A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

Overview
A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a Juvenalian satirical essay written and published anonymously by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift was an Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer , poet and cleric who became Dean of St...

 in 1729. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.
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Encyclopedia
A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a Juvenalian satirical essay written and published anonymously by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift was an Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer , poet and cleric who became Dean of St...

 in 1729. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. This satirical hyperbole mocks heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as Irish policy in general.

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 methods of argument throughout his essay which lampoon then-prominent William Petty
William Petty
Sir William Petty FRS was an English economist, scientist and philosopher. He first became prominent serving Oliver Cromwell and Commonwealth in Ireland. He developed efficient methods to survey the land that was to be confiscated and given to Cromwell's soldiers...

 and the social engineering popular among followers of Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

. These lampoons include appealing to the authority of "a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London" and "the famous Psalmanazar
George Psalmanazar
George Psalmanazar claimed to be the first Formosan to visit Europe. For some years he convinced many in Britain, but was later revealed to be an impostor...

, a native of the island Formosa
Taiwan
Taiwan , also known, especially in the past, as Formosa , is the largest island of the same-named island group of East Asia in the western Pacific Ocean and located off the southeastern coast of mainland China. The island forms over 99% of the current territory of the Republic of China following...

" (who had already confessed to not being from Formosa in 1706). This essay is widely held to be one of the greatest examples of sustained irony
Irony
Irony is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or situation in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions...

 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 stew
Stew
A stew is a combination of solid food ingredients that have been cooked in liquid and served in the resultant gravy. Ingredients in a stew can include any combination of vegetables , meat, especially tougher meats suitable for slow-cooking, such as beef. Poultry, sausages, and seafood are also used...

ed, roasted
Roasting
Roasting is a cooking method that uses dry heat, whether an open flame, oven, or other heat source. Roasting usually causes caramelization or Maillard browning of the surface of the food, which is considered by some as a flavor enhancement. Roasting uses more indirect, diffused heat , and is...

, baked
Baking
Baking is the technique of prolonged cooking of food by dry heat acting by convection, and not by radiation, normally in an oven, but also in hot ashes, or on hot stones. It is primarily used for the preparation of bread, cakes, pastries and pies, tarts, quiches, cookies and crackers. Such items...

, or boiled
Boiling
Boiling is the rapid vaporization of a liquid, which occurs when a liquid is heated to its boiling point, the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid is equal to the pressure exerted on the liquid by the surrounding environmental pressure. While below the boiling point a liquid...

; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee
Fricassee
Fricassee or Fricassée is a catch-all term used to describe a stewed dish typically made with poultry, but other types of white meat can be substituted. It is cut into pieces and then stewed in gravy, which is then thickened with butter and cream or milk . It often includes other ingredients and...

, or a ragoust
Ragout
-Etymology:The term comes from the French ragoûter, to revive the taste. The etymologically related Italian ragù is a sauce such as Bolognese used typically to dress pasta.-Preparation:...

."

Readers unacquainted with its reputation as a satirical work often do not immediately realize that Swift was not seriously proposing cannibalism
Cannibalism
Cannibalism is the act or practice of humans eating the flesh of other human beings. It is also called anthropophagy...

 and infanticide
Infanticide
Infanticide or infant homicide is the killing of a human infant. Neonaticide, a killing within 24 hours of a baby's birth, is most commonly done by the mother.In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible...

, nor would readers unfamiliar with the satires of Horace
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

 and Juvenal
Juvenal
The Satires are a collection of satirical poems by the Latin author Juvenal written in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD.Juvenal is credited with sixteen known poems divided among five books; all are in the Roman genre of satire, which, at its most basic in the time of the author, comprised a...

 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:

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 sorts 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 defense of crime (arrogated to Marx) 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 create "two opposing points of view" that "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 commodified, 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
Tertullian
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian , was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and...

’s Apology
Apologeticus
Apologeticus or Apologeticum is Tertullian's most famous work, consisting of apologetic and polemic; it was written in Carthage in the summer or autumn of 197 AD, during the reign of Septimius Severus. In this work Tertullian defends Christianity, demanding legal toleration and that Christians be...

: a satirical attack against early Roman persecution of Christianity. 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 as well as 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.

It has also been argued that A Modest Proposal was, at least in part, a response to the 1728 essay The Generous Projector or, A Friendly Proposal to Prevent Murder and Other Enormous Abuses, By Erecting an Hospital for Foundlings and Bastard Children by Swift's rival Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe , born Daniel Foe, was an English trader, writer, journalist, and pamphleteer, who gained fame for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest proponents of the novel, as he helped to popularise the form in Britain and along with others such as Richardson,...

.

Economic themes


Robert Phiddian's article "Have you eaten yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal" focuses on two aspects of A Modest Proposal: 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 obviously not a serious economic proposal, George Wittkowsky, author of "Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet", argues that to understand the piece fully, it is important to understand the economics of Swift’s time. Wittowsky argues that not enough critics have taken the time to focus directly on the mercantilism and theories of labor in 18th century England. "[I]f 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". At 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 that paid its workers low wages because high wages meant workers would work less. Furthermore, "in the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry". In those times, the "somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a 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 18th 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
Frank Schaeffer
Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer...

 emulated Swift's work in social conservative polemic against abortion
Abortion
Abortion is defined as the termination of pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo prior to viability. An abortion can occur spontaneously, in which case it is usually called a miscarriage, or it can be purposely induced...

 and euthanasia
Euthanasia
Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering....

 in a future dystopia
Dystopia
A dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian, as characterized in books like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four...

 that advocated recycling
Recycling
Recycling is processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution and water pollution by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse...

 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
Pro-life
Opposition to the legalization of abortion is centered around the pro-life, or anti-abortion, movement, a social and political movement opposing elective abortion on moral grounds and supporting its legal prohibition or restriction...

 movement of the early 1980s, which viewed selective treatment of those infants as disability discrimination.)

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter Stockton Thompson was an American journalist and author who wrote The Rum Diary , Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 .He is credited as the creator of Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to...

'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 Proposals satire technique against the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

. Thompson writes a letter to a local Aspen
Aspen, Colorado
The City of Aspen is a Home Rule Municipality that is the county seat and the most populous city of Pitkin County, Colorado, United States. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the city population was 5,804 in 2005...

 newspaper informing them that, on Christmas Eve, he was going to use napalm
Napalm
Napalm is a thickening/gelling agent generally mixed with gasoline or a similar fuel for use in an incendiary device, primarily as an anti-personnel weapon...

 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
Adult Swim
Adult Swim is an adult-oriented Cable network that shares channel space with Cartoon Network from 9:00 pm until 6:00 am ET/PT in the United States, and broadcasts in countries such as Australia and New Zealand...

 website is loosely based on A Modest Proposal.

The show Sealab 2021
Sealab 2021
Sealab 2021 is an American animated television series. It was shown on Cartoon Network's adult-oriented programming block, Adult Swim. It premiered on November 23, 2000 and the final episode aired on April 25, 2005...

 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; it was also the name of a regular column in SWIFT Magazine of Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

, a satire publication that also takes its name from Jonathan Swift.

A Modest Proposal is mentioned in the 1996 film The Birdcage
The Birdcage
The Birdcage is a 1996 American comedy film directed by Mike Nichols, and stars Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, and Christine Baranski. The script was written by Elaine May...

.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a 1974 American independent horror film directed and produced by Tobe Hooper, who cowrote it with Kim Henkel. It stars Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, and Gunnar Hansen, who respectively portray Sally Hardesty, Franklin Hardesty, the...

 writer/creator Kim Henkel
Kim Henkel
Kim Henkel is an American screenwriter, director and producer.Henkel was born in Virginia and grew up in several small towns in South Texas. He started at the University of Texas at Austin in 1964 majoring in English and graduated in 1969...

 cited "A Modest Proposal" as an influence in scripting his 2011 horror film "Boneboys," directed by Duane Graves and Justin Meeks.

Controversial American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 political activist and disbarred
Disbarment
Disbarment is the removal of a lawyer from a bar association or the practice of law, thus revoking his or her law license or admission to practice law...

 attorney Jack Thompson's A Modest Video Game Proposal
A Modest Video Game Proposal
A Modest Video Game Proposal is the title of an open letter sent by activist/former attorney Jack Thompson to members of the press and to Entertainment Software Association president Doug Lowenstein on October 10, 2005...

 draws its title from A Modest Proposal.

On the December 13, 2010 episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen reads a passage of A Modest Proposal in support of Ted Turner's suggestions on reducing overpopulation by having poor people sell (to rich people) their right to bear a single child per family.

In Tanzania, a popular writer, columnist, and satirist, M. M. Mwanakijiji, has attempted to emulate Swift in his own "A Modest Proposal – On how Chagga People should be removed from Power and Positions of Affluence." For most Swahili speakers, the use of satire in writing is unfamiliar. This essay had the same shock value as the original "Modest Proposal" for those readers who had not been exposed to Swift.

External links


  • A Modest Proposal (Gutenberg)
  • Free audiobook from LibriVox
  • A Modest Proposal BBC Radio 4 In Our Time
    In Our Time (BBC Radio 4)
    In Our Time is a live BBC radio discussion series exploring the history of ideas, presented by Melvyn Bragg since 15 October 1998.. It is one of BBC radio's most successful discussion programmes, acknowledged to have "transformed the landscape for serious ideas at peak listening time"...

     with Melvyn Bragg
    Melvyn Bragg
    Melvyn Bragg, Baron Bragg FRSL FRTS FBA, FRS FRSA is an English broadcaster and author best known for his work with the BBC and for presenting the The South Bank Show...