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A Modest Proposal | Main Ideas

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Consistency and Logic

One of Jonathan Swift's main ideas in "A Modest Proposal" is consistency. He expects his readers to react with horror at the idea of eating babies. He also expects them to reject the entire economic and commercial framework he has associated with this cannibalism. He expects, and is trying to provoke, a horrified response along the lines of "How horrible! I would never do that!" His implied response is, "No? Why not? Why and how is selling children, so the parents make money, and eating children, which gives the consumers pleasure, worse than letting them starve to death on the street, which you are doing by the thousands every day?" This appeal to consistency is one of Swift's most powerful weapons in this satire. In this portrait of intentional and commercial cannibalism, Swift creates an ugly mirror and asks his readers to look at their unflattering reflection.

Closely linked to the principle of consistency is Swift's use of logic. This is central to his satire. One might compress his entire message into a series of syllogisms, a kind of formal reasoning in which two premises lead logically to a conclusion.

  • Premise: People should not do things that are inhumane.
  • Premise: Eating people is inhumane.
  • Conclusion: Therefore people should not eat other people.

From this initial syllogism, with which almost all readers would agree, Swift builds an implied second syllogism.

  • Premise: People should not do things that are inhumane.
  • Premise: Letting people starve to death is inhumane.
  • Conclusion: Therefore people should not let others starve.

If the logic works for the first syllogism, then it should work for the second. This reduces the entire essay to a single if/then statement:

If readers object to the idea of eating people, then they should do something to solve the problem of poverty.

Compassion for the Poor

The idea of entire families starving, or begging so they don't starve, is horrific. However, in Swift's time it was common. In many cases, people took it for granted. When they did act, it was on a political scale, rather than the personal level. For example, in 1722, the British Parliament passed laws establishing poorhouses, and within 50 years there were thousands of them. Many people in this period believed the poor deserved to be poor. People thought the poor somehow created their condition. Swift hopes the way he describes the poor in this essay will wake readers up. He wants to bring their shared humanity to life. Though it is easy to forget when reading a satire this savage, Swift was a clergyman, and so completely familiar with the many Christian arguments about the need to care for the poor and feed the hungry. Though his argument is almost completely pragmatic and secular, Swift is essentially calling his readers who let the current situation go on un-Christian. In later tracts and in his sermons, he makes this charge explicitly. Here he makes it implicitly.

Need for Change

When he wrote this essay, Swift had already been trying more traditional routes to move people to change for years. He had failed. He was depressed, disgusted, and even heartbroken by the conditions he saw around him. He wasn't alone. An archbishop of the period referred to the situation as a "stab to the heart" and lamented that literally every day the poor died because they did not have enough to eat. For a civilized man, a compassionate man, an Irishman, or a Christian, this was unacceptable. Swift was all these things, and so he turned to satire to fuel his message: Ireland needed change.

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