Witty Zingers From History’s Favorite Satirists
Satire is a broad concept that typically involves the use of humor to point a wry finger at the follies and vices of society and individuals. It has been with us in one form or another since antiquity, from the plays of ancient Rome to the late-night TV shows of John Oliver and Stephen Colbert.
Satire presents itself in various ways, whether through ridicule, irony, caricature, or straightforward derision. It’s a staple of literary fiction, seen in novels such as Don Quixote, Catch-22, and Animal Farm. Satire also finds its way into almost every medium and form of human communication, whether it’s The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report, the classic British sitcom Blackadder, or video games such as Grand Theft Auto V.
Writer Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” Generally speaking, that’s true: Satire tends to have a level of social commentary that can be thought-provoking and potent. According to the newspaper columnist and humorist Molly Ivins, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.” As the following quotes show, the greatest satirists in history frequently used satire to attack the powerful. They also used it to critique society at large, and, at times, to poke fun at themselves.
I have nothing, owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor.
— François Rabelais, in his one-sentence will
François Rabelais was a French Renaissance writer and monk, known for writing bawdy songs as well as profound satire, the latter often targeting intellectual arrogance.
If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people He gives it to.
— Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope’s poems and satires made him plenty of high-profile enemies in Augustan England. Threats against him reached such a level that he began carrying two loaded pistols while walking his dogs.
When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
— Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift is considered one of the greatest prose satirists in the English language. His most famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels, is a masterful satire of human nature, bureaucracy, literary genres, religious squabbles, and more.
If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.
Voltaire was a prolific writer during the French Enlightenment. As an advocate of free speech and freedom of religion, his satires often took aim at the Roman Catholic Church and powerful French institutions.
Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only.
― Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler was one of the great English satirists. His most famous work, Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”), was a scathing satire on Victorian society, which he chose to publish anonymously. His other classic novel, The Way of All Flesh, was so critical of Victorian hypocrisy that he didn’t dare publish it during his lifetime.
It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.
— Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol was a pioneer of surrealism and the grotesque in literature. At the same time, his works bravely satirized political corruption in the Russian Empire.
Fish and visitors smell after three days.
— Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was a highly accomplished man: founding father, writer, inventor, and philosopher. He was also a man of great wit, and wrote many satirical pieces for The Pennsylvania Gazette and other publications.
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
— Mark Twain
Mark Twain is often regarded as the greatest humorist in American literature. He used his well-honed wit to satirize a range of subjects, including religious hypocrisy, corrupt politicians, and imperialism. Sometimes he just enjoyed a bit of wordplay to make people laugh, such as when he wrote, “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”
Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.
— Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh used his typically British dark humor to ridicule many aspects of English class and socioeconomic structures, most notably in novels such as Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited.
A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.
— P.G. Wodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse was one of the most popular humorists of the 20th century, in large part due to the two characters of Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, who appear in a number of his novels and short stories. While the humor was often flippant, Wodehouse was not averse to satirizing aspects of British society.
When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22 I’m tempted to reply, “Who has?”
— Joseph Heller
With Catch-22, Joseph Heller arguably wrote the all-time greatest satire on war and bureaucracy. And in doing so, he introduced the term “catch-22” into the English language, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.”
You possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, crossgrained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing.
Aristophanes was a comic playwright of ancient Athens, and his satirical plays were the bane of many a powerful figure. His potent ridicule of prominent men provoked accusations of slander, but he carried on regardless.