BMCR 2007.01.40

Menippean Satire Reconsidered. From Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century

, Menippean satire reconsidered : from antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xvi, 375 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0801882109. $60.00.

Howard D. Weinbrot’s impressively erudite “reconsideration” of the Menippean satire is, for the most part, geared towards the eighteenth-century English literary scene. Considering that the vast majority of BMCR readers are most likely classicists and that I am a Renaissance specialist, one might wonder what such a review—and such a reviewer—is doing here. One could perhaps evoke the “multa admixta” nature of Menippean satire to justify this unusual assortment of historical periods and scholarly specialties. More importantly, however, it must be said that a significant portion (more than 20%) of this book is devoted to classical models of the genre (Varro, Petronius, Seneca, Julian and Lucian especially). Accordingly, I will focus here on the material that directly concerns classicists (i.e., the first of the five parts of the book: “Classical Practices and Early Modern Adaptations”), as well as on the sections of the book devoted to the author’s more general considerations about Menippean satire (in the preface, the introduction and the conclusion), where Weinbrot (henceforth W.) makes explicit his unique contribution to the conceptual appraisal of this most intriguing of literary forms. I leave the review of the eighteenth-century material (parts II through V) to specialized reviewers and better-suited publications.

W.’s incipit cuts straight to the chase: “In Menippean Satire Reconsidered, I hope to correct some perhaps benevolent confusions within the study of Menippean satire” (xi). The author has set himself the ambitious task of cleaning the stables of Augeas that constitute previous considerations of this “so approximate” genre. He wishes to “diminish the number of works called Menippean satires so that the genre who ate the world can be put on a diet” (303). According to W., “the thousand works that have been labeled ‘Menippean satire’ in about the last fifty years” make for a genre that “is less baggy than bulbous” (1-2). The responsibility for this “generic expansion” is ascribed, most notably, to “[o]ther modern writers” who “have theorized upon the genre” (11), such as Northrop Frye1 and, especially, the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose description of the fourteen characteristics of the “Menippea” in his monograph on Dostoyevsky2 has indeed been extremely influential in the past thirty years or so.

W.’s (re)definition of Menippean satire is very straightforward: “My notion of Menippean satire is of a kind of satire that uses at least two different languages, genres, tones, or cultural or historical periods to combat a false and threatening orthodoxy”(11). W. then goes on to distinguish between two satirical “tones”—”the severe, in which the threatened angry satirist fails and becomes angrier still, or the muted, in which the threatened angry satirist offers a partial antidote to the poison he knows remains”(6) —and four different “modes”:Menippean satire “by addition,” “by genre,” “by annotation,” and “by incursion” (6-7).

The most striking aspect of W.’s definition resides, for better or for worse, in its identification of a “common denominator” supposedly typical of every true Menippean satire: it should be a “variously multipronged text that variously confronts a grave and illicit threat to a normative belief system” (7). Hence, “[i]t is a genre for serious people who see serious trouble and want to do something about it” (xi).

This serious characterization of the “seriocomical” genre of Menippean satire seems to play the role of Ockham’s razor in the process of excluding authors and works previously described as Menippean, be they classical (Apuleius’s Golden Ass) or modern (Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy,3 or even Rabelais’s works4). Such authors should be excluded from the family of “genuine” Menippean satirists, it seems, because they are too “jolly”—they are having “too much fun to be gloomy” (11)—, whilst the “Menippean satirist in his darker mood is more the isolated cynic than either an amiable humorist or a sedately seated narrator” (7).

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly for classicists, W.’s “strategic hypothesis” about Menippean satire is said to have been “empirically derived […] from the essential list of classical models” (6) which constitute the “foundation texts” that allow him “to show why so many other older or newer nominal Menippean satires should not be invited to the feast” (297). Indeed, since “Menippean satire began in antiquity,” the genre “requires study of ancient practice,” and that is why W. engages in a relatively lengthy “discussion of works by Petronius, Seneca, Lucian, and the emperor Julian and where necessary of how they later were perceived in Western Europe” (xi-xii).

Of course, W. admits that he writes not “as a classicist,” but “as a student of eighteenth-century British literature, its classical, French, varied intellectual contexts, and mutatis mutandis the approximate influence of these on literary form” (19). I am no classicist either; hence I will heretofore simply describe these chapters so as to give an idea of the material discussed for the benefit of the more competent BMCR readers.

Chapter 1 is devoted to an appraisal of the posterity of the either lost or fragmentary works of the earliest reputed Menippean satirists (the Greeks Bion of Borysthenes and Menippus of Gadara, and the Roman Marcus Terentius Varro). Regarding Bion, W. makes use of classical (Diogenus Laertius) or modern (Bayle and many others) commentaries to underscore his highly negative reputation. Similarly, Menippus’s “pasting by Diogenes Laertius” (27) and modern representations (by Casaubon, Moréri, etc.) are used to highlight his reputed cynicism, reinforced by Lucian’s later dialogues (discussed below). Throughout this section, W. reiterates that the Greek satirists represent a darker, harsher strain of satire than the Romans,5 which explains why they were supposedly less attractive to modern writers: “Unlike the Roman satirists, then, Bion, Menippus, and Lucian were inadequate guides both to satiric procedure and to the satirist’s ingratiating persona” (28). The Roman Menippean satirist (perhaps influenced by the formal verse satirists Horace, Juvenal, Persius), like the eighteenth-century satirist, “needs to have a positive ethos in order to justify his own judgmental role” (24). This is, seemingly, why W. devotes much more space to Varro (10 pages) than to his two Greek predecessors (6 pages).

Hence, and although Varro’s work is extremely fragmentary, W. tries to show how the first century BC satirist “had begun to move satire toward greater shape, in which norms were necessary and overt” (32). W. spends much time contesting Bakhtin’s “misreading” of Varro, at times unjustly,6 insisting on the fact that “[t]here is some comedy in them [the fragments], but not nearly as much as there is the serious, the descriptive, and the normative” (33). After an interesting analysis of some of the satire’s fragments, he concludes that Varro “was a Roman late-republican aristocrat who softened offensive cynic Greek conventions, language, and culture. He Romanized, naturalized, and polished Menippus for a more sophisticated age and country [ dixit Weinbrot …]” (38).

Chapter 2 of Part I considers the much better-known works—and “far more substantial contribution” to Menippean satire—of three Roman satirists: Petronius, Seneca, and Julian. After reviewing scholarly debates about the Satyricon‘s ambiguous generic status—as a Menippean satire and/or an “episodic Greek prose romance”—W. goes on to present the literary and moral reception of Petronius in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England. More importantly perhaps, Petronius’s unforgiving satire of Nero’s Rome is then shown to belong to the branch of Menippean satire using the “severe” tone and representative of what W. designates as “Menippean satire by addition”: “Petronius practiced an additive art in which the additions suggest additional corruption” (46).

W. then moves on to the “more affirmative” works by Seneca and Julian. The former’s Apocolocyntosis —”the first, largely complete, extant Menippean satire to suggest the familiar pattern of blame and praise that typifies Roman formal satire”—is said to be “a softer Menippean satire that avoids severe scoffing.” It also typifies what W. calls an early form of “Menippean satire by genre” because of its satirical use of “the respected council scene of heroes or of gods and of the apotheosis and glorification of the Caesars” (46) (pitting Claudius against Augustus). W. provides a detailed summary of the Apocolocyntosis, informed by the historical and political context of this “muted Menippean venture,” which “clearly is a satire that affirms justice, however delayed, in heaven, Rome, and hell” (49) and is, thus, seen as typical of “Roman satiric affirmation” (50).

The Emperor Julian’s fourth-century Caesars receives similar treatment. After reviewing its reception and editions in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England, W. goes on to summarize and discuss extensively this “dialogue of the dead that rejects Lucian’s dark Greek underworld” and offers “a model for earthly politics.” W. opposes the supposedly “obvious limits of Lucian’s repetitive and often one-note Menippeanism” (52) to Julian’s “stunning mature political document by one who exercises power at the highest level” (53). The cynical and “severe Menippean impulse” of the character Silenus is said to be “limited, and subject to superior interpretations” (55), most notably by the figure of Marcus Aurelius, the “clear norm (…) in this political parable and epitome of imperial history.” W. sees here “mortal repulsion to harsher Menippean hostility that, in this work, […] has been rejected by gods and humans alike” (58). Nonetheless, the figure of Silenus (as referred to most notably, of course, in Plato’s Symposium) is called upon by W. to justify his inclusion of the Caesars in the category of “Menippean satire by genre”: according to W., Julian—”alert to Greek foolishness”—”makes plain the contrast of cultures through its contrast of symposia” (60), while satirizing also the “divine or heroic council scenes in epics” (111).

In chapter 3 (“From Lucian the Debunker to Lucian the Blusher”), W. concentrates on the famous second-century satirist from Samosata. However, the critical spotlight here is much more on the reception and uses of the Syrian author in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than on Lucian’s dialogues themselves. Indeed, only a few pages of this 24-page chapter are truly concerned with Lucian (and then again only with his Dialogues of the Dead and the character Menippus in one or two other works such as the Icaromenippus). The bulk of the chapter focuses, first, on the (dubious) modern reputation of Lucian and of his harsh brand of satire, and, second, on the literary legacy of the subgenre of the “dialogue of the dead” in late seventeenth-century France (Fontenelle, Fénelon) and England (Chudleigh, Fielding, and Lyttelton), where the form is shown to have been deeply moralized and even Christianized in some cases. Thus, although W. states from the outset that “Lucian was central in the development of Menippean satire and of attitudes towards Menippus” (62) and mentions in passing his major influence on writers such as Erasmus and Rabelais, he seems chiefly interested in his legacy only after the second half of the seventeenth century in France and England. This might explain why W. sees the transformations in the “response to Lucian” as indicative of “a larger pattern of changes in response to the severity of Menippean satire”: “The shape of that response is approximately the shape of response from Menippus to Varro, and from Petronius to Julian—toward adding affirmation to a genre comfortable with denigration” (62). Thus, throughout the chapter, W. opposes the Syrian’s “dark,” “crude” or “rude” brand of satire to the more elegant or morally uplifting adaptations by these “later heirs,” that “cleansed Lucian’s underworld, sentimentalized and Christianized it while adding benign norms, and redefined it by largely excluding Menippus and Menippean values” (69). Although W. describes these modern adaptations as “non-Menippean”, he often seems to imply that they are also “superior” to Lucian’s dialogues: he maintains, for example, that Fontenelle “dramatically complicates” and “refines” (72) Lucian’s dialogues, and that Fénelon also “complicates the Menippean dialogue” by “embodying it” (75). Had he taken into account other works by Lucian (such as his brilliant The Double Indictment), perhaps W. could have offered a more nuanced picture, opening vistas on the complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship of Menippean satire with philosophy, rhetoric and, possibly, the dialogue genre.

But W. is more concerned with the status of the Menippean satire in eighteenth-century England than with such issues, which is why, after a stop, in chapter 4, at the late sixteenth-century (much harsher and patently Menippean) Satyre Ménippée (“a modified severe satire by addition” (111)) and its modified English translation as A Pleasant Satyre (which is also a satire “by annotation” and “by incursion”), he moves on to his main preoccupation in this book, that is, the English Menippean satire, most notably in Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Pope’s Essay on Criticism and Dunciad, and in a section of Richardson’s Clarissa.

While I most certainly have not done justice to W.’s intricate arguments in his early chapters, I hope at least to have made clear that, throughout the section devoted to classical practices of the Menippean satire, W.—however informed and erudite his knowledge of these authors clearly is—wishes, first and foremost, to evaluate the import of these ancient authors and generic models for the period and authors that will be the chief object of the rest of his study. His extremely well-read appraisal of the Early Modern legacy of these classical authors—be it through his knowledge of sixteenth-, seventeenth- or eighteenth-century editions of those Greek and Roman satirists in France and England, or through his meticulous tracking of commentaries on them in various types of works of secondary literature (by Lipsius, Casaubon, Dacier, Dryden and many others)—constitutes an invaluable scholarly contribution to the history of the Menippean form and to the appraisal of its true status in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and also, partly, in France.

I must express one caveat however: although W. acknowledges that “Menippean satire was resurrected in the Renaissance” (xii), he does not address the authors and works of this crucial transitional period.7 Indeed, there is no serious discussion of either the numerous Italian or Northern humanist uses—and misuses!—of the Menippean satire from the Trecento to the sixteenth century. Even the renowned late classical “Menippean” Consolatio of Boethius does not truly register on W.’s critical radar. Hence, we are precipitated from fourth-century Julian to the end-of-the-sixteenth-century Satyre Ménippée. In itself, the—quite ambitious—span of this historical survey should not constitute a problem, but the subtitle of the book (perhaps chosen by the publisher?) misled this reviewer to believe that it would be a “complete” survey of Menippean satire “From Antiquity to the 18th century,” thus including the Renaissance. Perhaps the subtitle should have read “In Antiquity and the 18th Century”?

It is evident that the primary target audience for this book is the eighteenth-century specialists of English literature. The classical (and French) references effectively provide context and historical fodder for extremely precise and informed studies of the primary and secondary literature of this period. As I mentioned earlier, I cannot honestly judge the quality of this more specific work, which lies outside my field of specialization, but it seems manifest that Howard D. Weinbrot is a most important figure in that scholarly world, regarding especially the complex legacy of the classical tradition in the eighteenth century. Moreover, he must be commended for his indisputable mastery of other disciplinary fields, be they classical or French,8 literary, political or historical.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that W.’s historical specialization might have somewhat skewered his view of Menippean satire. His desire for clear “definitions,” the importance he places on “classifications” (e.g., the “inclusions” and especially “exclusions” of works in the Menippean tradition) and taxonomical distinctions of subspecies (his “two tones” and “four modes”), even the importance of his causal, and perhaps overly deterministic, conception of literary influence (an author seems to have to be proven to have truly “read” another author to have adopted some of his rhetorical or literary strategies) might be seen as typical of a somewhat narrowly rationalistic eighteenth-century view of history and genre formation. Hence, one cannot help but wonder if there is not an “eighteenth-century bias” in W.’s more general perspective on Menippean satire. W.’s laudable aspiration to clarify the definition of “so approximate a genre” might have led him to some unwarranted “reconsiderations,” including his visible tendency to share “the Anglo-French preference for Latin to Greek values, letters and refinements” (70)9 and thus to constantly denigrate “cruder”—but perhaps more “philosophical”… and “equalitarian”?—brands of Menippean satire in favor of what he seems to see as morally, socially or esthetically “superior” versions. Similarly, W.’s exceedingly “serious” view of Menippean satire may perhaps also be rooted in his interest in the eighteenth-century English corpus (once Sterne is excluded), but it would certainly not register as well in the, perhaps more jocular, Renaissance versions of the genre (e.g., in Rabelais’s works).

This (hypothetical!) epistemological and historical “bias” does not, however, diminish the import of this major scholarly work (accompanied by plentiful notes—more than 50 pages worth—and a comprehensive index nominum 10). In addition to being an apparently key contribution to eighteenth-century literary studies, Menippean Satire Reconsidered will be of great interest to classicists seeking a cursory but well-informed overview of the Menippean tradition in the Greek and, especially, the Roman tradition and to those concerned with the legacy of these classical authors and works in Early Modern (post-Renaissance) Europe. More importantly, W.’s unique contribution to the general discussion and theorizing on Menippean satire will now have to be contended with in future considerations (and reconsiderations) of this fascinating “antigeneric” genre, whose deeply hybrid and protean nature makes it highly difficult to “consider” and/or “reconsider.”


1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

2. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics [1929], trans. Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. According to W., “Bakhtin’s broad and sometimes contradictory definitions dramatically enlarge the genre’s reach. Indeed, he even surpasses Frye in creating a baggy genre into which almost any work can be made to fit” (15). W. is sometimes overly harsh on the admittedly problematic nature of Bakhtinian theory and its legacy, for example, when he writes that “Bakhtin’s theory of carnival in antiquity and the Middle Ages has largely been discredited” (308, n. 19). “Bakhtin bashing” seems to have become somewhat fashionable, perhaps as a counter reaction to his overly enthusiastic reception in the 70s and early 80s (W. calls this well-spring of criticism the “Bakhtin industry”). But one should not discard the baby with the bath water, and W. himself must admit the usefulness of some of Bakhtin’s insights. Bakhtin was, of course, not a classicist and his knowledge of Antiquity can rightly be seen as sketchy by specialists. However, his perhaps broad—and somewhat anachronistic—appraisal of the Menippea remains extremely useful to this day.

3. W. does not mention Kevin L. Cole’s Ph.d. dissertation, which is directly concerned with Sterne’s Menippean poetics. (Kevin L. Cole, Levity’s Rainbow: Menippean Poetics in Swift, Fielding, and Sterne, Ph.D., Baylor University, 1999).

4. On the Menippean in Rabelais, see, for example, Alain-Philippe Durand, “Le rire est le propre de l’homme: le texte de Rabelais comme satire ménippée,” Romance Notes, vol. 38, no. 2, Winter 1998, p. 179-89.

5. W. even proposes a historical and cultural perspective on this supposed “softening” of Menippean satire: “The history of both the severe and the muted branches [of Menippean satire] softens Bion’s, Menippus’s, and Lucian’s outrage (…).This softening occurred first through Roman gravitas and politics, then through French politesse and somber religion, and then through sentimental Bristish Christian humanity” (23).

6. W. is unfair, for example, when, to contradict Bakhtin’s statement about the usually “fantastic” aspects of the Menippea, he writes that, in fragments 468, 472 and 473 of Varro’s satires, “[t]here is some sailing over the sea and through the sky, but it is neither fantastic nor ideological; it roots itself in conventional sailing imagery” (34). Sailing in the sky? Very conventional indeed…

7. Perhaps W. considered that previous work on the Menippean satire in this era was satisfying enough? He cites neither Ingrid A. R. de Smet’s Menippean Satire and the Republic of Letters 1581-1655 (Geneva: Libraire Droz, 1996), nor W. Scott Blanchard’s Scholar’s Bedlam: Menippean Satire in the Renaissance (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press,1995).

8. An editorial revision of the French quotes in the book would have been warranted: some typos (especially with diacritical signs) and a few problematic insertions of French quotes should and could have been corrected by an editor with a native knowledge of the language.

9. Although there are some (short) Latin quotes in the book (usually followed by a translation), there is no Greek.

10. A separate bibliography could also have been useful: the impressive amount of (primary and secondary) sources drawn upon by W. would thus have been more readily accessible and could have constituted one of the most interesting scholarly resources for secondary literature on the genre. Apart from the Medieval and Renaissance gaps in scholarship, one notices only a few absences, Ph.D. dissertations mostly: Junita S.Williams’s Towards a Definition of Menippean Satire (1966), Frederick Joseph Benda’s The Tradition of Menippean Satire in Varro, Lucian, Seneca and Erasmus (University of Texas at Austin, 1979), Florentine Hoelker’s Menippean Satire as a Genre: Tradition, Form, and Function in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Loyola University of Chicago, 2003), Michael Sinding’s The Mind’s Kinds: Cognitive Rhetoric, Literary Genre, and Menippean satire (McMaster University, 2004) and Kevin L. Cole’s previously mentioned Levity’s Rainbow: Menippean Poetics in Swift, Fielding, and Sterne ( op. cit.). Eric McLuhan also offers a stimulating—and original—view of the history of the genre (and of its critics) in The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997). Finally, although W. uses and quotes Joel C. Relihan’s Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) a few times in his notes, he does not truly address the arguments of what remains to this day (if I am not mistaken) the only book-length survey of this “genre” in Antiquity.