A Modest Proposal | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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A Modest Proposal | Summary

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Summary

The Opening

Jonathan Swift opens his classic essay by setting the scene and appealing to the reader's compassion. He describes a tragic situation in which anyone walking the streets of Dublin sees women surrounded by many children, begging. He sketches the implications of this situation: the children either grow up to be criminals, leave their country to fight for a Catholic political cause which would challenge Protestant rule, or immigrate to a new continent.

He follows this hook by introducing the first step of his argument: something should be done to fix this terrible situation. Anyone who comes up with a solution would be a national hero. Swift says he will propose such a solution. In addition, his idea won't just solve the problem of beggars: it will help all families who have trouble supporting their children.

Before introducing his proposal, Swift critiques others' solutions to the problem. He claims they underestimate how much the poor cost the community. His solution will turn the costly poor into a resource that benefits the country. His solution would prevent abortion. He pauses before introducing his solution to provide context. He estimates the kingdom's current population at 1.5 million people, with 200,000 breeding couples. Only 30,000 of that number can support their own families. Fifty thousand women miscarry or lose their children to disease within the first year. This leaves 120,000 children born to families who can't support them every year. He builds from this fact to a question: how can these starving children be provided for?

He again delays before proposing his solution, pausing to reject other alternatives. The poor children can't be put to work farming or building houses. They can't live by theft, at least not until age six. Also, they can't be sold, at least not for enough money to pay more than a fraction of what it costs to feed and clothe them.

The Solution

Finally, Swift proposes his solution: these starving children should be sold as food. He supports this proposal in several ways. He shares testimony from an American who says young children make good food. He then draws analogies with breeding animals for food. By applying breeding ratios, 100,000 children could be produced to sell. He explains how many meals can be made from each child and how to divide the child's body for best effect. He argues this meat will be very expensive and therefore draw a good price from landlords. It will also be "in season" all year round, unlike some other meats, but most "plentiful in March," because Catholic families have more children nine months after Lent. One of the first benefits Swift lists for his proposal is that it would reduce the number of Catholics in Ireland.

Swift next calculates the costs and benefits of his proposal. It would cost two shillings to nurse a starving infant for a year, but at the end of that time, families could sell the baby for 10 shillings. This would yield several benefits. The mother would get eight shillings, giving her money she needs to live on, and she would also be free to work until another child comes. The purchaser gets meat for several meals. Landlords would become more popular, because for once money would flow from them to their tenants. In addition to the meat, thrifty people might choose to use the baby's skin for leather for gloves and boots.

Swift refers to another unnamed source who had argued boys and girls as old as 14 might be eaten. Their flesh would replace the venison or deer meat in short supply from overhunting. Swift disagrees both on practical grounds (because the boys' flesh was tough and tasted bad and because girls would be kept from breeding) and on ethical grounds. He says "some scrupulous people" might find the scheme cruel, as he has. This fear of cruelty has kept him from proposing this solution before.

Background

Swift returns to summarizing his anonymous friend who claims to have gotten the idea of eating people from George Psalmanazar's (c. 1679–1763) accounts from his supposed homeland of Formosa (Taiwan). (Actually from France, Psalmanazar had never even been to Formosa, though he did publish a book about his "native" land as part of his elaborate hoax.) Psalmanazar said when criminals are executed in Formosa, they are butchered and sold for food. Swift turns from this account back to his discussion of Ireland, arguing the country would benefit by killing plump and lazy young women the same way.

Swift next addresses what should be done about the many poor who are old, sick, or crippled. He says this problem does not need a solution. The poor are dying too fast to be a problem. So are many young workers who can't get enough to eat. This problem is solving itself. Because of this, Ireland and the poor are better off.

Reviewing the Benefits

After making this point about the poor dying (and being better off dead), which Swift admits is a digression, he reviews the benefits of his proposal, numbering them for clarity:

  1. Eating the poor would reduce the number of Catholics.
  2. Poor tenants would finally have something valuable of their own to sell.
  3. The proposal would generate massive financial profit for the country (50,000 pounds a year) and provide a new dish.
  4. The poor would gain money and get rid of the expense of feeding their children beyond the first year.
  5. The new and increased food source would bring new business to taverns.
  6. The proposal would entice people to marry.

Swift elaborates on the last point, arguing it would also make parents care for their children better because they would see their children as a source of benefit rather than an expense. Married women would compete to see who could bring the fattest baby to market. Men would be as proud of their wives as they currently are of their breeding horses, cows, and pigs. And husbands wouldn't beat or kick their wives anymore, because they'd be afraid of causing a miscarriage.

Swift ends this list with a general claim: he could list many more benefits, such as how other meat would be improved. Having another meat source available would allow producers of pork and other meats more control over their product. He estimates families in Dublin would eat 20,000 infants, while the rest of the kingdom would eat the other 80,000.

Rejecting Counterarguments

He rejects the idea anyone might object to his scheme, except because it might reduce the population of Ireland. However, he turns this critique around and claims reducing the population was one of his goals. He devotes a paragraph to rejecting other alternatives. It would not be possible to improve the current situation by raising taxes, changing practices so only the Irish use materials produced within the country, eliminating character flaws like pride, learning to love Ireland better, eliminating conflict and hatreds, or learning to act more ethically, frugally, or responsibly.

Swift says none of these alternatives would work. He rejects them until and unless someone can produce hope of a "hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice." He spent many years offering solutions and watching them fail. Exhausted, he came upon this current proposal of cannibalism. It has the virtue of being new and possible, costing nothing, and offering real benefits to the nation. It is also something Ireland can do without irritating England, because human flesh is too tender to be salted for export (so it would not interfere with English commerce). He does admit, "perhaps I could name a country" that would be happy to eat the entire nation of Ireland without salt.

Conclusion

Swift moves to conclude by claiming he's not opposed to any other alternatives, so long as they are inexpensive and functional. However, before people offer alternatives, he asks they consider two points. They first need to explain how they can feed and clothe 100,000 "useless" people. They then need to explain why they think the million people in terrible poverty wouldn't prefer to have been sold at one year old as food, rather than having to live like this: oppressed by landlords; unable to pay rent or provide food, clothing, or shelter for themselves; and passing this state of terrible poverty on to their children.

Swift concludes by insisting he has no personal stake in this matter, stating that his children are too old to sell and his wife is past her childbearing years. Instead, he offers this solution for the good of the country. His goal is to help the country, give the poor some relief, make sure infants get fed, and provide pleasure for the wealthy.

Analysis

Rhetorical Mastery

"A Modest Proposal" is a work of rhetorical mastery. Rhetoric is the ancient art of persuasion through writing and speaking. People have studied and taught this art for thousands of years. Many classical authors have written guides to rhetoric. Aristotle's (384–22 BCE) rhetoric identifies three sources of rhetorical authority: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is rational argumentation. Pathos appeals to emotions. Ethos appeals to ethics, such as beliefs in religion or patriotism.

Jonathan Swift uses all three of these sources of rhetorical authority in this classic satire. He opens with pathos, painting a harrowing verbal picture of the countless poor people suffering in Ireland. This should awaken the readers' sympathy, making them open and receptive to other appeals.

He builds on his appeal to pathos by appealing to ethos multiple ways. His second paragraph appeals to shared understanding and values: everyone agrees the current situation, where babies are starving in their mother's arms, is "deplorable." Swift adds multiple appeals to ethos. For validation of his proposal, he refers to the merchants as authorities on prices and costs, to a "worthy person" who loves Ireland for judgment on the nation's best interest, and to the practices of other countries. He closes the entire essay by another appeal to ethos. He lacks any self-interested reason to support his proposal, because his children are too old to sell and his wife too old to have more.

Most of the essay applies logos, or logical reasoning. Swift provides reasoned argument after reasoned argument in favor of his proposal. By every definition of logic, his proposal should succeed and should be superior to the current state of affairs. Most notably, Swift uses logic to paint the slaughter of infants as an act of kindness, saving them from lives of poverty. Swift turns logic against the reader's normal emotional reactions to the subject matter, forcing readers down a disgusting road they don't want to travel.

Swift uses other, more specific rhetorical devices along the way. Charles Beaumont notes the tract's 33 paragraphs divide neatly into the five sections of a classical oration. Classical rhetoricians used the device of diminution, referring to something by a lesser name to diminish its status. Beaumont notes Swift uses this device throughout this essay, as Swift essentially turns humans into animals. Diminution fits well with satire's goals: in this case, Swift shows the ruling class treating the poor worse than they would animals. The last of Swift's major rhetorical techniques is refining, in which a writer or speaker stays on the same topic but finds ways to say new things about it. Swift does this by circling around the different reasons selling Irish babies for food is useful, appealing, and/or functional. This differs from mere repetition because it exposes new facets of the issue.

Although modern readers often experience Swift in isolation, it is important to remember that he was working within a rhetorical context and tradition. Writers in Swift's period often offered propositions for social change by titling them "a modest proposal." Swift is responding to this tradition (and standing it on its head). Swift, like any educated man of his time, also read ancient Roman authors, including satirists, and his work is classified as a masterpiece of Juvenalian satire. This form takes its name from the 1st-century-AD Roman satirist Juvenal and is characterized by angry attacks on social institutions driven by moral outrage.

Economic Thinking

Great minds have reflected on the nature of the economy for thousands of years. Various Greek philosophers addressed economic issues, and Aristotle actively reflected on how a society should best distribute ownership of property (private versus collective ownership, and so on). Nonetheless, through most of Western history, economics was a subset of philosophical and political writing. Only during the 18th century did economics really emerge as an independent discipline. Adam Smith (1723–90) is considered the first modern economist, publishing his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776.

While Smith provided the first theoretical framework for the emerging capitalist economy of the industrial age, he was far from the first writer to address how people relate economically and how they should relate. Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) published a poem titled The Fable of the Bees (1705), which portrayed a vision of what a functional national economy would look like. Mandeville revised and republished this poem several times, with the last publication coming in 1729, the same year Swift published his tract. Among other principles, Mandeville argued for a large population to create low wages and force more people into the labor market (including children). He also wrote against the period moralists who thought humanity was innately good. He thought humanity was not innately good. Instead, he made the same argument Adam Smith would later make: economic forces can channel human sin and vice into a larger collective good. More generally, the practice of "political arithmetic" emerged during this period as economic thinking spread. Though this sort of statistical reasoning is familiar to modern readers, it would have been new in Swift's time, and he's commenting on it as well.

The Taboo of Cannibalism

Cannibalism is one of humanity's most widespread taboos or forbidden practices. Around the world, societies have strong social custom against cannibalism. They often consider it unspeakable. Monsters are often defined (at least in part) by eating human flesh: the Native American wendigo is a cannibal; the vampire drinks human blood; and in popular culture, zombies hunger for brains. When Swift proposes cannibalism with an apparently straight face and serious intent, he violates his society's taboos. This puts him and his solution outside of all social norms. This violation generates a visceral response, an intense feeling of disgust. Disgust blends both personal psychology and social norms, and its function is to guide the person feeling it to proper behavior.

Reductio ad absurdum or Going to Extremes

Scholars have identified specific techniques of argumentation. One of these techniques is extrapolating an argument to an extreme, or reductio ad absurdum. Writers and speakers do this to expose a weakness in the argument, often one that had gone unrecognized. Swift does this to the sociopolitical thinking of his period. He takes the inhumane way people are treating one another and extrapolates it to the extreme.

He takes the premise inherent in economic thinking: people's value to one another comes from the economic benefit they generate.

He provides a second premise: the only way the Irish poor can benefit other people is through giving up their children to get eaten.

Therefore, it is only rational for people to eat Irish babies.

If that is not true, something must be wrong with his reasoning. Swift knows there is something wrong with his reasoning. He wants there to be something wrong with his reasoning, and for his readers to pounce on that flaw and eagerly expose it, crying, "Aha! No one thinks you should eat babies (you sick ____)!"

Swift's implied answer is, "If that's not the case, then the premise of my argument must be wrong, too." If people should not relate to one another only as economic beings, then the entire current situation, in which the Irish are left to starve and their English landlords only care about them for the rents they pay, is wrong, too. Readers should reject it as violently and completely as cannibalism.

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