tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift
Start Free Trial

In Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," what are some ways in which the proposal appears to be a rational approach to Ireland's over-population and poverty?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This pamphlet was written with an English audience in mind, and so the speaker begins by attempting to establish a consensus with his audience: that "it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

This pamphlet was written with an English audience in mind, and so the speaker begins by attempting to establish a consensus with his audience: that "it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great [...] grievance." To begin the argument in this way, as well as by expressing some sympathy for these individuals who live in poverty who are "helpless" and dressed "all in rags," the speaker seems like a kind person, someone who genuinely wants to be of use to these poor individuals and to the commonwealth, persuading the reader to believe that he is about to offer a real and reasoned solution to the problem.

The speaker goes on, claiming that he has spent "many years" considering this "important subject," and he proceeds to offer arguments based in logos (logic) outlining how much a baby would weigh at birth, how much it would weigh after one year, and so on. The fact that his calculations are way off—a newborn birthed by an impoverished mother in the eighteenth century would not weigh twelve pounds, nor would it grow to twenty-eight pounds in one year—is beside the point here. The speaker has clearly given a great deal of thought to the uses to which such infants could be put, in terms of how many meals one might get out of such an child or the use to which its skin could be put, and so on. He even outlines several advantages beyond just having fewer beggars on the street. All of these combine to make it seem as though this proposal really could be real, and this is likely why so many people were confused and appalled when they first read it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the time when Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal," and for many years after, a wide body of learned opinion held that overpopulation led to economic distress. The most famous—or infamous—exponent of such a notion was Thomas Malthus, an 18th/19th century English cleric and scholar who argued that population growth invariably led to catastrophes such as famine and disease, even if the economy as a whole continued to improve.

Though there are few self-proclaimed Malthusians today, some scholars would argue that Malthus' grim prognosis can certainly be applied to specific societies. One such society would be Irish society during the time when Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal."

Despite the prevalence of famine, hunger, and appalling levels of poverty in the countryside, Irish peasants continued to have large families. One reason behind this was religious. Having a large family had long been an accepted practice among Roman Catholics, and virtually all Irish peasants at the time were Roman Catholics. Peasants also had as many children as possible in order to have someone to look after them in their frail old age. In an age where there was no welfare system of social security, this was an especially important consideration.

A Malthusian might still argue that Ireland in the 18th century was massively over-populated and needed to reduce its surplus population in order to prevent famine and other avoidable catastrophes. Although they wouldn't advocate the kind of gruesome measures endorsed by the fictitious author of Swift's satirical pamphlet, they would nonetheless wholeheartedly support the motivations behind them, which, on the face of it, seem perfectly reasonable.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is a renowned satirical essay in which Swift proposes that the poor children are eaten (an an effort to reduce the population and provide monetary income for the parents of the children sold as food). While readers today are well aware of Swift's satirical nature, many who read the text when first published were utterly shocked. 

While many do not actually look at the proposal as providing a realistic approach to Ireland's problem with overpopulation and poverty, some critics could find some aspects of the text which prove to be realistic in nature. Swift constructs a very sad image of "great towns" in the opening of the proposal: "crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags." These mothers and children are begging for money from each and every person who pass. 

Swift's proposal, to eat the children of Ireland, possesses a realistic aspect when he defines what is happening to the children of Ireland "now." According to Swift, his proposal would take the place of the "horrid practice of women" murdering their own children. Realistically, this is actually a rational thought. While one dos not have to agree that the children need to be eaten, one can argue that children should not be murdered. Swift's argument, in this aspect, proves to be very rational. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team