of nature darkens and the peaceable king-
dom gives way to the ravaged German countryside of
Voltaire's Candide, the fetid jungle where life abounds
without meaning in which Tony Last wanders at the
end of Waugh's Handful of Dust, or the universal
darkness covering all at the end of The Dunciad. The
innocent lamb and the gentle ox are replaced by
Brecht's shark with its pretty teeth, Ionesco's thunder-
ing hippopotamus, Jonson's flesh-fly buzzing around the
dying fox, and, most terrible of all, the Yahoo.

The City of Man ceases to be the emblem of com-
munity and art, and becomes the polyglot confusion
of Juvenal's second-century Rome; the savage,
dangerous, unlighted London of John Gay's Trivia
(1716); James Thomson's “City of Dreadful Night”
(1874); the garbage-strewn, decaying, tyrannically ruled
metropolis of George Orwell's 1984. The men of this
city no longer assemble for traditional purposes but
gather in gangs for pillage as in Henry Fielding's
Jonathan Wild (1743), or swirl about, violently and
mindlessly, in anarchic mobs like the aimless, chatter-
ing crowd of The Dunciad or the excitement-seekers
who coagulate before Kahn's Persian Palace in the
Hollywood of West's Day of the Locust. In quieter
moments, men move mechanically through grotesque
rituals such as the Lilliputian “leaping and creeping,”
or they pass bored and filled with ennui through the
empty requirements of society in the country seat of
the Amundevilles in Don Juan. In this fragmented and
meaningless world, every man's hand is ultimately
set against his fellow, and this relentless antagonism
frequently culminates in cannibalism (Juvenal's Satire
XV, Swift's Modest Proposal, Byron's Don Juan, and
Waugh's Black Mischief).

Traditional human relationships and the forms in
which they are expressed become perverse and gro-
tesque. The family in Jonson's Volpone takes the gro-
tesque form of Volpone's household in which the
“children” are a dwarf, hermaphrodite, and eunuch,
begotten in drunkenness on street beggars and kept
only for amusement. Eating becomes gluttony, and the
banquet turns into the orgy of vulgarity at Trimalchio's
in Petronius' The Satyricon. Love becomes the cynical
bargains of Lucian's Dialogues of the Heterae, marriage
the opportunity for adultery of William Wycherly's
Plain Dealer, and sex the ugly perversity of Juvenal's
pathic angrily protesting the immorality of the rich
man who has tired of him and cast him off.

Human institutions and the arts, originally designed
to further life and preserve human values, turn sour
and become instruments of tyranny and means to deso-
lation. In satire, law is the stupid, self-satisfied lawyers
and cruel judges of Daumier; government is the rule
of Orwell's Big Brother; education is Waugh's Scone
College, Oxon., and Llanabba Hall of Dr. Augustus
Fagan, Ph.D.; science is the alchemy of Jonson's
projectors, the schemes of Swift's pedants, and the
inhumanity of Huxley's Brave New World. Learning
becomes the organized ignorance of Swift's Laputa,
the uselessness of Lucian's philosophers in Sale of Lives,
the sophistics of Aristophanes' Socrates; language the
instrument of pretense used to mask the idiocy of Pope's
Dunces, the Newspeak of 1984, the means to domina-
tion of Ionesco's The Lesson.

The traditional architectonics, the ways in which the
images of satire are organized and their dynamics
shown, underline the disorderliness, the perversity, the
sterility, and the meaninglessness inherent in the com-
ponents of the satiric world. In keeping with the origi-
nal meaning of the word satura, satire usually lacks
a consistent, even development and an obviously
harmonic arrangement of parts. Both first-person
formal and third-person narrative satire consists of
flickering vignettes, a series of brief, seemingly un-
related scenes. This newsreel technique of rapid, abrupt
shifts intensifies the already powerful tendencies to
fragmentation and meaninglessness.

This characteristic broken scene of satire is seldom
if ever dominated by a single heroic figure, or even
by a limited central cast, as is the case in comedy or
tragedy. Where one figure does occupy the limelight
more than others, he is likely to be either the satirist
himself railing on the wicked world, or, more often,
a booby hero (Voltaire's Candide, Swift's Gulliver, or
Waugh's Paul Pennyfeather), innocent, trusting, and
utterly ignorant, to whom the most dreadful things


happen during the course of his travels. Satire does
not, however, ordinarily focus on the private, individ-
ual life, and so it gives us not a hero but a great variety
of diverse people, very lightly sketched, who have in
common only a shared kind of grotesque idiocy, which
is busily at work destroying all sense and meaning. The
human litter of the satiric world is paired with a litter
of inanimate objects, and the satiric world is crammed
to the bursting point with dense numbers of unrelated
things. If in the midst of this jumble any trace of the
good or the ideal remains, it stands upon the edge of
obliteration, finds itself utterly helpless and frustrated,
or, despairing, allows itself to dissolve into the mob
or takes its place in the empty, mechanical movements
of life.

Satire is usually said to lack plot, and it does not,
indeed, in its abrupt, disjunct movements have the
steady Aristotelian progression from a beginning,
through a middle, to an end, which is usual in tragedy
and comedy. But something does happen in satire:
usually all the busy efforts and frantic activities of the
fools eventuate in a regression, or the pure confusion
implicit in their local activities. They rush madly
about, scheme, plan, talk, and cover great distances,
only to end in the same place they began. They make
titanic efforts to raise themselves to godhead and over-
come the limits inherent in nature, only to end lower
than they started. They spread over all creation and
master everything, only to reduce everything to noth-
ing. The inevitability of their defeat and the scheme
of the satiric plot is contained in the projects they
pursue; alchemy, the invention of a perpetual motion
machine, or the creation of utopia.

The diabolic logic of the satiric world, where one
must always run faster to stay in the same place, is
revealed in the great irony at the center of a recent
American satire, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961). In
this novel the bomber pilot requests the flight surgeon
to ground him for psychological reasons. The doctor
points out, however, that as long as he continues flying
and risking his life in this insane war he is, indeed,
crazy and should be grounded. However, the fact that
he is now here, trying to escape and save his life, proves
his sanity, and he is therefore capable of continuing
to fly. Returned to duty!

All writers of satire, whatever their particular bias,
ultimately fear and attack, and by attacking seek to
exorcise the fragmentation, disorder, isolation, and
meaninglessness which have historically been sensed
by the Western mind as the great threats to the con-
tinuity of society and the welfare of the individual.
The magician satirist, the author of the great literary
satires, and even the verbal overkiller of our own time,
all fear and attack the same things, and all use, in
varying degrees, the same traditional symbols—the
jungle, the wasteland, the mob, the machine, and the
beast. They also use certain structural devices—the
fragmented scene, the multiplicity of characters and
things, the reflexive or regressive plot. At the surface
of their satires, of course, they are blaming and attack-
ing identifiable men and specific attitudes—Cardinal
Wolsey, urban and court life, Colley Cibber, Victorian
prudery, modern science, and Stalinism. The strategy
is extremely clever and effective, for by identifying
these men and attitudes with the images of fear and
by making them responsible for the great archetypal
situations of hopelessness and meaninglessness, the
satirist condemns his victims utterly. But in the long
run, the historical and realistic content of satire may
tend to be forgotten, and we may continue to read
the great satires not for what they tell us about the
Rome of the Caesars or the England of Walpole and
Castlereagh, but for what they tell us about our most
fundamental fears as men; about what kind of world
is ultimately unliveable for true human beings. At this
level, in a way appropriate to this most ironic of
literary kinds, satire the engine of anger and hatred
ceases to be divisive and frightening and becomes
instead a source of unification and comfort, which tells
us that beneath the hatreds and antagonisms of the
moment all men ultimately are afraid of the same


Roman satura is discussed most recently and completely
in Satire, Critical Essays on Roman Literature, ed. J. P.
Sullivan (Bloomington, Ind., 1963). The nature of formal
verse satire is detailed by M. C. Randolph, “The Structural
Design of Formal Verse Satire,” Philosophical Quarterly, 21
(1942), 368-84. See also M. C. Randolph, “Celtic Smiths
and Satirists: Partners in Sorcery,” English Literary History,
8 (1941), 127-59, for the relation of magic to the violent
metaphors used by the satirist to describe his art. Primitive
satire and its development into art are the subject of R. C.
Elliott, The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art (Princeton,
1960), the single most important book on the subject of
satire, and one to which this article is heavily indebted.

The gradual shift of emphasis from the satirist to the
object of attack has been traced in great detail in two recent
books, which provide the most useful and complete history
of Western literary satire available: Ronald Paulson, The
Fictions of Satire
(Baltimore, 1967); and idem, Satire and
the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England
(New Haven,
1967). The most useful single work on the nature of third-
person narrative satire is Ricardo Quintana, “Situation as
Satirical Method,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 17
(1947-48), 130-36.

The history and development of satyr-satire is followed
in A. B. Kernan, The Cankered Muse, Satire of the English


Renaissance (New Haven, 1959). The Pope persona and the
general question of satiric personae are treated in Maynard
Mack, “The Muse of Satire,” Yale Review, 41 (1951-52),
80-92; and Swift's mastery of this device is helpfully dis-
cussed in W. B. Ewald, Jr., The Masks of Jonathan Swift
(Cambridge, Mass., 1954); and in Martin Price, Swift's
Rhetorical Art
(New Haven, 1953).

The typical images and symbols of satire were first worked
out by Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton,
1957). Frye's ideas are carried forward and focused helpfully
by Philip Pinkus, “St. George and the Dragon,” Queen's
70 (1963-64), 30-49, where the author argues that
satire is not so much an attack on evil as a sad and con-
temptuous portrayal of its triumph. The characteristic
structure and plot of satire are discussed in A. B. Kernan,
“A Theory of Satire,” The Cankered Muse (New Haven,
1959); and idem, The Plot of Satire (New Haven, 1965).
The latter book attempts to define the differences between
satire and the genres with which it is frequently confused,
tragedy and comedy.

Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., Swift and the Satirist's Art
(Chicago, 1963), argues the case against the possibility of
any general description of a genre so varied in its instances,
and insists that the best definition can be no more than,
“Satire consists of an attack by means of a manifest fiction
upon discernible historical particulars” (p. 31).

For a collection of modern criticism see Ronald Paulson,
ed., Modern Essays in Criticism, Satire (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J., 1971).


[See also Comic; Evil; Irony; Literature; Motif; Style;