The Age of Reason was a period of time between the years 1715 and 1789. It is also commonly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. Jonathan Swift was a writer during this period of reason, in which many individuals became more aware of the world around them and as a result had many intellectual and philosophical awakenings and ideas. It is during this period of reason that the focus of many writings took the shift from more serious work towards those of satire, which can be seen in much of Jonathan Swift’s work.
One of Swift’s most famous works is Gulliver’s Travels. It is noted that this series of books could actually be viewed as a satirical take on many travel books, which were popular during this time period. More specifically, the text notes that that they are a satirical take on the work of William Dampier, who used to record many of his travels in a detailed log. Swift chose to take this same approach when writing Gulliver’s Travels, although many of the locations have fantastical creatures and people that would not have been encountered within the real world. The text notes that within these satirical tales, “Swift… seems determined to keep alive the older belief in a naturally conceited, vain, greedy, lustful human nature… understanding human beings as imperfect allowed him to make fun of all utopian projects and to cast his satirical eye on schemes for social improvement” (268).
I find it interesting that the text also notes how Gulliver is a “naïve narrator” (267). Swift chooses to use Gulliver’s naivety to his advantage when telling the stories of his travels. By having a narrator who fails to notice irony or details, or understand the concept of how things may truly work, Swift is playing further into the idea of satire. He is showing his readers that Gulliver is a reflection of themselves. “One advantage of the gullible perspective is that it allows Swift to make his readers see themselves from an outsider’s perspective: the writer thus makes ordinary life seem strange and prompts us to question what we might otherwise take for granted” (267).
By using this approach, readers can take a step back and realize how alike they may be to Gulliver. Additionally, it allows them to reflect upon the reality that they face every day. By writing out worlds that seem so surreal and unbelievable, but using elements from society during the present time of writing, Swift was able to combine satire into a way that reflected the ideals of the Age of Reason. The Age of Reason allowed individuals to think for themselves, to become enlightened, and to come up with ideas that would have never been thought of before. They were able to realize when things seemed too good to be true, or to recognize when something was going wrong and they should be concerned.
Swift’s work reflected the idea of enlightenment and the Age of Reason by choosing to play at the fact that it took so long for people to come to many realizations, which can be argued to be about the same realizations that they easily come to when reading about Gulliver and his travels. When reading Swift’s work, an individual may wonder how Gulliver does not see things for what they really are or understand what is happening, but will then later reflect back and realize that they have also been in his shoes where they, too, had not been aware of something that was going on.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift covers many different topics that were popular during the time period. These topics ranged from the society of England at the time and how it could be viewed from the outside, versus how it truly was on the inside, as well as the history that is presented versus the truth. Gulliver’s Travels also focuses heavily on the idea of humanity; including the true greed and lust for power that plagues many individuals. This book series presents the truth behind many ideas of aspects, showcasing how what is presented is not what is always true, and this idea of satire comes at a time when people are beginning to think for themselves and seek such knowledge.
By presenting the idea within a story that there is always more to be seen that what is presented, Swift is allowing to help awaken those who have not yet experienced the enlightenment found within much of the Age of Reason. He shows how societies present themselves, packaging themselves in a way that seems appealing, but hide away the true, gritty history that they do not want their people or visitors to know. By doing this, societies are working to keep people in the dark, which is what the Age of Reason sought to climb out of. The Age of Reason allowed people to climb out of the darkness and into the light of realization and enlightenment, which allowed them to be more aware of what was going on around them, allowing them to take better action and make better choices as a result.
Swift continues to expand upon his personal idea of satire, while also being able to pave the way for the future of satire, in A Modest Proposal. Instead of focusing on citizens or travelers seeing a society for the first time, this work focuses more on the social planners who were involved with making laws. In an effort to get his point across, he takes a strong, almost radical stance to do so. “Swift takes an extreme position and follows it to its logical conclusion. If the point of social reform is to produce solutions to social problems, maximizing profits along the way, then why not sell the infants of the poor as food for the rich?… Charges of cannibalism… take on figurative force as Swift suggests that the English are in many ways feeding off Irish flesh” (268).
While the people in English society were not truly guilty of cannibalism, as they were certainly not eating babies to solve a hunger crisis, Swift uses this extreme example to open peoples’ eyes up to the severity of the issues in society at the time. Though they are not truly eating people, they are taking food away from other people that could have also eaten it, and causing them to starve. This severe “solution” towards the hunger issue that society was facing at the time opened the eyes of many individuals to how drastic some suggestions were to solve the issue at hand.
A Modest Proposal is introduced as a proposal “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public” (315). This introduction already sets up the proposal for a strong start. Swift is making it clear within the first line that the way people view certain situations is drastic and dramatic, and he uses satire to prove this to people and help them become more involved in the enlightening that was occurring during this time period of society.
This work of satire works to mirror the society at the time of writing, but in a more distorted way. Similarly to how Swift worded Gulliver’s Travels, by distorting the reality into something darker and more dramatic, he is catching the reader’s attention more, and allowing them to think more deeply about the message behind his tale. When writing this “proposal”, it is clear that Swift was angered by the way that the Irish people were being treated in society, as he himself was from Ireland. He believed society to be unjust and recognized the fact that many people were suffering, and starving. He addressed this in his proposal by removing the filter from how he felt about the society at the time, and allowing his words to flow through in a way that shocked and awed his readers. However, this lack of filter did what Swift had set out for it to do – it caught the attention of these readers, and opened up their eyes to how ridiculous things can truly be before a person really takes notice. What may not stand out or seem extreme to us at a certain point may do so to others. By giving readers examples of such extreme cases, he is able to showcase this fact.
One of the most important aspects of the Age of Reason is the idea that people were able to finally think for themselves. This is when people began to have their own opinions and make decisions based upon what they believed to be right. Jonathan Swift is a great example of an individual who decided to speak his mind in an attempt to show, and to prove, to others that their time to think and realize had come. He spoke in ways that seemed harsh, or a bit too much, but it was what people needed at the time after having been kept in the dark for so long.
The Age of Reason allowed the people to finally have a voice. When they were able to realize the truth of the world around them, they were angry, and rightfully so. This was also the case with Swift, as he demonstrates his anger in A Modest Proposal, which appears as anything but a modest proposal at all. By finally being able to use the words that come unfiltered, many individuals are able to participate in this age of reason and enlightenment.