In his satiric essay "A Modest Proposal," are any of Jonathan Swift's proposals for improving Irish society reasonable? 

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Jonathan Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal" as a reaction to the deplorable conditions in Ireland which he felt were not being given the attention necessary to solve the problems. It seems clear that none of Swift's proposals, taken literally, are reasonable options which would improve the living conditions in Ireland.

Because poverty is rampant, Swift suggests a simple idea which would benefit everyone (the satire begins here). Once he establishes the fact that enough babies are born each year to generate a profit if a percentage of them were sold for food or textiles (skin), he delineates six advantages for his ideas. 

  1. Fewer Catholics (enemies of the Protestants) in Ireland
  2. Farmers could pay their taxes and reclaim their lands (from absentee landlords who have no interest in Ireland's future)
  3. All the money would remain in Ireland, to be reinvested 
  4. Parents would benefit by selling their children early (and having cash in their hands) and not having the expense of raising them
  5. New recipes would be developed
  6. More marriages would occur because more money could be made

The speaker of the tract says, "I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal," but it is clear that this "modest proposal," taken literally, is outrageous, impractical, and inhumane.

What he has done is accurately identified the major problems in Ireland and what needs to be done to alleviate them, and that is reasonable. Take each of these points a little less literally and Swift is offering sound advice to his fellow countrymen. For example, if the farmers' land were returned to them (and the sham landlords would stay in whatever country they essentially defected to), the farmers would have the motivation and opportunity to produce enough food to feed the citizenry. 

No, Swift does not really want to kill babies, and no, the plan is not a reasonable one. Despite that, "A Modest Proposal" is a shockingly brilliant way to at least provoke reasonable discussion about the crisis in Ireland. 

 

 

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