Carl Sagan And Swifts "A Modest Proposal"

Carl Sagan And Swifts "A Modest Proposal"

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"Carl Sagan would be pleased. It is his The Demon-Haunted World that opens with a story concerning a taxi driver: The driver, once realizing it is Carl Sagan, “that scientist guy,” in his cab’s backseat, proceeds to bombard Sagan with questions about truly scientific issues in the vein of “channeling,” “Nostradamus, astrology, the shroud of Turin.” And the driver presents each of these subjects “with a buoyant enthusiasm.” Yet Sagan disappoints him. With a list of facts, Sagan tells the man why there is a 99% chance each of his pseudoscientific theses are not true or why sometimes there is just a much simpler explanation which Occam’s Razor dictates we take. This respectful and modest logical deconstruction of absurd ideas is a compelling aspect of Sagan’s writing style. Enter Jonathan Swift: Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” parallels Sagan’s style in its logical, mathematical, and unpretentious tone. However instead of Sagan’s deconstructing of absurd ideas, Swift constructs one. A second difference is purpose: Sagan’s is science; Swift’s, satire.
Swift lets us know right off the bat that the fictitious author of his essay is a cultured man. One finds the first evidence of Swift’s authors formal background in the title, “A Modest 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.” Swift then continues to drive the point home by using complex sentences throughout the rest of the essay, as well as maintaining a relatively high level of diction (there’s not a contraction to be found in his essay). Swift uses “sustenance” in instead of “food” and “prodigious” instead of “large” to help accomplish the writers status as sophisticated. With some knowledge of the time period this essay was written in, one realizes that Swift’s fictitious author satires the way the English treated the poor during Ireland’s potato famine. It is the complex sentences and formal diction which are supposed to indicate that the author is one of Ireland’s English Occupiers.
Only a few lines in the essay begins to stress its logical approach by describing babies and their mothers in the most scientific of ways; “It is true, a child just dropped from its dam may be supported by her milk for a solar year.” First, one may note the connotation Swift’s phrase “dropped from its dam” gives. This phrase does refer to birth but is normally reserved for farm animals, which is how Swift shows the author’s feelings towards the Irish poor (or lack there of).

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The second point the line drives home is that scientific style spoken of at the top of this paragraph. It is all meant to show how this cultured Englishman sees the Irish as mere figures in a statistical problem that can be dealt with as if they were any other farm animal. To accent this point, Swift gives the author’s calculations on “about two hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders.” Also, again the connotation to the word breeders is parallel to the explanation of the phrase “dropped from its dam.”
Swift’s author then goes on to “humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” It is interesting to note that this passive style Swift employs wins points with many readers no matter what view a writer holds. It makes even the most defiant bookworm soften to the author and become sympathetic not to the author’s idea but to the poor writer whose mind has been misinformed. It also brings about a moral high ground if someone’s “rejection” of Swift’s fictitious author is a “violently” emotional one where might feel sympathy for that writers idea but a distaste for the writer. Here is where Sagan and Swift split, for Sagan attempts to make himself look good, and Swift to make his fictitious author look wicked. This “humble” style works for Swift because not only does it match the scientific approach Swift wants (genuine scientists are humble), but this also helps draw the connection from fictional Englishman to real life Englishman. If the fictitious author were aggressively attacking the Irish, calling for their extermination, then a reader may easily say, “I do not know anyone of that sort.” This style of presentation has the effect of making any reader look to all English with a suspicious eye—not just the ardent, outspoken enemy but possibly the common English man or woman who seems moral and just in every way except they, too, hold, quietly, a “modest proposal.”
And so Sagan and Swift share here a common style but not purpose. While Swift attempts to portray a man looking at human life with the cold eye of science and the humble style that makes everyone suspect for holding this “evil” view, Sagan speaks like a scientist because he is one and is discussing matters of science where no emotional issues need be addressed, unlike Swift’s issue. Still Sagan would be happy about “A Modest Proposal,” not because he and Swift’s character share this common style, but because of Swift’s message. Swift criticized the English treatment of the Irish by dealing with them as Sagan would astrology. And before Carl Sagan was a scientist or functionalist or anything else—he was a humanist.
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