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What Is Horatian Satire?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Satire is a form of social criticism that manifests in art and literature. Horatian satire is a literary term for lighthearted, gentle satire that points out general human failings. It is usually contrasted with Juvenalian satire, which offers barbed jabs at specific immoral and corrupt behavior. Horatian satire is named after the Roman poet Horace, whose work has had a wide influence on Western culture. This form of satire is still practiced in modern times by cartoonists, comedians and comedy writers.

Horace is the English name of the classical Roman poet and satirist, whose full Latin name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus. He lived in the 1st century BC, and his book Ars Poetica was the definitive source on the poetic form until well into the 19th century AD. He coined many phrases that are still in use today, including carpe diem, or “seize the day.” His Satires poked fun at the dominant philosophical beliefs of ancient Rome and Greece. This approach, amused at human foibles but generally warm toward humanity itself, was immortalized with the term “Horatian satire.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire, much ancient literature, including Horatian satire, was forgotten by Western culture. In the Middle Ages, the rediscovery of classical art and literature led to a revival of interest in satire as well. The Horatian form was revived in such influential works as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The 16th century French writer Rabelais was so noted for his clever comedy that he inspired the phrase “Rabelaisian wit.” Chaucer and Rabelais drew inspiration from Horace, couching their social satires in whimsical stories that could be enjoyed for their own sake, appreciated as satire, or both.

The 18th century Irish writer Jonathan Swift was the most influential satirist of his time. The satire in his most noted work, Gulliver’s Travels, is so subtle that many modern readers do not even notice it. Those familiar with the political and cultural landscape of Swift’s time, however, will realize that the societies encountered by the shipwrecked Gulliver are criticisms of Swift’s own culture. Swift was equally adept at either Horatian or Juvenalian satire. The American patriot and writer Benjamin Franklin also penned many works of Horatian satire, often working, like Swift, under pseudonyms.

Mark Twain, considered one of the greatest writers in the English language, was fond of both Juvenalian and Horatian satire. An example of the latter was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which used a time-travel story to satirize romantic 19th-century views of warfare. Douglas Adams’ series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used familiar science fiction themes to satirize modern society. Another modern Horatian satire is Matt Groening’s long-running cartoon The Simpsons. It uses the fictional small town of Springfield to poke fun at all aspects of American life.

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Discussion Comments
By Ana1234 — On Oct 30, 2013

@indigomoth - Sometimes people deserve to be made upset. Sometimes Horatian satire just doesn't cut it anymore.

With that said, I think that Horatian satire tends to stay relevant longer.

Humanity as a whole will probably not change all that much, but the specific people who are targeted by other forms of satire might come and go.

By indigomoth — On Oct 30, 2013

@pleonasm - Well, one work of Juvenalian satire doesn't mean that the author is incapable of Horatian satire. By its very nature Juvenalian satire is going to be fairly specific and aimed at a particular segment of society, while Horatian is supposed to be making fun of humans as a whole.

In fact, I think that is the most important difference between them, rather than whether one type is more cruel than the other. Because if you are making fun of all people and their foibles, you are bringing people together and enhancing their similarities.

If you are making fun of a particular segment of society then you are separating people out, which can really make people upset.

By pleonasm — On Oct 29, 2013

I actually didn't think that Jonathan Swift's work would count as Horatian satire, although I suppose some of the satire in Gulliver's Travels could count as that. Many of his jabs were very personal and specific though and I would call them mostly Juvenalian satire.

I mean, when you read his essay talking about how poor people should sell their babies as meat in order to make money, you can't help but notice that the man is not being gentle about his contemporaries or humanity as a whole.

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