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In what ways does Jonathan Swift support his argument in "A Modest Proposal"?

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sjeneil18 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted January 26, 2012 at 3:32 AM via web

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In what ways does Jonathan Swift support his argument in "A Modest Proposal"?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted January 26, 2012 at 4:50 AM (Answer #1)

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As any serious proposal to solve a problem does, "A Modest Proposal" includes a discussion of the commercial viability of raising Irish children for food and includes a number of calculations designed to prove that his solution is not only practical but beneficial.  For example, one of the main reasons behind his proposal is that Ireland is grossly over-populated and that the poor are already committing infanticide and abandoning their infants routinely because they cannot feed these children.  Swift argues that

A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends; and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish; and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt, will be very good Boiled in the fourth Day, especially in Winter.

If we deleted the word "child" and inserted "roast beef," this paragraph would be considered a logical, well-thought-out discussion of using beef in an economical and palatable way.  Swift includes seasoning and preparation advice.  This direct and concrete advice lends credibility to the entire proposal--until, that is,  we recall what the dish really is.

Swift has been so thorough in his analysis that he is even able to discuss why the availability of children may increase because Ireland is a predominately Catholic country:

. . .there are more Children born in Roman Catholick Countries about Nine Months after Lent, that at any other Season: Therefore reckoning a Year after Lent, the Markets will be more glutted than usual. . . .

This particular observation, although completely reasonable, carries some of Swift's most powerful satire.  As an Irish Catholic himself, Swift is addressing the Protestant majority in England to whom Catholics were enemies to be exterminated.  In fact, he is explicit about the advantage of the glut of infants--eating these Post-Lent infants will lessen "the number of Papists among us."  In this argument, he has the best of two worlds: he points out that the Catholics themselves will provide an enormous amount of available food after Lent and eating those children will decrease the number of England's religious enemies.

Swift's additional calculation of the cost of nursing a child, which is "about two Shillings per Annum, Rags included," set against the price a gentleman might pay--"Ten Shillings" for a fat child--is definitely cost-effective because that child "will make four Dishes of excellent Nutritive Meat. . . ."  Each time Swift manages to create the illusion of careful calculations that result in economical use, he is continuing the illusion that his approach is not only reasonable but also based on irrefutable calculations.  Who can argue with facts?

This essay manages to create in the mind of a reader what psychologists now call "cognitive dissonance" or "cognitive dis-equilibrium" because the reader, inundated with statistics and calculations, has to admire a logical argument and, at the same time, be horrified by the actual subject of the argument.

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