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“Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau and “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

Although Henry David Thoreau and Jonathan Swift in different historical periods, both of them actually address the ways and methods of social change in their respective essays “Civil Disobedience” and “A Modest Proposal”. In the work entitled “Civil Disobedience”, David Thoreau provides the ideas, which could be categorized as the peaceful and non-violent anarchism and refutes the importance of law and authority and the sources of compulsion. Jonathan Swift, one of the most outstanding adepts and apologists of political, social and scientific Enlightenment and the author of a variety of satirical essays, created his tract entitled “A Modest Proposal” in response to the incongruence between the degree of adoption of humanist values in England and the inhumane social policies in Ireland, which were inhibiting national dignity of Irish people and abuse the true understanding of humanity. The present paper is intended to analyze the internal conflicts of both works and argues that whereas the essays are quite similar due to the evidence of clash between the idea of social use and asociality in both of them, the incongruence between Thoreau’s ideas is associated with his distrust for the majority, whereas the major logical and conceptual fallacy in Swift’s work consists in his sympathy with the majority, or the livestock.

In “Civil Disobedience”, there is an intrinsic incongruence between the social use of the actions proposed by the writer, and his actual asociality as one can interpret it when reading the pamphlet. For instance, the scholar proposes that individuals, for the sake of terminating the bloody Mexican war and prevent the deaths of their fellow citizens as well as in order to eradicate slavery, avoid paying taxes, as taxes are actually the costs of maintaining the exploitation of others and the armed conflict (Thoreau, par.1-2). As one can understand, the purpose of civil disobedience refers to the universal human feelings of compassion and mercy for the soldiers and slaves and is possible only if the perpetrator of this “transgression’ has a high degree of social interest. On the other hand, Thoreau himself declares his own indifference to the community’s needs: “The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like demand on me since” (Thoreau, par. 25). Therefore, whereas the source or sender of the message about the social use of civil disobedience positions himself as antisocial and indifferent to the social issues, he nevertheless promotes his proposal as beneficial to the entire society. This incongruence makes Thoreau a less credible speaker. In “A Modest Proposal”, the inconsistency between the idea of social use and antisocial nature is not fully associated with the sender, like is Thoreau’s case, but rather with the nature of the proposed action. In fact, Swift suggests that it would be useful for the good of the entire society to introduce the possibility of eating young children. On the one hand, the author provides six points which substantiate the economic appropriateness of legal endorsement of such actions. For instance, the author claims: “Whereas the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old and upward, cannot be computer at less than ten shillings a-piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per annum, beside the profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen” (Swift, par.23). On the other hand, Swift also incorporates into his paper a notion of maternal care about and attachment to little toddlers: for instance, in the first paragraphs, it is made clear that Irish mothers are desperate to gain or earn some money for supporting their children and are literally forced to beg (Swift, par. 1-2). Due to the prevalence of such negative social phenomena as mother beggars or hard-working mothers who barely make ends meet, feeding their children, one can assume that family bonds are particularly strong and socially constructed and enforced so that women would rather die of hunger and exhaustion than let their children die. As one can assume, this proposal is also antisocial; moreover, although the innovation associated with “children farms”, regardless of its obvious social and economic gains, will undermine the very foundation of the existing polity by dissolving families and eliminating such important aspect of intrafamilial connection as maternal commitment to children. As a result, all above described economic profits will not be relevant in the partly destroyed and disunited society.

The second point of logical incongruence in the two works directly derives from each author’s attitude towards the majority. In particular, in “Civil Disobedience”, there is a conflict between the ideas of treating the views of majority with suspicion and the very nature of justice. On the one hand, the scholar states: “But government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it” (Thoreau, 4). However, it is not actually clear which source of justice the author recognizes; Thoreau merely states that the individual should decide by themselves the frames and boundaries of their own conception of justice. Therefore, the major agent of justice is individual rather then majority, according to the essay. On the other hand, the whole cognitive construct of justice can not be “embedded” into human mind at once, the development of the understanding of justice as a phenomenon, endorsed and controlled by individuals, is a gradual process, which occurs in the course of human socialization. Socialization, in turn, is the continuous influence of microsocial (family and school environments) and mezzo social (contacts with communities and bureaucratic institutions like churches) majorities on human character. Therefore, due to the fact that the understanding of justice can be shaped only under the influence of common practice, the essay should have specified where the individual can find the idea of justice if they are expected to approach the views of majorities with suspicion. Thus, the author disregards majority as a powerful force and views it as an agent of “mass consciousness” which promotes and enforces corrupt ideas of justice. Conversely, the major logical inconsistency is Swift’s work is the sympathy for the poverty-stricken majority he expresses, which is not compatible with the inhumane idea of eating little children. In fact, the first lines of Swift’s work depict the plain and severe realities, encountered by the families of beggars in Ireland: “These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (Swift, par.1). The author’s language, as one can conclude, doesn’t de-prioritize the sentimental nature of that period, when infants were doomed to miserable existence in poverty and pain, so Swift obviously expresses compassion with and concerns about their fate. At the same time, he mercilessly proposes that families be split and children be murdered to serve as a dinner for wealthier people (Swift, par.5). At the same time, it is barely possible to imagine a family, in which parents voluntarily agree to sell their little child for meat and doom them to such a horrible death.

As one can conclude, due to the fact that both Thoreau’s and Swift’s proposals are barely realistic, they are both characterized by the striking incongruence between the projected social benefit and underlying asociality. At the same time, Thoreau propagates individualism in worldview and judgments about equality and justice, so he fails to recognize the importance and power of the majority, forgetting that human beliefs and moral norms are constructed by the significant others surrounding each person. Swift, in his turn, expresses too great compassion with the majority, affected by poverty, and as a result his essay appears to be unconvincing, as the writer probably planned.

Works cited

Swift, J. “A Modest Proposal”. In Chapter 6 of The Broadview Reader, edited by J.Flick and H.Rosengarten. Broadview Press, 1998. Web.

Thoreau, H.D. “Civil Disobedience”. In Chapter 6 of The Broadview Reader, edited by J.Flick and H.Rosengarten. Broadview Press, 1998. Web.


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