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A Modest Proposal

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, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a satirical essay written and published by Jonathan Swift in 1729. Swift appears to suggest in his essay that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.

Details

Swift goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion. He uses common methods of argument throughout his essay, such as appealing to the authority of "a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London" and "the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa" (who had already confessed to not being from Formosa in 1706). Swift couches his arguments in then-current events, exploiting common prejudice against Papists and pointing out their depredations of England. After enumerating the benefits of his proposal, Swift addresses possible objections including the depopulation of Ireland and a litany of other solutions which he dismisses as impractical.

This essay is widely held to be one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift's solution when he states, "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."

Readers unacquainted with its reputation as a satirical work often do not immediately realize that Swift was not seriously proposing cannibalism and infanticide, nor would readers unfamiliar with the satires of Horace and Juvenal recognize that Swift's essay follows the rules and structure of Latin satires.

The satirical element of the pamphlet is often only understood after the reader notes the allusions made by Swift to the attitudes of landlords, such as the following: "I grant this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children." Swift extends the metaphor to get in a few jibes at England’s mistreatment of Ireland, noting that "For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it."

In the tradition of Roman satire, Swift introduces the reforms he is actually suggesting by deriding them:

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: 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: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

Population "solutions"

It has been argued that Swift’s main target in A Modest Proposal was not the conditions in Ireland, but rather the can-do spirit of the times that led people to devise a number of illogical schemes that would purportedly solve social and economic ills. Swift was especially insulted by projects that tried to fix population and labor issues with a simple cure-all solution. A memorable example of these sort of schemes "involved the idea of running the poor through a joint-stock company". In response, Swift’s Modest Proposal was "a burlesque of projects concerning the poor", that were in vogue during the early 18th century.

A Modest Proposal also targets the calculating way people perceived the poor in designing their projects. The pamphlet targets reformers who "regard people as commodities". In the piece, Swift adopts the "technique of a political arithmetician" to show the utter ridiculousness of trying to prove any proposal with dispassionate statistics.

Critics differ about Swift’s intentions in using this faux-mathematical philosophy. Edmund Wilson argues that statistically "the logic of the 'Modest proposal' can be compared with Marx's defense of crime in which he argues that crime takes care of the superfluous population". Wittkowsky counters that Swift's satiric use of statistical analysis is an effort to enhance his satire that "springs from a spirit of bitter mockery, not from the delight in calculations for their own sake".

Rhetoric

Charles K. Smith argues that Swift’s rhetorical style persuades the reader to detest the speaker and pity the Irish. Swift’s specific strategy is twofold, using a "trap to create sympathy for the Irish and a dislike of the narrator who, in the span of one sentence, "details vividly and with rhetorical emphasis the grinding poverty" but feels emotion solely for members of his own class. Swift’s use of gripping details of poverty and his narrator’s cool approach towards them creates "two opposing points of view" which "alienate the reader, perhaps unconsciously, from a narrator who can view with 'melancholy' detachment a subject that Swift has directed us, rhetorically, to see in a much less detached way".

Swift has his proposer further degrade the Irish by using language ordinarily reserved for animals. Lewis argues that the speaker uses "the vocabulary of animal husbandry to describe the Irish. Once the children have been commoditized, Swift’s rhetoric can easily turn "people into animals, then meat, and from meat, logically, into tonnage worth a price per pound".

Swift uses the proposer’s serious tone to highlight the absurdity of his proposal. In making his argument, the speaker uses the conventional, text book approved order of argument from Swift’s time. The contrast between the "careful control against the almost inconceivable perversion of his scheme" and "the ridiculousness of the proposal" create a situation in which the reader has "to consider just what perverted values and assumptions would allow such a diligent, thoughtful, and conventional man to propose so perverse a plan".

Tertullian’s Apology

Some scholars have argued that A Modest Proposal was largely influenced and inspired by Tertullian’s Apology. While Tertullian’s Apology is a satirical attack against early Roman persecution of Christianity, Swift’s A Modest Proposal addresses the Anglo-Irish situation in the 1720s. James William Johnson believes that Swift saw major similarities between the two situations. Johnson notes Swift’s obvious affinity for Tertullian and the bold stylistic and structural similarities between the works A Modest Proposal and Apology. In structure, Johnson points out the same central theme; that of cannibalism and the eating of babies; and the same final argument; that "human depravity is such that men will attempt to justify their own cruelty by accusing their victims of being lower than human". Stylistically, Swift and Tertullian share the same command of sarcasm and language. In agreement with Johnson, Donald C. Baker points out the similarity between both authors' tones and use of irony. Baker notes the uncanny way that both authors imply an ironic "justification by ownership" over the subject of sacrificing children—Tertullian while attacking pagan parents, and Swift while attacking the English mistreatment of the Irish poor.

Economic themes

When taking up Jonathan Swift's pamphlet, A Modest Proposal, Robert Phiddian in his article "Have you eaten yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal" focuses on two aspects of the piece: the voice of Swift and the voice of the Proposer. Phiddian stresses that a reader of the pamphlet must learn to distinguish between the satiric voice of Jonathan Swift and the apparent economic projections of the Proposer. He reminds readers that "there is a gap between the narrator’s meaning and the text’s, and that a moral-political argument is being carried out by means of parody".

While Swift’s proposal is therefore obviously not a serious economic projection, George Wittkowsky, author of "Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet," argues that it is nevertheless important to understand the economics of Swift’s time in order to fully understand the piece. Wittowsky argues that not enough critics have taken the time to directly focus on the economics of Swift’s historical situation within which A Modest Proposal was written. He states that "if one regards the Modest Proposal simply as a criticism of condition, about all one can say is that conditions were bad and that Swift's irony brilliantly underscored this fact". According to Wittkowsky that has been the understanding most critics have settled with over the years of reading Swift's proposal. On the other hand, Wittkowsky states that it is beneficial for the reader to be familiar with the economics of mercantilism and the theories of labor in 18th century England in order to fully understand the background of A Modest Proposal. He explains that with the start of a new industrial age in the 18th century it was believed that "people are the riches of the nation", and there was a general faith in an economy which paid its workers low wages—high wages meant workers would work less. Furthermore, "in the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry". Wittkowsky reminds us that it is important to remember that in the "Age of Swift" the "somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a commodity". We can better understand Swift’s satirical cannibalistic proposal when we take into account this idea in his time of the human being as a number or commodity.

"People are the riches of a nation"

Louis A. Landa presents Swift’s A Modest Proposal as a critique of the popular and unjustified maxim of mercantilism in the eighteenth century that "people are the riches of a nation". Swift presents the dire state of Ireland and shows that mere population itself, in Ireland’s case, did not always mean greater wealth and economy. The uncontrolled maxim fails to take into account that a person that does not produce in an economic or political way makes a country poorer, not richer. Swift also recognizes the implications of such a fact in making mercantilist philosophy a paradox: the wealth of a country is based on the poverty of the majority of its citizens. Swift however, Landa argues, is not merely criticizing economic maxims but also addressing the fact that England was denying Irish citizens their natural rights and dehumanizing them by viewing them as a mere commodity.

Modern usage

A Modest Proposal is included in many literature programs as an example of early modern western satire. It also serves as an exceptional introduction to the concept and use of argumentative language, lending itself well to secondary and post-secondary essay courses. Outside of the realm of English studies, A Modest Proposal is a relevant piece included in many comparative and global literature and history courses, as well as those of numerous other disciplines in the arts, humanities, and even the social sciences.

It has been emulated many times as well. In his book A Modest Proposal (1984), evangelical author Frank Schaeffer emulated Swift's work in social conservative polemic against abortion and euthanasia in a future dystopia that advocated recycling of aborted embryos and fetuses, as well as some disabled infants with compound intellectual, physical and physiological difficulties. (Such Baby Doe Rules cases were then a major concern of the pro-life movement of the early 1980s, which viewed selective treatment of those infants as disability discrimination.)

In Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, which contains hundreds of private letters written by Thompson over the years, contains a letter in which he uses A Modest Proposal's satire technique against the Vietnam War. Thompson writes a letter to a local Aspen newspaper informing them that, on Christmas Eve, he was going to use napalm to burn a number of dogs and hopefully any humans they find. This letter protests the burning of Vietnamese people occurring overseas.

In popular culture

The game Orphan Feast on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim website is loosely based on A Modest Proposal.

The show Sealab 2021 references A Modest Proposal by the character of Jodene Sparks. It was suggested as recommended reading when Debbie wanted a child.

A Modest Proposal is the name of The University of Texas at Dallas' Alternative Student Newspaper, the monthly opinion paper of the University.

Notes

References

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