Products of the Enlightenment, Voltaire and William Hogarth were pioneers and masters of satire, a comic form with a long venerable history reaching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Both were apt observers of a society adrift in a sea of moral aimlessness, rotten with greed, ambition and cynicism. Voltaire’s Candide and Hogarth’s great paintings and engravings both entertain and inform, using exaggeration to ridicule the behavioral excesses of rich and poor alike.
As products of the Enlightenment, Voltaire and William Hogarth expressed their contempt for those bourgeois manifestations of society that would eventually bring down the French nobility, the Bourbon monarchy and obliterate the notion of divinely ordained rule throughout Europe. Candide is Voltaire’s acid commentary on nearly every institution and preconceived belief then prevalent in Western civilization. Today, it remains a paragon of satirical fiction. Hogarth’s paintings and engravings depict the cultural depravity and moral bankruptcy of the lower and upper classes in 18th century England. Both were heralds of change, geniuses who leveled their art and unique perspectives at a society cut loose from its ethical moorings. Both offer examples of the extent to which wit and exaggeration can be powerful weapons against the depredations that result from social complacency and intolerance.
Intolerance is the target of Voltaire’s over-the-top use of irony in Candide. Voltaire “sends up” organized religion, the Catholic Church and human superstition in his brilliant “auto-da-fe” passage. Eighteenth-century Europe was still mired in ancient superstitions, the church having cynically leveraged many of these in aggrandizing its own power and influence. The notion of sympathetic magic, legitimized by religious doctrine and invoked by Voltaire, was still much in evidence in Europe, and he pulls no punches in describing an all-too-familiar ritual invocation of it in Candide. “It had been decided by the university of Coimbra that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking” (Voltaire, 1918). Voltaire’s matter-of-fact employment of the blackest humor at one stroke makes reference to the Catholic church’s history of persecution and indicts the superstitious belief that human action has the power to control non-human events. It’s irony of the same kind that Jonathan Swift invoked when he suggested that the Irish peasants eat their own babies.
When Voltaire expressed his disdain for superstition and intolerance, it wasn’t merely as an ideologue. He had experienced these things firsthand, many of these experiences having proven terribly disappointing. His relationship with Frederick the Great of Prussia, a man he once thought of as a philosopher-king, ended badly, leaving Voltaire disillusioned and dismissive of autocratic authority. Candide’s experiences in Bulgaria are a loosely disguised condemnation of the tyrannical practices typical of Frederick’s Prussia. His “choice” of punishment reflects the author’s absurdist view of military discipline. Candide is asked whether he chooses “to be whipped six and thirty times through all the regiment or to receive at once twelve balls of lead in his brain” (Voltaire, 1918). Candide argues in vain that “the will is free” and ultimately chooses to be whipped (Ibid).
All of which is Voltaire’s way of encouraging the reader to contemplate social norms critically and reach their own conclusions. His establishment-baiting is intended to “debunk narrow-minded systems of thought by ridiculing spurious reasoning and exposing received ideas as irrational and absurd, and they thereby encourage the reader to become…a satirist” (Quintero, 2007). As well, satire is a clever means to draw in a wider audience, particularly if one’s intent is to influence more than just philosophers and well-read intellectuals. There is no more effective way to make a point to a large audience in any age than through humor, black though it may be.
Just as Voltaire lampooned the degeneracy of church and state, William Hogarth attacked social mores through biting satirical commentary with representations of the 18th-century theater and, by extension, the society it portrayed. His plate Masquerades and Operas is a condemnation of the state of the dramatic arts in the early 18th century (Timbs, 1881). In his work, Hogarth sought a “middle way,” an acceptable social norm that eluded the society in which he lived. In this, he was the spiritual inheritor of the Roman playwright Horace, who “was interpreted as emphasizing compromise and balancing human conduct between extremes…” (Ogee, Bindman and Wagner, 2001). Subsequent caricatures and representations in 1725 and 1727 were “bitterly satirical upon the immoral tendency of masquerades…” (Ibid).
Many of his works took broad swipes at the indolence of the lower classes, such as Gin Lane (1751), in which besotted street people wallow in their own squalor. In others, the irresponsibility and careless excesses of the wealthy were his targets. In The Marriage Settlement, one of a series of engravings, Hogarth criticizes the folly and cynicism of the institution of arranged marriages. In the first print, Earl Squander, is arranging a marriage for his son to the daughter of a greedy and ambitious merchant. The gout-ridden earl is seen with a scroll illustrating his family tree, while the merchant strikes a covetous pose in the background. The earl’s son admires his own face in the mirror, and above them all is a portrait of Medusa, lending the scene an ominous aspect. In the series’ next engraving, we see the young couple in a scene that strongly suggests dissolution, while their servant throws up his hands in disgust. This “Marriage a la mode” series suggests a morally aimless world bereft of redeeming qualities.
Hogarth’s serial work is among his most influential in terms of satirical wit and power. They are renowned for “invention, composition, drawing, colouring and character,” and rank as “the most important and highly wrought of Hogarth’s satiric comedies” (Timbs, 1881). The English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray praised the marriage sequence for the boldness and uncompromising detail with which it skewers the pomposity, dissipation and hypocrisy of the nobility and wealthy merchant class (Ibid). It is this acerbic slant on the ruling and prosperous classes which is echoed in Voltaire’s portrayal of the nobility’s reckless and unmitigated sense of entitlement, its unchecked and unconcerned exercise of power and privilege.
The genius of Hogarth’s work, and its timeliness, can be ascribed to his unique ability to synthesize highly catholic influences with more mainstream and popular modes of expression. “One can assume that much of his classical knowledge was mediated by contemporary journalism and those literati who catered to and formed the taste of the rising middle class” (Ogee, et al, 2001). We see again the influence of Horace and of classical Roman satire in Boys Peeping at Nature; at the same time, Hogarth was capable of quite startling scatological representations, such as his artistic responses to the works of Jonathan Swift. Works such as Gin Lane evokes a kind of yellow journalism, exhibiting as it does an openly exploitative power, as though the product of a propagandist’s or pamphleteer’s sensibility. In the central foreground, the woman whose baby is falling off to the side is drunkenly unconcerned with the tragedy unfolding around her. As the English poet Charles Lamb noted, nearly every element in Gin Lane tells a story.
Gin Lane and Beer Street are of particular interest because of the influence the theater wields over them in terms of theme and composition. The theater was a powerfully formative influence on Hogarth’s artistic perspective. “From his youthful doodlings, the stage and the simulacrum of theatre provided idioms for Hogarth’s satirical craft. Steeped in this culture, Hogarth envisaged London as a theatre of ritual public enactment, decked out with props…” (Besterman, 1998). Beer Street is a kind of stage upon which the drama of commerce plays out, inhabitants going about their prosperous business in direct counterpoint to the degraded scenery and social decay depicted in Gin Lane.
Ultimately, the satire of Voltaire and Hogarth has to do with the fragmentation of society, and the wide (and widening) rift between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless. Each side of the equation reacts to social circumstances in their own particular, human ways and this is what makes them vulnerable to the wit of the satirist. On the surface of it, satire is an attack on extremes, a way of making a point outrageously, of exaggerating excess. Voltaire and Hogarth were masters of this genre because, in reading or viewing their work, one feels as though he is privy to some grand, inside joke.
Besterman, T. (1998). Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press. Issue 357.
Ogee, F., Bindman D., & Wagner P. (2001). Hogarth: Representing Nature’s Machines.
Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. 34.
Quintero, R. (2007). A Companion to Satire. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 156.
Timbs, J. (1881). Anecdote Lives of William Hogarth. London, UK: Richard Bentley and Sons.
Voltaire. (1918). Candide. New York: Boni and Liveright Publishers, Inc. 11, 19.