Comparison of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man: Transforming Yourself to Change The Society
In the midst of the 18th century, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope sought to incite societal action in response to two different crisis that afflicted their separate geopolitical sites. Swift, an Irish upperclassmen, wrote the satirical piece, A Modest Proposal (1729), in reaction to the rising levels of poverty and overpopulation in Ireland. By making the outlandish suggestion that his countryfolk eat their children to solve their economic crisis, he indirectly denotes the inequality that infested the social classes in England and Ireland.
Alexander Pope champions the use of the heroic couplet in his essay, An Essay on Man (1734), to implore his fellow Englishmen to retain their faith in God during a time when such faith seemed fruitless. Swift and Pope used the situational intensity of an economic and religious crisis in order to critique the ideology of society and further impel Man to reflect upon themselves and to reevaluate the role that they play in the world.
As aforementioned, the publication of Swift’s A Modest Proposal takes place during an economic crisis in Ireland when famine and poverty were crippling the lower class. Swift directs his proposition to those who were able to read, the upper class. More specifically, the English ruling class. Swift begins to expose the divisions and inequalities between social classes by addressing the religious differences between the Irish Catholics and the English Protestants.
Through the voice of the narrator, Swift ridicules Protestantism when he states that eating infants will be “lessening the Papists among us” (Swift Lines 84-85) in addition to references to the “Pretender in Spain” (Swift Line 7,146). Papists meaning the followers of the Catholic faith and the “Pretender” being a Catholic man who claimed to be the rightful heir to the British throne. In these statements, Swift indirectly insinuates that the ruling class would allow differences of religion and class to take precedence over the wellbeing of their countrymen and women. His overall intention was to accuse the wealthy of allowing such prejudices to blind them to the suffering of their own. By threatening the morals of the wealthy, he hoped to invoke political action and change.
In regards to the literary methods used by Swift, polemic language allowed him to effectively publicize his social commentary. Ireland’s crisis takes place simultaneously with the rise of mercantilism. Swift’s satire relates to this as he strategically utilized computationalism to further underscore social inequality and invoke other histories. The narrator uses phrases such as “I calculate” and “I subtract”, resulting in the objectification of infants and those who were in poverty (Swift Line 34,35). This reduction of human lives to numbers and figures is a reflection of methods used in the institution of slavery.
The narrator remarks that poor women will soon have to “sell themselves to the Barbados”(Swift Lines 7-8), creating an association between the conditions of the poor in Ireland and the conditions of those in slavery. The absurd proposal of both eating infants and of the possibility of white slavery is an exaggeration of the absurdity exhibited by society. These ludicrous acts are being compared to that of walking by people who are starving and destitute and proceeding to do nothing to change their conditions. Swift relies on this exaggeration to make the addressal of simple class inequality appear to be much more reasonable in light of things so ridiculously radical.
Although the publication of An Essay on Man takes place within the same decade as A Modest Proposal, Alexander Pope wrote in response to a different kind of crisis, a crisis of faith. Many Europeans were beginning to turn away from religion as the existence of evil made them doubt the existence of God. Pope devoted his four epistles to “vindicat[ing] the ways of God to man” (Pope 4) in hopes of reaffirming Man’s faith even though the world is riddled with oppression and inequality. By vindicate, he means to justify, or to prove righteous, the act of maintaining faith. In this statement, he relates humanity to the divine and proceeds to distinguish between the two. As mortals, Man cannot even begin to attempt to understand the ways of God.
Because we are incapable of understanding the higher plan, we have no right to question it. We cannot explain what we do not know, or as Pope puts it, “What can we reason, but from what we know” (Pope 4). Furthermore, Pope contends, “And just as short of reason he must fall, who thinks all made for one, not one for all”(Pope 7). This is a comment on the very nature of Man. He, who tends to see himself as the center of the world is, in fact, just one speck amongst billions that makes up a much grander scheme. Our lives are a thread on a tapestry that we will never see the completion of.
Pope continues to assert that Man will be happiest if he accepts that his fate is preordained. In the line, “Our proper bliss depends on what we blame”(Pope 9), Pope directs the conversation onto Man, suggesting that instead of questioning God, he should question himself and the role that he plays in creating the conditions of the world. Humanity’s lack of faith only causes more distress and chaos. Pope’s first epistle ends with the claim, “whatever is, is right”(Pope 9). This, in itself, is an extremely radical statement. Its meaning falls along the lines of everything happens for a reason. If everything has a reason, then Man should be content with the life he was given as it is a part of God’s plan. In other words, Pope’s philosophy promotes the idea that those who are oppressed and facing injustice should be comforted by the fact that that is how God intended it to be.
Some view “whatever is, is right” as a troubling and disturbing philosophy. It asserts that one should accept hardships and injustices solely because prophets of an unseen, omniscient being claim it is your destiny. But why should one willingly accept a fate of suffering? Therein lies Pope’s promotion of not just the belief in God, but the belief in faith in general. Faith provides comfort for those who live a life that might otherwise be comfortless. It can give them a sense of purpose as they can now believe that they have a role to play and are contributing to a greater whole. It is important to note that these epistles are not advocations for laziness. Pope does not promote inaction by any means. He merely states that Man was made to be imperfect and that the evil of the world is also a part of a complex system that humanity will never understand. One should not necessarily accept obstacles that are in front of them but accept that facing said obstacles was always an inevitability, as dictated by fate.
The crises that Swift and Pope responded to are completely distinct even though they were both written during the same time period. They reacted to two problems that affected their personal politics and contexts and used contrasting methods and writing styles to get their point across. However, despite the dissimilarities, the works show parallels across their distinctive geopolitical worlds. It is intended in both the satire and essay to make Man question himself and the view of his place in respect to society and his fellow kind. Swift makes the ruling class question the meaning of their “higher” status and their humanity in relation to how they regard other humans who were considered “lower” than them.
Pope makes Man question his individual and selfish nature, proposing that we are all pieces of a whole and should act as such. Ultimately, both writings illustrate that in order for Man to resolve such crises as those that occurred in Ireland and England, they must first look within towards the problems of their own character and nature rather than blaming external forces. Together, Pope and Swift demonstrate that humankind must first be willing to change their perspective and themselves before they will be capable of changing society and the world for the better.
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