Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Prophetic Satire as a Vehicle for Ethical Instruction

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Prophetic Satire as a Vehicle for Ethical Instruction

Article excerpt


Satire has been defined as "the exposure, through ridicule or rebuke, of human vice or folly."1 The satirist attempts to reveal his contempt, disgust, or ridicule of that which appears to him to be improper or ill conceived. As a literary form satire is generally viewed as having four distinct elements: (1) an object of attack-whether a particular thing, position, person, or the ills of society in general; (2) a satiric vehicle-ranging anywhere from a simple metaphor to a full-blown story; (3) a satiric tone-displaying the author's attitude toward the object of his attack; and (4) a satiric norm-a standard, whether stated or implied, by which the author's criticism is being applied.2 Further, "all satire ... presupposes that... the reader understands the norms of good and evil."3

1. Roman satire. As a distinctive literary form satire is generally conceded to have emerged with or been invented by the Romans. Roman satire was characterized by a moral seriousness, whether directed at specific social ills or in philosophical discourse.4 Many Roman writers distinguish themselves as satirists including poets, such as Lucilius and Perseus or writers of prose, such as Seneca and Petronius. The works of two writers, Horace and Juvenal, gave rise to what has been considered distinctive types of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian. The former is generally seen to be of a milder type. "We rightly associate him with something more sunny than the 'juice of the black cuttlefish' and 'absolute verdigris' to which he compared backbiting. He preferred the method of the open jest. A joke may settle weighty matters better than a sharp word."5 His early poems most often corrected social abuse. In one instance, "Horace ridicules the Stoic doctrine omnem stultum insanum esse-'everyone but the sage is mad'-and at the same time uses the text to castigate the follies of mankind, specifically avarice, ambition, self-indulgence, and superstition."6 Even in his more philosophical moments his character and wit were not absent. One may note these lines from his Second Satire:

Postumus, Postumus, alack-a-day,

The years, how swiftly do they glide away!

No piety keeps wrinkles from the brow,

Nor makes old age his near approach delay,

Nor never-mastered Death more time allow;

If thou should'st sacrifice three hundred steers

Each morning, friend, 'twere futile hope to storm

The heart of Pluto, never touched to tears.7

Juvenal, on the other hand, employed a more biting tone in his satire. Juvenal did not hide his contempt for Roman society, finding Rome no place for an honest man. Such may be seen in the excerpt from his Third Satyr:

Now, now 'tis time to quit this cursed place,

And hide from Villains my too honest Face:

Here let Arturius live, and such as he;

Such Manners will with such a Town agree.

Knaves who in full Assemblies have the knack

Of turning Truth to lies, and White to Black;

Can hire large Houses, and oppress the Poor

By Farm'd Excise; can cleanse the Common-shoare;

And rent the Fishery; can bear the dead;

And teach their Eyes dissembled Tears to shed,

All this for Gain; for Gain they sell their very Head.8

In yet another satirical poem he displays his disdain for homosexual marriage with observations that appear almost contemporary:

O Father of our city, whence came such wickedness among thy Latin shepherds? How did such a lust possess thy grandchildren, O Gradivus? Behold! Here you have a man of high birth and wealth being handed over in marriage to a man, and yet neither shakest thy helmet, nor smitest the earth with thy spear, nor yet protestest to thy Father?9

2. Pre-Roman satire. Although formal satire is thus held to be of Roman invention, satirical elements are clearly attested in other ancient cultures. For example, satire is couched in several of Aristophanes' plays, which often satirize or ridicule the middle and lower classes of society. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.