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Satire and Social Criticism

The Enlightenment is a period in history that was characterized by diversity of advances in philosophy, science and medicine. The main theme of the enlightenment was the belief that people of the world could actually make an effort to create a better world. In the process, the philosophers embraced different figurative tools to enlighten the people, and among these, satire stood out.

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Satire especially assumed the form of bitter, harsh criticism to hypocrisies, injustices and inhumane practices that characterized the society at the time.

Candide by French philosopher Voltaire is a bizarrely humorous tale chronicling the adventures of a young man throughout the world, but the aspect that has made it generate so much interest is how it satirically challenges the social norms and optimism that characterized the age. First, Voltaire pokes fun at the noble family by naming the barony Thunder-ten-tronckh, a silly set of words aimed at attacking the pride the baron’s family have in their noble heritage. Voltaire is challenging natural superiority assumed by aristocrats.

For example, the baron’s sister, despite being the mother of Candide, refused to marry his father merely because he had 71 noble lineages while she had 72 (Voltaire, 2008). The satire here manages to make the concern nobles had over “lesser people” look primitively absurd. Dr. Panglos (the name translates to “all-tongue”) belonged to the “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” school of thought. He often taught the young Candide the principles of his doctrine which upheld the belief that all things were created with a purpose, which is ultimately the best purpose (Voltaire, 2008).

Voltaire uses Pangloss to parody the philosophers of the 17th century and before who debated topics of no benefit to humanity. Voltaire most likely felt that the verbal acrobatics of these thinkers were so ridiculous and critics of this tale feel that he was lampooning the philosophies of Leibniz. Leibniz believed that a pre-meditated harmony existed in the world and that the world must be the best place ever since a perfect God had created it. Voltaire, on the other hand, is an opponent of this blind optimism on account of the tragedies that afflict mankind.

He uses the difficulties Candide has to endure and the Lisbon earthquake which claimed over 75 percent of the city despite a ritual which involved burning some people in a slow fire in order to prevent catastrophes like these having been conducted. The tragedies that Candide suffers in the hands of the Bulgarian army underline the cruelty and suffering that existed within armies. Noblemen started war, and it was the common men serving in the battlefields that bore the full brunt of conflicts (Voltaire, 2008).

While the people are suffering, clergymen hypocritically squabble over religious doctrines and worry more about converting people into their faith instead of tackling the wars, famines and oppression which plague the society. Many satirists have developed a sense of satire that is more or less in line with the stances Voltaire adopted in his effort to reform the society. I choose to analyze the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart since 1999. Jon Stewart applies satire to address the social, political, and economical issues facing the American society in the present time.

Among his themes are political tolerance and the extent to which current events affect the youth not only in America but also in the whole world (The Daily Show, 2007). The Daily Show has aired every Monday to Thursday since July 1996 on Comedy Central and hosts a variety of political and celebrity figures with the aim of getting their opinion on current socio-political issues affecting the American society. Watching an episode of the Daily Show, I visualized Jon Stewart wanting his audience to approach current issues with pragmatism.

I watched the episode in which he hosted 2008 republican presidential candidate John McCain. McCain, as part of his presidential campaigns, had announced that he would make an appearance at Liberty institution, an institution founded by Jerry Falwell who McCain had earlier denounced as an agent of intolerance (The Daily Show, 2007). Stewart rightfully identified the hypocrisy of the appearance knowing that it was in direct opposition of the principles McCain so often preached. It was an attempt to just secure votes against the values the candidate had preached all along.

Jon Stewart’s show assumes that that any political leader should stand his ground and stick to his or her beliefs with regard to the issues that affect the society (The Daily Show, 2007), failure to which he or she would be drifting into “madness”. Desperate attempts to win over public support in policy issues should be based on conviction rather than on hysteria as stirred by those seeking political office. Stewart wanted the society to see people for what they really were, as a strategy to establishing a just system, rather than the instantaneous stances they adopt when the need arises.

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