Satire: Enlightened Wit in the Age of Reason

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Mad Magazine, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live. In our society, satire is among the most prevalent of comedic forms. This was not always true, for before the 18th century, satire was not a fully developed form. Satire, however, rose out of necessity; writers and artists needed a way to ambiguously criticize their governments, their churches, and their aristocrats. By the 18th century, satire was hugely popular. Satire as an art form has its roots in the classics, especially in the Roman Horace's Satires. Satire as it was originally proposed was a form of literature using sarcasm, irony, and wit, to bring about a change in society, but in the eighteenth century Voltaire, Jonathan Swift and William Hogarth expanded satire to include politics, as well as art. The political climate of the time was one of tension. Any criticism of government would bring harsh punishments, sometimes exile or death. In order to voice opinions without fear of punishment, malcontented writers turned to Satire. Voltaire's Candide and Swift's Modest Proposal are two examples of this new genre. By creating a fictional world modeled after the world he hated, Voltaire was able to attack scientists, and theologians with impunity. Jonathan Swift created many fictional worlds in his great work, Gulliver's Travels, where he constantly drew parallels to the English government.

The new form was not limited to literature alone, William Hogarth expanded Satire to include art as well. His series of paintings, A Rake's Progress, narrate the life of a young man in eighteenth century London. Hogarth's paintings also illustrate that anything can be the object of satire, as he made fun of every aspect of life, not simply the institutions of religion, science, and politics. Although not all Satire dealt with religion, science and politics, the most notable satirist of the time, Voltaire confined his writings to these subjects. His style, which has been widely used in our time, is to portray a member of the society he is satirizing as foolish and hypocritical. In one of his more famous works, Candide, Voltaire repeatedly mocks the supposedly all-knowing philosophers with the character of Dr. Pangloss, professor of "metaphysicotheologicocosmolo-nigology" (Lamm 175). Voltaire portrays this man of science as very misguided, not the brilliant thinker one would expect. Evidence of this is seen in the Dr.'s proudest accomplishment, "he proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause (Lamm 175).
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