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

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Discussion Topic

The main idea, argument, and potential objections in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

Summary:

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" satirically suggests that impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to the rich. The main argument criticizes British exploitation and heartlessness towards the Irish poor. Potential objections include the moral abhorrence of cannibalism and the dehumanization of the poor, highlighting the absurdity of treating people as mere economic commodities.

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What is the urgent need addressed in "A Modest Proposal"?

"A Modest Proposal" offers a satirical solution to a real problem. The urgent need, therefore, is exactly what Swift says it is: the problem of poverty, and specifically child poverty, in Ireland.

Swift begins the essay by remarking what a "melancholy object" it is to see both town and country crowded with female beggars, all of whom have several ragged and malnourished children in tow. The women are unable to work, and the same fate awaits their children when they grow up. They will have to become thieves or mercenaries, or sell themselves into indentured servitude on the other side of the world.

Swift then says that everyone must surely agree that this is a scandalous state of affairs, which exacerbates the already "deplorable state of the kingdom." Anyone who could find a solution to remove these hordes of beggars and destitute children from the streets would be a public benefactor of such importance that he would deserve to have a statue erected to commemorate him.

For the first two paragraphs, Swift says nothing that is not true and reasonable. This straightforward, sincere exposition of exigent need makes the satire more effective, as the reader does not at first realize that it is a satire. Swift slowly imbues the following paragraphs with irony, but it is not until paragraph 9, in which he discusses the different ways in which one might cook a child, that the full horror of the proposal becomes plain.

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What is the main argument of the speaker in A Modest Proposal?

I would day that Jonathan Swift's primary consideration in "A Modest Proposal" is justice, specifically economic justice. 

Near the end of his essay, Swift states his motivation:

[I have] no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich.

Of course, Swift presents his arguments with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.  He certainly doesn't really mean that little Irish children should be ground up and eaten.  What he does mean is that the Irish people are suffering from poverty, and something ought to be done about it. 

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What are possible objections to the proposal in "A Modest Proposal"?

This depends on whether you are taking it literally (which is a fairly obvious genre mistake) or not. On a literal level, one could start by suggesting that eating babies is morally wrong. Next, there are health issues associated with cannibalism, including a group of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy, which are incurable. Finally, babies would not be a sustainable food source as humans breed fairly slowly.

On a more serious level, reading the work as the satire it actually is, one can argue that it may call attention to the problem of Irish poverty, but it doesn't actually provide practical solutions. The problem had to do not only with land ownership but with over-reliance on a single crop, the potato, for food, and the ensuing devastating effects of periodic potato blights. Although Swift's writing did point out the problem of Irish poverty, it did not really discuss the causes or how they might be remedied. 

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What are possible objections to the proposal in "A Modest Proposal"?

If you mean what possible objections people might have to the proposal itself, the most common would be that is it inhumane to solve the problem of poverty by making it possible for poor women to sell their year-old babies as food to be eaten at rich people's tables. Cannibalism is unpleasant at any age, but most people are revolted by the idea of eating a freshly killed baby served "hot off the knife." Swift meant for people to react with horror to this proposal. He hoped it would lead them to embrace a more humane solution to problem of rampant poverty in Ireland and even proposed several humane ideas in his essay (while having his narrator brush them off). It's important to note that Swift himself is not proposing eating babies. It is his clueless narrator, representing the kind of mindless bureaucrats who dealt with the poor as objects, not real human beings.

However, if you mean what possible objections people might have to the essay itself, some early audiences were horrified. They missed the satire--that Swift was in fact poking fun at this hard-hearted approach to poverty--and thought his suggestion was serious. Naturally, they reacted by thinking he was a very sick individual. Today, however, the essay is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, example of a satiric essay in the English language. 

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What is the rebuttal in "A Modest Proposal"?

Swift's narrator seems to anticipate possible rebuttals to his proposal toward the end of the essay. He outlines a number of other suggestions that people might make rather than submit to the proposal: "let no man talk to me of other expedients." He allows that some might suggest "taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound": in other words, landowners who do not live in Ireland could be taxed to raise money to support the poor. Further, the country could outlaw the use of goods that are not produced by their "own growth and manufacture." People could endeavor to exercise less "pride, vanity, [and] idleness," conserving money for necessities instead of luxuries; this money could help the poor. People could learn to exercise more "parsimony, prudence and temperance," and begin to put the needs of their country first, loving it as other people love their own countries; they might help their fellows rather than themselves. Landlords could develop "at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants," and so on and so forth. There are lots of rebuttals anticipated by the speaker. However, the narrator says,

let no man talk to me of [other] expedients, 'till he hath at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

In other words, the speaker feels it is so unlikely that any of these other practices could actually be adopted and they, therefore, do not even bear discussion.

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What is the rebuttal in "A Modest Proposal"?

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is a satirical essay that deals with the improper treatment of poor and famished children in Ireland. When Swift "proposes" to eat the fattened babies in order to save them from starvation (while, of course, singlehandedly solving the food crisis), he does so in satirical jest. In reality, Swift is suggesting that these more unfortunate Irish folk should be taken care of by those who have the capability of doing so. In an eerily timely reading of this essay, one can bring about the question as to how any individual in a shared society could allow their peers to starve while they themselves prosper!

Swift's own point becomes more clear when his rebuttal is introduced; in this rebuttal, Swift suggests that there are a large number of ways in which society can be improved while taking care of the unfortunate. Swift mocks the condescension and imagined superiority that the wealthy impose upon the poor. He suggests that by offering mercy, leniency, care, and general tolerance, the poor can be properly taken care of and society can consequently become a more pleasant place to live.

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What is the rebuttal in "A Modest Proposal"?

In “A Modest Proposal,” Swift is proposing that in order to solve the problem of starvation in his native land, they begin eating babies. He structures his essay in such a way that he defines the problem (poor women and their children, begging on the street), he makes a proposal (to begin eating babies), he then gives all the reasons we should eat babies and also lists some interesting ways to eat babies. He talks about which group will eat babies and how they should be cooked. After all this, he gives a refutation and addresses the problems people will have with his plan. One refutation has to do with his certainty that people will object because “the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom.” Swift says he knows this, and it was his chief reason for saying it. He then lists all the proposals he thinks people will make to him, such as: “of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants,” and he says he does not want to hear about them unless people are prepared to actually act upon them. He also reminds them that it will be difficult to “find food and raiment for a hundred thousand,” and tells them to ask the poor whether they “would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old.” Swift’s main point is that there are starving women and children in Ireland, being ignored not only by the English government, but also by their own people.

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What are possible objections to the proposal in "A Modest Proposal"?

Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay can be interpreted in two ways. One is to take at face value the “modest proposal” which the writer makes. The other is to look beneath the idea of that writer, who is a persona that Swift adopts, and consider the actual thesis to be the polar opposite of what is proposed.

In the “author’s” proposal, there is an underlying, combined premise: that overpopulation exists, and that it is a serious social problem. This author does not look beyond that obvious problem to consider what type of people there are supposedly too many of, but assumes that overpopulation applies to the poor. His solution to this problem is to reduce the number of people quite early in their lives: that is, as infants. There is a certain, irrefutable logic here, because if the babies are not allowed to grow up, they will not consume scarce, valuable resources. At base, the proposal is to eat the babies.

In contrast, if we deconstruct the essay from its basic assumptions onward, we can see how Swift is poking holes in the underlying arguments that are so often put forward. He basically rejects the premise that there are too many people, especially poor people. Rather than eat babies, society should nurture them and provide resources for them—and their parents.

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What is the main idea of "A Modest Proposal"?

In a “Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift recommends a remedy for the great number of paupers’ children in the streets. He thinks that these children can serve a useful purpose and become less burdensome to both their parents and state. He therefore suggests that they be sold as a fancy delicacy to the affluent once they attain the age of one and above. This, he asserts, would not only benefit the helpless children that would grow up to destitute destructive futures just like their parents, but also their parents who would become economically empowered by the proceeds of the sale. He also adds that the economy would be boosted as money would circulate internally from their newfound resource. In the real sense, Jonathan Swift was satirizing the British treatment of their Irish subjects during a time of overpopulation and famine.

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What is the main idea of "A Modest Proposal"?

A modest proposal is a work of satire.  As such, there are really two main ideas.  The main idea as it would appear if we take the story at face value and the true point of the author.

The main idea of the actual story has to do with decreasing the overpopulation by selling babies as food.  Swift suggests that the wealthy purchase the infants of the poor and serve them as a delicacy.  He gives specific details which are designed to disgust and enrage the reader. 

Of course, this idea is meant to be ludicrous.  He gives specific details which are designed to disgust and enrage the reader.  The actual point of the story is to draw attention the true issue. The poor were being treated reproachfully.  Particularly, the Irish were being oppressed by the plantation system and (often British) landlords.  Swift is using this work to make a political point.

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What are the disadvantages presented in "A Modest Proposal"?

In "A Modest Proposal", the author of the proposal can only think of one serious objection or disadvantage to his proposal, which is that it will significantly decrease the population of the country. He notes that this would probably be a significant problem in most countries and no doubt limits the usefulness of his proposal in places other than Ireland. However, he feels that reducing the population is no disadvantage when it comes to Ireland and argues that it is actually a virtue of his plan. He does, however, note some other minor disadvantages of his plan to sell one year old infants for food. Perhaps most importantly, the author notes that his proposal cannot reasonably be applied to the current population over one as their meat would undoubtedly be too tough. He also notes that the flesh of infants will not be an exportable commodity (although he seems to see this as an advantage) as it wouldn't survive the trip to England by boat. Ultimately, the author thinks that there are no significant disadvantages that should stand in the way of his proposal which he thinks will be a great benefit to the country.

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What are the disadvantages presented in "A Modest Proposal"?

In keeping with the faux scientific style in which A Modest Proposal is written, Swift presents what he sees as the one major drawback to his scheme—depopulation—in coolly objective, disinterested terms. Then as now, rapid depopulation was seen as a bad thing for a country. A depleted population was seen as a sign of economic decline, a sign that a country was falling behind the rest of the world. And the fictitious scholar behind the Proposal acknowledges this in relation to Ireland.

He frankly admits that allowing Irish people to sell their infants for meat will result in a decline in the population. Note that the author isn't expressing any moral qualms about his proposal; he's thinking about the matter from the perspective of a cold, calculating economist totting up the numbers. Depopulation is bad for the economy, and that's all that really matters.

However, the author quickly changes his tune. He realizes that for contemporary Ireland, even depopulation isn't necessarily a bad thing. With his anti-Irish prejudices, he understands that having fewer Irish people around—specifically fewer Irish Catholics around—is actually no bad thing, and so he manages to turn what he regards as his proposal's one major drawback into a positive.

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What are potential objections to the proposal in "A Modest Proposal"?

"A Modest Proposal" was written by Jonathan Swift as a satirical response to the incredible poverty under which Ireland was suffering in the eighteenth century. In the essay, he suggests that they can lessen the "burden" of the Irish poor by fattening up their children and using them as a food source.

Swift concedes that some may object to this plan because "the number of people would be thereby much lessened in the kingdom." Ultimately, this would decrease the tax base, and Swift realizes that the poor in Ireland have suffered greatly because of English laws which have strangled the ability of Ireland to trade and thereby earn its own profits. Swift thereby makes evident the hypocrisy evident in the English ruling classes: they are willing to allow the Irish poor to die of starvation and seem to show no concern for this loss of life, but they would object to their tax base being reduced. Through this point, he satirically questions what difference it makes if they simply kill all the children and use them as a food source, thereby gaining at least some benefit from the lives of the poor, rather than waiting for poverty to kill them later in life.

Swift also indicates that some might try to "censure" the practice because they might find that it "border[s] on cruelty." He insists that this is always "the strongest objection" to any project, regardless of how well-intended the outcomes may be. Of course, Swift's real point is that this is a cruel idea—but it is no more cruel than the slow starvation that England supports through its current economic policies.

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Who would make possible objections to the proposal?

The first thing to note is that "A Modest Proposal" is a satire which operates by means of a type of argument known as a "reductio ad absurdum", something which disproves an assumption or policy by showing that it leads to absurd consequences that all rational people would reject. Thus on the most literal level, Swift would have expected that all rational people in civilized countries would reject the literal suggestion of using Irish babies for food.

In terms of the point he actually intended to make, we should note that this is quite different from the literal meaning of the text. His main purpose in publishing the satire was to persuade the English to treat Irish Roman Catholics better. There are several groups who would have disagreed with this aim. The first was the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland which was concerned that oppression was needed to prevent rebellion. The second group was the Church of England and other Protestants who saw the civic penalties imposed on Romans Catholics as a way to force people to convert to a "true" religion. As Roman Catholics had historically, in Scotland and Ireland, sided with France against England, patriotic English people would also be against better treatment of Irish Roman Catholics. 

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Who would make possible objections to the proposal?

Honestly, the vast majority of humanity would object to such a proposal.  There are few, if any, civilizations in the world that condone cannibalism.  Specifically, though, Swift would want both the Irish and the English to be horrified by this proposal.  The Irish should object on the basis that no parent should be comfortable with the prospect of selling their one-year-old child to be roasted and eaten.  What would their acquiescence to such a proposal say about them?  They would be terrible parents, no, terrible people if they happily sold their children as meat in order to turn a profit.  Such a proposal ought to make them question what they have done to find themselves in a position to be criticized in this way.  

Further, the English ought to object to this proposal as well.  The claim, even the ironic claim, that they would be not only willing but happy to eat babies and wear boots and gloves made of baby skin should be offensive enough to incite their anger.  Like the Irish, the English should question what they've done to deserve such criticism.

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What is the message of "A Modest Proposal"?

The message of "A Modest Proposal" is that the wealthy English landowners in Ireland have exploited the poor Irish in such immoral and barbaric ways that this exploitation is tantamount to literally eating them up rather than simply figuratively doing so. The essay is meant to serve as a sort of mirror to the English, showing them a somewhat more extreme version of the truth to open their eyes to their own cruelty and compel them to change their treatment of the Irish.

Rich English people were buying up the land in Ireland and renting space to Irish tenant farmers. They would demand such a large portion of the harvest as payment that the hardworking farmers would have barely enough to live on. The English would then make a huge profit on the crops while the Irish would, literally, starve.

In this way, the rich English seemed to be getting fatter and fatter while the poor Irish grew thinner and thinner, both literally and figuratively. The speaker says that landlords should use Irish babies as a food source: "As they have already devoured most of the parents, [they] seem to have the best title to the children." Such hyperbole, or overstatement—among other clues throughout the text—alerts the reader to the irony and satire of the essay and shows us what Swift really thinks of the behavior of the English: namely, that he feels it is so barbaric that in comparison, the slaughter and consumption of children seems "a modest proposal."

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What is the intended effect of "A Modest Proposal" on the reader?

Historically, Swift had tried several times to get the attention of the British Parliament and Irish officials, to make them see that the poverty and overpopulation of Ireland was a huge problem. Since he had tried several times before to get their attention, to no avail, he decided to get their attention by proposing that the children of the poor be sold and eaten. The persona that he uses is misanthropic, but Swift was truly sincere in wanting to help fix the problem for his people. If you define "the reader" as the government officials, then he was trying to get their attention so that they would do something about the problem. Nowadays, people see "A Modest Proposal" as funny and humorous, but we STUDY it to see the very skillful and exact manner with which he states his proposal. We can take from Swift, an example of how to create social change through satire.

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What is the message of "A Modest Proposal"?

The word "modest" means limited or small. When applied to a person, it means unassuming or not willing to overstate one's talents or achievements.

On first glance, without having yet read the essay, a reader would expect the proposal to be small and the writer to have a realistic view of their talents.

One of the ironies of the title is that the speaker is anything but modest, as he writes:

Whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these [poor] children sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

For the "modest" proposal he is about to make, the narrator wants a statue set up in his honor, as if he is a war hero. He is not a modest man.

His proposal is hardly modest either. He doesn't want to have a tiny tax increase say, to fund a series of soup kitchens; he wants to change the moral of structure of society to permit cannibalism of the infants and young children of the poor. His proposal is eye popping in its horror, and the changes he believes it will bring are sweeping. It is not everyday that we read that the solution to poverty is serving infants roasted tenderly and served on the end of a knife.

After we have read the essay and gone back and contemplated the title, it tells us that the writer is being disingenuous, meaning not sincere. He is not seriously proposing that the children of poor Irish families be eaten by the rich, but rather aiming to highlight the cruelty of English society's malice and indifference toward the plight of the Irish. He thinks his proposal is groundbreaking, sweeping, and magnificent, worthy of a statue. He expects readers to be very impressed with it—which they are, but not quite in the way he imagines.

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What is the premise of Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal"?


In rhetoric, a premise is a statement of argument from which follows the conclusion of the argument. An argument is considered valid "if the truth of the premises logically guarantees the truth of the conclusion" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Validity and Soundness"). One example of a valid argument can be seen in the following since it is not possible for a conclusion to be false when the premises are true:

Either Elizabeth owns a Honda or she owns a Saturn.
Elizabeth does not own a Honda.
Therefore, Elizabeth owns a Saturn. ("Validity and Soundness")

Here, the two premises are that Elizabeth owns either a Honda or Saturn and that she does not own a Honda.

When looking at the premises of Jonathan Swift's argument in his satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal," we must keep in mind that it is satire. Since it is satire, the argument will actually have two groups of premises: The first group are the premises of the satirical argument, while the second group are the premises of the real social problem that influenced him to write the satire.

The first satirical premise is that Ireland is being overrun by impoverished persons, begging for charity, and those impoverished persons, being Catholic, are also overrun by children. The second satirical premise is that children of one year of age make a fine dish, as we see when he states, "I have been assured by a very knowing American acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled." The conclusion is that if the impoverished begin both eating and selling this fine dish, then the population will be reduced and Ireland's economy will grow.

The real premise behind the satirical argument is that the land-owning Protestants of England have usurped the authority of the Irish Catholics and put them in a state of oppression. Since there are far more Catholics in Ireland than Protestants, the oppression is leading to devastating consequences. His premises of oppression are especially articulated towards the end of his argument when he begins listing other possible solutions for remedying the problem, such as "teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants."

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Who does the speaker align with in "A Modest Proposal"?

Swift's allegiances are firmly with the Irish. In "A Modest Proposal" as elsewhere, Swift satirizes British control over Ireland and its baleful effects, specifically in relation to the economy. Under British rule, the common people have been turned into objects for exploitation; they are no longer fully human and have become little more than cogs in a gigantic wheel in the growing mercantile economy. Swift takes this development to its logical and absurd conclusion, putting forward the notion that babies could also be regarded as having purely utilitarian value as well as their parents.

At the same time, Swift could be very critical of the Irish. He subscribed to the dominant British stereotype which saw the Irish as being feckless, lazy, and superstitious. Swift was implacable in his opposition to measures by successive British governments that damaged the Irish economy. Yet he also expressed immense frustration at the chronic inability of the Irish people to diversify their economy, which made them more dependent on an indifferent Great Britain. Although Swift displays a certain degree of sympathy towards the Irish poor, it's important nonetheless to acknowledge the ambivalence with which Swift regarded his native land and its inhabitants.

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Who does the speaker align with in "A Modest Proposal"?

Literally, the speaker in A Modest Proposal identifies with the English imperialists, calling for more stringent measures to ensure British dominance over the Irish people remain unchallenged.

However, the lengths to which the speaker in A Modest Proposal goes in asserting British dominance betrays the fact that the essay is satirical and that the author, Jonathan Swift, is being ironic and is subtly advocating for the Irish and identifying with their plight.

The 1700s saw the people of Ireland in abject poverty and completely under the thumb of the British people. However, their plight was so extreme that unrest was almost a certainty, making their British occupiers take culturally aggressive measures to prevent a revolt. For example, the British anglicized many of the place names in Ireland during their long occupation and even prohibited the Irish from speaking their native tongue.

In Swift's A Modest Proposal, the speaker begins with a reasonable-sounding description of the economic plight of the Irish people, insinuating the potential for a political uprising. His solution, though, is so outlandishly overboard that it calls into question the other measures that the English had taken against the Irish in the past: buy children from their parents and sell them to the poor as meat.

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Who does the speaker align with in "A Modest Proposal"?

In Swift's "A Modest Proposal," the speaker's allegiances certainly lie with the Irish poor.  He is speaking with irony when he says all of the nasty things he says about the poor.

Specifically, he mimics the English view of Irish people.  He imitates their bigotry and prejudice.

He certainly degrades the Irish poor if you take what he says literally.  But he goes so far overboard, that once the speaker reveals what his proposal actually is--use poor Irish children for food to alleviate poverty--the reader understands that he is being ironic.

Concerning the second part of your question, the speaker doesn't really identify himself as part of any particular social group.   That's not relevant.  He certainly identifies himself with the Irish poor, however.

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What objection might readers raise to the proposal in "A Modest Proposal," and how does the speaker respond?

The speaker proposes that “out of the one hundred and twenty thousand children from poor families born annually, twenty thousand should be kept for breed and the remaining one hundred thousand sold as food to persons of quality of fortune, at one year of age.” He does not think that his proposal will raise many concerns among the multitudes, unless if it could be argued that such measures would greatly reduce the population of Ireland. To this singular objection, he accepts that indeed, the proposal aims to reduce the population of people in the kingdom. He further states that all other proposals, previously given, have failed to work. He even lists some of these proposals such as “taxing of absentees at five shillings a pound, promoting the use of local products, love for the country, and fostering of a spirit of patriotism among all people to work towards the general good of the country.” He dismisses all these measures by saying that “let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients until he hath at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice”. He states that his proposal “offers a wholly new, solid, real, and inexpensive” alternative to the many “visionary” proposals that have failed to take off in the past.

In support of his proposal, the speaker reminds objectors of two points worthy of their consideration. One, how to provide for one hundred thousand poor mouths, and two, the thoughts of poor parents on such a proposal as he has presented—whether they wouldn’t have preferred to themselves be sold for food at one year of age, instead of living to endure “such a perpetual scene of misfortunes.”

The writer makes heavy use of satire to draw the reader’s attention to problems faced by the society of Ireland at the time.

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What problem does the speaker in "A Modest Proposal" aim to solve?

The speaker in "A Modest Proposal" is desirous to solve the problems associated with the poor Irish: families become so big -- even when the parents are poor -- that the children cannot be supported, and they end up begging in the streets instead of becoming productive members of society.  For this reason, he proposes that parents sell their year-old babies as a food source for the rich English Protestants, and this will decrease the size of their families, making them easier to support, as well as provide them with an additional source of income.  (It will also lessen the number of Catholics in the world, which would please the English Protestants as well.)

However, this is not the same problem that the writer means to address.  The narrator is not Jonathan Swift, and Swift is attempting to draw attention to the plight of the poor Irish; wealthy English landowners have purchased around 90% of the land in Ireland by the time he penned this pamphlet, and many raised rents so high that the Irish tenant farmers could no longer afford to pay rent and feed their often large families.  He reasons, ironically (not sincerely), that if the English are willing to figuratively devour the Irish, then why not go one step further and actually devour them?

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