Satire, Friend of the Christian Humanist

Should a Christian humanist approve of Stephen Colbert or Saturday Night Live? Read this snippet from Heinrich Bullinger’s A Plan of Study and decide for yourself.

But whoever rejects and hates satire on the grounds that the word “satire” is derived from “satyr,” because this genre of poetry contains things ridiculous and shameful and so savage that they ought to be spoken of by satyrs, commits a very great error. Indeed, on this pretext we could very well reject even the sacred scriptures as filthy accounts, as they relate wicked deeds and crimes. To know the vices of other people and to recognize the disgraces of criminals is not giving place to vice; rather, being full of vice or perpetrating known wickedness is what is blameworthy. Satires contain harsh scolding of vices and open criticism of bad people. Therefore we ought to hold them as precious, so that what appears truly unworthy is to be addicted to vices.

So, when you are about to read a satire, take note of these things: first of all, how great the filthiness of crime is, and how much vices are unworthy of and harmful to people; second, what sort of lives criminal people lead, what shamelessness they have, what sort of tricks they pull, so that in a gathering of these impious followers of Proteus, they will not be able to deceive you. In this way satires are extremely useful to ministers of the divine word, preachers, and bishops. Readers should also pay attention to the ways that these old scoundrels are dragged into the light by poets, how their true colors are depicted, and by what arguments they are convicted, so that readers will have a model to imitate in similar cases. Furthermore, other students and even lay people can’t fail to be bettered by satires. For when they have correctly perceived the mores of good people and the pursuits of wicked people, they will know to beware the company of the wicked and to recognize who the good people are and that they are worthy of friendship, dignity, and honors. Many in our time have gone gravely astray on this point, especially because we do not truly know people. But why talk so much about this? Since it is clear enough that satire is nothing but censuring vices, who doesn’t see that satire is also praising virtues? Therefore true philosophy is transmitted in satires. The writers of these are Horace, Persius, and Juvenal.

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