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The use of satire or sustained irony is a rhetorical strategy which an essayist may use to disconcert a blas reader into questioning areas which seem to reveal a certain degree of “human vice, folly or sheer stupidity.” (Webster’s II, 981) Whether intended for a scholar such as “Of Cannibals” by Montaigne or intended for the general populace as in “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathon Swift, caustic wit becomes the means to critique society to a more receptive and entertained audience.
During the Renaissance, new lands were discovered and society began to realize that there existed a radically different world outside the limits of Christendom. (Brians 1) Yet as often occurs with the unfamiliar, society was hesitant to regard these new cultures as other than primitive or barbaric. Montaigne states that “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in.
” (Montaigne 152) Montaigne preyed upon this collective malaise in his essay “Of Cannibals” and attempted to shock his well-read equals through the use of a personal narrative which compared a primitive civilization practicing cannibalism as being greatly superior to his own. His essay is intended for a cultured reader. This is revealed through his use of classical quotations such as those by Juvenal and Virgil. Satirically, he insults his intended audience by uttering that someone deemed simple is fit to recount what they observe however, clever people interpret what they observe, thereby altering history.
(Montaigne 152) Montaigne contrasts his contemporary society and his fictitious primitive culture many times which leads the reader to assume that his essay is a critique of his own society. The most obvious example is one which deals with the primitive culture’s cannibalistic practises. These practises must have seemed completely barbaric to scholars having studied the Odyssey which discusses the theme of hospitality versus inhospitality. Within the Odyssey, the nastiest form of inhospitality is described as cannibalism. Montaigne sardonically addresses cannibalism by stating:
I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts, but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient memories, but among neighbours and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead. (Montaigne 155)
Within this passage, Montaigne discloses his dissatisfaction with religion and portrays that cannibalism or the consumption of the dead is less barbaric than torturing those that live which he affirms is a practise of his own society. Furthermore, Montaigne contrasts several other aspects of both ways of life such as matrimony or the taking of wives, the role of the church, the motivations for warfare, etc. Montaigne uses sustained irony throughout his essay to expose his individual views on social change.
Ireland was poverty stricken due to a massive famine and oppressive taxation by the British in Jonathon Swift’s era. “A Modest Proposal” was intended to provoke concern over the quandary of the poor. The state of affairs in Ireland was unsound due to the lower classes continuing to yield large families in the midst of a famine with little work to be had and the upper classes who were indifferent in regards to the welfare of the poor populace. Swift chose to adopt the personae of someone writing a “serious letter” to address the situation and offers the idea of finding “a fair, cheap and easy method of making” (Swift 217) the “children sound, useful members of the commonwealth.” (Swift 217) This method involves offering the children for sale as food for the nobles. During his period, this idea would have scandalized the nobles who would have considered the peasant children dirty and the idea of eating them horrendous, as well as the peasants whose love for their children would not permit them to consider such an option. The problem did concern both ranks of the social structure as the upper classes did not donate or give much thought to the poor and the lower classes continued having abundant amounts of children, even in the light of the situation in Ireland. Furthermore, Swift states that the sale of the children as meat would in fact have the added benefice of ending the practise of “voluntary abortions” (Swift 218) and “women murdering their bastard children.” (Swift 218)
The idea of the poor being an “encumbrance” (Swift 221) is underlined in various grotesque ways causing the reader to reconsider the view in which he regards them. For instance, Swift states that the “vast number of poor people who are aged, diseased or maimed” (Swift 221) are not a concern as far as subsistence goes as “they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can reasonably be expected.” (Swift 221) Swift is so successful in his use of satire that although he is entertaining, one worries that some could be persuaded to his argument as stated without attempting to discover his true intentions. His conclusion reveals clearly his intention which is that someone must come up with a solution for the poor within his country. He states that politicians disliking his overture should ask the children of the poor if they had not rather been eaten and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed forever. (Swift 224)
In conclusion, Jonathon Swift’s “Modest Proposal” uses satire to force Irish society as a whole to ponder a solution for an overwhelming social problem of his time which is too often ignored.
Swift and Montaigne chose their rhetorical strategy for the impact it would have on the reader and in the hopes of gaining interest in the cause or ideology they believed in. In modern society, there is a proved marketing theory that scandal sells and both Swift and Montaigne realized this when writing their essays. Both of their essays are successful as they are contrary to the popular opinions of their time and shock while creating parallels with current issues. Although Montaigne is somewhat of an idealist concerning the vision he holds of his idyllic society, he pushes the reader to ponder the intrinsic value one places on various aspects of one’s culture. Similarly, Swift pushes his reader to outright disgust by giving an exaggerated vision of downright callousness when regarding the poor thereby causing the reader to reassess their position. Where Montaigne uses classical quotes to sustain his arguments such as Virgil’s line “These manners nature first ordained” (Montaigne 153) to illustrate the perfection of nature, Swift sustains his arguments through the sheer force of his caustic wit. His essay contains no quotes but a tone which is both blunt and direct through the simple vocabulary which he uses. Although both essayists use sustained irony with considerable adeptness, Swift’s essay may be considered a finer example due to the fact that its power lies within in its own momentum.
Some may wonder at the type of minds which could think up such atrocities in the name of public attention. However, both essays attempt to push the reader to a higher level of reflection. The fact that both essays have withstood the test of time as examples of sustained irony as well as works which permit the reader a glimpse into the historical social issues of their times would make both successful. It is interesting that the authors equally chose cannibalism subject matter as it remains as horrific to modern readers as it was to the readers of their respective periods.
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