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 Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a satirical pamphlet written and published by Jonathan Swift in 1729. Swift suggests in his essay that the Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling children born into poverty as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. The modern phrase "a modest proposal" derives from the work. The target of Swift's satire is the rationalism of modern economics in particular and the growth of rationalistic modes of thinking in modern life at the expense of more traditional human values.
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."
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.
Even today, readers unacquainted with its reputation as a satirical work often do not immediately realize that Swift was not seriously proposing cannibalism and infanticide. It is no longer true, as it was in Swift's time, that any educated reader would be familiar with the satires of Horace and Juvenal, and so 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.
Most critics have been reluctant to analyze the targets of Swift’s A Modest Proposal because of a misreading of Swift’s intentions. According to Wittkowsky, critics wrongly assumed that A Modest Proposal targeted conditions in Ireland, instead of its true target, the “set of theories and attitudes which rendered such conditions possible”.
One of Swift’s overarching targets in A Modest Proposal was 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 eighteenth 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 try and prove 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.”
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” (Lewis 135) 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.” (Lewis 136)
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” (Lewis 138) 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.” (Lewis 138)
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 (Lewis 139). 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.” (Lewis 139)
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 Tertullain share the same command of sarcasm and language. In agreement with Johnson, Donald C. Baker points out the similarity between both author’s 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.
Swift's essay serves as an example of how satire works. There are two distinct voices in the piece; the voice of Swift and the voice of the Proposer. The Proposer engages in a straight-forward economic calculation as if he were counting beans. It is against that voice in the foreground that Swift's voice is juxtaposed in the background, subtly ridiculing the application of this accounting discourse to the subject matter. To capture the meaning of Swift's essay the reader must comprehend that “there is a gap between the narrators’s meaning and the text’s, and that a moral-political argument is being carried out by means of parody.”
Still, as one critic argues, it is nevertheless important to understand the economics of Swift’s time in order to fully understand the piece. George Wittkowsky, author of "Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet," believes 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. "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. Wittkowsky counters that an understanding of the economics of mercantilism and the theories of labor in eighteenth-century England are necessary in order to fully understand the background of A Modest Proposal. With the start of a new industrial age in the eighteenth 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–since 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 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.” Swift's essay strikes at the heart of this view of the human being as a number or commodity.
Louis A. Landa focuses on Swift’s critique of the popular and unjustified maxim of eighteenth-century mercantilism 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.
A Modest Proposal is a classic essay, included in many literature programs as an example of early modern western satire. It has been emulated many times as well.
Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 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 burn a number of dogs, and hopefully any humans they find, using napalm to protest the burning of Vietnamese people occurring overseas.
In his book A Modest Proposal (1984), evangelical author Frank Schaeffer emulated Swift's work in a 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.)
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