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The changing emphasis of the imagery in satires on language and learning McCandless, Carol Anne


The tradition of satires on the perversions of language and learning has been characterized by a recurrence of themes and, particularly, of stock images. There are two broad themes that invariably appear in satires on language and learning. One is the rational man's capacity for garbled knowledge and for self-approving opinion, concomitant with his superior ability to deceive both himself and others. The other is the consequence of man's Faustian desire for all knowledge combined with a propensity for metaphysical and speculative theories and doctrines abstracted from common sense and the practicalities of everyday life. The imagery of satires on learning is also consistent throughout the tradition. Stock characters such as the pedant, the plagiarist, the windy philosopher, the shallow-read "Modern," the critic who preys on better men's works, and the poseur who empties all words of meaning, some or all of these form a part of all satires on language and the uses of knowledge. But, even though there was a common fund of satiric imagery and allusion that satirists could and did draw upon, each satirist was still responding to the ideological context of his own period, and this response is reflected in each satirist's particular emphasis. There are two intellectual events that are of particular importance to this satirical tradition, the Greek rationalist enlightenment of the fourth century B.C. and the "new rationalism" of the eighteenth century A.D. Each resulted in a profound ideological shift in Western intellectual thought. The Greek enlightenment signaled the separation of the rational from the mythological mode of thinking. The eighteenth century enlightenment was a movement which secularized many areas of intellectual endeavour previously thought to lie solely within the purview of the Church. These two movements are of particular importance because both rely heavily on the Word as the ultimate rational expression of man. Historically, the Word has had a unique significance. The Classical and Christian humanist views of the Word are two distinct but related attitudes. The Classical attitude developed in two directions, in the art of rhetoric and in the conception of the Logos as the informing principle of the Word. The Classical doctrine of the Logos had an important place in the early Christian church, and the idea of reason as the divine principle in man, and the Word as an expression of that divine principle was absorbed into, and reinforced by, scholasticism. Even when Christian humanists rejected the methodology of scholasticism, they reinforced its rationalistic assumptions that all the data of sensation "becomes an object of cognition that in its hierarchical sweep leads ultimately to God. Thus every fact takes on, as it were, a sacramental function of attesting to the glory of God" (Herschel Baker, The Wars of Truth, p. 5.) By examining a number of satirists from different historical periods we can see how stock images introduced by Aristophanes have been adopted and developed by succeeding satirists through to Swift and we can get the sense of a fairly constant satiric tradition. It is not the purpose of this paper to examine the tradition exhaustively but merely to indicate that the tradition exists, and that its main characteristics can be determined. In order to establish the existence of a tradition it is necessary to establish the reason for its existence, and therefore I have attempted to demonstrate the importance of the Word to men imbued with Classical and Christian humanist ideals. I have also briefly described the nature and the impact of the ideological changes that took place during the two rationalistic movements of the fifth century B.C. and the eighteenth century A.D. Within the tradition of satires on language and learning it is possible to show how each satirist's emphasis has differed in response to the ideological context of his time. For example, Aristophanes is dealing with a profound ideological shift while it is in the process of occurring, but to Lucian the shift had receded into his cultural background, an already established ideological fact. Consequently, although both satirists attack, for instance, sophistical philosophers, their concerns and their emphases are very different. This paper traces these ideological events and the consequent changes in emphasis in the imagery of satirists in the tradition of language and learning.

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