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What Is Juvenalian Satire?

By Todd Podzemny
Updated May 23, 2024
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Juvenalian satire is one of the two major divisions of satire, and is characterized by its bitter and abrasive nature. It can be directly contrasted with Horatian satire, which utilizes a much gentler form of ridicule to highlight folly or oddity. A Juvenalian satirist is much more likely to see the targets of his satire as evil or actively harmful to society, and to attack them with serious intent to harm their reputation or power. While Juvenalian satire often attacks individuals on a personal level, its most common objective is social criticism.

The two main categories of satire are named for the Roman writers most closely associated with their respective satirical forms. Juvenal was a poet active in the Roman Republic during the first century CE, best known for his bitter attacks on the public figures and institutions of the Republic, with which he disagreed. Where his predecessor Horace utilized gentle ridicule and absurdism to point out the flaws and foibles of the Roman society, Juvenal engaged in savage personal attacks. He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous or incompetent. While he occasionally utilized humor to make his point, Juvenal's satire had more in common with the invective of a political pundit than the primarily humor-driven form favored by most modern satirists.

The primary weapons of Juvenalian satire are scorn and ridicule. Often, a satirist will exaggerate the words or position of an opponent, or place them in a context that highlights their flaws or self-contradictions. A satirical piece may be couched as a straightforward critique or take the form of an extended analogy or narrative. Often, characters in a Juvenalian narrative are thinly-veiled representations of public figures or archetypes of existing groups or modes of thought. The characters are made to act in such a way that the beliefs or behaviors the satirist wishes to attack are made to appear evil or absurd.

Juvenalian satire has been a common tool of social criticism from Juvenal's own lifetime to the present. Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson borrowed heavily from Juvenal's techniques in their critiques of contemporary English society. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley created Juvenalian mirrors of their own societies to address what they saw as dangerous social and political tendencies. Modern satirists such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker mount Juvenalian attacks on a wide range of social themes.

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Discussion Comments
By anon980723 — On Dec 06, 2014

Apologies to Alexander Pope:

"With what a crash the mighty would have fallen

Had gentle satire been applied to Stalin."

By indigomoth — On Feb 07, 2013

I'm learning to be a teacher at the moment and it seems like these two kinds of satire might be one of the things I see wrong with established teachers. Too many think it's OK to use a kind of Juvenalian satire against their kids and they tend to humiliate them and make their behavior problems worse.

If you want to use humor, Horatian seems like it would be a hundred times more effective, although nothing beats sincerity.

By pastanaga — On Feb 06, 2013

@pleonasm - Well, I agree to some extent that it isn't always going to be helpful for the person being attacked by satire, but I do think juvenalian satire has a purpose, particularly in today's society.

To me, the point of it isn't to convince whoever is being skewered, but to convince the general public. If a politician, for example, is doing something wrong and you want to try and influence people against him, you can try using that other kind of satire, but a lot of people might not get it, or might not feel strongly about it.

Using juvenalian satire against the politician will show your point clearly and hopefully will get people to re-think what they previously saw in the politician. That's an overly simple example but I think it makes the point.

By pleonasm — On Feb 06, 2013
The problem with this kind of satire is that it almost never leads to the intended results. Because if you insult someone like that, they are going to dig their heels in and become even more stubborn about thinking they are right.

The gentle approach, where you basically lead them to realize by themselves that they are wrong, is the better idea.

With juvenalian satire, at best you'll shame them, at worst you'll insult them and they will consider whatever they've been doing to be even more important. That's just how human nature works, we deal with emotion rather than logic and the usual emotional response to being attacked is to get defensive.

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