Wisdom Speaker vs. Satirist: The Use of Comparison and Relativism in Montaigne and Swift

Jennifer Hahn, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2002

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In their essays, Jonathon Swift and Michel de Montaigne use comparison to illustrate the relative nature of morality and ultimately to critique their own cultures. In "A Modest Proposal," the reader is asked to compare Swift's satirical solution to Ireland's social ills with the actual solutions (or lack thereof) of the time. Swift tries to convince the reader that using babies for food is no worse than allowing them to starve to death. In "Of Cannibals," Montaigne compares the barbarity of cannibals and Europeans, claiming that Europeans are in fact the more savage of the two groups. Both authors play on their readers' expectations, thereby shocking them with their outlandish comparisons. In "Of Cannibals," Montaigne writes:

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 enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.

It seems to me that the difference between the two authors' use of comparison is that while Montaigne states the comparison directly and unambiguously, Swift relies on the reader's ability to see through his satirical rhetoric. Which form of comparison is more effective, Montaigne's direct form of comparison or Swift's more encrypted form of comparison? Are such comparisons effective? What do they tell us about the authors' impression of absolute truth and morality? Is moral relativism a problem for these authors given their historical and religious orientations?

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Last modified 6 February 2002