In an age before the wonders of the Industrial Revolution brought about the possibility of widespread social change, many writers had lost hope for the kindness and divinity of humanity. The callous way in which individuals treated other human beings were often written about as indications that the golden age of man had already passed and all that was left was its gradual decline. As writers began to explore mankind’s reason, they began to come to the conclusion that reason frequently offered little more than a source of confusion and an outlet for evil committed upon fellow man.
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In his poem “Satyre Against Reason and Mankind,” Rochester presents his arguments for why he would rather be an animal than a human being. He says “Were I / … / A spirit free to choose, for my own share, / What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear, / I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear; / Or anything but that vain animal / Who is so Proud of being rational” (1, 3-7). In this statement, he seems to hold human rationality as the greatest cause of our suffering and thus presents a very bleak view of humanity.
Because of their conviction that they are superior, mankind is willing to hurt others, destroy nature and loss their humanity in their bids for power, wealth or revenge. However, in using reasoning to make his points and showing how adhering to reason is the only means by which mankind can escape this process, he suggests there remains hope for mankind if he will but use his reason appropriately. “But a meek, humble man of honest sense / Who, preaching peace, does practice continence; / Whose pious life’s a proof he does belief / Mysterious truths, which no man can conceive” (212-215). In these lines, he illustrates how reason free of greed, self-aggrandizement, power, wealth or other typical vices is a rare breed that cannot be rightly defined as man (the common greedy variety) or beast.
Swift, however, in his “A Modest Proposal,” offers no such hope for the rare worthy individual sought by Rochester. In making his suggestions of how to solve the food crisis in Ireland, he makes the (hopefully) facetious suggestion that the wealthy should dine on the children of the poor. “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or broiled.”
The advantages of this solution are enumerated throughout the essay, including the reduction of Papists, who produced more children than others; the provision for the poor of something valuable; a reduction in the number of children that must be provided for; the reduction in costs of maintaining a household for the breeders; and the increase in value of the children themselves to the women and men who bore them. While the entire essay is full of shock value as Swift reasonably suggests economical recipes for the preparation of the nation’s children, there is a sense that mankind cannot be redeemed in any other way, so it might as well sink to the lowest conceivable depravities.
The surprising nature of his suggestions as well as the reasoned appeals he makes in support of this solution made it difficult for his contemporaries to recognize the piece as satire while his dark mood and callous tone suggest his bleak outlook on humanity holds out little or no hope for future redemption.
For both authors, reason, as it is commonly understood, is seen as the downfall of man. For Rochester, it is the faculty that is most often misused to devise various creative means by which individuals could take advantage of others and of situations to better their own material positions most often to the detriment of others less fortunate than themselves. By comparing the rational human being to the beasts of the field, Rochester illustrates how reason makes man different, most to their downfall, but holds out hope for those who might use their reason to envision something truly greater. Swift, on the other hand, sees human reason as utterly without hope.
Taken to its extremes in the feeding of infants to the wealthy, Swift indicates even in his exaggeration a sense that there is little or no hope for humanity in reason alone as the most common-sense solutions to very pressing concerns of the day are too abhorrent for serious consideration.