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Jonathan Swift and Voltaire - Very Much Alike

While reading Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” I could think of no other than Voltaire. Having read Candide in tenth grade, I was well aware of Voltaire’s use of satire and wit in order to criticize government policies and religion. Although Swift had a more blunt approach, making it so that he could not put forth his name in his writing, there were still some of the same innuendos in both of their pieces. Voltaire believed the French nobles of his time to be ignorant fools who only cared about status and how they presented themselves. He hated them, but they adored him, for he brought exciting and entertaining conversation to their dinner parties. This only further showed their ignorance, for through all of Voltaire’s conversations with them, he would ridicule them in a very subtle way – too subtle for them to notice. Both Swift and Voltaire were intellects, they were both considered upper-class, but they would still differ from everyone’s ignorance, and be able to concentrate on what was actually important for their state, the people, and consequently the economy respectively.

Both writers lived in the same era, and both of their cultures underwent the same poverty and governmental incomprehension of the economical standpoint of the larger portion of their state. Swift proposes that since the English Parliament is already devouring the food and lives of the Irish Catholics who work on farms, they should be devouring their children as well. Voltaire wrote a book called Philosophical Letters in which he states: “In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other.” (from Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764). This relates entirely to Swift’s argument, in that taking from the peasants was exactly what both the French and the English were doing. The peasants of Ireland were labor workers, who would be given property but would serve as indentured servants to the land, constantly repaying the state of Britain, and as a result not having enough to eat.

Swift and Voltaire had similar viewpoints on Catholicism as well; they were both against it. Swift was an avid Protestant, and it is clearly stated in “A Modest Proposal” that he is not a supporter of the Roman Catholic Church. He uses his wit to ridicule it, stating that nine months after lent will be the time when there will be the most births, and thus the most food, or babies. Voltaire was a believer in morality, and not so much in faith, as also stated in his Philosophical Letters. As a result, he did not agree with the Protestant Church either, but they both had the same standpoints against the Catholics. They were also both anti-Semitics, which can be seen in both of their pieces. Jonathan Swift portrays his dislike of the Jews in this passage: “Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken…” (A Modest Proposal).

Ultimately, Swift made the more intelligent decision; to make his writings anonymous. This allowed him to put forth his ideas and continue doing so in peace. He was able to produce these writings, have them distributed to whom they were intended for, and not have to be exiled. Voltaire, on the other hand, had to flee his country several times to avoid being incarcerated or condemned.

Bibliography

Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.

Voltaire. The Complete Works of Voltaire: Dictionnaire Philosophique V. 35-36 (va) (french Edition). New edition ed. 2 vols. Voltaire Foundation, 1994.


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