Satire is the use of irony, sarcasm, derision, humor, or outright ridicule to highlight folly and vice within the human condition, often directed at revealing such truths about politics, religion, and the like.

Satire: Definition & Etymology

To understand and appreciate satire, it is necessary to first understand and appreciate irony, and sarcasm, as they are the two main pillars on which satirical prose, literature, and art are built. Satire is as old as literature, and poetry, and has been used for centuries to expose the folly of man. So, let us take a quick look at what the etymological tree of the word satire looks like.

etymological tree of the word satire

History of Satire

The form of satire as we know it today was originally developed and utilized in a series of plays by the Greek playwright Aristophanes (in the fifth century BC), which was called 'Old Comedy'. The plays would be revised on a regular basis in order to incorporate current events and provide commentary on military, political, and social events and practices. The use of satire in such manner continued into the era of the Roman empire; however, from the beginning of the Middle Ages, there is little record of Greek and Roman satirical work. Satire was eventually revived and brought back into the public eye around the 12th century AD, and consisted, mainly, of literature and song. Much of satire during this period revolved around the mocking of un-Christian behavior. One such example is Chaucer?s Canterbury Tales.

Due to societal and political changes, satire became even more relevant by the Age of Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Being fed by the evolution of partisan politics in the British Parliament, satire became a strong tool for those making social and political commentary. Some of the most popular writers from that period, who are still well-know today, include Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

This tradition has continued into modern day writing, as well as broadcast journalism and entertainment, championed by television shows such as The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.

Types of Satire by Tone, Class, and Medium

There are three types of satire, classified by the tone, topic, and medium.

As previously mentioned, the term satire was originally derived from satur, defined by Quintilian and performed by the actors of Aristophanes' Old Comedy. Two Roman poets, Juvenal and Horace, were responsible for further defining satirical works by their literary tone.

Classification of Satire by Tone

Juvenalian satire is the use of direct and abrasive, and often personal, criticism of persons or ideologies. This form of satire was popularized by the Roman poet Juvenal. Like many of today's political pundits, Juvenal attacked political institutions, public figures, and the Roman society in general by using hyperbole and irony.

Horatian Satire, unlike that of Juvenal, takes a lighthearted approach to satire, and uses humor to achieve the same end. Horatian satire was popularized by the Roman poet Horace (Qunitus Horatius Flaccus). This form of satire has been continually popular since the 1st century AD, when Horace first used it. One of the most famous satirists who used the Horatian method of satirization was Mark Twain. Below is an excerpt from his book, Advice to Youth, which used a comedic approach for dispensing advice, in this case about misplaced firearms:

"A grandmother...was sitting at her work, when her young grandson crept in and got down an old, battered, rusty gun which had not been touched for many years and was supposed not to be loaded, and pointed it at her, laughing and threatening to shoot. In her fright she ran screaming toward the door on the other side of the room; but as she passed him he placed the gun almost against her very breast and pulled the trigger! He had supposed it was not loaded. And he was right-it wasn't. So there wasn't any harm done. It is the only case of this kind that I have ever heard of."

Classification of Satire by Topic

Politics, religion, and sexuality have always been the foremost target of satirical commentary. These are all topics, which have traditionally been taboo, but through the use of satire, commentators were able to circumvent any social etiquette that would otherwise dictate staying away from such topics. Though modern-day satire has a wider range of topics to target, it still, primarily, focuses on the above three topics.

Political satire has been the most pervasive form of satire since the time of Aristophanes. And today it continues to be the main type of topical satire in American and British television, radio, and writing.

Religious & philosophical satire takes direct aim at religion and the religious beliefs of those who practice a particular religion. Such satire has been used to, both, criticize and defend religious beliefs and practices.

In recent decades, philosophical satire has also been utilized to bring attention to certain stereotypes and vilification of entire groups of people, such as homosexuals, and other minorities.

Classification of Satire by Medium

Literature and poetry remain the most prevalent medium through which to deliver satiric commentary. Though, modern-day mediums such as television, film, and even comedy (mainly stand-up acts) have become highly effective vehicles of delivering satirical work.

Misunderstanding Satire

It is common to misunderstand or incorrectly define satire due to the fact that it utilizes elements from a variety of literary terminology (e.g. analogy, double entendre, and hyperbole). A common conflation is with the terms irony, sarcasm, and parody. Even though irony and satire are often used in conjunction with one another to detail a critique of ideologies, individuals, behavior, and institutions, but they are not one and the same, nor synonyms.

The key difference between irony and satire renders a moral judgement, where irony can, and often does, remain as innocuous observation. The same confusion occurs between satire and sarcasm. Satirical commentary will often utilize sarcastic elements to drive home its point; however, sarcasm is a simple, yet sophisticated, tool used in the development of an elaborate satirical argument.

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